Memoir of Manitoba

  • Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair (Editor) and Warren Cariou (Editor)
    Manitowapow: Aboriginal Writings from the Land of Water. Highwater Books
Reviewed by Heather Macfarlane

Reading Manitowapow: Aboriginal Writings from the Land of Water, observes Métis writer Beatrice Mosionier in her Foreword, is like reading a memoir of the territory. This is testament to the breadth of the contributions editors Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair (Anishinaabe) and Warren Cariou (Métis) have collected. A tribute to the land and its peoples, the anthology combines writing by Cree, Anishinaabe, Métis, Sioux, Saulteaux, Haudenosaunee, Inuit, Dene, Innu, Salish, and Assiniboine peoples all living within the borders of Manitoba.

In spite of the political strand that celebrates Indigenous identity and unites the pieces in the anthology, the editors’ decision to use Canadian provincial boundaries to define the parameters of the collection is distinctly conciliatory. The book’s title Manitowapow combines the Cree words for Great Spirit and sacred water and is a deliberate recognition of Indigenous belonging on the lands. However, the map of the province of Manitoba adorning the first two pages of the text tells another story—that of colonial domination of the territory. The editors acknowledge the contradiction in their introduction, but never entirely explain their motives. The result is therefore a collection that celebrates both Manitowapow and Manitoba and recognizes both Indigenous and Canadian sovereignties.

Also key to understanding the text is the collection’s subtitle, which refers not to “literatures,” but to “writings.” The choice of words is deliberate here because the collection places the work of literary stars such as Tomson Highway next to the political writing of leaders such as Ovide Mercredi, and the work of national heroes like Louis Riel next to that of emerging adolescent writers. The collection in no way attempts to create a canon, but rather assembles what the editors refer to as “responses to this place, Manitowapow, in its many incarnations,” which alludes once again to the idea of memoir and, more importantly, collective memoir. The collection combines stories, poetry, song, oratory, plays, letters, and recollections, and even includes reproductions of pictographs, clothing and rugs: all forms in themselves of traditional writing. This inclusion of cultural objects is one of the more revolutionary elements of the text, and one I would have liked to have seen more of, because it illustrates the long and significant history of the land and its peoples before contact.

Belonging to the land is central to the collection and the assertion of belonging is political for peoples whose rights to the land are continually under fire. Love of land gives people strength, just as the stories and points of view presented give the land voice. As Salish contributor Columpa Bobb points out in an excerpt from her play, “[i]f you can fall in love with the country you live in, you’ll never be lonely.” The multitude of voices presented in the collection demonstrates the community that develops between people and place and the strength of that bond.

Because I read the work from a literary perspective, the creative works are what stood out; however, those that privilege history offer valuable context. While I appreciated the inclusion of well-known writers such as Tomson Highway, Gregory Scofield, Marie Annharte Baker, Beatrice Mosionier and Marvin Francis, I also appre- ciated the work previously unknown to me. Important personal discoveries included early letters by Anishinaabe Chief Peguis, an essay by Warren Cariou, and work by Cree poet Rosanna Deerchild. Writing this review introduced me to authors I would otherwise not have sought out and resulted in precisely what the editors intended: a broader understanding of Indigenous experiences of Manitowapow and Manitoba.

This review “Memoir of Manitoba” originally appeared in Gendering the Archive. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 217 (Summer 2013): 184-85.

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