When the World Was New
- Morgan Stafford O'Neal (Editor)
Tales from Moccasin Avenue: An Anthology of Native Stories. Totem Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- George Blondin (Author)
Trail of the Spirit: The Mysteries of Medicine Power Revealed. NeWest Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Trail of the Spirit: The Mysteries of Medicine Power Revealed is Dene elder George Blondin’s third book; thirteen years in the writing, it follows in the footsteps of his 1990 When the World Was New and his 1997 Yamoria the Lawmaker. Medicine power is central to many of the elders’ stories contained in these volumes, and Blondin has commented often on the difficulty of explaining it to his readers. His third book, therefore, is an “attempt at doing something no one else has ever done: to define medicine power.”
This collection of historical narratives begins with the tale of Yamoria the Lawmaker, who instructed the people that “Elders are to tell stories about the past, everyday.” In Trail of the Spirit, Blondin obeys this important directive: he works to ensure that the next generation of Dene youth will receive the teachings of their ancestors, and that outsiders will gain a sense of the systems of knowledge and belief that were in place long before Europeans came to the North.
Some readers might be interested in the text’s ethnographic properties; others may enjoy it as an account of the extensive history of the Dene homeland. But in the words of Richard Van Camp (“Foreword”), Blondin should be recognized “as an author and lover of great Aboriginal literature.” After all, Trail of the Spirit is chock full of incredible stories. There is the tale of the bloody feud between Yamagah and Eyonee Cho, and the way in which they eventually unite their families. There is Teleway, who reincarnates in order to bring his murderer to justice. There is the ruthless Gotaregai, who begs to be put to death by drowning, but emerges ghost-like from the lake with his heart in his hand. There are epic duels, and there are miraculous healings; there are some who use their powers to help their people, and others who only bring trouble.
In 1926, Blondin tells us, a medicine-power war between Bahwar and Becharchy caused a devastating influenza epidemic to sweep through the region. Interestingly, the Dene are portrayed here as victims not of a cultural change imposed by outsiders, but of medicine people who misused their gift. For Blondin, this event marks the beginning of a decline in medicine power, and the end of the time “when the world was new.”
At the beginning of Trail of the Spirit, Blondin describes his own failure to acquire medicine power from his grandfathers. Nonetheless, he has been able to do a great deal for his people, not only as a political leader, but here, through these stories. Skeptics do not concern him: “[i]t’s alright if you find this hard to understand,” he says. “It will become clearer as we go along.” And when one of the great storytellers has taken thirteen years to share his final tales, readers would do well to listen carefully.
Tales from Moccasin Avenue: An Anthology of Native Stories, a collection of short fiction from Totem Pole Books, is Indigenous storytelling of a different—but related—kind. Edited by Morgan Stafford O’Neal, this anthology highlights the work of emerging Aboriginal writers, with one or two more experienced authors in the mix. While the title may conjure up any number of hokey collections of Native folktales, such as Tales from the Wigwam or Tales from the Igloo, it does so with a twist: it highlights the urban context (or avenues) in which so many Aboriginal writers are now working, and also their negotiation with signifiers of traditional culture (like moccasins).
Stafford O’Neal’s introduction, rather than attempting to tie together the contributions to what he calls “an unapologetically eclectic mix,” argues that the range of work included is indicative of the multifold forms that Aboriginal life and identity can take. Some of the stories document the trials of daily life in the city; others are set far outside of the realm of colonial influence. Readers should take particular note of Katherena Vermette’s “Nortendgrrl”; this artistic portrait of a struggling woman flags Vermette as a young writer to watch. Sharron Proulx-Turner, meanwhile, weaves a unique and haunting narrative out of a series of recollections by her urban crow-narrator in “Young Crow-Caw Caught in Calgary.” Morgan Stafford O’Neal’s “The Ballad of Norma Jean One Horse” is a well-crafted and intense portrait of Native life on the streets of Vancouver. The collection also benefits from the presence of Native Lit superstar Richard Van Camp, whose spooky tale of motherly love (“Don’t Forget This”) displays his characteristic narrative brilliance, and of upcoming writer Niigonwedom (james sinclair), whose clever twist on the Anishnaabe origin story (“Water Scroll”) marries a talent for storytelling with compelling social critique.
The other contributions vary widely, but each contains its moments of insight, strength, and fun. One gets the sense that the manuscript editors used a very light touch; indeed, Stafford O’Neal comments that “these pieces often pay little attention to the grammatical and idiomatic conventions of ‘correct English.’ This is a conscious decision to avoid the language of oppression….” This argument is compelling when the writers employ colloquial style, but is somewhat less convincing in instances of misplaced punctuation.
The introduction to Tales from Moccasin Avenue opens with a quote from Wendy Wickwire’s book about Okanagan storyteller Harry Robinson: “In Harry’s view he is one of the last storytellers. ‘I’m going to disappear,’ he says, and there’ll be no more telling stories.” This nostalgic tone is echoed in George Blondin’s book, as medicine power seems to be growing ever more scarce. Yet books like Trail of the Spirit and Tales from Moccasin Avenue provide an antidote to this sense of loss, as they demonstrate the way in which Indigenous stories continue to be remembered, retold, and created anew.
- The Ties that Bind by John Moffatt
Books reviewed: In a World Created by a Drunken God by Drew Hayden Taylor and Pursued by a Bear: Talks, Monologues, and Tales by Daniel David Moses
- Three Solitudes by Laura J. Murray
Books reviewed: We Are Not You: First Nations and Canadian Modernity by Claude Denis
- Aboriginal Storytelling by Susan Gingell
Books reviewed: Braiding Histories: Learning from Aboriginal Peoples' Experiences and Perspectives by Susan D. Dion and The Drum Calls Softly by David Bouchard, Jim Poitras, Shelley Willier, and Steve Wood
- First Contact by Sophie McCall
Books reviewed: Myth and Memory: Stories of Indigenous-European Contact by John Sutton Lutz
- The Full Circle by Madelaine Jacobs
Books reviewed: Restoring the Balance: First Nations Women, Community, and Culture by Eric Guimond, Madeleine Dion Stout, and Gail Guthrie Valaskakis
MLA: Blondin, George, Martin, Keavy, Martin, Keavy, and O'Neal, Morgan Stafford. When the World Was New. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #200 (Spring 2009), Strategic Nationalisms. (pg. 127 - 129)
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