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Manitoba History: Review: William Berens, as told to A. Irving Hallowell, Memories Myths and Dreams of an Ojibwe Leader, edited with an introduction by Jennifer S.H. Brown and Susan Elaine Gray

by Victor P. Lytwyn
Orangeville, Ontario

Number 64, Fall 2010

The Berens River cuts through the heart of Manitoba, flowing into Lake Winnipeg through Ojibwe territory. When anthropologist A. Irving Hallowell visited the Berens River Ojibwe in the 1930s, he initially thought that they were relatively untouched by non-Aboriginal influences. Unaware that the Berens River Ojibwe had been involved in the fur trade for over 200 years, the young American anthropologist soon discovered the rich history of these people through his association with Chief William Berens. Although they were not as isolated as Hallowell had hoped, Chief Berens introduced him to the people and the landscape of the Berens River that forever left an impression on Hallowell. Through his writings, Hallowell has allowed many others to share in the rich mosaic of culture and traditions of the Berens River Ojibwe.

Hallowell’s scholarly articles have long been used by anthropologists and other scholars interested in Ojibwe culture. His notes and manuscripts, however, went relatively unnoticed until the 1980s, when Professor Jennifer Brown began researching them in the American Philosophical Society Library in Philadelphia. Brown’s research has resulted in several articles and books dealing with Hallowell and the Berens River Ojibwe. As a student of Professor Brown, Susan Gray also became immersed in the history and traditions of the Berens River Ojibwe. Her doctoral research took her to the Berens River communities, and led to a prize-winning book entitled, “I Will Fear No Evil”: Ojibwa-Missionary Encounters along the Berens River, 1875-1940. Together, Brown and Gray worked on bringing the Hallowell manuscripts to light. Their masterful work has resulted in a finely crafted book that provides a unique insight into Hallowell and the Berens River Ojibwe. Their introduction and endnotes provide valuable context and add insights from years of scholarly investigation. The photographs and maps are well-positioned and add a rich texture to the book. One drawback in the composition of the book is the use of endnotes rather than footnotes. It is a trend in publishing that simply does not work well with a book such as this. I believe that many readers will agree with me that it is a continual source of frustration to be flipping back and forth between text and endnotes.

The book is divided into the reminiscences of Chief Berens, followed by stories about Ojibwe life and dreams (Dibaajimowinan), and stories about myths (Aadizookannag). The reminiscences provide an insight into the rich and varied life of Chief Berens. The details that Chief Berens remembered about the people and places in the Lake Winnipeg region are remarkable. Anyone interested in Manitoba history will find the descriptions of life in the Lake Winnipeg commercial fishery extremely fascinating. Chief Berens was truly a remarkable man – full of resilience and strength of character. The Dibaajimowinan are also remarkable. Many Ojibwe would have been reluctant to talk about such things. As Brown and Gray explain, Chief Berens was able to speak more freely about these subjects because of his age and experience. They also note the ease with which Chief Berens and Hallowell communicated. Their relationship developed into a genuine friendship, and the Berens River communities still remember Hallowell fondly. The Aadizookannag take up most of the book, and come from a number of informants. They offer a unique insight into the worldview and values of the Berens River Ojibwe. Readers from all walks of life will find these stories interesting, humorous and delightful. Scholars will undoubtedly scour them for clues to the origins of Ojibwe culture.

This book is a must read for anyone interested in Manitoba history and Ojibwe culture. It adds to our understanding of the contributions of Professor Hallowell to scholarship, and the contributions of Chief Berens to his family, community and the Ojibwe Nation. Jennifer Brown and Susan Gray have polished a brilliant gem from the Hallowell manuscript collection.

Page revised: 10 July 2016

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