________________ CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 40 . . . . June 15, 2012


Manitowapow: Aboriginal Writings from the Land of Water.

Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair & Warren Cariou, Eds.
Winnipeg, MB: Highwater Press/Portage and Main Press, 2011.
416 pp., trade pbk., $35.00.
ISBN 978-1-55379-307-6.

Subject Headings:
Canadian literature (English)-Native authors.
Canadian literature (English)-Manitoba.
Native peoples-Manitoba-Literary collections.

Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.

Review by Val Ken Lem.

*** /4



Norway House Elders. Cree (Norway House)

These personal reflections, legends, and accounts of local history were told by Norway House Elders and recorded in the 1980s by Byron Apetagon, a Cree language teacher living in Norway House, Manitoba. The following excerpts come from the first two volumes of Norway House Anthology: Stories of the Elders Vol. 1 & 2 (produced by Frontier School Division in 1991 and 1992). They document fascinating Aboriginal intellectual traditions and the many rich experiences in a rapidly changing north over the past century.

Sinclair (Anishinaabe, St. Peter's Indian Reserve/Peguis First Nation, 1976 ) and Cariou (Métis, Meadow Lake, SK, 1966 ) shared a lofty ambition to present in one volume an anthology of writings by Aboriginals in Manitoba from the earliest days of recording information to the present. As they indicate in their preface, they “had to make some difficult choices” in order to whittle the abundance of content available into a manageable size. Their stated primary criteria for inclusion are:

artistic excellence, historical significance, and representation of the diversity of Aboriginal voices in Manitowapow – with a focus on the different cultures, languages, generations, gender identities, and physical locations of our writers

      The result is an eclectic and rich collection that includes excerpts from letters, diaries, poetry, drama, fiction, speeches, editorials, legends, oral histories, prose non-fiction and even the text from a children’s picture book (complete with a recipe for bannock) and a selection from a graphic novel. The collection begins with a very brief illustrated introduction to traditional systems of writing, including petroforms, a sacred birchbark scroll, a pictorial land agreement and pictorial letter dating from 1817 and 1822, a quilt and coat that both bear narratives and an excerpt from a story recorded in Anishinaabe syllabics.

      The collection is organized in a chronological order by year of birth of the creator. Entries normally begin with the creator’s name, tribal identification, place of birth or residency, and birth/death dates as available. Identification details are followed by concise biographies of the creators, bibliographical information about the source of the selection anthologized, and a contextual observation or analysis of the nature of the work. These introductory essays are set in smaller font in two columns that serve to conserve space and help the reader to quickly identify when new authors/creators are being introduced. The writing or writings by each creator end with the date of publication. The excerpt above is the introductory essay for a group of writings by four elders from Norway House. In this section, each of the authors has their own biographical introductions and is sub-arranged chronologically. In another section featuring writings by three Cree elders from Grand Rapids, the individual authors are named but do not have separate introductory essays and are not identified at the individual level in the table of contents. Without consulting the source publication, the reviewer suspects this discrepancy is due to the paucity of distinct biographical information for the Elders of Grand Rapids. Greater consistency on the contents page would be ideal.

      Roughly one quarter of the volume is devoted to creators born before 1900, a second quarter to those born between 1900 and 1959, a third quarter to those born 1950-1969, and the final quarter to those born 1970-1993. In the first three quarters, women creators account for less than one third of the entries. In contrast, the final group of 19 contributors includes 13 women, reflecting perhaps the fact that women are now much more likely to pursue education and to make the most of opportunities to share their voices and concerns than in the not so distant past.

      Perhaps the greatest value of this anthology is that it can serve as a resource to introduce teachers and scholars to source publications that may have remained obscure and unfound otherwise. An extensive list of permissions/sources fleshes out bibliographical details that may be wanting from the introductory essays. A thematic index organizes the entries under 45 categories from "Aboriginal Justice Inquiry" to "Youth Issues". Some topics have sub-entries. Examples are Economy (five subheadings, not in alphabetical sub-order), Language (six subheadings), and Religion (three subgroups).

      Many of the sources will not be widely available in Canadian libraries. A search in WorldCat for Inside the Walls: Writings from Stony Mountain Inmates (199-?) indicates availability at three institutions in Canada: Library and Archives Canada, the University of Manitoba Libraries, and the University of Alberta. Library and Archives Canada’s intention to shut down the inter-library-loan program in early 2013 will serve to restrict access to our national cultural heritage.

      Scholars interested in diverse fields will find something of value. Many of the early entries, including those of the earliest identified creator, Chief Peguis, document relations between the Aboriginals and the fur-traders, missionaries and early settler communities of the region. Many writings by well-known political figures from Riel, Dumont, Dave Courchene Sr., Phil Fontaine, Ovide Mercredi, Elijah Harper and lesser-known figures like Clayton Thomas-Müller share insight into the struggle for Aboriginal self-determination. The anthology is rich in sources of traditional stories and traditional ways of living, including health and medicine. Literary writings are represented by excerpts from well-known writers, such as Tomson Highway, Gregory Scofield and Emma LaRocque, and less well-known writers, such as Marvin Francis, Darrell Racine, Donna Beyer and Katherena Vermette. It is easy to predict that many of these lesser voices will be the well-established writers, activists, and creators of tomorrow. By dipping into this anthology, the reader will uncover a glimpse of the richness of writing by aboriginal peoples in Manitowapow, which is one version among many of the source of the name Manitoba.

      Several entries appear in the original French, Romanized Anishinaabemowin or Romanized Cree and in English translation. One final feature of note is a two-page map, “Some Aboriginal Communities in Manitowapow”, that identifies many of the Aboriginal, Métis, and the larger non-native cities/towns in the province. In cases where place names have changed, the former name that may be used in the anthology is identified in parentheses.

      The editors are considering a second anthology.


Val Ken Lem is a Toronto, ON, librarian who had the pleasure of selecting material in support of Aboriginal studies at Ryerson University using special funding that was available between 2010 and 2012.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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