1300 Moons. David D. Plain. Self-published using Trafford Publishers. 2011. 220 pages. Reviewed by Sharon Berg.
If all goes well, viewers of APTN (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network) may be able to see 1300 Moons by David D Plain turned into a television series called Three Fires. The series has begun the Request for Proposal process for a TV drama series with APTN and it is under contract with producer Strongwall Productions. Author David D. Plain and Strongwall’s VP, James Wallen, have co-written a script for the pilot of the series. However, APTN only licenses two major projects a year, so fingers are crossed and it may not appear for awhile. Still, this book seems to offer the perfect vehicle for aboriginal peoples to learn aboriginal history from an aboriginal historian.
David D. Plain lives on the Aamjiwnaag Reserve at Sarnia, Ontario and he is the author of five books, most of them being aboriginal histories and his latest is a book of poetry. Plain decided that he wanted to become an aboriginal historian, and he is quickly proving himself in just that field. He has collected several nominations and won both the Eric Hoffer Award (The Plains of Aamjiwnaang, 2014); the Golden Scribe Award (The Plains of Aamjiwnaag, 2008) and the Golden Seal Award (From Ouisconsin to Caughnawaga, 2014; The Ways of Our Grandfathers, 2014; The Plains of Aamjiwnaag , 2014; 1300 Moons, 2014). In addition The Plains of Aamjiwnaag, The Ways of Our Grandfathers, From Ouisconsin to Caughnawaga and 1300 Moons were all nominated for the Eric Hoffer Award. He was also recognised by the Mayor of Sarnia on his Honor Roll in 2009.
Generally, one has the expectation that self-published works will be of lesser value than those produced by publishing houses. After all, they have not met with the scrutiny of an editor who is unbiased, or been taken along the path whereby several independent people prepare the book for publication. However, there are always exceptions to a rule and 1300 Moons fits neatly in that category. David Plain is a First Nations person living in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada. His people are Algonquian, a group of related nations that:
spread across the center of the continent from the east coast to the Rocky Mountains. The greatest of these nations were the Anishnaabek – inhabitants of the Great Lakes region. Today they are known as Ojibwa or Chippewa people. In the land called by them Saganaan lived the Ouendat. Today we call Saganaan Southern Ontario and the Ouendat we call the Huron or Wyandotte. South of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River lived the Nahduwa or Iroquois people (p. 19).
Plain explains that the Aamjiwnaang, used to straddle the border between Canada and the USA at the Saint Claire River. Now they are confined to a small reserve on the Canadian side at Sarnia.
The brief excerpt above sets the stage with the main groups in an historical fiction told by an important narrator. It focuses mainly on the Anishnaabek and the Iroquois in the 1600s. In the first chapter, Brad White, Curator of Egyptian Antiquities and his female assistant at the ROM museum, Karen Blackbird, have asked the Assembly of First Nations to recommend a storyteller. Soon, a Mr. Nanabush arrives to apply for the job. He promises to tell stories about the “traditions and legends of the Ojibwa people” to the ROM’s visitors, for four weeks in the summer. When he is hired, Mr. Nanabush insists that traditions and legends will be incorporated in his personal “telling of the history” (p. 17).
We are gradually led to understand that Mr. Nanabush is a narrator/character in the story. That character is a direct reference to Nanabush, an ageless half man/half spirit who often appears in the legends of the Anishnaabek. In legends, Nanabush first arrives on Earth so far back in time that Earth is still in the process of being populated by creatures. In using Mr. Nanabush as the narrator, Plain can slip into a more direct way of revealing the legends and recording the history of his people. It allows him to blend historical, proven facts with a fictionalised, but plausible, version of his people’s history.
Just to clarify who I am, I walk The Flower Path (as Elder Pauline Shirt calls it). I first became friends with Pauline Shirt, the founder of Wandering Spirit Survival School, when I moved to the housing cooperative where Shirt raised her family in 1983. I was introduced to Nanabush through the teachings of Eddie Benton Banai in The Mishomis Book, and developed a deeper understanding of Nanabush through my classes with James Dumont at Laurentian University. During our 35-year friendship, I became an assistant to Pauline Shirt, helping her run solstice and equinox ceremonies in a park overlooking the Don River for the 10 years that I lived as her neighbour in Toronto. I fasted with her family several times, and she was my main research consultant through work on the narrative history of Wandering Spirit Survival School that I wrote for my M.Ed. thesis (York, 1998).
It is understandable that Plain has chosen to have Mr. Nanabush narrate his history, but most people from mainstream Canada have little grasp of the lived experiences, life views, or politics of Indigenous peoples. My graduate studies revealed that media reports from the time of earliest settlement, and especially during the late 1800s, were twisted by social patterns of the day to paint the original inhabitants of this land as less than human. Propaganda in the newspapers, and fantasies about the deeds of ‘Indians’ in novels at that time heightened the settlers’ fear of a people they did not know, creating a social and ideological distance that was unbridgeable. In modern day Canada, we understand that our government treated our Indigenous nations badly (hence the residential schools and the over-arching reserve system). Yet, many contemporary Canadians remain unwilling to examine the impact this had on descendants of the First Nations who were corralled on small reserves of land, here and there, usually in out-of-the-way locations.
Plain has not set himself up to correct that wrong in this book, or even to talk about it. Instead, he tells his people their history during the lifetime of Young Gull, a period lasting 1300 Moons. He designed the book to offer guidance for reading and referring back to the events it portrays by establishing a point-form reference-list of the main events under each chapter title on the contents page. This list of chapter events is then repeated at the beginning of each chapter. The language Plain uses is simple and unaffected, making this an easy read – except the number of events he refers to makes it difficult to hold all of the information in one’s mind.
Plain has clearly done his research within his community, using the stories he heard in his family and others as he was growing up, then confirming the incidents through further research. Yet, he is talking to his people before the general public. What he offers in this book strikes a balance between exploring and understanding the myriad incidents in the history of a man he describes as his “great-great-great grandfather”. Even as he asserts the facts that are known, such as the terrible loss of life suffered by First Nations due to disease carried by the settlers, he has not set out to talk about the history between First Nations and settlers. Instead, he talks about the relationships that First Nations in the Great Lakes region had to each other, at a time when they were beginning to trade with the settler. This is the era of the Trading Posts. His focus falls largely upon the Anishnaabek and Iroquois relations. There are no black and white hats in these pages, even in the pitting of the Iroquois against the Huron and the Ojibwa. When the Ojibwa decide to declare war, they are portrayed as being just brutal as the Iroquois and, yes, both sides sometimes torture their victims.
In the early 1600s, Mr. Nanabush informs his audience, the Anishnaabek were trading partners with the Huron, who ended up in a war over territory and trading to settlers with the Iroquois. By the mid- to late-1600s, that war left the Huron peoples decimated. The Ojibwa Chief’s son, “Kioscance which means Young Gull” (p. 19) was 12-years-old when he met 26 Huron dressed for war when he was on a hunting excursion by himself. Atironto, the War Chief, asked Young Gull to take them to his village. Young Gull convinced the Huron to leave their weapons in a pile before they went to his village and pleaded their case. The Huron ‘captives’ reported that only 200 Huron remained and they needed help. It was decided to call a ‘Grand-Council’. The Huron reported that they’d lost most of their group to disease and war with the Iroquois. The Anishnaabek had not suffered through war with the Iroquois, so they decided not to take up arms against the Iroquois. However, they were sympathetic with the Huron. After a long discussion, the Grand-Council agreed to allow the Huron to move into their territories so they could be protected (p.22).
After this introduction to Young Gull’s story, he grows into his manhood following the traditions and ceremonies of his people. He is prepared for his vision quest through the sweat lodge, and the descriptions of the process involved are provided in simple, straight-forward language. One gets a clear sense of the ceremonies as they were lived-through by historical figures in the book, with the addition of an ethereal presence as the Ojibwa teen experiences his vision and discovers his spirit guides. The Jesuits, a religious group called The Black Robes by Plain’s people, were operating in the area from the 1600s. When Toung Gull becomes a young man, he expresses curiosity about the Black Robes, but Atironto, a Huron War Chief, tries to discourage him, saying:
“Black Robes curse Huron with sickness, but do not get sick themselves. My nephew – Black Robes divide Huron, one half against the other. Black Robes have no care for Huron; put French snow in water, make it sweet. Only want to throw water on people. Black Robes say this gives eternal life, but my nephew; the French snow is poison” (p. 25-26).
It is easy to imagine this conversation taking place. Despite Atironto’s warnings, Young Gull visits “the mission the Black Robes called Saint Marie du Sault” (p.27), but he is not persuaded to forgo his traditions. He satisfies his curiosity and decides not to accept the baptism promised by the priests because he’s already experienced “the spirit beings; and spoken with them” (p.28).
This book is not a simple history. It switches back and forth – between a romantic fiction set in contemporary times at the museum and historical time with Young Gull and other people who lived in the region of the Great Lakes, just before Canada was founded. The story weaves information about specific traditions and customs into the tale of Young Gull as a powerful warrior Chieftain, telling how the moiety system worked to put both a Peace Chief and a War Chief at the head of the band (p. 32), how the Aamjiwnaang were called upon to help defend Ojibwa on northern shores of Georgian Bay from attack by the Mohawk (p. 29-31), how feathers were won for a headdress (p. 33) and much more. As an adult, Young Gull and his entourage take a trip to trade at Montreal, in good part because he has an interest in obtaining guns, but also because he thinks they will help him to defend his people. His negotiation tactics are revealed when he’s told that his party will receive just one gun for every person baptised by the Jesuits. He responds, if that is the case, they’ll trade with the English and never return to Montreal.
1300 Moons weaves into its account some of the important characters every Canadian meets in regular history books about the country. For instance, there are the famous coureur des bois, Radisson and Groseilliers, who famous for inspiring The Hudson Bay Company. Yet, this book also offers the previously unheard escapades of Young Gull and his followers. The biggest difference between this book and any other speaking about that period of time is that this one is a First Nations history told by a First Nations historian in the traditional way… as a story. All of the details offered, including the fact that Radisson and Groseilliers convinced the natives to collect 400 canoes full of fur for them (p. 39), can be checked and verified. By setting their history in story form, Plain enriches it, taking it out of the realm of the dry history texts that Canadian children have read in school.
The factual details of his people’s bona fide history are woven through with fictionalised accounts of Young Gull’s romance and marriage to a woman he met at the Great Fall Pow Wow on Lake Superior. The traditions associated with his marriage to Chenoa are known and reported as a fictionalized history. The story of Karen Blackbird, Assistant to Brad White, who hired Mr. Nanabush at the museum are not verifiable, however. That part of the story is strictly fiction. When Karen decides to check how his storytelling is going, she catches a glimpse of Mr. Nanabush as he’s leaving, but she’s unable to catch up with him. Following him into a courtyard that she knows leads nowhere, she is frightened by a large, black crow before she discovers that Mr. Nanabush has disappeared. Later in the book, Karen and Brad meet with a wolf that disappears. So, Plain develops the characters of both the known historical figures and his fictional museum workers with a similar attention to detail.
Plain details the war strategies Young Gull employs and various attacks of the Ojibwa and Iroquois bands in the Great Lakes region during Young Gull’s lifetime. He portrays the battles of the Iroquois War (Naudawa War) from within the aboriginal experience, recounting both the success and failure experienced by the Indigenous nations. He offers ideas about conversations that were probably engaged in by Indigenous groups with the French and the English during that same period. He details the trade they engaged in. Most importantly, he doesn’t hesitate to describe gruesome warfare tactics used by Indigenous peoples with hatchets, bow and arrows, or (as they acquired them) muskets. He provides details about the shaking tent and tells how the bands led by Young Gull eradicated the Iroquois from the region north of the Great Lakes in response to the Iroquois attempt to eradicate the Huron and Ojibwa peoples from that same region to procure more furs for trade. Plain is very clear that the Ojibwa then took the harvest from the fields previously occupied by the Iroquois, and that each time they were successful in war they celebrated.
Indeed, there are several times when the Chiefs meet to talk to the Governors or leaders of the French and British forts, but generally, in that time frame, those men negotiated with the various Indigenous bands and that is how they are represented in this slice of history… as negotiators. They may have had a plan up their sleeve during those negotiations, but at the time, there were only a few forts established by settlers and a different politic was used in regard to relationships established with the First Nations. The shift from negotiation to strong-arming happened at a later date. Indeed, First Nations, above and below the Great Lakes, are seen to be in high competition with each other to establish trade relationships with the settlers.
The fact that Plain is truthful in the recounting of battles between various bands and tribes in the region is impressive. Yet, he also details the actions of settlers such as the Governor of Canada Louis Hector de Callières and Governor Bellomount of New York, and their effect upon the relations between the Anishnaabek and the Iroquois. This is a very dense history, packed with the details about too many incidents of war to mention here, but it is not a dry history because of the surrounding tale of Mr. Nanabush and the two officials from the ROM and the development of Young Gull and all the rest of the aboriginal figures as real characters who interact with and talk to each other.
My one big argument with Plain’s telling of this story is that he calls the region where the story takes place Ontario at a time when I don’t find it was known by that name. The French and British were exploring this region in the 17th century. Permanent French settlement was hampered by wars with the Iroquois between 1615 and the 1650s, a period that coincides with the timeframe for Plain’s history though he offers no dates in coordination with the Gregorian calendar used by most people today. However, even in the late 1700s, the shallow area surrounding the Great Lakes on the north side was known as Upper Canada and the French called the area this history has focused on Quebec at that time. Plains history shows that there were many French forts in the region during the lifetime for Young Gull. The British and the French were both making claims to the area above the Great Lakes during the period, and Plain may have thought that calling it Quebec (historically correct) would confuse contemporary readers. However, my brief research suggests that the area now referred to as ‘the Golden Horseshoe’ only became known as Ontario (and a separate province) when Canada was founded in 1867, long after the period Plain is referring to.
It is said that history is always told by the conquering nation. If you are interested in exploring he history of First Nations around the Great Lakes (and various historical figures from dominant culture’s history), or if you want to know more about the traditions and culture of the Three Fires Society of the Anishnaabek, you are certain to obtain a different impression of aboriginal peoples through David Plain’s history of Young Gull in 1300 Moons. I have my fingers crossed, hoping that APTN will pick up the proposed series for television.