Book Review of ‘Following Nimishoomis: The Trout Lake History of Dedibaayaanimanook Sarah Keesick Olsen’

Helen Agger.  Following Nimishoomis: The Trout Lake History of Dedibaayaanimanook Sarah Keesick Olsen (Penticton, BC: Theytus Books, 2008).

Review by Lynn Gehl, Ph.D.

In Following Nimishoomis: The Trout Lake History of Dedibaayaanimanook, Helen Agger offers her mother’s, Dedibaayaanimanook (Sarah) Keesick-Olsen, oral history.  Relying on the Anishinaabe oral narrative approach, Agger allowed traditional protocols to mediate listening without interference, sequencing in her mother’s stories afterwards.  Agger also respected her mother’s desire of avoiding tape recordings, and also respected her mother’s need to remain silent regarding her ancestors’ names.  “Name silence” undoubtedly challenges the anthropomorphic practice of rooting knowledge in particular persons.

Dedibaayaanimanook was born in Namegosibiing Trout Lake, now Northern Ontario, within the jurisdiction of Treaty 3.  Born in 1922, to Dedibayaash and Gaamadweyaashiik Keesick she was the youngest child of many adult half siblings.  Due to her susceptibility to migraine headaches she avoided Residential school and thus daily attacks of who she was.

Following NishIn chapter 1, we learn that it was Dedibaayaanimanook’s grandfather, Giizhik, who gifted her with her name and its associated song, thus, assuring a special bond between them.  She was also able to receive the knowledge he embodied through listening and learning from extended family members who were great orators, and also through attending Midewin and Diba’amaadim ceremonies.

In Chapter 2, we learn when the “yellow moneyrock” was discovered wemitigoozhi, (white people) began to invade, settle, and consequently change the landscape.  While many Anishinaabeg relocated to the reserve community of Wabauskang First Nation, the Keesick family continued a traditional life.  When spring time opened the waterways Dedibaayaanimanook’s family travelled by canoe south to Lac Seul.  The trip was 150 miles and took 3 and one half days to complete.  Along the way they met with extended family members, collected tree sap, gathered traditional medicines, paid respect to their ancestors before them, while at the same time planting potatoes for the fall harvest to be gathered during their return journey.

Chapter 3 offers glimpses into the Namegosibiing Anishinaabe traditional lifestyle.  While her father continued to hunt and trap and her mother netted for whitefish, Dedibaayaanimanook trapped rabbits and gathered firewood.  Remaining in close relationship with the land and the gifts provided, though, was not void of wemitigoozhi influences such as relying on the Hudson Bay Company for supplies and her mother trading whitefish for groceries.

Chapter 4 offers a window into pre-winter living that included big game hunting, and taking special care of dogs and their sleds as they were the only means of transportation during freeze up.  In addition, trapping rabbits and making blankets, each requiring seventy pelts, was a necessity.  Chapter 5 addresses many of the traditional ways of living such as not taking more from the natural world than one needs, the use of song to express gratitude between hunter and animal, the threat of bad medicine and how to address it, the use of root and plant knowledge, as well as gaining knowledge from the tree nation and dream reality.

In chapter 6, Agger sets the stage of Dedibaayaanimanook’s transition.  In 1939, Einar Olsen, originally from Norway, settles in Trout Lake and sets up a commercial fishing operation on Camp Island.  Dedibaayaanimanook’s brothers begin to work for him and after family members learned he was trust worthy, although 23 years her senior, at the age of 21 Dedibaayaanimanook chooses to live with him.  Following her father’s advice, though, she does not legally marry him.

In Chapters 7 and 8, we learn about Dedibaayaanimanook’s (also now Sarah) life as an Olsen.  While she was able to adjust to a sedentary lifestyle, her decision came at the cost of being isolated from other Anishinaabeg who began to treat her differently.  Despite her isolation, she places Einar’s (also now Giigooyikewinini) needs first taking on many tasks as well as acquiring mechanical abilities with great skill.

It was in 1945, when Dedibaayaanimanook had their first child.  Alice was born under midwifery care.  This was not the case with the birth of her second daughter, Helen herself, who was born within the confines of the biomedical system.  Four additional children were born, one being a boy.  Having learned from her mother, Dedibaayaanimanook was particularly skilled at working with textiles such as the cotton sacks that rice and flour were shipped in, transforming them with great talent into beautiful clothing for their children.

Although Giigooyikewinini wished to prevent Dedibaayaanimanook from teaching their children to speak Anishinaabemowin, in order to teach the children who they were, Dedibaayaanimanook took on the responsibility of teaching them their language anyway.  In the winter months she also taught their children about the Gaagashkiigiiwaaj, also known as the blanket beings, and the Memegweshiwag, or those known to have stone boats.  Regardless, intent on assuring their children could survive in the wemitigoozhi world, Giigooyikewinini insisted they go to public school in the city of Kenora; thus leaving Camp Island for more than nine months of the year.

In chapter 9, Agger addresses the intrusion of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.  OMNR prevented Dedibaayaanimanook from hunting without a license arguing she lost her treaty rights when she partnered with a white man.  As more tourist operations opened, the Olsens were further undermined through such tactics as the tearing of their fishing nets.  It was in the 1970s when Giigooyikewinini lay ill that he was manipulated into selling his commercial fishing license.  Regardless, Camp Island remains in the Olsen family where Dedibaayaanimanook and her children continue to live on a seasonal basis.

As an Anishinaabe woman interested in Anishinaabe knowledge, this book is a treasure.  Its approach emerges from an Anishinaabe worldview and it is written by a family member, who is from the same worldview (rather than from a western discipline); thus keeping intact all of its significant meanings.  Nimishoomis: The Trout Lake History of Dedibaayaanimanook, captures the life of a woman experiencing the transition of living a traditional life to a sedentary lifestyle (within the twentieth century no less).  In addition, the book offers many Anishinaabemowin words, names, and concepts thus offering language learners a contemporary feast for their palate.

Agger’s dedication to her mother’s life is 237 pages in length, and contains three maps, 93 family photographs, an index, an epilogue, as well as a 34 page glossary.  Further, Indigenous cultural icon Elijah Harper wrote a short foreword.  This book represents an enormous contribution to both Indigenous knowledge and in terms of Indigenous methodologies.  I thus highly recommend it.

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