I’m drawn to stories that share the lives, adventures and experiences of women. Fiction and non-fiction. Poetry and Memoir. Quiet stories about someone’s life, or sweeping tales of their adventures. And of course, I am especially fond of science fiction and fantasy, so I love female protagonists in speculative fiction as well (Circe, The Broken Earth Trilogy, and the Their Bright Ascendency Trilogy are some recent favourites). There is courage, heartbreak and heroism across all of these different forms of stories and I’ve been inspired in different ways by each of them.
Recently, this interest has extended to wanting to hear and learn more from the female characters in Haudenosaunee legends. I’ve always been interested in our legends but now that my dissertation is done and defended, I’ve been spending my time reading through various story collections with more care and attention—an endeavour that requires its own post. As such, this blog holds some very preliminary thoughts about the stories I’ve read so far (a work in progress if there ever was one).
While reading, I came across a particular set of tales concerning a young man who lived with a cruel uncle. In both cases the story is titled after the young man even though in them the man is essentially rescued by a young woman (and in the other, two women) who help him escape his uncle. In one version, the young woman helps him escape with the help of her seemingly magical companion and her canoe (waiting at the nearby shore). I found this—and her—so interesting. I have been curious in the past about the lack of emphasis on the female heroines in the stories or legends I’ve read and am doing a closer read of the stories now to see just how pronounced this gap is (perhaps it is not so much as I think). This effort aside, I still found myself imagining a different title for the story, like “Young Woman Rescues Future Husband From Crazed Uncle”, because I was so curious to hear more about her.
From my learning over the years, I know there may be reasons I am not hearing more about her or from her perspective; that there are implicit biases and politics at play in the ethnographic work in which many of these stories came to be recorded, and choices made about whose story and what topics are being centred in written narratives. Perhaps there was more to her story, perhaps it’s even somewhere in the records—it’s too soon to say for my own inquiry whether it is or isn’t. And—perhaps not. This lack of record was something that came up while I was learning more about Jikonsaseh, the first clanmother, and it’s not quite so surprising that it’s coming up again. Other Indigenous scholars have written about the anthropological and ethnographic records—what they include and what they do not, how they do or do not resonate with our lived experiences as Indigenous Peoples, here and now, that might be missed in the way that our culture was documented or collected.
Nonetheless, while reading this tale about the unfortunate young man and his unscrupulous uncle, I found myself captivated by the woman’s story. How did she cultivate her powers? What are her powers? Where did she meet this dog that can change its size with the switch of her whip? How did they become friends? How did she know there was going to be trouble? What is her story? Clearly, these questions brought a lot of new thoughts and ideas to the surface, and I’ll continue to reflect on them as I continue my reading. All in all though, the imagery of her, her canoe, and her story has been on my mind for several days, and it eventually resulted in this new painting.
At the same time I was reading these stories, the the Two Row on The Grand was just concluding. This is an event in which a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people paddle down the Grand River together in a symbolic enactment of the Two Row Wampum, each in their respective rows. I haven’t personally been able to go on the event because of school and family commitments, but I’m very interested in canoeing and fortunate that our community offers the activity for free for our members every Wednesday at the Aka:we Canoe Club at Chiefswood Park—so my family and I are looking forward to trying that out.
Finally, a few days ago as the Two Row on the Grand event was winding down, my brother-in-law reshared an old Facebook post he’d written that said, “Paddling is a great fun. Hodenosoni: were once renowned for their abilities to paddle great distances and navigate dangerous waters. Mobilizing fleets of canoes for war and trade. Now the women of Ohswe:ken, New Credit and Kahnawake are keeping the tradition alive. Nia:wen” (Deer, 2018). It was a post that reminded me of our people’s connection to canoeing and the way that Indigenous women keep our knowledges and practices alive—at a time when I was reading stories with similar themes.
Anyways, I’ve always found that reading our stories and legends help me to draw connections and make meaning of events and happenings in my life, at least when I’m paying attention. Admittedly, I’m not always paying attention and so the meaning-making doesn’t always occur the way it has in this post—but I do appreciate it when it does. It is nice to be connected to particular ideas or people (like the woman in the story), at particular times and across spaces. It is nice that different aspects of our stories resonate to different listeners, or readers, potentially at different times in our lives. This connection is one of the many powers of stories, really—the magic of them.
At any rate, I look forward to reading and sharing more thoughts as I continue reading, and I hope that there will be some more canoeing in my future. Til next time, happy creating everyone.
More information about the Two Row on The Grand can be found at their website: http://www.tworowonthegrand.com/