Film Friday: Reconnecting Métis Webs of Wahkootowin

By the Graphic History Collective and Jesse Thistle

In July 2017, at the height of Canada 150, Métis brothers Jesse and Jerry Thistle released a poster as part of the Graphic History Collective’s Remember/Resist/Redraw series about their great grandmother Marianne Morrissette, née Ledoux. Marianne was a 16-year-old cook for Louis Riel during the Battle of Batoche in 1885. The poster, illustrated by Jerry and accompanied with an essay by Jesse was entitled “When Canada Opened Fire on My Kokum Marianne with a Gatling Gun.” The poster was positively received and continues to be downloaded and shared widely.

In 2018, Jesse made a short film for a GHC presentation at the CHA meeting in Regina explaining the history of his great grandmother and describing why the process of making the poster about her with his brother was so important. In short, the Canadian government’s violent attempts to break the Métis Nation and scatter communities across what is today known as Western Canada in the nineteenth century were attempts to disconnect wahkootowin, a Cree/Michif word that denotes kinship and values connection and relatedness. Recovering and “remembering” Marianne’s story through art, for Jesse and Jerry, was an attempt to heal their own trauma and reconnect their Métis web of wahkootowin, bringing them together and closer to the memory of their ancestor.

Today we are re-sharing Jerry and Jesse’s poster and posting the film he made about the process. We are also including an interview with Jesse about the project conducted by GHC member Sean Carleton.

“When Canada Opened Fire on My Kokum Marianne With a Gatling Gun,” by Jerry and Jesse Thistle. You can read Jesse’s essay here:

Sean Carleton (SC): Your Remember/Resist/Redraw poster is the result of years of research into your own family history. Can you explain your research process?

Jesse Thistle (JT): The research started with my doctoral supervisor Carolyn Podruchny at York University where she hired me for a SSHRC project, “Tracing Métis History Through Archives, Artefacts, Oral Histories and Landscapes: Bison Brigades, Farming Families, and Road Allowance People.” She heard about my story and also some of my family history and connections from Victoria Freeman. When Carolyn found out who I was and who my family are she decide to hire me onto the project and fly me out west to conduct field research in 2013.

As part of the research process, I was able to reconnect with my family on my mom’s side in Saskatchewan that I haven’t seen since I was a young boy, my Métis-Cree family. But I was really there to conduct historical research with Carolyn and others, to interview elders that were in my family that are from the Métis road allowances. We drove around with my mom and my aunt Yvonne and visited various elders as well as some of our extended family. We started asking them what they remember about the Métis national narrative and for their reflections on their own lives. A lot of them started talking about this woman, Marianne Ledoux, who was present at the Battle of Batoche in 1885. Marianne, my great grandmother, was a 16-year-old resistance fighter! My relatives all had different fragments of her story, and this was really interesting to me.

When I returned to Saskatchewan the next year for further research, I talked to more elders and I found more information about Marianne. In particular, I started to understand how my ancestors were laced with intergenerational trauma. I recognized there was a vein of intergenerational trauma, unresolved trauma, that stretched all the way back to the Battle at Batoche and Marianne’s experience of being shot at with a Gatlin gun and thrown out the window by Louis Riel. Part of my research was not just doing this historical recovery of narrative but also trying to personally heal myself of that trauma because I was impacted, so were my bothers. That research was both professional and deeply personal. I know we are not supposed to do that as historians but I couldn’t help it. It was just how the research process unfolded.

A lot of elders wanted to help. A lot of our youth come back to community damaged in adulthood and are looking for themselves. I was just one of those youth, except I had a recording device and I was transcribing all their stories. That’s my process. Some might think of it as a road trip, but I call it oral history recovery.

SC: Marianne’s story is a history of colonization, resistance, and Indigenous resilience. It is also a gendered history. Why is it important for you to tell your great grandmother’s story in this way?

JT: I am trained primarily as a fur trade historian and a Métis studies historian, and within those areas there is a big man complex that dominates. We focus on great men like Riel or Gabriel Dumont or Norbert Welsh, these are very prominent Métis men that have been the centrepiece of the historiography for the last 100 years.

It wasn’t until the 1970s when some fur trade historians were looking at gendered histories, like Sylvia Van Kirk and Jennifer Brown. These historians were really digging deeper into the fur trade records to find Indigenous women and recover what agency they exerted and who they really were. Fur trade records were mostly being kept by white, European men that were recording the actions of other men that they found important. Indigenous women were hidden in the records.

When I started to talk to elders and my family, I learned that it was the resilience of our women that kept our nation together. Marianne’s story was part of that history. I wanted to connect what I was uncovering to the research being done by Brenda Macdougall and Carolyn Prodruchny that really focuses on the importance of wahkootowin – the Cree term for a worldview that privileges family and values relatedness between all beings – and kinship and the centrality of Métis women. That was the dominant theme when I was talking with the elders: the agency of our women, especially this 16-year-old resistance fighter that was in the house with Riel the day when the shots rang out over Batoche. I wanted to bring a gendered history, a different perspective, a different way of looking at Métis history.

SC: In consulting with you and your brother, the GHC released your poster at the height of Canada 150. How do you think Marianne’s story speaks back to Canada’s colonial narrative?

JT: Canadians celebrate this so-called great, multicultural, multiethnic country where everyone has the opportunity to be successful and prosperous. But that is not the reality for Indigenous people. Canada was built at the expense of my family and families like mine.

Probably the most disempowered people in society today are Indigenous women. By bringing a gendered story like Marianne’s to the fore, it’s showing, “hey, look, the country you created is founded on patriarchy that disrupted Indigenous kinship networks centred around matriarchy and our women.” So, to upset that, there is no better narrative than that of a strong Indigenous woman like my great grandmother. She resisted all that. That’s important to remember, it can give people strength today.

You know, maybe it would have been better for a woman to tell Marianne’s story – rather than Jerry and I – but I went out and found these stories and wanted to amplify her story in solidarity with our women, bringing her resilience forward. I did not “discover” her history, it was embedded in our networks – I simply collected the fragments like I was berry picking with my elders. This collaboration with the GHC was a chance to amplify Marianne’s voice and highlight her agency.

In this way, Jerry and I are helping to restore someone who passed way in 1961, to get her voice out there and to show the reality of what “building Canada” looked like for our family. It was horrific. Canada unleashed hellfire with a Gatling gun on innocent people. That is erased in accounts of the “settling of the west” and the North-West Mounted Police etc. that people celebrate.

Canadian history is often romanticized – especially at a time like Canada 150 – and here we have this narrative of this young girl who was traumatized by what is being celebrated. We have to actually look at what really happened, and this poster offers a different perspective.

SC:  In the film, you say that making the poster was a process of healing, of repairing relationships and kinship. What do you mean by that?

JT: Well, the disempowerment of our kinship networks and the active scattering by the government – they broke our family units and scattered us asunder across the country – was the result of “Canadian nation-building.” What that did is it eroded some of what we call wahkootowin – our ability to help our relatives in a good way and to act as a relative.

When the government attacked us and stole our land and scattered us, we lost the ability to connect with one another. What that did was it created a lot of trauma – that is a reality of what happened to our people – and its expressions are in a lot of the dysfunction that is in our societies. But, through reconnection, through forging relations and our web of wahkootowin we can heal and move forward in a good way. I was trying to do that with the poster and Marianne’s story because my bother needed to know that story and to understand and why he went through what we went through when we were growing up.

So, part of making the poster was explaining that history to my brother and giving him a way to connect to that history in his own way, through art. My brother and I have a broken relationship. We fight a lot, like brothers do. So, I was hoping that we could come together and be like when we were kids before all of the trauma caught up to us, when we used to go for bike rides and stuff together and work together. I was trying to repair our wahkootowin through that connection; making the poster was a way of introducing Jerry to our ancestor.

The way I look at it is that making this poster was our great grandmother bringing us together, and sharing her story through us so that we can be strong and move forward and share it with others. Hopefully other people can look at their family history, like we did, and they too can do similar projects that will help them connect and heal. I’ve gotten lots of emails from people saying they’ve seen the poster and had similar conversations with family members, which makes me proud. In sharing this story and working together we are trying to repair our wahkootowin.

Jesse Thistle is Cree-Metis on his mother’s side and Scottish and Algonquin on his father’s side. Jesse is a P.E. Trudeau and Vanier Scholar, as well as a Governor General Silver Medalist. At York University he is a Ph.D. Candidate in History and is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Equity Studies, where he teaches Metis Studies. Jesse was the Resident Scholar of Indigenous Homelessness at the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness where he drafted the National Definition of Indigenous Homelessness in Canada. His historical research has been published in numerous academic journals, book chapters, and featured on CBC Ideas, CBC Campus, and Unreserved. His most recent work is a memoir published by Simon and Schuster entitled From the Ashes, which details his life story from childhood to his rise from homelessness to become one the country’s leading doctoral scholars. It is available everywhere on August 6, 2019.

Sean Carleton is a member of the Graphic History Collective and an Assistant Professor at Mount Royal University.

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Blog posts published before October  28, 2018 are licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.

Please note: encourages comment and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments submitted under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.