The Illustrated History of the Chippewas of Nawash

by Polly Keeshig-Tobias,
90 pages,
ISBN: 0968090400

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Children`s Books
by M Martin

Ask the nearest typical junior or senior high school student how their history studies are going and prepare for much rolling of eyes and gnashing of teeth. Listen carefully to your own barely masked tone of disappointment or disapproval in the face of this obvious apathy and distress. Note, also, your faint attempts at encouragement. (Arrgh, that post-literate generation, you grumble.) Now recall your own sleepwalks through various secondary and post-secondary history courses and the problem is as plain as a pikestaff: many young people find history about as accessible and interesting as Wagner's operas.

The Illustrated History of the Chippewas of Nawash is an example of how young readers, from fourteen to eighteen years old, can be enticed back into meaningful historical study. Polly Keeshig-Tobias's straightforward writing and attractive illustration promote the relevance and excitement of historical study. More specifically, this work is a Chippewa perspective on events that occurred from the 1836 Treaties 45 and 45 1/2 to the watershed events of the early 1990s. In 1992, activism and negotiation reclaimed burial site land. In 1993 an Ontario court decision restored Nawash and Saugeen fishing rights and grounds. Had this period been given the old-school treatment of historical writing and presentation, any so-called march of events from 1836 to 1993 would have become a complex meander strewn with old documents and the bodies of sleeping teenagers.

Young descendants of Nawash and Saugeen people of what some would call Grey and Bruce counties in Ontario will probably take great pride in Polly Keeshig-Tobias's efforts. Her presentation makes reading about an aspect of their history a more rewarding experience, though certainly not painless. For the bands of Nawash and Saugeen, the last century and a half has been marked with the pain of betrayal and neglect. The Illustrated History may not mitigate much of this pain but it does give it the form of chronology, of cause and effect, making it at least more comprehensible.

In addition to what many would call a comic-book format, with its colourful depictions and clipped dialogue, The Illustrated History has a table of contents, maps, and a short glossary of Ojibway words. For those seeking further study, the appendix contains extensive reference sources including copies of treaty documents.

Obviously The Illustrated History of the Chippewas of Nawash is not a thick, rambling work la Oswald Spengler or Lewis Mumford. Forget any notions that the only important kind of historical writing and research floats on a sea of footnotes. Free yourself of chamber of commerce historiography with its endless dates and profiles of the pedigreed, propertied, and powerful. Despite first impressions, The Illustrated History of the Chippewas of Nawash is not a comic book. Consider it instead a hybrid of solid historical research and "pop" format, a Chippewa synthesis of their own political history since the early nineteenth century and of British administrative hegemony in the Nawash and Saugeen territories. An excellent "primer", as the old school would say. 

M. J. Martin, a Mi'Kmaq illustrator, is also a recovering historian.


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