Friday, November 10, 2017

In Conversation: Lorri Neilsen Glenn

Winnipeg Free Press—PRINT EDITION
by Ariel Gordon

Lorri Neilsen Glenn is the former Halifax poet laureate and professor emerita at Mount Saint Vincent University.

As the author of 13 books, Neilsen Glenn had written about her immediate family, about loss and grieving, but it wasn’t until her Aunt Kay, the family historian, mentioned the tragic death of her great-grandmother that Neilsen Glenn started looking into her family history.

That work led Neilsen Glenn back to Red River and details of her family’s Cree/Métis background.

Neilsen Glenn will be reading from the resulting book, Following the River: Traces of Red River Women, at McNally Robinson on Thursday November 16 and at Gaynor Family Regional Library in Selkirk on Friday November 17.

Free Press: What do you want people to know about Following the River: Traces of Red River Women?

LNG: Red River women were key to post-contact life — translators, trip guides, workhorses, community builders, indispensable members of nations, and of HBC society.

My grandmothers and their contemporaries were tenacious and resilient, yet they were often dismissed, derided and their contributions ignored. Their stories are disappearing and this book gathers some of them.

FP: Why did you choose a mixed-genre form for the book?

LNG: Following the River includes poetry, prose and pieces dancing the line between, along with newspaper articles and old journal entries from fur traders, the clergy and explorers. The form matched the fragmented nature of what little historical material about Indigenous women is available. Writing between genres seemed to match the threshold lives of "half-breed" women who had to navigate both settler and Indigenous cultures.

FP: You’ve lived in Nova Scotia for many years now. Is this book a coming home of sorts for you?

LNG: I was born in Winnipeg and lived in several Prairie towns before moving to Nova Scotia in my 30s. Both Nova Scotia and the West feel like home.

As I dug into Red River history, though, I was shocked to realize my family had lived near Cree and Métis cousins in several towns and we didn’t know it. The names Erasmus, Budd, Kennedy are scattered across the Prairie provinces.

When I travelled to Norway House to visit the site of my great-grandmother’s death, suddenly my history became real — I met cousins.

FP: This book delves into Rupert’s Land history, tracing five generations of women back to York Factory and Red River. Growing up, did you know that you came from a long line of Métis women?

LNG: Yes and no. Aunt Kay, the 102-year-old keeper of our family stories, had mentioned Métis roots, but we had little information to go on.

I followed the story of Catherine Kennedy Couture’s death, and then worked back several generations.

I’ve known only settler culture and its privileges, and even though our Red River roots go back to the late 1700s — Ininiwak (Swampy Cree) and Métis both, many from Treaty 1 territory — I have not lived as Métis and no community claims me. I’m not alone in having a complicated identity.

My family has French, Scottish, and Irish roots, as well.

I wasn’t happy to discover among them two Indian agents and a mercenary who rode with Wolseley’s men against Riel.

FP: Why this book?

LNG: My writing often focuses on family, past and present. When I realized I knew far more about my settler background than my Cree/Métis background, I went to work.

Years later, I’m still learning what I should have known, and I continue to be in awe of the spirit and strength of these women.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.

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