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Magnificent aboriginal anthology adds to our understanding of Manitoba

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Aboriginal Writings from the Land of Water

Edited by Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair and Warren Cariou

Highwater Press, 416 pages, $35

Until the appearance of this beautiful volume, anthologies of Manitoba writing -- and there are several excellent collections -- have tended to represent aboriginal writers somewhat sporadically and selectively.

Manitowapow (the meanings and origins of the name are fully explained in the anthology's excellent introduction) will fundamentally revise the ways in which the province's literary, cultural and political history is read, by beginning to more fully restore and reconsider the fundamental significance of aboriginal writing to that history.

And inevitably, the anthology will not only revise the ways in which readers engage with Manitoba writing; it will also revise and enrich "our" conceptions of who "we" are in Manitoba, as readers, writers and citizens.

For those who love art and beautifully produced books, this anthology will not only instruct but delight; on its cover, aptly, is a striking and powerful reproduction of Daphne Odjig's 1971 mural The Creation of the World, which, as the editors explain, is a "story full of stories," installed at the entrance to the Earth History Gallery at the Manitoba Museum.

Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair and Warren Cariou, both well-known academics and writers at the University of Manitoba, consulted widely and did prodigious research to arrive at their final choices, winnowing their selections of 90 writers' work -- poets, playwrights, politicians, novelists, storytellers and anonymous inmates from Stony Mountain -- from the hundreds of writers they had at hand.

Each selection in Manitowapow is prefaced by an ample headnote that provides biographical and contextual detail, and the table of contents, arranged chronologically, gives us the origin or affiliation of each writer.

Moreover, the anthology opens, appropriately, onto a map of aboriginal communities in Manitowapow, and some of the selections are transcribed in aboriginal languages alongside their translations.

This generous and instructive apparatus will ensure the wide readership the anthology deserves, both inside and well beyond the classroom, or provincial and national borders.

Indeed, Winnipeg's Highwater Press promises that this will be the first of a series of volumes dedicated to aboriginal themes, and the co-editors and the press have donated the proceeds from this splendidly edited book to that admirable cause.

Writers from virtually every founding community in Manitowapow -- Anishinaabe, Cree, Dene, Métis, Saulteaux, Inuit -- are represented in this volume's 400-plus pages, beginning, fittingly, with two pieces by Peguis (1774-1864).

The rich, book-long intermingling of history and linguistic provenance begins, appropriately, with Peguis's name: the headnote advises that he was "also known as Be-gou-ais, Be-gwa-is, Pegeois, Pegouisse, Pegowis, Pegqas, Pigewis, Pigwys" before setting out, succinctly, his vital political and literary importance.

The two selections, A Reply to the Selkirk Settlers' Call for Help and An Open Letter to the Queen's Representatives summon up, first-hand and vividly, the historical moment he negotiated.

One of the volume's many virtues is its breadth: alongside well-known writers, historical and contemporary, such as Pierre Falcon, Louis Riel, Gabriel Dumont, or Louis Bird, Phil Fontaine, Elijah Harper, Tomson Highway, Ian Ross, Rosanna Deerchild and Beatrice Mosionier, we are given many relatively unrecognized writers who deserve a wider audience.

Sadly, we are also reminded, again, of the fine talents, lost prematurely, of contemporary writers such as Marvin Francis (1955-2005) and Douglas Nepinak (1960-2005).

Several themes recur powerfully across many of the selections: an abiding connection to and intimate knowledge of the land (and water); a deeply felt kinship with nature; a strong and enduring connection to family and to local place.

And their all-too-familiar and corrosive correlatives: displacement and dislocation, alienation and estrangement, pain, misplaced trust and distrust, suppressed and distorted history, and betrayal.

More surprising and less predictable for some readers, perhaps, will be the trenchant and crackling and subtle ironies, the sudden and startling humour that animates many of the selections.

Just as important, the anthology as a whole might bring many readers to reconsider their received notions of what "literary" writing means -- and how, and by and for whom, these standards are set.

Manitowapow will prompt a welcome re-engagement with debates about what we read, how we read and how we talk about what we read -- and about what generations of readers in Western Canada as in other constituencies understand as "our" literary legacy.

For these gifts and others, readers will be grateful to the co-editors, who took on and succeeded in a monumental achievement, worked on for years with love and with rigour.

Readers everywhere should also be grateful to Mosionier (who wrote the foreword) and to the other visionaries at Highwater Press, a division of Portage and Main Press.

Collectively they have realized a radiant and communal dream that serves all Manitobans and honours every aboriginal ancestor, bestowing a heritage that will inform and reshape everyone's contemporary life here.

Canadian literature scholar Neil Besner is vice-president, research and international, at the University of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 31, 2012 J4

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