Following the River: Traces of Red River Women by Lorri Neilsen Glenn

Towards the end of Lorri Neilsen Glenn’s enthralling memoir-like journey of discovery Following the River: Traces of Red River Women (2017, Wolsak & Wynn), she states:

“When we consider countless horrors in the world, innumerable disasters and catastrophes, a ship consumed by fire on a late summer night is but only one. Unremarkable, yet its dark stroke colours lives for generations.”

The ship in question was the SS Premier, a ship that plied the waters of Lake Winnipeg, carrying people and cargo south to north, north to south. One of the passengers that died in the fire was the author’s great-grandmother, Catherine. In her book, Ms. Neilsen Glenn embarks on a very personal journey to discover more about her Red-River past, the women who preceded her as well as the rough, frontier lives they led in Rupert’s Land.

Lorri Neilsen Glenn

“The more I researched the stories of my grandmothers and their contemporaries, the more I realized how much I had to learn and – more importantly — to unlearn.”

The contents are book-ended by the author’s narrative of her journey and the people she meets (family or otherwise) and the places she travels to in order to rediscover her past and that of her ancestors. In between are scores of poems (penned by the author), Testamentums, photographs, news clippings, court proceedings and anything else the author gleaned along the way, assembling it all into a cohesive, organized way to tell the story of life in the Red River/Rupert’s Land area at the close of the 19th century and the dawn of the 20th.

“It was at least five years solid work — and the more I searched, the more hooked I was on the research, finding bits and pieces here and there [….] I immersed myself in 19th Century newspapers, contemporary and centuries-old books, archival material, fur trader and clergy journals — every source possible. The manuscript became a story in pieces, glimpses into the women’s lives. I double and triple-checked sources reached out to historians and story-keepers and listened. I’m still listening. This book has changed my life.”

More than a testament to her ancestors, the project grew to include the abuse of Indigenous peoples’ rights and the almost total absence of any women’s rights, especially if they were “half-breeds” and so-called “country wives” that the men could use and abuse (and leave with child) as they wished. Most poignant is the visit by Ms. Neilsen Glenn and her new-found cousin Margaret to Warren’s Landing where the SS Premier burned to the waterline over a century ago. Very little is left of the wharf or buildings that existed back then, but there is still something there for the author:

“What do I carry in my bones? Did my grandmothers imagine the future as I have tried to imagine the past? Yet I’m here – a fleck of their dreaming walking in the ruins alive.”


I was captivated and gently drawn into Ms. Neilsen Glenn’s account of her amazing journey right from the beginning. She has laid it out in such a way that the reader cannot help riding along with her to the places she drove, the historic sites and graveyards she visited and walk along the streets of her childhood with her, even join in on lunch and conversation with her amazing 102-year old Aunt Kay.

September 9th, 2018: Following the River has been awarded “The Very Best!” Book Award for Non-Fiction!

*Please note if you choose to purchase this book through Amazon using the link below I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lorri Neilsen Glenn is a poet, essayist, teacher and researcher. The former poet laureate of Halifax, she has won awards for her writing, her innovative teaching, her research and her work in the arts. She is professor emerita at Mount Saint Vincent University and a mentor in the University of King’s College MFA program in creative non-fiction. She lives with her family in Nova Scotia. (My sincere thanks to the author for allowing me to use excerpts from her book as well as from our email exchanges.)

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2 thoughts on “Following the River: Traces of Red River Women by Lorri Neilsen Glenn”

  1. This is a complicated subject, which includes the fact that marriage in native terms was different, as was European marriage at the time. Viewed from now, it all seems awful, but was more the norm back then, whether a European man married a native or European woman.

    For every bad, there is also good. The native women weren’t just “available” (in terms of being the only wonen around, and also not burdened with European notion of marriage), they were loved. How different could they be when some of the men stayed with them forever? My great, great, great, grandfather wrote about their smiles, he stayed with Sarah forever, until he died, I saw a snippet where I think he gave her a choice to stay in the Northwest, or follow him to Red River (“I can’t believe she came with me”).

    But the family wasn’t happy that they moved away, which sounds like any family. I can find that, yet nothing said against the marriage?

    How could people be inferior if they could live together? A key consideration was that these marriages, at least initially, were on native terms, and came from interaction with native people, and continued since it was the native world they lived in. Even today, I suspect many people have had little interaction with people who they know are native.

    In Red River, all the “good” families had native relatives. It didn’t lower their ranking. But it was when more people came from Canada that the racism came along. It’s awful, and gives insight on how the cousins must have suffered.

    But yes, it’s hard to find things, especially when it’s been erased within the family. It took me eight years of web searching to find a quote from my grest, great grandmother, though of course I had no access to the archives. But lots has been written about my family, I really can’t tell how much importance they really had, and how much is because they left raw material to be researched.

    But yes, it sounds like Sarah issued the babies and her husband raised them. That erases her role as a woman but also as a native woman. I wonder if she spoke English (and wonder in general what she thought when Europeans appeared, what she thought of the changes in her lifetime), but assume she spoke to the children in her own language. Every parent has the imperative to communicate with their new babies, so they spesk endlessly to them, which means eventually the children speak back. To erase that devalues her, and so many of the cousins were forbidden or unable to speak their language.

    The erasure is as bad as all the erasure. How could Tina Fontaine be treated so badly in Winnipeg, when Red River had been a Metis place? What good is it for there to be streets named after family members when it didn’t protect her? In part because it’s been erased that those streets are named after the children of a Syilx woman, that Winnipeg City Hall and other places are on land where she lived most of her life, and she lived to around 86. My great, great grandfather has a street named after him, he would have protected her, he stopped the beating/lynching of a Metis man during the “Rebellion”, a story that skews the popular history of the event. Even the prosecutor had the family name, I wonder if he was a relative.

    These weren’t dalliances, these were significant relationships that tell such a different story. The process where we lost it is what society in general wanted. We stopped being indians, which is what all the bad things like reservations and residential schools and the sixties scoop were about. We lost the language and culture, but were safe. The cousins suffered badly, but the culture and language survives because of them.

    Michael

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