Mothers and Grandmothers

In the early days of my feminist awakening, I began to trace the ancestry of my mother line, to learn who my grandmothers might be, and what land we originally came from. I learned this: my matrilineal great-great-great-grandmother was an Innu woman, identified in the records as Marie Madeleine, Montagnaise. She married a Scottish trapper who worked for the Hudson Bay Company in Quebec. His name was Peter Macleod, and he called her Marie de Terres Rompues, after the place where they came to live on the Saguenay River. Her name might be translated, Marie of Broken Lands, which resonates with what came later.

When I have been able to travel to Quebec, to the place the Innu call Nitasinnan [our land], I have felt the presence of the ghosts of my ancestors in the land. The very first time I drove into Chicoutimi on the Saguenay River, I came upon a book on the shelves of the Welcome Center in the rest area—it was about my ancestor Peter Macleod and his family. There have been other encounters over the years, a feeling of my ancestors reaching out to me as I reach out to them.

Learning about their stories has been an important part of my journey. I discovered many dislocations and relocations that occurred for my grandmothers, ways they were separated daughter from mother, separated from the land and the people from which they came. Marie de Terres Rompues bore several children with Peter MacLeod. Her daughter, Angele, was only twelve when her mother died, and Peter married another wife; Angele’s stepmother was a white woman. I wonder if Angele kept a connection to her Innu relatives? She was married at the age of twenty to a French Quebecois farmer, Joseph Tremblay, and they lived in the area of Peribonka near Lac St. Jean. I only know one story about them, from a census report. One year, all their grain burned in May, and they replanted with fresh grain but all of it was frozen and “not fit to be threshed.”

Her daughter Claudia was only eighteen when Angele died. At twenty-two, Claudia married Ferdinand, and during an economic downturn in their region, they moved over four hundred miles away to the town of Hull in the suburbs of Ottawa. Later, they traveled over seventeen hundred miles to the Black Hills of South Dakota, where Ferdinand worked in the mica mines for five years, during the boom years when Westinghouse Electric was producing over $100,000 per year in mica. Then the mines closed.

Their daughter, my grandmother Yvonne, was born in Hull in 1897; she was nine when they moved to the Black Hills, and fourteen when they returned to Quebec. She became a chamber maid in a hotel in the Canadian capital city of Ottawa, where she met Johann, an Austrian immigrant working as a waiter. At seventeen, she followed him five hundred miles to the United States, marrying at the border in Detroit Michigan.

My mother tells me Yvonne and her sisters worried that someone might think they looked Indian. Did she fear prejudice learned in Quebec, or in South Dakota? In Detroit, she became fully assimilated into the white and English-speaking world. Most of the stories were lost, but she did tell my mother they were part-Indian, and my mom grew up feeling proud of that heritage. There were occasional visits to family in Canada. When my mother was a four years old, the news came of Claudia’s death at the age of seventy-three.

Claudia Tremblay

My great-grandmother, Claudia Tremblay, age/date unknown

My mother was not quite twenty-one when her mother, Yvonne, died. I was a baby then. I have a picture [below] of my grandmother holding me in her arms. When I ponder this story of my mothers and grandmothers, I am struck by how most of these women lost their mothers before, or just as they were entering, adulthood. None of them had a chance to be with their grandmothers. They each turned to the life and the culture of their husbands. And I am struck by the many miles each generation traveled away from the place in which they might have felt a sense of belonging to the land. My mother, too, followed her husband on his travels across the United States. I grew up during those travels and none of those places ever truly felt like home. I didn’t know any other way.

Grandmother Yvonne with Myke

My grandmother Yvonne holding me as a baby.

It has been a long and important process for me to reclaim these stories and reweave a connection to my grandmothers.

[This story first appeared in my book, Finding Our Way Home: A Spiritual Journey into Earth Community.]

Innu Tea Doll

Innu Tea Doll Angela Andrew – Version 2

My friend Wells Staley-Mays gave me this Innu Tea Doll, knowing of my love for my distant Innu ancestors.  The story is this–when the Innu would travel to the interior of Nitassinan during winter, to hunt the caribou, they had to carry whatever they needed for the journey.  Children carried their share by bringing along a doll that was stuffed with tea leaves.  When the other stores of tea were depleted, a cut was made in the seam of the doll to remove and use the tea leaves.  The doll could be restuffed with grasses or leaves and resown.

I am reminded that the principles we find in permaculture are not new–but were often embedded in the lifeways of Indigenous peoples around the world. One such principle is “stacking functions”–creating elements of our garden (or our lives) that can fulfill more than one function at a time.  So the tea doll was both a storage container for tea, and also a toy to delight a child.  It also has had a further function more recently, to keep alive traditions of the Innu and serve as a source of income for those who sew them.

Innu Doll DetailThis doll was created by Angela Andrew, an Innu elder from the Innu Nation in what is now called Labrador. It is hard to show in photos, but the doll is made of cloth, except her face and moccasins are smoke-tanned caribou skin.  Each layer of clothing is distinct and can be taken off and on.  She has a flannel shift and long pants, with knitted socks, underneath the broadcloth dress and apron.  Her hair is black yarn, and fastened in place with beaded leather ties.  Her hat is a traditional Innu head covering. The clothes are tied with little strips of leather, and her mittens are held in place by a long leather string going behind her neck. Does anyone else remember when our mittens were held in place with a long string like that as children?

Wells and I originally met when we were working against hydrodams being built on Cree, Inuit, and Innu territorial rivers. He had the chance to travel into the bush with the Innu on a trip to Canada many years ago. So this doll is full of those memories and good feelings from our work together. Thank you Wells!