Songs Upon the Rivers: The Buried His­tory of the French-Speak­ing Cana­di­ens and Métis from the Great Lakes and the Mis­sis­sippi across to the Pa­cific

Canada's History - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Jennifer S.H. Brown, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at the Univer­sity of Win­nipeg.

by Robert Fox­cur­ran, Michel Bouchard, and Sébastien Malette Baraka Books, 440 pages, $34.95

This book is a ma­jor un­der­tak­ing from three au­thors who are di­verse in their in­ter­ests and ex­pe­ri­ence. Robert Fox­cur­ran, based in Seat­tle, Wash­ing­ton, is an in­de­pen­dent his­to­rian with a busi­ness back­ground. Michel Bouchard, pro­fes­sor of an­thro­pol­ogy at the Univer­sity of North­ern Bri­tish Columbia, com­bines re­search in­ter­ests in French North Amer­ica with a

fo­cus on Rus­sian-speak­ing di­as­po­ras and on na­tion­al­ism and eth­nic­ity. Sébastien Malette, of Métis and French-Cana­dian her­itage, teaches law at Car­leton Univer­sity and works with the Métis Fed­er­a­tion of Canada, which was formed four years ago with the pur­pose of rep­re­sent­ing all Métis in Canada.

The au­thors’ sense of mis­sion is well ar­tic­u­lated in their subti­tle. Two in­ter­twined con­cerns an­i­mate their work. First, they seek to re­trieve the “for­got­ten his­tory” of “the French-speak­ing pop­u­la­tions that had shaped the des­tiny of the United States and Canada,” ar­gu­ing that “the his­tory of the French [Cana­dien] set­tlers and their role in the mak­ing of the United States has been so thor­oughly buried that it goes to­tally un­no­ticed.” Amer­i­can writ­ers, fo­cused on an­glo­phone he­roes, have ex­hib­ited “a col­lec­tive will­ful blind­ness” to Cana­dien/Métis his­tor­i­cal con­tri­bu­tions, of­ten re­gard­ing them as “half-in­di­g­e­nized and of shady loy­alty.” Sec­ond, in the Cana­dian con­text, the au­thors chal­lenge the dom­i­nance of “an overly sim­plis­tic, lin­ear and evo­lu­tion­ary model of Métis na­tion­hood,” which negates both “the col­lec­tive ex­is­tence of all Métis be­yond the scope of what amounts to Red River Métis na­tion­al­ism” and “other po­lit­i­cal ex­pres­sions through which Métis have shared col­lec­tive sen­ti­ments and group iden­ti­ties.” Their po­lit­i­cal stance is clear.

The book’s re­search, drawn mainly from sec­ondary and In­ter­net sources, rather than archival sources, is ex­ten­sive, although some works that could have helped its ar­gu­ments have been omit­ted. In nine de­tailed and sub­stan­tial chap­ters, the au­thors trace the his­to­ries of French­s­peak­ing traders, set­tlers, mis­sion­ar­ies, and other mi­grants with Que­bec and In­dige­nous roots across the Great Lakes to the Michi­gan and Illi­nois ter­ri­to­ries, the Mis­sis­sippi and Mis­souri wa­ter­sheds, and the Pa­cific North­west.

Near the end, the au­thors pro­pose a con­struc­tive model for con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing Métis iden­ti­ties — one with which they could have use­fully framed their ar­gu­ment at the be­gin­ning of the book. They ar­gue that the mem­bers of Métis com­mu­ni­ties across the re­gions have all borne “mul­ti­ple group iden­ti­ties, while main­tain­ing a suf­fi­cient de­gree of cul­tural co­her­ence stem­ming from their … fu­sion of In­dige­nous and mainly Cana­dien voyageur cul­ture.” To vi­su­al­ize the con­tours of this “pre­dom­i­nantly French-Cana­dien-Métis iden­tity across North Amer­ica,” they in­voke a rhi­zomatic model, draw­ing upon the im­age of the honey fun­gus, a mush­room in Ore­gon that spreads un­der­ground over a large area through a tu­ber-like root sys­tem that may ex­tend for kilo­me­tres.

Each Métis com­mu­nity, they af­firm, “was con­nected by lan­guage, cul­ture, and kin­ship to other such com­mu­ni­ties of­ten sep­a­rated by hun­dreds or thou­sands of miles.” Hav­ing “no true cen­tre,” the peo­ple were linked by “a barely vis­i­ble mass of threads” grounded in cul­ture, mem­ory, and kin­ship.

I am sym­pa­thetic to this im­agery. How­ever, the out­look it ex­presses is not en­tirely novel. “The Métis Land­scape,” the fron­tispiece map in The New Peo­ples: Be­ing and Be­com­ing Métis in North Amer­ica (a book I co-edited with Jacqueline Peter­son) — along with the broad, bor­der­cross­ing scope of the es­says in­cluded in that book — presages some of the ar­gu­ments pre­sented here. So too does re­cent work by some other schol­ars.

The au­thors of Songs Upon the Rivers at times take a dis­mis­sive view of cer­tain other schol­ars’ works, im­part­ing a more neg­a­tive tone than is needed. They also might have paid more heed to the bi­ases of some of the older sources they have used to make their points. The et­y­mol­ogy of var­i­ous eth­nonyms — Métis, Michif, Cre­ole, half- breed, and oth­ers — could use deeper his­tor­i­cal study. The book also needed at­ten­tive edit­ing; there are too many ty­pos and ob­scure sen­tences, and in­for­ma­tion some­times gets re­peated, partly be­cause some chap­ters over­lap in con­tent.

The text is rich in in­for­ma­tion, but it is not a quick or easy read. The in­dex is of high qual­ity, though it misses some top­ics, such as lan­guage or ref­er­ences to the songs fea­tured in the ti­tle — which re­ally de­serve more at­ten­tion! Over­all, how­ever, Songs Upon the Rivers is a valu­able con­tri­bu­tion, il­lu­mi­nat­ing ar­eas of North Amer­i­can Cana­dien and Métis his­tory that have lin­gered too long in the shad­ows of larger na­tional nar­ra­tives.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.