The Next Chapter

Why Katherena Vermette uses a 13-year-old Métis time traveller to discuss identity

In this 2018 interview, the author of Pemmican Wars retraces the personal and fictional journeys behind the graphic novel.
Pemmican Wars is Katherena Vermette's first graphic novel. (katherenavermette.com/Highwater Press)
Listen12:55

This interview originally aired on April 30, 2018

Life for a 13-year-old has its inherent challenges. But if you're 13 in a new house and school, living in foster care and missing your mother, it's extra hard. That's what life's like for Echo, the Métis girl featured in Pemmican Wars, the graphic novel by poet, novelist and filmmaker Katherena Vermette. It's illustrated by Scott B. Henderson and coloured by Donovan Yaciuk and is the first in the series A Girl Called Echo.

Origin story

"Pemmican Wars was one of those cases of talking myself into a job. I was with my publisher and we were talking about graphic novels; I was telling them that we needed more women creators and more about Métis history. They said, 'How about you do it?' I tried hard to get out of it, but in the end it became my vision. I realized, reluctantly, that means I have to write it — if you have the vision, you have to go forward with it.

"I didn't know what I was doing. I approached it — as I do all storytelling — by doing a lot of brainstorming and free writing. I'm still making my way the best I can, but the creation of Pemmican Wars was spectacular because Scott and Donovan made my ideas happen."

History that empowers

"The Pemmican Wars were a series of battles. On a surface level, they took place between the North West Company and the Hudson Bay company vying for control over the Red River area in Manitoba, which was a very important part of the fur trade. But it was also the homeland of the Métis people and several groups of Indigenous people who were part of the fur trade in a very integral ways.

The Métis people rose in their nationhood and brought together their collective power to change and have a say in what was going on in their home territory.

"During that time, the Métis people rose in their nationhood and brought together their collective power to change and have a say in what was going on in their home territory. That's what I wanted to celebrate in this story."

Reflections across time

"I'm a big fan of the sci-fi 'slipstream' idea where people go back and forth in time. I've always wanted to time travel! My time has always been the past and anything of the Little House on the Prairie era. In her present-day incarnation, Echo is a very lonely girl. I wanted to give her some joy by putting her into this historical Métis community — which is very much her community, only 200 years in the past.

Echo is aptly named because she is a reflection of all of these generations that have come before her.

"That's where you see her sullen face come alive, as she's feeding the oxen or riding on the back of a Red River cart. She's seeing this wide expanse of her people that she doesn't experience in her everyday life because she hasn't learned about her history and is separated from her mother. Echo is aptly named because she is a reflection of all of these generations that have come before her. It's a journey that starts with figuring out where you come from."

Katherena Vermette's comments have been edited and condensed.

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