Review of Writing the Circle: Native Women of Western Canada

Edited by Jeanne Perreault & Sylvia Vance
Preface by Emma LaRocque, Introduction by Gloria Bird

by Mary Strahan Scriver

More than any other that I've read so far, this anthology of both prose and poetry seems written by and for Indian women, and yet I'm told the actual making of the collection was controversial. The trouble seemed to have arisen from "identity politics," that is, whether one is defining the goals of the group by gender, age, nationality, or tribal affiliation. Differing priorities among white feminist theory, tribal status, and the Metis definition raised a lot of questions that couldn't be answered without a certain amount of pain.

In fact, this anthology is full of pain, along with joy, beseeching, pride and love. Some of the short essays were written as part of therapy and others as part of graduate degree programs. Maybe no social group has wrestled with education as much as First Nations people have, not least because governmental and religious institutions set out to completely redefine them through education, changing everything from language to family structure to economics to way of dressing. Disentangling the will to learn and prosper in a new world from the longing to preserve the proud old world has been a terrible task. These writings can serve as bright markers in the struggle.

Two prose pieces in particular stand out for me. One is by Vicki English-Currie, a Blackfoot then studying at Carleton University in Ottawa. It is a measured and intelligent reflection on the history of Native Education. She had the blessing of her mother, Philomena English, to use her family as an example and she appends a useful list of references. The other is a short story by Elizabeth Robinson, who grew up in Calgary in the 1940's. In "A Wink for Cecilia" she manages to capture the lively mixture of hardship, outrage, friendship, high-jinks, and final maturity of a strong young woman going through a convent boarding school.

Not all the writing is about women. There are stories about men who trap or farm or rodeo. One murderer who is not convicted by a court of law is finally brought to justice by an ancient Medicine Woman in her own good time. Women speak of gentle fathers, lovers and brothers, as well as those men who have crushed them with violence. Loretta Jobin, whose folks were from the Red Pheasant Reserve in Saskatchewan, says that her father was born in 1892, wore braids and an earring as a child, and saw the last of the buffalo. She tells about trips to the reserve and the family stories everyone told, making the old aunts cover their mouths with the corners of their shawls to hide their laughing.

Clare McNab, also Metis, writes a three part saga about trying to understand porcupine quillwork. As a city girl, she is able to do the necessary research about patterns and techniques, but almost completely disabled when it comes to dealing with a big dead porkie. A friend advised, "If you find one, they have about four thousand quills, enough to last you a lifetime." Clare discovered how true this was after hours and hours of work -- with two friends helping -- yielded two big ice-cream pails of unprocessed pulled quills, a tiny handful of sorted hairs and quills, and a raw porkie hide still mostly bristling with stickers. All this on one card table in a crowded city apartment. When she took her hard-won quills to a class she taught so they could make earrings, the men were offended, saying such things were women's work. "Their loss," says Clare.

In the end, I think that the pain of getting these stories and poems together into an anthology amounted to birth pangs, because they make available to the rest of us a way of understanding that the world of the native Canadian women is a complex one, just like the world of everyone else. Emma LaRoque begins her preface by saying, "To be a Native writer of some consciousness is to be in a lonely place. Happily, our isolation is about to come apart at the seams." She entitled her preface, "Here Are Our Voices -- Who Will Hear?" I believe that a lot of us will hear-- not just with our ears, but also with our hearts. This anthologies is full of treasures.

(This book has been sent to the library at Heart Butte School and to the City of Browning Public Library, both on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana.)

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