#772 Echoes of spirits dreaming
Bawaajigan: Stories of Power
by Nathan Niigan Noodin Adler and Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith (editors)
Toronto: Exile Editions, 2019
$21.95 / 9781550968415
Reviewed by Savana Alphonse with Rebecca Fredrickson
Bawaajigan: Stories of Power is a collection of short stories written by seventeen Indigenous authors from Turtle Island, today known as Canada. The stories here serve as memoirs for Indigenous people that offer personal accounts of the sacred circle: our births, waking existence, dreams, deaths, and afterlives in the spirit world. Our dreams often bridge these various interrelated parts of existence, and in this book dreams are vectors of movement between corporeal realities and the unseen worlds of the spirit. The title Bawaajigan is an Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe) word for dream or vision, and the tales within are blended with a dreamlike reality that carries an echo of the spirits who have written them.
The variety of narrative experience found in Bawaajigan reflects the holistic quality of this Anishinaabemowin term. Some stories relay tales of loss, pain, and death, yet others speak of new beginnings, joy, and birth. As with our dreams, the lessons of these stories are never explained. We are not told what to think about the pain or joy we encounter. Rather, in the manner of a vision and in the traditions of oral storytelling — which have been passed from our ancestors through time immemorial — interpretation depends on one’s personal experience and context. In these stories, coexistent realities and complex yet unitary worlds create the conditions for generative, rather than prescriptive, thinking. This capacity to generate individual thought is what makes Indigenous storytelling unique.
I am an Indigenous woman from the Tsilhqot’in nation in British Columbia, with familial ties to the Nehiyaw (Cree) Nation in Alberta. Bawaajigan brings me home. The familiarity I feel while reading this book is akin to visiting family, and the stories are very much like those I heard growing up. Bawaajigan is a written reflection of the enduring love that has echoed through the generations. It is testament to Indigenous peoples’ ability to adapt and create amazing literature through the continued telling of our stories. These stories refuse easy or obvious “story-book” endings. I encourage aspiring Indigenous writers to look to Bawaajigan for apt examples of how to express their own culture and spirituality within relatable and readable contexts.
Bawaajigan includes both emerging and established writers, and the list of notable contributors is impressive, including such names as Lee Maracle, the widely-published Stó:lō writer and activist who has received numerous literary awards and has served as Distinguished Visiting Scholar at several North American universities. Maracle’s contribution here is “The Room Was Crowded,” a story of survival and transformation through the reclamation of Indigenous culture, history, and memory. In Maracle’s telling, a man regains his Indigenous identity as he works through his traumas. This character’s strength and power reminds us to be brave as we work through our own painful pasts.
Another contributor of note is Wendy Bone, a Métis writer from northern Alberta and a graduate of UBC’s Creative Writing M.F.A. program, who sets her story, “We Are The Earth’s Dreaming,” within Tsleil-Waututh territory, otherwise known as Burrard Inlet. This concerns a young woman named Desma, who has survived the Sixties Scoop and is left dealing with the hardships of disconnection and reconnection. Bone expresses a dichotomy between the relationship that Desma has with her adopted Caucasian family and her relationship with her biological, drug-afflicted Indigenous family. Through the character of Desma, we can experience the extreme emotional toll that displaced Indigenous people have experienced in the pursuit of cultural identity, while trying to balance different families from different worlds. It will never be easy and may very well be a lifelong process not only for those of the Sixties Scoop, but for everyone connected to its lasting intergenerational traumatic effects.
Joanne Arnott is a Métis writer originally from Winnipeg and currently resident in British Columbia. Set in Manitoba, her story “Ptarmigan” is a poetic narrative of a young girl who struggles in the oppressive atmosphere of her mother’s sadness and her father’s violence. She tries to exist silently and cautiously, but she can’t avoid becoming the brunt of her father’s anger. One day, her father grabs her arm. He slaps her, and this slap is the catalyst that turns her into a “winter-plumed bird.” The story ends with the Girl-Ptarmigan watching her family from “a maze of light snow and stalks of dead bush, deep in the wood.” Through this transformation from human to animal, Arnott recreates sensations of dissociation, showing us how (in an effort to overcome abuse) an individual can slip into a different world or state of “being.” We find ourselves with the narrator of “Ptarmigan” slipping between worlds into an otherworldly place of dissociation, and here we palpably experience the difficulty of finding solid footing in the aftermath of trauma.
The traumas represented in Bawaajigan are intergenerational and multigenerational. The stories are narrated by both adults and youth and can be appreciated by young and old readers alike. A remarkable contribution from the perspective of a child is Vancouver-based Inuk writer Yugcetun Anderson’s story “Melinda Irene and Madame Bouvé.” This piece is hand-printed in pencil on lined paper, with rough sketches of things like balloons, hearts, mountains, faces, trees, and clouds in between short passages of narration dated from May 12 to October 10. Each penciled entry appears as if ripped directly from a child’s diary, with the pages torn and some burned. The quality of the little girl’s entries deteriorates over time, beginning with a round, legible script and the exclamation that “Summer is so easy,” and ending with erratic script with scribbling and grey smudges, concluding with, “I’ll [dark scribble] visit you one day & we’ll raise HELL TOGETHER AGAIN.”
And with these little drawings and words, Anderson reflects a young girl’s burgeoning sorrows. I found it both captivating and heartbreaking to read this simulation of a child’s innermost thoughts and feelings, and to move with her through the summer and fall months. As a reader, I felt powerless to help her. I could see that she was losing hope and I felt helpless right along with her. There are many instances in life where we don’t know how to help a child — or an adult — and Anderson has effectively raised awareness of this issue.
Another who brings attention to this sense of powerlessness is Richard Van Camp, a member of the Tlicho Dene from Fort Smith, North West Territories. Van Camp has won numerous awards and has published books in just about every genre over a span of 23 years. “Sword of Antlers,” his contribution to Bawaajigan, is a story about medicine power and the guiding strength of ancestors. In this story, the dead still have the power to help the living, and “Sword of Antlers” begins with a beckoning of the dead. Once called upon, a long-deceased spirit comes back from her realm to accompany the spirit of a recently murdered woman who is refusing to move on to the spirit world. Working together, these spirits-from-different-times bring about the deaths and simultaneous spiritual transformation of the woman’s murderers. Through the story of this murdered woman — caught in a liminal state of being — Van Camp has expressed how easy it is to hold onto hatred, how easy it is to be spiritually trapped; but also through this woman’s story, we see the freedom that forgiveness provides.
Délani Valin, a woman of Cree-Métis descent who lives in Nanaimo, contributes “Missing,” a story of murdered and missing Indigenous women in Williams Lake. This particular story affects me strongly because Williams Lake is a neighbouring community to my home of Tl’etinqox, and I know that the problem of missing and murdered Indigenous women is ongoing here and elsewhere in Turtle Island. I sympathize with the main character Leesa and her feelings of guilt and regret for being too intoxicated to walk home with her friend Shannon on the night she went missing. Leesa’s regret interlaces with the story’s multiple threads of connection to the tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous women, including mental health problems, addictions, and fragmentation of memory. “Missing” expertly lays out these interconnected threads, showing us how easy it is to be either Leesa or her dear friend Shannon.
Bawaajigan: Stories of Power invites us to find our own answers and ultimately leaves us with our own trails to travel. There is an investigative quality to this collection that exemplifies Indigenous storytelling techniques. We are invited to look for specific and unique meanings in the tales within. As we grow, change, and develop, so too will our interpretation and understanding of these tales. On the path of life, Indigenous oral stories have served as guides. No matter how lost on the trail to the Red Road we may be, the stories have always been there to help us find our way back.
My name is Savana Alphonse, and I’m a 27 year old Indigenous academic with blood ties to the Tsilhqot’in and Nehiyawewin peoples. I am the youngest of my siblings and the only girl. My parents are Grant and Angela Alphonse, both of whom are survivors of colonial trauma, my father of a Residential School and my mother of the Sixties Scoop. My parents have degrees in education and law, and they draw from their formal educations (and from their experiences of growing up) as they teach their children to examine and discuss the effects of colonialism and the actions and processes of decolonization. As a university student I aim to explore the vast expanses of my creative knowledge and inheritance. I am steadily searching for ways to break the chains of colonialism that shackle my Indigeneity. Rebecca Fredrickson teaches English and Creative Writing for Thompson Rivers University, at the Williams Lake campus, which is located on the unceded lands of the T’exelcemc and within the traditional territory of Secwepemcúl’ecw. Rebecca’s goal as an undergraduate mentor, and as a co-writer for The Ormsby Review, is to help students gain the skills they need to envision and create their own unique styles and writing practices.
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