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Why Lorri Neilsen Glenn explores her family's history in Following the River

The author looks into her family history and her Cree-Métis ancestry via the tragic death of her great-grandmother.
Lorri Neilsen Glenn embarks on an investigation to unearth the silenced history of Indigenous women in Following the River. (Lorri Neilsen Glenn/Wolsak and Wynn)

Lorri Neilsen Glenn's Following the River: Traces of Red River Women looks into the author's family history and her Cree-Métis ancestry via the tragic death of her great-grandmother. But it also poses a central question: why don't we know more about First Nations and Métis women in history? Following the River reclaims the lives of women whose stories have disappeared, collecting prose, poetry and 19th century documents. 

Bigger than a family tree

"We tend to think of family trees as a tidy hierarchy in which you can fill in the boxes. I think it's more complicated than that. When I started to look at the contemporaries of my grandmothers, I went through so many books that made no mention of European or Indigenous women. Then, as I got closer to the 1800s, I began to find names — fragments of stories, just snippets. It took me quite a while to pull together any kind of sense of who any given woman was. Let's face it, we know that those who have the pen and the wherewithal are the ones who write down history. Then the official story is created and it's handed down. In those stories handed down, we are leaving a lot of people behind. In this case it's the Indigenous women who were important to life in Rupert's Land and the early days of Canada."

A book embodying history

"Some of these stories were fragments. In some cases, they almost crumbled in my hands. Some of them just evoked poetry and some of them were prose, then there is the documentary material. These women lived these liminal lives, not here and not there. About halfway into the whole project, I realize I would like to mirror the sense of these women's lives by having the form of the book reflect that in some way." 

Codes of silence

"It gives me a profound sense of responsibility to realize that I didn't know about this past. I think the code of silence began after great-grandmother Catherine Kennedy Couture died. Nothing was ever mentioned about any Métis or Indigenous past. I can understand it in a way. I think there was an awful lot of persecution and there were situations that were made very difficult for people that identified as Métis or Cree. We know there are so many people in Canada who have been ripped from their communities. In some cases, they stay in a Métis community; in other cases their lives and families are splintered or they've become an urban Métis and they find it difficult to find a homeland." 

Lorri Neilsen Glenn's comments have been edited and condensed.