More than 20 years in the writing, Brian D. McInnes’s Sounding Thunder: The Stories of Francis Pegahmagabow (Michigan State University Press, October 2016) is an extraordinary book.
McInnes, a member of the Wasauksing First Nation and a professor of English at the University of Minnesota Duluth, is a great-grandson of Pegahmagabow (1889–1952), Ojibwe, who served for four years in World War I and became the Canadian aboriginal soldier most decorated for bravery and the most skilled sniper in North American military history.
But McInnes has chosen to emphasize—his success as a warrior, and the lifelong pride he took in that notwithstanding—that Pegahmagabow had a deep reverence for life, an abiding commitment to his culture and language, and an unassailable love for his wife and children, six of whom survived to adulthood.
Stories, says McInnes, are among the cornerstones of Ojibwe life, and Pegahmagabow was a tireless storyteller. The stories here were recounted to McInnes by his great-grandfather’s two youngest children, Marie (Pegahmagabow) Anderson and Duncan Pegahmagabow, himself “an exceptionally gifted storyteller—renowned throughout many parts of Ojibwe country for his ability to tell a wide variety of stories, including legends, humorous anecdotes, philosophical accounts, and historical reports. His remarkable memory allowed him to readily recall details of conversations that had taken place many years prior.”
In the mid-1990s, McInnes taped conversations with Duncan and Marie about the family’s history and Francis’s stories. The stories are presented in Ojibwe followed by an English translation, for part of McInnes’s purpose in writing the book is to make an irrefutable plea for the preservation of Native languages and the intimate connection between story, place, language, being and lifeways.
“Like his father, Duncan believed that even contemporary business should be discussed in the Ojibwe language so that a calmer and more respectful discourse might ensure,” he writes. “As a spiritual language, Ojibwe provided the people with a special connection to their identity and purpose. Only through language, Duncan believed, could we be sure that our thinking was reflective of the values and teachings given to the Nishnaabe people in the beginning.”
Culture, McInness maintains, changes faster than language.
“Ojibwe stands as a valuable source of cultural perspective and practice,” he writes. “The anecdotes, stories and teachings of the people become ways of sharing the deeper meaning of the language and culture that, in its truest and total expression, reveals the quality and character of the Nishnaabe people’s soul.”
But Francis’s stories, in actuality, comprise only a small fraction of this book. McInnes’s gift is that he has told a different kind of story, neither dibaajmowinan, a story of everyday life, nor aadzookaanan, a traditional legend, but rather a careful and extremely rich tapestry that interweaves the personal story of Pegahmagabow’s life and the public and historic events that formed its context.
Pegahmagabow lived in a time of transition for the indigenous people of this continent.
“He would be among the last to grow up with the older generations whose lifeways were not significantly influenced by settler cultural expectations, institutions and implements,” writes McInnes.
He was a political activist and Native rights leader, serving as the Supreme Chief of the [Canadian] National Indian Government. He fought for Indian self-government, a notion so radical at the time that an Indian agent accused him of having dementia.
The portrait that emerges is of a gentle man who took up arms—and words—to fight for what was so central to his life and his people that he could not do otherwise. McInnes does a remarkable job of conveying this with an unsentimental compassion for his people combined with unemotional and factual statements of what has happened to them over the course of the past 100 years. Rather than express justifiable outrage, for instance, McInnes simply states the facts: “With the old-growth forests cut down, the sacred territories of the Ojibwe seized and sold off, and virtually every aspect of life regulated by the Indian Act of 1876, Nishnaabe society was irrevocably changed.”
A strident voice could be expected, but McInnes has chosen to speak in the same measured, understated voice that is evident in his great-grandfather’s stories. Basing his work on oral history, painstaking research into the written record, however flawed, and his own experience as a member of a First Nation, McInnes has written a book that would make an invaluable contribution to any classroom in which the history of the North American continent is taught. And it must be of interest to anyone, Native or non-Native, who wants to learn about the history of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas.
“Many details of his [Pegahmagabow’s] life have irretrievably scattered to each of the four winds,” McInnes writes. “Yet much of his story remains known to his family and community, and it is a task of the present to ensure this much survives into the future. Such is the way we should honor our ancestors.”
And that is exactly what McInnes has done.