Indigenizing a Biography

9780887558245_300_450_90One of Canada’s modern Indigenous war heroes, the First World War sniper Francis Pegahmagabow has already been the subject of several biographies and the inspiration for  a novel, Three Day Road, by Joseph Boyden. Now a new book by one of Pegahmagabow’s descendants offers a new perspective on the man’s life and world.

Sounding Thunder: The Stories of Frances Pegahmagabow by Brian D. McInnes collects a series of stories told to McInnes by two of Pegahmagabow’s children, as well as by Anishinaabe (or, as McInnes prefers in the book, Nishnaabe) elders in the Georgian Bay area where Pegahmagabow lived after the war. Some of the stories are traditional legends. Others are about Pegahmagabow or the community in which he lived. Though only a few deal with his war experiences per se, the stories in Sounding Thunder add to our knowledge of Pegahmagabow’s life and times.

As importantly, though, they also challenge the traditional perspective on how to discuss that life. Instead of writing a biography which integrates the stories into the narrative, McInnes chooses to present each of the stories on its own and in its entirety. Only after presenting the story does he provide a chapter that contextualizes it and connects it with Pegahmagabow’s history. The stories are also printed in Ojibwe, with an interlinear English translation and discussion that makes it clear that the English can only approximate the nuances of the original text (which originated themselves in oral tellings).

That decision was, at least for me, instructive and illuminating. It highlighted the Indigenous origins of the knowledge about Pegahmagabow, its preservation by his children Duncan and Marie, and the way that its presentation as biographical evidence is an explicit choice (and not the only one) in presentation. McInnes’s writing and his translations of the stories tell the non-Ojibwe-speaking reader quite a lot a lot about Pegahmagabow and his home in the community of Wasauksing. So, in a different way, does McInnes’s decision that Anishnaabe storytelling should be the focus and not the substructure of his book.

 

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