Manitoba History: Review: Jennifer S. H. Brown and Robert Brightman, “The Orders of the Dreamed”: George Nelson on Cree and Northern Ojibwa Religion and Myth, 1823
by Robert Coutts
The series Manitoba Studies in Native History, published by the University of Manitoba Press, is an impressive addition to the growing body of literature which views the history of Indian peoples in the West from new, and occasionally revisionist, perspectives. The five volumes published to date cover a wide range of topics and themes and by and large have exhibited a commendable level of scholarship. “The Orders of the Dreamed” represents the series’ latest offering and is one of its better contributions to date.
The book by Jennifer Brown and Robert Brightman reproduces the letter journal of George Nelson, a Hudson’s Bay Company clerk who served at Lac la Ronge in north-eastern Saskatchewan between 1822 and 1823. Nelson’s journal records his observations (some first hand and others through informants) of Cree and Northern Ojibwa religious practices in the la Ronge district, and was sent off in 1823 in the form of a letter to his father in Sorel, Quebec. Accompanying Nelson’s text are a number of essays penned by the authors and others which attempt to place Nelson and his observations within an historical and anthropological framework.
Brown’s introduction provides a survey of Nelson’s family background and career in the fur trade, as well as a brief examination of the factors which influenced his perceptions of Native religion and spirituality. Born at Sorel in 1786, Nelson entered the fur trade in 1802 with Alexander Mackenzie’s XY Company and later served the North West Company in the Lake Winnipeg, Lake Superior and Cumberland districts. In 1822, now an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company, he was transferred to Lac la Ronge but the following year “retired” from the trade when his contract was not renewed. While Brown’s introduction is thoughtful and elegantly constructed, it is perhaps overly brief. With more information on Nelson’s character, education and family background, the reader would be in a better position to comprehend the nature of the “cultural baggage” that influenced Nelson’s observations of Cree and Ojibwa religious life. Presumably, historian Sylvia Van Kirk’s forthcoming publication of Nelson’s collected papers will help to fill in a few of these gaps.
Nelson’s letter-journal is an important piece of nineteenth century ethnography, not simply for the writer’s singular role as participant observer, but for what it tells us about the attitudes of long-time fur traders toward Native belief structures. Brown and Brightman argue that Nelson wrote from a largely pragmatic frame of reference, in-formed for the most part by his extensive “field” experience among the Algonquian peoples of Wisconsin, north-western Ontario, Lake Winnipeg and Saskatchewan. Far more understanding of Native religious and social structure than most of his countrymen, Nelson viewed the Cree and Ojibwa sympathetically and on their own terms “insofar as he could” (p. 21). While Nelson was relatively enlightened for his time, his Christianity and primitivist view of the Indian as man in his “natural state,” however, did influence his writings and coloured his observations of what remained for him an alien cosmology.
Many of the religious rituals recorded in the journal were observed by Nelson first hand, while others were described to him by Native and Métis informants in the Lac la Ronge district. Each account demonstrates the allegorical richness of Cree mythology and religious tradition. For instance, Nelson’s description of the “shaking tent” ceremony, or “conjuring” as he called it, provides the type of ethnographic detail not seen in other pre-twentieth century European sources. Over thirty spirit beings are mentioned in the journal, including Wisahkecahk, the trickster-transformer of Cree and Western Ojibwa oral accounts, and Pakahk, a skeletal or emaciated deity associated with starvation and disease. The Windigo, or cannibal-monster complex also associated with famine, is described in some detail, and Nelson relates the origin and forms of its possession, as well as the cures used by the Cree to alleviate what anthropologists have called the “windigo psychosis.” In order to help the reader understand the various characters mentioned in the account, the authors have appended a short “dramatis personae” at the conclusion of the text which provides useful data on the many mythological beings described by Nelson. The anthropological context for Nelson’s observations are discussed further in Brightman’s essay on northern Algonquian religious and mythic themes. While perhaps not as accessible to the average reader as the book’s other sections, Brightman’s essay analyzes, in a comparative fashion, the cosmogonic myths and spirit beings of Cree-Ojibwa culture, and includes a useful chart of key motifs and plot elements in the Cree Wisahkecahk cycle.
Two essays, one by Stan Cuthand and the other by Native scholar Emma LaRocque, conclude Orders of the Dreamed. Cuthand, a Cree Anglican minister who served at la Ronge in the 1940s, provides an interesting commentary on Nelson’s text from the vantage point of a Native person who, as he says, “lived in two worlds” (p. 189). At school in Saskatchewan he was a part of the “precise factual world of the Anglican church” but at home lived in the “free and allegorical world of the Cree” (p. 189). Although Cuthand believes that Nelson did not fully appreciate the strong link that exists between Cree mythology and Cree society, he values the text “as a voice out of the past reminding us of our spiritual history” (p. 198).
Emma LaRocque’s essay, “On the Ethics of Publishing Historical Documents,” raises a number of issues related to the entrenched ethnocentrism that pervades many of the primary sources dealing with Native people. Nelson’s text, she argues, is informed by the “dichotomy of civilization versus savagery” (p. 199), a theme which she has developed in a number of her previous works, and one that she believes consistently biases the interpretive frame-work of ethnographic and historical scholarship. The Nelson journal, LaRocque maintains, is “marvellous” in ethnographic detail but “problematic” in the sense that it does not do full justice to the “rich, intricate, and multi-faceted aspects of Indian world views” (p. 200). While she questions the usefulness of publishing all primary historical documents relating to Native people, it is important to note (contrary to the complaints raised in some quarters that she advocates a form of censorship) that LaRocque agrees that ultimately Nelson’s manuscript makes a “substantial” contribution toward a better understanding of Native life in the nineteenth century. She adds, as well, that many of the myths and legends recounted by Nelson in the 1820s were still a part of life in her community of Cree and Metis in northeastern Alberta in the 1950s and 60s. Thus, accounts such as Nelson’s, when used in conjunction with the oral record, allow not only a viable synthesis of living knowledge with the historical record, but an opportunity to study patterns of adaptation and change over time within Native communities.
Orders of the Dreamed is an important work in Native studies partly because it illustrates, from a nineteenth century perspective at least, the depth of Cree religion and mythology. It also tells us a good deal about the reactions of Euro-Canadian fur traders like Nelson to the spiritual life of Native people and to the complexity of their multi-layered societies. But perhaps the book’s real strength lies in its multi-vocal approach to the content and context of Nelson’s manuscript. The varied perspectives of Native and non-Native scholars toward Nelson and his writings creates an interesting dialogue within the text and is an ex-ample of what anthropologist James Clifford has called “the break-up of ethnographic authority.” Such an approach can only bode well for the future of ethnographic investigation into the religious and mythic worlds of Western Canada’s aboriginal peoples.
Page revised: 7 September 2009Back to top of page