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Reading Algonquin Culture: A Double Book Review

by Tim Kitz

Rick Revelle. I Am Algonquin: An Algonquin Quest Novel. Dundurn: 2013.

Kirby Whiteduck. Algonquin Traditional Culture. The Council of the Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn, 2002.

These two books are very different – one academic nonfiction, the other young adult fiction. However, they are united by the fact that their authors are Algonquin, as well as that they provide great windows into Algonquin culture.

Unfortunately, the books exist in somewhat of a publishing vacuum. Settlers wishing to learn about the Indigenous peoples of the Ottawa Valley will find few other published sources to help them. The most notable exception is Fractured Homeland by Mi’kmaw academic Bonita Lawrence. The book’s focus on the current Ontario land claim makes it essential reading, but provides little information about traditional Algonquin culture.

Meanwhile, the only general history – The Algonquin Nation by amateur historian Peter Hessel – is outdated and far from thorough. Furthermore, academic publications tend to have narrow, historical focuses (eg. birch bark canoes, particular Algonquin reserve communities, etc.).

Kirby Whiteduck’s book, in contrast, broadly and thoroughly documents traditional Algonquin culture. It aims to thoroughly document traditional Algonquin culture. It begins with an historical overview, analyzing journals of European explorers and Jesuit missionaries on a variety of different subjects: social structure, material culture, subsistence and economic patterns, medicines, political structure, legends and tales, and spiritual beliefs and religious customs.

Whiteduck also examines the archaeological record and synthesizes this with the cultural material, in order to persuasively argue that there is a direct continuity between earliest human settlement in the Ottawa River Valley and historically-documented Algonquin culture. This goes against the grain of a cautious archaeological tendency to speak only of prehistoric “Woodlands” or “Proto-Algonquin” cultures. It does, however, support the Algonquin belief that they were the first human occupants of those territories.

Whiteduck’s book is thorough, but repetitive and dry. The book’s dependency on early historical sources gives it a certain authority, but this is undermined by the fact that these primary sources are all from European settlers.

Meanwhile, Rick Revelle’s young adult novel tells the story of Mahingan, an Algonquin chief born in 1305. The narrative is quite exciting and certainly action-packed, though it contains rather graphic descriptions of hunting and warfare. The book introduces many Algonquin words, including several dozen animal names. The storyline touches on a wide diversity of Algonquin cultural practices down to which plants were used for medicine, and what tools and styles were used to cut hair.

Revelle’s book suffers from certain editing oversights – inconsistent verb tenses or shifts in perspective, for example – and a rather male-centric focus. The storyline’s violence and privation sometimes seems a little overplayed for the sake of narrative excitement. These are minor quibbles, however.

Overall, Revelle’s depiction of Algonquin life is nuanced, eye-opening and inclusive: for example, a warrior with a disability and two female warrior-hunter partners are shown to be respected and valued members of their community. The book abounds in interesting details, which are generally used to propel the narrative forward rather than bog it down. It gives a picture of Algonquin life that is just as thorough as Whiteduck’s Algonquin Traditional Culture, but embeds it in an entertaining and easy-reading narrative. As such, Revelle’s book is an extension of the Indigenous practice of teaching youngsters their culture through storytelling.

Though they are largely concerned with the past, the books also respond to the needs of the present. They’re certainly part of an ongoing movement to revitalize and reclaim traditional Algonquin culture in new and updated ways.

Their different approaches also say something about the current Algonquin community, even if obliquely. Obviously the Algonquin nation in Ontario is not homogeneous, and the two authors occupy different spaces within it, at least by affiliation. Kirby Whiteduck is the chief of the Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn, the only federally-recognized Algonquin reserve or nation in Ontario. Rick Revelle, meanwhile, is a member of the Ardoch Algonquin, probably the most prominent unrecognized Algonquin community or nation in Ontario. Pikwàkanagàn have taken the lead on the current land claims negotiations, while Ardoch refuses to participate in the process.

Readers may want to consider the two authors’ social and political positions in relation to their books’ differing approaches. Pikwàkanagàn uses formal government channels to achieve their goals, a little like Whiteduck’s appropriation of historic European accounts and formal academic writing. Ardoch steadfastly rejects engagement with the state, but has shown a willingness to engage on a popular level with settler society, as in their 2006-2008 campaign to prevent uranium mining on their territory. This was a campaign that successfully appealed to and incorporated settler neighbours. Revelle appears to take a similar tack – transposed to a different field – teaching Algonquin culture through a popular and accessible literary form.

Much like their Algonquin communities, then, Revelle and Whiteduck use different means to achieve similar goals – in the case of their books, explaining traditional Algonquin culture.

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol.7, No.6 (Spring 2015)

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