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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Kiley at Nuremberg

“What I was trying to do was have a unified and orderly and dignified [courtroom] – that’s what the courtroom should be, and it should reflect the scales of justice too.”

— Dan Kiley on the courtroom at Nuremberg

Creating the physical spaces for the war crimes trials at Nuremberg was one of the last tasks performed by the OSS’s Presentation Branch before the service was dissolved and the branch transferred to the State Department. The designer was Dan Kiley, an architect who had been recruited by his friend Eero Saarinen from the Army Corps of Engineers and had replaced Saarinen as chief of design for the branch.

Kiley was something of an odd choice to do the work. Though a trained architect, he had never designed a courtroom and would never design another again. After the war, he became famous as a landscape architect, often doing work for his friend Saarinen. As Kiley himself told it, the job was something of a fluke. The Presentation Branch was already responsible for similar work at the United Nations conference in San Francisco. In compensation for not getting to go to San Francisco, branch chief Hugh Barton offered Kiley the chance to go to Nuremberg instead.

On the other hand, despite the apparent mismatch – why was the Office of Strategic Services designing a courthouse? – the project was a return to the Presentation Branch’s roots. Since its inception, the branch’s mission was to make the presentation of complex information clear, logical, and even captivating. How else would you describe the responsibilities of the international military tribunal at Nuremberg?

In fact, the branch had been created by the OSS’s founder, Bill Donovan, to build a grand automated briefing room for President Roosevelt. Though that project had foundered, it had begat an organization with a broad range of design skills. Kiley himself showed the breath of his talents on the Nuremberg project. He planned the renovations of the entire court building, not just the courtroom but also offices, restaurants, medical clinics, and a shop (the Army PX). His attention to detail included designing furniture for the building to be made from old plywood and putting a gray velvet panel on the chief prosecutor’s lectern so that  his papers wouldn’t fall off.

His arrangement for the courtroom, Joseph Disponzio has explained,  reflected a willingness to break traditional norms to achieve the necessary impact. Instead of positioning the audience of observers and journalists behind the adjudicating parties, with the judges facing both, Kiley positioned the audience perpendicular to the axis of judge–parties, giving them a far better view of the proceedings. A film screen facing the audience allowed for the projection of some of OSS’ other work on the trials, the documentary films.

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The Nuremberg courtroom as soon from the press gallery. Note the alignment of the dock and judges’ dais, with lawyers in the foreground and film screen to the back.

Kiley’s work stood in rare company alongside the Ichigaya courtroom, where the International Military Tribunal for the Far East convened, until the 1990s saw the creation of new international criminal courts, bringing their own requirements and sensibilities to the presentation of international justice.

Source Note: In the mid-1990s, Kiley gave an oral history interview to the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut. A shortened version was published in the book Witnesses to Nuremberg, edited by Bruce M. Stave and Michele Palmer with Leslie Frank. The description of Kiley’s work at Nuremberg is mostly drawn from that printed text.