Monday, November 16, 2015

The Pemmican Eaters: Poems by Marilyn Dumont

On November 16 in 1885, Louis Riel was hanged for treason. There will be a commemoration ceremony to pay tribute to him today at the Alberta Legislature, starting at 11 am. It is Metis Week in Edmonton: see details of events online here.

The following review was part of a longer post that I wrote three months ago when my reading project was book bingo.

The beautiful cover image
is by Linus Woods.
I grew up on an Alberta farm in a francophone community that was originally called St Paul-des-Métis. When I was younger, I thought all Canadians considered Louis Riel to be our greatest national folk hero. And that Gabriel Dumont, Riel's general in the 1885 rebellion, was famous too.

When I began working at Edmonton Public Library in 1989, I signed up a brown-skinned young woman for a library card and made a comment about her historic family name, "Dumont." She looked at me blankly. I said, "Gabriel Dumont." Still nothing. After telling her we had books about him in the collection, I proceeded with the library card. Later, I quizzed Edmonton friends and colleagues and discovered that Dumont, and even Riel, were not as well-known as I had assumed.

There are other books about Riel and Dumont, but Marilyn Dumont's latest collection of poetry does something different. With potent, dexterous verse, it connects contemporary lives to Canadian history.

"Upon discovery that our Gabriel, Gabriel Dumont Senior, our great-great-grandfather and uncle of the famous Gabriel, had held the position of leader at Lac Ste. Anne, I finally understood why our family's annual summer visit to the pilgrimage was so important to us."

In Dumont's poems, Louis Riel is sometimes 'Louis' and sometimes 'Riel,' but Gabriel Dumont is referred to always by first name: either 'Gabriel' or 'Gabe.' Riel is 'Our Prince' - "Louis / the one who gave us Manitoba / brokered pluralism / and language rights."

Elizabeth Brass Donald in front of
Frank Oliver's house.
(photo reference link)
Women are in these pages too, nurturing other humans and the earth, their needlework like prayers.

A photo of Elizabeth Brass Donald is referenced in 'The Land She Came From.' She was one of the victims of land swindles that are a part of Edmonton's early history: "crow woman dig down / scrape away the layers / of sleeping memory / down to the stake lines of river lots / in Rossdale and beyond / far down to the Métis family names / still breathing there: Donald, Bird, Ward [...]" 'To a Fair Country' is about wholesale land thefts through "official trickery:" "I want to forget the number of Métis / less than one percent / who hold property from that scrip today."

Much hardship is summed up in a few words in 'Letter to Sir John A. MacDonald' - "we were railroaded / by some steel tracks that didn't last / and some settlers who wouldn't settle."

Language is another aspect of Métis culture: "neither Cree, Salteaux nor French exactly, but something else / not less / not half / not lacking" - 'These Are Wintering Words'

The Pemmican Eaters is a history book with so much heart, and it's one I would have loved to suggest to that young library patron back in 1989. I will recommend it widely from now on.

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