Unearthing (Her)stories

  • Jeanette Armstrong (Editor), Lally Grauer (Editor) and Janet MacArthur (Editor)
    Okanagan Women's Voices: Syilx and Settler Writing and Relations 1870s-1960s. Theytus Books
  • Kathryn Magee Labelle
    Daughters of Aataentsic. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sylvie Vranckx

Much Indigenous scholarship and activism on Turtle Island regards the rematriation of knowledge as central to decolonization. As Labelle underlines, publishing Indigenous women’s biographies is essential to nurturing cultural resilience and resisting white patriarchal interpretations of history. Okanagan Women’s Voices and Daughters of Aataentsic foreground “hidden” Indigenous figures and alternative interpretations of known historical figures through, respectively, Syilx (Okanagan/Okanogan) and Wendat/Wandat (“Huron”) epistemologies. Through contextualization, photographs, and rich historiographic and archival work, both studies nuance simplistic views of Indigenous-settler interactions in early contact zones and of Indigenous women as victims. They further strive to throw bridges across cultures and regions (the US border cuts through the Syilx homeland, and the Wendat/Wandat are spread across several states and provinces). Accordingly, both books are the result of collaborative processes between Indigenous and settler women: Daughters is edited by famous Syilx author, researcher, nsyilxcn speaker, and Elder Jeannette Armstrong along with settler scholars Lally Grauer and Janet MacArthur, and settler historian Kathryn Magee Labelle worked closely with a council of eight women from the four Nations of the Wendat/Wandat diaspora.


Author of Dispersed but Not Destroyed, an award-winning history of the seventeenth-century Wendat, Labelle complicates the declension model of loss of culture and feminine power in Wendat/Wandat society. The seven case studies over seven generations document how Wendat/Wandat women resisted colonialism over the centuries and “attempted to preserve and protect their culture for future generations” (154) as part of their responsibilities as daughters of Aataentsic (Sky Woman). For these case studies, the Wendat/Wandat Women’s Advisory Council chose to focus on seven women, basing their selections on the women’s “significant family connections, community importance, evidence of motherwork, and cultural legacies” (8). These women are Cécile Gannendâris (?-1669), Marie Catherine Jean dit Vien (1676-1767), Margaret “Mother” Grey Eyes Solomon (1816-1890), Mary McKee (1838-1922), Eliza Conley Burton Jr (1869-1946), Jane Zane Gordon (1871-1963), and Dr Éléonore Sioui (1924-2006). In accordance with the criteria above, each chapter is structured into four parts: family, community, legacy, and motherwork (or work that draws upon matricentric traditions and directs itself towards family, community, and future generations). A map and genealogies enable readers to situate each woman.


Daughters of Aataentsic argues that if Wendat/Wandat culture survived multiple forced relocations, it is largely thanks to women’s innovations. Within this framework, apparent cases of assimilation reflect strategic acculturation in line with Wendat/Wandat diplomacy. Thus, Gannendâris’ zealous involvement in a New France religious society is explained by the fact that Catholic orders sheltered Indigenous girls from sexual violence and enabled Gannendâris to access a support network for her family, to counsel other women, and to maintain some power. This strategic use of colonial institutions also characterizes the centuries-long Wendat/Wandat enthusiasm for Western schooling, culminating in contemporary appropriations of the colonizers’ tools. Thus, lawyer Lyda Conley became the first Indigenous woman to take a case before the US Supreme Court, and Dr Sioui subverted academic language to promote Indigenous feminism and global Indigenism. Finally, Daughters of Aataentsic underlines that these trailblazers’ legacy is alive today: the Wendat/Wandat have protected heritage sites, language revival programs, cultural and historical events, and a four-Nation treaty reinstating the seventeenth-century Wendat Confederacy.


Through a selection of seven Syilx and settler women’s published and unpublished poetry, drama, fiction, translated orature, popular history, correspondence, and memoirs, Okanagan Women’s Voices also addresses misconceptions about Indigenous women’s agency. Settled in the second half of the nineteenth century, Syilx territory in the BC and Washington state interior is commonly viewed as the West or the frontier and associated with white male pioneers and cowboys. By contrast, this collection reaffirms the centrality of the Syilx homeland through a detailed map and numerous references to nsyilxcn (Syilx language) toponyms. Moreover, a Syilx-centred gendered analysis reveals the “spaces between” (vii) in which Syilx women acted as pack train owners, guides, traders, interpreters, and often wives or daughters of settler men. Under-studied due to a long-standing taboo, intermarriage was a Syilx tradition: chiefs’ women relatives would marry prominent men from neighbouring communities to create alliances. Thus, all Syilx women in this collection wielded power as royalty and insiders to both worlds.


Beyond this, Okanagan Women’s Voices examines what kinds of relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous women were possible in those liminal spaces. The editors map contiguities, continuities, and discontinuities through the metaphors of intersections, inroads, and boundary-crossing; since they strive to bridge divides, the Syilx and settler voices from the corpus do not fall into distinct perspectives. Josephine Shuttleworth (1866-1950) and Christine Quintasket (Mourning Dove) (1886-1936) married settlers; Eliza Jane Swalwell (1868-1944) and Marie Houghton Brent (1870-1968) had settler fathers; and settlers Susan Moir Allison (1845-1937), Hester Emily White (1877-1963), and Isabel Christie MacNaughton (1915-2003) had strong ties with Syilx women through collaborations and kinship networks. Thus, Mourning Dove blended the novel and Syilx captikwł stories in her groundbreaking Cogewea, The Half-Blood. Shuttleworth’s friendship with MacNaughton resulted in “a unique blending of voice” (7) as the latter published the former’s orature. A more ambiguous case is White, who bonded with Brent over their pioneer fathers and advocated for her while shunning her own Syilx half-siblings.


Daughters of Aataentsic and Okanagan Women’s Voices provide vivid windows into the lives of fourteen women across time, landscapes, and genres, sharing insights into the Wendat/Wandat and Syilx lifeworlds. Comparing the two books emphasizes the shocking rapidity of Syilx colonization, which took place over a few decades, whereas the Wendat/Wandat were first displaced 350 years ago. As a European Native studies scholar, I was also humbled by how little I knew about Wendat/Wandat history, such as the fact that Kansas City was founded by Wendat/Wandat refugees. Finally, both studies bespeak profound respect in their documentation and commemoration of these women’s legacies. I am reminded of the fact that Theytus Books, the Indigenous-owned publisher of Okanagan Women’s Voices, takes its name from a nsyilxcn word meaning preserving for the sake of handing down.

This review “Unearthing (Her)stories” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 26 Sep. 2022. Web.

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