1155 Journeys with the Sahtu Dene

Under the Midnight Sun: Journey with the Sahtu Dene
by Mary-Anne Neal

Victoria: Reciprocity Publishing, 2021
$21.95 / 9781928114338

Reviewed by Valerie Green

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Under the Midnight Sun is a beautiful memoir of a spiritual journey written by Victoria educator Mary-Anne Neal. It tells the story of an adventure she undertook as a teenager to Canada’s far North — an adventure that changed her entire life.

The story begins in 1971 when 19 year-old Mary-Anne Neal bravely sets off in a Cessna 180 airplane to a remote area — Colville Lake — north of the Arctic Circle in the Sahtu region of Canada’s Northwest Territories, home of the Dene (deh nay) people.

The author had grown up in Edmonton, Alberta, in a devout Catholic family and had always believed in social justice for all people. At seventeen, she had been inspired to make her journey north after meeting one of the Oblate missionaries her father had hosted in their Edmonton home, Father Bernard (“Bern”) Brown. Two years later she achieved her goal.

The quote used by the author at the beginning of her book (author unknown) states:

Johnny and Jane Neyelle and children, Deline, NWT. Photo by Father Bern Will Brown, 1959, courtesy The Painter’s Keys

It’s impossible, said Pride
It’s risky, said Experience.
It’s pointless, said Reason.
Give it a try, whispered the Heart.

Obviously the author listened only to her heart as she began an adventure two years after that first meeting with Father Brown. Her journey north enabled her to learn more about the Dene people who long ago had established an encampment on the shores of Colville Lake, where the caribou were plentiful and the lake teemed with fish. The Dene people lived a simple life in an area far from any other settlements or civilization. These strong, fiercely independent people intrigued the young 19 year-old and she wanted to get to know even more about them.

Margaret’s Huskies, an oil painting by Father Bern Will Brown, 1983. Photo courtesy The Painter’s Keys

However, when she finally reached Colville Lake, she was disappointed to find that Father Brown was not as welcoming as she had hoped he would be. She was also surprised to discover that a young Inuit woman, Margaret, lived with Father Brown. She later discovered that Margaret was about to become his wife.

She soon realized she would not be working with the First People of Canada doing missionary work as she had hoped, but instead would be working for Father Brown at his private fishing lodge which catered to rich tourists. She was to be a chambermaid at the lodge.

Despite being puzzled by the change she saw in Father Brown, she realized she was dependent upon his hospitality and offer of work for the summer. She was determined to work hard and do her best, only mixing with the Dene people in her spare time. The author’s stories of mingling with the Dene are descriptively presented to the reader as she wanders around the encampment watching them go about their daily lives. She attempts to learn their language and help them learn English in return, but she soon realizes their history and culture is very complicated. Nonetheless, they make her feel welcome and completely at home. She longs to learn even more about these delightful people — people who live in harmony with nature. It is a lifestyle she feels drawn to.

Map of the Sahtu Settlement Area, 2015. Map courtesy Government of Canada
The five Indigenous communities in the Sahtu, accessible only by air, are serviced by North Wright Airways. Mary-Anne Neal is on the tarmac in Norman Wells, awaiting departure to Fort Good Hope with the pilot of a Cessna Caravan, 2016

Mary-Anne’s coming adventures take her from Colville Lake to Trophy Lodge on Great Bear Lake where she has a youthful romance with a young Dene man who speaks English. Their relationship is bitter-sweet and ends abruptly when she is banished in disgrace from the North two weeks earlier than she had intended. Years later she comes to understand this happened because of a racial issue in the 1970s and was not anything she did other than befriending the Dene.

She flew back to Edmonton via Yellowknife to begin university life in a world vastly different from the one she left behind in the north. After only one summer in the North, she finds life back home to be a complete culture shock. Her heart forever remains with the Dene people, but for the next 35 years she pursues her education, becomes a teacher, marries, and raises a family. Her life contains many ups and downs including divorce and raising her children alone on Vancouver Island. Eventually she meets a man who becomes her life partner with the same values and beliefs as she has.

Mary-Anne Neal with David Codzi of the Ayoni Keh Land Corporation, advocate for Indigenous voices in the curriculum, in Colville Lake January 2017 during the book launch of Dene Heroes of the Sahtu Volume 1

But the ironies of life are about to change Mary-Anne Neal’s life yet again when many years later a chance meeting enables her to travel to the North again in 2015 where she meets her long-lost teenage love once again. How they deal with this meeting is the essence of the author’s story as she comes to believe that “life is unfolding exactly as it was meant to.”

Mary-Anne Neal shows the reader how she learned through her connection to the Dene people that “the land, water and indeed all living things are our relatives to be honoured, not resources to be squandered.” It is a powerful message within her book.

Deline (formerly Fort Franklin) hosted a book launch for Dene Heroes of the Sahtu, Volume 4, in January, 2020, complete with a feast, elder blessings, drum dance and speeches from band leaders. Some of the authors gathered with Project Leader Mary-Anne Neal in the community hall for a commemorative photo

Under the Midnight Sun is a first-hand account of the First People of Canada seen through the eyes of a spirited, adventurous, young woman who experienced love and in the process learned of both cultural and social factors between Indigenous and non-Indigenous men and women during the 1970s.

The book is beautifully presented with maps, photographs, editorial notes and a glossary of terms and fun facts. It will be enjoyed and savoured by readers who are inspired to know more about other cultures and the world around us.

Mary-Anne Neal, who now lives in Victoria, has dedicated her book to the Dene people of the North who she later helped to find their own voices in four published books — Dene Heroes of the Sahtu — which all honour the Dene spirit.

As a way of thanking the Dene Hero authors, Mary-Anne Neal funded an all-expenses-paid trip for two from their Sahtu communities to southern Vancouver Island in 2018. Neal is shown here with Kyanna Dolphus-Lennie and Sunita Kochon at Royal Roads University

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Valerie Green

Valerie Green was born and educated in England where she studied journalism and law. Her passion was always writing from the moment she first held a pen in her hand. After working at the world-famous Foyles Books on Charing Cross Road, London, followed by a brief stint with M15 and legal firms, she moved to Canada in 1968 where she married and raised a family, while embarking on a long career as a freelance writer, columnist, and author of over twenty non-fiction historical and true-crime books. She is currently working on her debut novel Providence, which will be published soon as the first of The McBride Chronicles, an historical four-generational family saga bringing early BC history alive. Now semi-retired (although writers never really retire!) she enjoys taking short road trips around BC with her husband, watching their two beloved grandsons grow up and, of course, writing. Editor’s note: Valerie has recently reviewed books by Vanessa Winn, Edeana MalcolmJanie ChangGina McMurchy-BarberEric WaltersGail Anderson-Dargatz, and Alan Twigg.

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Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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The four volumes of Dene Heroes of the Sahtu

 

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