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Ahtahkakoop: The Epic Account of a Plains Cree Head Chief, His People, and Their Struggle for Survival, 1816-1896

by Deanna Christensen
844 pages,
ISBN: 0968736904


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How to write for the Other?
by Heather Hodgson

Sandy Lake is a First Nation community situated deep in the rolling, rugged hills of north central Saskatchewan. The pines and bush are so dense there you can almost forget what a farmer's field looks like. The signature call of loons permeates the air over the lake and at night the coyotes howl, sounding frighteningly close. The sky is often so black you can't see your hand in front of you. On other nights the stars and northern lights pulse with life.

The night sky at Sandy Lake remains for me the starriest of skies, a veritable blanket of stars, when I recall family trips to my kohkum's to visit our relatives who reside in the area. Sandy Lake, a part of the Treaty Six area in Saskatchewan, is the ancestral home of the Plains Cree, my mother's people.

In 1816, a Cree boy was born beneath a night sky so full of stars, his mother named him Ahtahkakoop, which is Cree for starblanket. This boy was destined to become Head Chief of the Plains Cree and lead his people through the most radical transition they would ever know. As European settlers came in droves, they brought about starvation, suffering, disease and death for the First Nation tribes on an unprecedented scale. It was Ahtahkakoop who navigated the dangerous course for his ever dwindling tribe during these tumultuous times .

Deanna Christensen is the non-Native author of Ahtahkakoop: The Epic Account of a Plains Cree Head Chief, His People and Their Struggle for Survival in the Nineteenth Century. Thirteen years in the making, the book is the only full-length written history of this Plains Cree Head Chief and his people, and unlike comparatively shorter histories about other Native leaders, this 844-page epic is comprised of the stories that Ahthakakoop's living descendants remember. It is comprehensive in the sense that while it attends to and respects extant records, it also includes as collaborators those descendants who retain a residual oral history of the Treaty Six area. This collaborative effort between Christensen and Ahtahkakoop's descendants is the product of patient listening, continuous dialogue, and the author's compassionate identification with Cree culture. Consequently, the book can be authentically avowed as the band's own, thereby bridging the conventional dichotomy betweem oral and written history.

Despite this, Christensen's status as a non-Native historian of the Plains Cree may still raise some eyebrows. The debates about misappropriation of the other's voice and questions about who can write for the other, have not yet been satisfactorily resolved for many, particularly for First Nations people. I have been caught in this debate myself, and in spite of the fact that I am of Cree ancestry, after years of observing the continuing ill-will between some authors and their subjects, I have found myself feeling acutely uncomfortable about the territorial nature of the debate. Still, something of great importance must be at stake if Native groups continue to denounce so vigorously authors who write about them.

A possible and perhaps frequently overlooked source of misunderstanding inherent in the issue of misappropriation may be that there are two diametrically opposed notions of authorship underlying these culture wars. On the one hand is the Eurocentric image of writers as outsiders, disengaged, impartial critics, jealously guarding their autonomy and scholarly possessions. A recent case in point is Robert Bringhurst's treatment of the Haida, and his insistence that his outsider stance, despite the fact that it alienated and offended a large number of Haida people, is Šhis' stance to maintain. On the other hand is the conception of authorship more congenial to First Nation ways, wherein the author is an enabler and gatherer of voices, who is endorsed by the community. This dichotomous view of authorship may explain some of the acrimony.

For a long time it seemed the gap between indigenous subject cultures and anthropologists, historians, post-colonial critics and do-gooders, was only widening further, but a few recently published books suggest the climate between authors and their subjects is warming. John Milloy comes to mind because of his book about residential schools (A National Crime), and so does Bill Waiser who worked closely with Cree historian Blair Stonechild in their co-authored history of the North-West Rebellion (Loyal Till Death). Trevor Herriot is another recent example of how to write for the Other as his history of the Qu'Appelle River Valley region (River in a Dry Land) was based on extensive collaboration with the descendants of some of the tribes who originate in that part of the province. I'd add Deanna Christensen to this list but there are, thankfully, other examples.

Margery Fee once posed the question "Who can write as other?", and it has stayed with me as I've tried to sort out my own thinking¨case by case¨about who in these hostile debates over misappropriation, can write as other or for the other. It turns out that Fee's question wasn't exactly the question I wanted to ask but it piqued my interest and prompted me to try and reformulate her question in a way that might shed some light on the misappropriation debates in this country. For most of the authors named in the previous paragraph¨while not of First Nations ancestry¨have not been denounced by their subjects¨First Nation peoples. Indeed, individuals of all types of backgrounds seem to be writing about the other! So I revised Margery Fee's question to: "How does one write for the other?" as I eventually realized that the drawing of territorial boundaries around a culture is actually secondary to a more important issue, which if appropriately dealt with, can make the boundaries virtually disappear.

By observing those who have written about others in the right spirit and way, I realized that one can write about, or for, or with the Other in such a way that neither party¨author or subject¨is compromised, diminished, made to feel exploited or alienated. What causes the boundaries in this debate to remain are the continuing large gaps between what members of a culture feel is true of their culture and what is often written about it by someone from the outside. It's very unsettling, for example, to be sitting in an audience listening to an American linguist propound his theories about the Ojibway culture based on his analysis of Ojibway syntax, morphs and allusions, when the Ojibway members of the audience tell him straightforwardly that he is dead wrong. Yet while the prevalent thinking is that one can't cross a cultural boundary because one is bound to get things all wrong, I think it's the wrong way of looking at the gap between author and subject. Anyone can step over the boundary but once one does it, there's something to be said for awakening to the fact that one is in a different world with a different way of looking at the world. If one can't do that, one will never have the other as his/her subject; one will simply be writing about him/herself or about his/her own culture's imprint on this new one.

Deanna Christensen accepted the invitation to write the history of this Plains Cree Chief because she was asked by those who knew the most about him. Christensen was known and trusted by the band as a seasoned writer and a historian of Plains Cree culture for many decades. She had published widely and was known for her involvement in the reprint of David Mandelbaum's The Plains Cree which is still the key text for Native and non-Native scholars of the Cree culture. In writing this book, she chose to rely heavily on the band and his living descendants as sources for information. Christensen's book can be regarded as a paradigmatic example for those who want to write about other cultures. Her approach has resulted in good relations with her subject; there has been none of the anger or hostility that other First Nation groups have experienced when non-Native authors have misinterpreted their history and their language, and who published books which the Native groups felt erased or distorted their culture's inheritance.

The child born under and named after that starry sky became a leader with extraordinary vision. From 1816-1896, the Plains Cree suffered relentless change as the virtual disappearance of the buffalo, upon which they depended for almost everything, forced them to make the painful transition from their nomadic existence as hunter-gatherers to the sedentary life of farming. Compounding the difficulties inherent in their forced confined lifestyle were persistent threats to their very existence in the forms of mass starvation, drought, frost, whiskey, violence and disease. To this was added the constant appropriation of their lands by newcomers. Meanwhile, the very foundation of Cree spirituality was being shattered by aggressive, competitive and intolerant forms of Christianity.

This book rightly emphasizes the spiritual history of the Plains Cree as their history in general cannot be meaningfully described without informing the reader of the importance these people attribute to their spiritual life. Surprising to some will be the fact that Ahtahkakoop embraced Christianity completely. But he did this without losing sight of certain essentials. Uppermost in his mind was the future security of his people, which seemed to make him more clear-sighted than most in kindling Christianity's fire atop the ashes of Cree traditional religious practice. Ahtahkakoop knew of his people's need for the presence of the Creator every day in their lives, so his task became one of discerning if and how Christianity might square with Cree spirituality. He realized that the sources of genuine Christianity were similar to Cree traditional spirituality. And in spite of many unsettling experiences with various Christian clergy, Ahtahkakoop did not throw out the baby with the bath water.

During the thirteen years it took Christensen to research and write this book, there were times when its completion seemed hopeless due to lack of resources. Despite the limited financial support, Christensen continued to find and gather material until she had exhausted every source. Barry Ahenakew, current chief of the Ahtahkakoop First Nation, and a descendant of Ahtahkakoop should also be credited for making every possible effort to ensure this story was published. He, along with Deanna Christensen, and many other members who participated in the project, have brought about an exemplary history of a First Nation, an epic story which pulses with life much like the stars did on the night this great Plains Cree Head Chief was born, and which can serve as a guide for those writing in these culturally contested areas. ˛

Heather Hodgson created the index for Ahtahkakoop: The Epic Account of a Plains Cree Head Chief, His People, and Their Struggle for Survival 1816 - 1896. She is a third generation descendant of the Plains Cree Head Chief who teaches at the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College and works as an editor for Coteau Books and the Canadian Plains Research Center.

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