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Manitoba History: Review: Plain Speaking: Essays on Aboriginal Peoples and the Prairie, edited by Patrick Douaud and Bruce Dawson

by Renate Eigenbrod
Department of Native Studies, University of Manitoba

Number 48, Autumn/Winter 2004-2005

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to

Patrick Douaud & Bruce Dawson (eds.), Plain Speaking: Essays on Aboriginal Peoples and the Prairie, Canadian Plains Research Centre: University of Regina, 2002, ISBN 088977133-2, $29.95.

Plain Speaking provides a welcome addition to existing anthologies with contributions by Aboriginal scholars, writers and artists like Looking at the Words of Our People, edited by Jeannette Armstrong and (Ad)dressing Our Words, edited by Armand Garnet Ruffo. In comparison with these two volumes, Plain Speaking differs not only because of its broader disciplinary scope but also because of its focus on one region of Canada: the prairies. Regarding the latter, it corresponds with the demand made already by Jeannette Armstrong, director of a creative writing school for Aboriginal people in British Columbia, that Aboriginal voices are culture-specific voices (Looking, 7). Her decolonizing identification as Okanagan rather than Indian or Native or Aboriginal (Williamson, 11) is echoed in this volume by many who introduce themselves as being (or being connected to) or speaking Cree. Even playwright Floyd Favel Star who wants to hold on to the identification “Indian” as it means “to accept one’s position in the world as a colonized person” (Douaud 85), adds that he writes “from the point of view of an Indian person who grew up on a reserve, and who speaks Cree” (85). No matter from which angle being Cree is approached in this book, the connection with the land is the common link among all the contributions which include “historic, social, political and artistic themes,” as the editors state in their introduction (vii) explaining that this book evolved out of a two-day conference entitled “Plain As the Eye Can See: Aboriginal Peoples and the Prairies,” held at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum and the University of Regina on 17 and 18 March 2001. As any discussions on the land or the environment benefit from a holistic as opposed to a fragmented approach, this volume of articles makes an important point simply by being inclusive. The Elders Roundtable, facilitated by Maria Campbell, concludes the book appropriately affirming the analytical explanations in the various essays with stories of lived experiences on and with the land.

Members of Chief Beardy’s band near Duck Lake, Saskatchewan, 1885.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Read in a linear manner, the book opens with two articles on political and historical perspectives and then leads into linguistic, cultural, literary and artistic aspects of being Cree today. Blair Stonechild, a Muscowpetung First Nations Plains Cree Professor of Indian Studies at the First Nations University of Canada, writes about “Recovering the Heritage of Treaty Number Four.” After a historical overview of treaty promises and the First Nations’ assumption that “they would maintain their traditions and sacred beliefs” (3), he outlines the “detribalization policy”(4) in the form of residential schools and the banning of ceremonies which effected an erosion of Aboriginal cultures later reinforced by museum and private collections of Aboriginal cultural heritage objects. The Treaty Four Keeping House and Archives at Fort Qu’Apelle which was opened in 2000 is meant to redress some of those harmful effects of the colonial legacy; it is created “to collect, conserve, catalogue and display objects for educational purposes” (7) and thus to revive the lost heritage. It is worth noting that Stonechild, while emphasizing colonial impositions, also stresses resistance by Aboriginal people, for example against the restrictions on ceremonies. Similarly, Bruce Dawson, “who heads Prairie Historical Insight, a company which conducts historical research and event planning for heritage organizations”(11), also highlights Aboriginal resistance in his article “‘Better Than a Few Squirrels’: The Greater Production Campaign on the First Nations Reserves of the Canadian Prairies.” At the outset he emphasizes colonial disempowerment of Aboriginal people: “Unlike the self- determining experience of the non-aboriginal agriculturalists that settled in the west, the First Nations farmers and ranchers had virtually no control over the success, failure or direction of the agricultural pursuits undertaken on their land” (11). However, towards the end of his article he demonstrates how some reserves—in particular the Poundmaker and the Blood reserves—challenged the unfair treatment of reserve farmers during the Greater Production Campaign on the Canadian Prairies in 1918 who did not profit from leasing their land as much as they should have and thus remained economically disadvantaged. After those two articles on dispossession of land and (agricultural) land use, Jean Okimdsis, Head of the Depai fluent of Indian Languages, Literatures and Linguistics at the First Nations University of Canada, explores in “As Plain(s) as the Ear can Hear” how Saskatchewan’s history is reflected in its place names. Selecting a few examples, she demonstrates how the Cree sound and prosody have been anglicized. She concludes by expressing her hope that by reading her article “at least a few residents of this province” (33) will appreciate the Cree contribution to Saskatchewan place names, but regrets at the same time that the names are not spelled in an orthography that represents the actual Cree sounds. She feels that “the restoration of these place names would increase pride in the language and encourage preservation”(33). In spite of OkimAsis’s frustration, her article leaves the non-Cree speaker with a strong sense of the importance of the Cree language. This importance is further emphasized in the subsequent article by Neil McLeod who argues from a perspective distinctively grounded in the Cree language as is already reflected in his title:”néhiyawiwin and Modernity.” Poet, painter and scholar Neal McLeod from the James Smith Cree First Nation in central Saskatchewan, a professor in Indian Studies at the First Nations University of Canada , argues that riehiyawiwin (collective memory) as the basis for the continuation of Cree identity also provides “a radical critique of modernity” (35). However, different from post-modernism which “has the potential to lead to nihilism” (52), Cree collective memory is grounded in traditional experiences (in connection with the land) even if these experiences have been disrupted, have been challenged and adapted, for example to cyberspace technology. Comparing modernity to Cree worldviews he states “Instead of listening to the world and engaging in a discourse of attunement, people began to try to dominate the rest of creation” (36). In an essay not immediately following but in a later section of the book, poet and English professor Randy Lundy of Cree, Irish and Norwegian ancestry (“Poetry and the Prairie: Writing, Aboriginality, and the Land”) seems to echo McLeod’s assertion. Lundy approaches the notion of Aboriginality “as being-at-home-in this landscape” (83), for him an identification that corresponds with being a poet: “As someone who writes poems, my job is to listen to the singing that surrounds me, and then attempt to translate that singing into the language in which I write” (81, emphasis added). That “the artist, like the storyteller, is a participant in the perpetuation of collective memory,” as McLeod states (42), becomes apparent in the photo essay following his own piece with photos by Finn Anderson dating back to the early 1940s and art work by Sheila Orr of Cree, Inuit and Scottish heritage, seemingly a contemporary commentary. However, in an interview with Heather Hodgson, Orr blurs the boundaries between “traditional” and “contemporary” and “crafts” and “art” : “Over the years my work has blended some traditional techniques with paintings because I felt it was a good way to redefine beadwork and quillwork as fine arts and not just as crafts” (95). With this understanding she joins the other artists in this collection who, like Cree playwright Floyd Favel Star (“Theatre and the Pictograph”), think it is “of value to create bridges between the old and the new” (85). For him it is the breaking of “the tyranny of naturalism” (87) in both art forms that inspired him to learn from pictographs in creating theatre. Resorting to traditional knowledges in order to deal with contemporary challenges does not only apply to artistic compositions but also to our lives as physical beings. Patrick Douaud (“Earth, Land and Healing”) whose academic background is in comparative literature, linguistics and anthropology, points out the significance of “traditional shamanistic practices” (58) in Western therapies, and the last elder in the roundtable at the end of the book emphasizes that for her own society even today “there are alternatives for us […] went to a ceremony, made my offering of cloth and tobacco. […] (114). The two remaining essays in this volume, both dealing with Aboriginal women, also offer re-interpretations of the so-called traditional ways. Linda Otway, of Plains and Swampy Cree/Métis heritage and an Assistant Professor of Indian Studies at the First Nations University of Canada, outlines the “especially devastating” (61) impact of colonialism on Aboriginal women as, for example, through the discriminatory clause in the Indian Act as well as the residential schools and the outlawing of ceremonies (“Aboriginal Women’s Health and Healing on the Plains.”) She concludes with highlighting some recommendations by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People. Metis Bev Cardinal, now Provincial Aboriginal Coordinator with Saskatchewan Environment and Resource Management, ends on a different and more inclusive note in her suggestions for healing. As the title states, “Drawn to the Land: An Urban Metis Woman Makes Her Connection,” Cardinal, who, interestingly enough, does not emphasize the role of the Native women in her family history, reminds all readers of this book of their connection with the land as humans and thereby their responsibility for it. “Once born, you no longer own the land: instead, it becomes your responsibility to take care of the land for its rightful owners—the coming generations” (76).

Works Cited

Armstrong, Jeannete, ed. Looking at the Words of our People: First Nations Analysis of Literature. Penticton, B.C.: Theytus Books, 1993.

Williamson, Janice. Conversations with Seventeen Canadian Women Writers. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.

Page revised: 9 September 2010

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