Tracking the Caribou Queen: Memoir of a Settler Girlhood by Margaret Macpherson

In Tracking the Caribou Queen Margaret Macpherson recalls her upbringing in Yellowknife and the subtle racism of the 60s and 70s. Ironically, although her father moved the family to the Northwest Territories so he could keep his family together, he would oversee the dislocation of many children and the rupture of many families.

We might assume that living in an Indigenous environment, Margaret (Margie) would be taught respect for Indigenous values, cultural interaction, and racial harmony, as is encouraged today. However, the author shows us instead the parallel lives of the cultures, co-existing but not interacting. Her parents worked diligently to promote the future of Indigenous youth, but this was an Indigenous future as envisioned from a White perspective.

Macpherson revisits her young self with honesty, describing the impressions of her childhood and adolescence without trying to explain these away. She recalls her subtle resentment at the Christmas feast toward the children who would not be with their families at Christmas, perhaps a reminder of her unique status. With Carmel, a child adopted by the neighbours, there is parallel play time, dutiful gifts, and perfunctory attendance at parties. Margie does not speak up when a classmate, armed with an arsenal of cosmetics, despises adolescent Maryanne as she prepares her makeover. Her deepening friendship with Lawrence takes place unwitnessed by the settler culture. She notices, looking back, that her friendships with the Indigenous community were summer ones or secret ones, and that this was simply accepted. She tells how she witnessed things but did not speak up; a sense of something wrong or out of place was not articulated. Macpherson’s integrity defines this work: to move forward, we must acknowledge where we have been.

Through this beautiful memoir runs the image of the “Caribou Queen”. Although this is a token tribute to the one who sells the most tickets to the annual carnival, Margie imagines her as a woman of special skills and knowledge, someone she dreams of becoming. In the background there is the first crowned Caribou Queen: the beautiful girl who is now an embittered middle-aged woman, deep in drink as she yearns to recover her lost child. Ultimately, there is the recognition that the Caribou Queen is somehow a way of being: Carmel, her childhood playmate, is crowned for her ticket-selling skills, but ultimately, Margie is able to recognize why she is truly the Caribou Queen.

I thought of the Caribou Queen, not pulling knives or beating up people with beer bottles, but the way she was before the porcelain people came with their stupid useless parasols, when she was in her place, out on the barren lands, northeast of the lake.

In the end, Margie leaves the land that she has grown to love, and the people she finally recognizes and affirms. The poignancy of her final impressions and apology pulled at my heart. All I could think was that she would lose the bond she was finally discovering, that she would forget as she wandered in other worlds.

However, as I reflect on her story, the humility with which she recalls her witness to and her perpetration of wrongdoing, and the understanding that she reached in her final days in Yellowknife, I realize that she has carried the Caribou Queen deep in her being, in all her journeys, to share this with us now.

Noteworthy for its compelling narrative and vivid description, Macpherson’s memoir is a moving and thought-provoking read, one that challenges us to evaluate our own presumptions and step forward with true humility.

Raised in Yellowknife (now Denendeh) NWT, Margaret quickly got an education in the real world, traveling extensively in Europe, Australia, and Central America before settling into an English Lit undergraduate degree in the early 80’s at the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton. She paints, travels, laughs long and often, and continues to explore and record the mystical communion of living things. Margaret has recently moved to Deep River in Northern Ontario to begin her third act with her partner of countless wonderful years.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ NeWest Press (Oct. 15 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 296 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1774390612
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1774390610

Anne M. Smith-Nochasak grew up in rural Nova Scotia and taught for many years in northern settings including Northern Labrador,  the focal setting for her second novel. She has retired to Nova Scotia, where she enjoys reading, writing, and country living. She has self-published two novels through FriesenPress: A Canoer of Shorelines (2021) and The Ice Widow: A Story of Love and Redemption   (2022).