A few years ago, an aunt told writer Lorri Neilsen Glenn about her great-grandmother’s tragic death in a steamboat fire in 1908 in northern Manitoba. Wanting to know more, she started a journey that led her to histories she didn’t know were hers. Neilsen Glenn learned that she had roots in northern Indigenous and prairie Métis communities. The haunting account of her journey became Following the River: Traces of Red River Women, a book that gives the reader insight into uncelebrated histories, including the stories of Neilsen Glenn’s ancestors and their contemporaries.
The book mirrors the fragmented nature of these women’s lives, Neilsen Glenn says. She shows us who these women are in a mix of evocative poetry, documentary material, and narrative prose. Together, these pieces offer the reader incredible glimpses of the lives of Neilsen Glenn’s ancestors based on what she could find in newspaper reports, archives, and museums. I wanted to know more about the book and the journey that led to the book, so I contacted Neilsen Glenn by phone. Here’s our conversation.
Q: This book is as much a story of you traveling as it is about the women in the book. Tell me how this journey began.
When I found out my great-grandmother Catherine Kennedy had died in a steamboat fire. And I thought: what? My aunt Kay always wanted to know what happened, too, and so I started to search. There was so much I didn’t know. The more I found, the more I wanted to find. There are no nice, tidy stories in history, as we know, and the post-contact history of the Canada’s West was written largely by fur traders, clergy, and European travellers.
Q: What was that search like?
Fragmented. So little was recorded about women it was difficult to find the whole story or even enough material to get a sense of a woman’s story. Yet these women often lived fragmented lives. Political forces and the push for Canadian expansion affected the lives of Indigenous women and many found themselves in a state of not here, not there. A liminal place. Even the (now offensive) term halfbreed suggested you’re not this and you’re not that. The birth of the Métis nation after 1885 has changed things, however. The Métis nation is community, it’s a designation, it’s a whole identity forged in the Red River area.
Q: You were having trouble finding information about the lives of your Indigenous and Métis grandmothers?
Women’s lives were rarely recorded. After all, when you’re not considered important enough or you’re dismissed or you’re thought of as less than human, your story isn’t going to get into the local newspaper. Stories that were salacious, however, managed to find their way into the press. I’m thinking of Maria Thomas’s story, for example. Her parents had the audacity to take Reverend Corbett to court for raping her, a remarkable step in the days when a member of the clergy was to be revered. Many historians characterized the event as political. Here was an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company (Maria’s father) who didn’t agree with the Reverend’s politics and decided to cause him trouble. Yet the story to me was about Maria, a 14-year-old servant girl who was not only sexually abused by Corbett, but whose child was in danger as a result of Corbett’s barbaric attempts to abort it.
Q: What did you learn about Canada’s Indigenous and Métis history that surprised you while you were doing this project?
How complex and fascinating the history is. How women’s lives have been erased. And how inadequate our education was, and still is. I have so much to learn–I’m only getting started. When I was studying British history in northern Manitoba, I was completely unaware relations of mine lived across the river and in nearby towns. Or that the town’s local church was started by Reverend Henry Budd, a great-uncle of mine. My immediate family did not know we had six generations of Indigenous ancestors going back to Norway House and Hudson Bay. I continue to immerse myself in Métis and Indigenous history, read as many Indigenous authors as I can, and listen.
Q: How do these stories and the lost connections relate to reconciliation?
It’s important we tell as many stories as we possibly can and, more importantly, make room for stories that haven’t been told. How many stories has “Canadian” culture repressed or ignored or derided or dismissed or not considered important enough? To quote a distant relative, Georges Erasmus, we need a common memory. We can’t have any kind of reconciliation without knowing and respecting one another’s stories and histories.
Q: What would you like people to know about your book?
That these stories, these details and images, these women are a hedge against erasure.
I came away from the book rocked – the work has caused a fundamental shift in my perspective on the world. And it’s not just because I was able to find more information, realize a richness about my heritage and my past. This book took me away from Western notions of our own singularity, our own independence, this lionizing the individual or the nuclear family unit. Researching this book and having the chance to talk with so many people (including newly-discovered relatives), learning to listen — all these brought me to a place of community, of connection. I am nothing without my relations. None of us is.