Narratives of Community
- Freda Ahenakew (Editor) and H. C. Wolfart (Editor)
kwayask ê-kî-pê-kiskinowâpahtihicik / Their Example Showed Me the Way: A Cree Woman's Life Shaped by Two Cultures, told by Emma Minde. University of Alberta Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Flora Beardy (Editor) and Robert Coutts (Editor)
Voices From Hudson Bay: Cree Stories From York Factory. University of Alberta Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Vita Rordam (Author)
Winisk: A Cree Indian Settlement on Hudson Bay. Borealis Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Brad Neufeldt
Following the format of other texts produced by the Algonquian Text Society, kwayask ê-kî-pê-kiskinowâpahtihicik is an explicit folding together of biographical texts
Shaped by Two Cultures. It follows closely the structural format of kiskinahamâkanak-âcimowinisa / Student Stories (1989) and Kinêhiyâwiwininaw nêhiyawêwin I The Cree language is Our Identity (1993). The English translation of Emma Minde’s recollections placed opposite the Cree text (in Roman orthography) presents a narrative that is accessible to both the English reader and the fluent speaker and reader of Plains Cree. However, those fluent in Cree who wish to read the text in Cree syllables (such as is found in other publications of the Algonquian Text Society) will have to contact the publisher. If, as James Clifford says in
On Ethnographic Allegory (1986),
[f]ieldworkers are increasingly constrained in what they publish by the reactions of those previously classified as nonliterate and who might now be reading over their shoulders, then this text exhibits a similar constraint. Prefaced by an ethnological and etymological introduction, it presents a narrative that is suited to the linguist and the Native Studies student. However, the linguistic mirroring of narratives is present only in Minde’s narrative. While this structure of kwayask ê-kî-pê-kiskinowâpahtihicik assumes that its readers are no longer stealing surreptitious glances at a narrative that someone else is writing, it would be interesting and appropriate to see this preface and introduction similarly mirrored by a Cree text.
Certainly this book is, as Ahenakew states, a life story shaped
by two powerful forces: the traditional world of the Plains Cree and the Catholic missions with their boarding-schools, designed to re-make their charges entirely. Minde’s narrative of family history, childhood memories, marriage, child-bearing and daily life activities (hunting, preparing animal skins and food, chopping wood, and farming) and of
Self-Reliant Women are reminiscent of the pattern of women’s autobiographies presented in Life Lived Like a Story: Life Stories of Three Yukon Native Elders (Julie Cruikshank, ed., 1990). Even as she acknowledges the inevitability of changes brought to her community by the creation of reservations and residential schools, Minde presents a particular nostalgic calm that mourns the loss of many aspects of traditional Cree life.
On the other hand, this is also an autobiography of a life in transition between two Cree communities, one that is shaped by a sense of learning based on both personal experience and a strong sense of community history. Minde tells her story beginning with a moment of transition, her marriage, which takes her from onihickiskwapiwinihk (Saddle Lake) to maskwactsihk (Hobbema). H.C. Wolfart points out in his introduction, that this transition is shaped by Minde’s relationship with her two
mothers-in-law who become at least as important as her own mother. They
may seem even more important if the bride joins her husband in a faraway place, where she finds herself among strangers. Marriage, in this case, is the starting point of learning to be in a new community, even as that community faces changes in its daily life activities.
Voices From Hudson Bay: Cree Stories From York Factory also depicts a community dealing with a changing world. However, what is presented here is not a collection of one individual life history, but a community history that can be read as an alternative to the "official" histories of York Factory that might be found in the archives of the Hudson Bay Company. Such a history might document financial records and the geographical records and journals of explorers and traders. Briefly detailing the history of York Factory (1684-1957), Robert Coutts claims that
York Factory is one of the most extensively documented contact sites in Western Canada: district reports, 200 post journals, and 2000 account books help document the material culture of the Swampy Cree, and their seasonal hunting and trading practices. But this introduction of a documented history serves as a juxtaposition against the oral record that is presented.
Coutts makes it clear that the intention of this book is to add to the development of an oral record of the Swampy Cree. Using interviews with elders who formerly lived at York Factory, Beardy and Coutts have sewn together a narrative picture of a Cree community’s changing place within the social and economic realities of Canada’s northern fur trade. Instead of separate and individual storytellers’ narratives, they have arranged a thematic grouping, one in which constant alternating voices might at times seem disjointed. While a certain integrity and coherence inherent to each of the storytellers’ narratives might be lost, a larger picture of a community of voices is gained. There is, instead of a cacophony of fractured and competing voices, a coherent narrative unity that presents what might be read as a transcript of an extended discussion about life at York Factory. This arrangement of stories (around themes of trapping and trading, women’s lives, seasonal life, legends and cultural traditions, grandparents, dealing with sickness, descriptions of York Factory and the effects of its closing) creates a linear progression of the life and death of a community. What is important to these storytellers is a community’s survival.
When people moved from York Factory, says Catherine Anderson,
there were lots of problems. The elder chief’s wish was not respected. He did not want the people to leave that area. Now today there’s nobody there. People were happy at York Factory. All the old folks are passing on. I don’t think there’s too many alive today. And tied to this concern for community survival, a sense of a community’s place and the continuity of a way of life, is a resentment of the bureaucratic intrusion into what is regarded as a natural way of living. John Neepin begins the discussion, pondering:
I often think of this. Why the people aren’t allowed to hunt any time. We are allowed to hunt only at certain times. This doesn’t make things any better for the wildlife. That’s just like having a garden and not tending to it. If this garden is not looked after properly all that would grow in it would be weeds. A garden and a community must be tended to if they are to survive. And an oral history must be told if it is to grow. In this light, Voices From Hudson Bay is a valuable contribution to the life history of a community.
Like kwayask ê-kî-pê-kiskinowâpahtihicik, Winisk: A Cree Indian Settlement on Hudson Bay presents a narrative of a recently married woman coming to terms with living in a new culture and community. But in contrast, this narrative of a clash of cultures might be read in a pejorative tone. Winisk begins like an adventurer’s or tourist’s story, one in which Vita Rordam repeatedly tells us how much she wants to see the North and the people there, as if she expects to leave and not return. My question is where are the Cree? Early on, Rordam spends more time talking about wanting to see northern settlements, visiting with the Catholic fathers, and working on a local government building project, belying the sub-title,
A Cree Indian Settlement on Hudson Bay. Certainly, the reader is given scenes of Rordam’s encounters with the local Cree population of Winisk, but these are coloured by a bravely admitted unwillingness to learn and engage these people in their own language. Father Gagnon admonishes Rordam, saying
On the one hand Rordam claims that
that [Cree] traditions, attitudes and behaviour are quite different from ours. It does not mean that one is right, the other wrong, we are just different but, as a visitor, it is up to you to adjust. This is THEIR territory.
[t]he Indians have always been used to a ’feast or famine’ way of life, they can subsist on very little but, when times are good, they make the most of it without worrying about the future. And yet, earlier she documents how difficult it is to procure firewood, and how the Cree are able to plan a year in advance their collection of firewood. And instead of learning to speak Cree in THEIR territory, Vita Rordam later says:
[P]erhaps the day is not too far away when the Indians will possess the necessary knowledge, skills and freedom to govern themselves, instead of meekly accepting whatever the various levels of government decide is best. However, it is towards the end of the book, through her narrative of her correspondence with various members of what was once Winisk, that a more compelling picture of this Cree settlement begins to emerge. It is as if the death and mourning of this community creates a continually reinscribed postal remembrance. The loss of this community creates a need to understand the past, not just on the part of Rordam, but also on the part of Cree people trying to maintain a memory of Winisk.
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MLA: Neufeldt, Brad. Narratives of Community. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 22 Mar. 2012. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #167 (Winter 2000), First Nations Writing. (pg. 110 - 112)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.