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Lorri Neilsen Glenn: Following the River

In Following the River: Traces of Red River Women, I gather fragments of stories of my Indigenous grandmothers and their contemporaries. Women are often the marginalia of history, the widows and orphans or the blank pages—unless, of course, we’ve murdered someone, been uppity, are born into wealth and privilege or are the centre of a sex scandal. It’s an exercise in painting negative space—I’ve scoured centuries-old newspapers, out-of-print books, community histories, and provincial and national archives hoping to read around the edges of their lives to imagine them whole, real. Several sources mention not a single female—settler or Indigenous—in their 300-page manuscript. Who did these men think brought them into the world? By the twentieth century, my family web scattered across the Prairies, most of their stories lost. Peguis lands were surrendered illegally and most of the Peguis Nation driven north from their original location on the Red River. My Red River ancestors took scrip, and my immediate family moved into the 20th Century as settlers. But those women are part of my own story, and as a way to honour their past, I search for snippets, anecdotes, census notes, anything. I long for the smell of Northern Manitoba air, the bite of river water, the textures of small celebrations and tragedies, and whispers of women’s voices in my ear from seven generations away. And as you’d expect, I begin feel a chill: women’s stories are saturated with the same attitudes and assumptions Indigenous women face today. Whether the woman is nehiyawak (Plains Cree) or ininiwak (Swampy Cree) or Métis (‘halfbreed,’ on the records of some of my grandmothers), whether she is a church-going married woman, a leader or an innovator – it doesn’t matter. History leaves her unnamed, erased, dismissed and often destroyed. Yet these women are among us. Their pasts are present. Behind the words on decades-old paper, I sense women’s strength, generosity, resolve and an inexhaustible resilience, a burden so huge no one should be expected to bear it. As a reader, I long for the felt sense of everyday lives. An embodied sense of a life invites understanding, and understanding calls me to responsibility (response-ability), and to action. If you, too, crave details of Indigenous women’s lives, I offer the following non-fiction works as a start. First is a book not listed on this site, but found in libraries: Jock Carpenter’s Fifty Dollar Bride: Marie Rose Smith – A Chronicle of Métis Life in the 19th Century. Sidney, BC: Gray’s Publishing Ltd., 1971. Marie’s granddaughter Jock weaves Marie’s extensive letters and accounts into a compelling account of Marie’s life from Red River to Alberta.

by Kerry Clare · Tagged lorri neilsen glenn, following the river