Ancestor Yearnings

My great grandmother Claudia Tremblay

Today, September 29, is my great grandmother Claudia’s birthday–she was born in 1865. I never got to meet her, but I was named for her (my middle name) and so I have felt a connection to her for quite a while. This week I was once again caught in the throes of this strange yearning obsession to try to understand the lives of my matrilineal forbears. I happened to be looking at a document about Claudia that I compiled a few years ago, and it mentioned a resource–the “General Catalogue of the Entire Montagnais Nation.” [Except the title was in Latin and the book was in French. Denis Brassard, Catalogus generalis totius Montanensium Gentis of Father Jean-Joseph Roy, 1785-1795 ]

It was a record of baptisms and other religious rites at the King’s Posts (Postes du Roi) in the Saguenay River area and North Shore of the St. Lawrence River of Quebec, in the 18th century. The Postes du Roi were the site of trading between the Innu/Montagnais and the French/British. They were also the site of missionary priests coming round to offer religious instruction and ceremonies to the Innu people. (The French called the Indigenous people of this region Montagnais, but since then, the people have reclaimed their own word, Innu.)

Claudia’s mother was Angele McLeod, and her mother was Marie-Madeleine, who was identified as “Montagnaise” in any records I had been able to find. But I had been unable to go any further back in her family, and only had estimates of her birth to be about 1789, perhaps linked to a Post du Roi. So I went looking for that book, which was available in a digital format for not so much expense. And it had a built-in translation function, which helped a lot since my French is shaky. The first half of the book was a description of how things were at the Postes du Roi. The Innu generally spent fall/winter/spring in the inland forests, hunting and gathering, and then came to the shores of the Saguenay or St. Lawrence in the summer, to fish and gather with each other. The Posts were built at these established summer gathering places to foster the fur trade, and the conversion of Innu people to Catholicism by the priests.

By searching record by record through the hundreds in the chart, I was able to find two Marie-Madeleines (Maria Magdalena) whose births were within 10 years of 1789: 1795, 1797. The Innu people did not use surnames, but rather single descriptive names, so each record included a Christian name (in Latin) and a personal name for the child in the Innu language. I found Marie Madeleine Katshisheiskueit (record #1065), and Marie Madeleine Manitukueu (record #1079). I don’t know that I will ever be able to establish a definite link between one of them and my Marie Madeleine, but one of them could be related to me. My Marie Madeleine eventually was married to Peter McLeod who worked for the King’s Posts in many places. And she was identified as Catholic, so it would be likely for her to be in these records.

Finding these names is touching a deep place in my spirit. I can’t even describe it. And deeper still, was searching out the meanings of the Innu names in the language. I was able to determine that Katshisheiskueit likely means “Hard-working/female” and her parents’ names were Antonius/ Tshinusheu which means “Northern Pike”, and Anna/ Kukuminau, which means “old woman” or “wife.” (Now the parents were only about 16 then, so likely it was an endearment, or Tshinusheu just said–“that’s my wife.”)

Manitukueu has something to do with Spirit–Manitu is the Innu word for Spirit. But I couldn’t find an exact reference. Manitushiu means someone who uses spiritual or mental power. “kueu” seems to be a common verb ending signifying something being or having. It is like detective work–and I wouldn’t be able to do any of it if I hadn’t been studying Passamaquoddy, which is related to the Innu language. Words are formed polysynthetically, with smaller parts joined together to create long descriptive concepts in one word. So I search the online Innu dictionary, with my framework of Passamaquoddy, and try to recreate what they might mean.

Manitukueu’s parent’s names were also challenging. Her father was Simeon Tshinapesuan, and the closest word I could find was something meaning “slips on a rock”, or “slippery.” Her mother was Marie Madeleine Tshuamiskuskueu, part of which meant “finding it by detecting it with body or feet.” But then I lucked out because her own birth record called it Iskamiskuskueu–which means “from Jeremy Islets,” and she was from Jeremy Islets. According to another source, this Innu name of that place meant “where you can see polar bears.” (Where you can find polar bears?) I guess I was rather far off.

So, it’s hard to trace “family trees” without surnames, but each child was listed with their parents, and by going through again searching for the parents’ names, I could find their parents too. And in fact, there were a few generations in each of their families to be found in the charts, with a lot of holding a magnifying glass over my computer screen so I could read the small letters in the charts. Much more still to do.

It is a whole world uncovered to me. And whether or not one of these women is my actual relation, this is the world she lived in, the world she came out from to enter a path that eventually would lead her daughters and granddaughters into other worlds. I never imagined that I might learn the Innu name of my great, great, great grandmother… and now there are all these names dancing in my mind, trying to form in my mouth, bringing much depth to my heart. I feel such gratitude and curiosity.

Yellow sunflower planted by squirrels, with a bee inside.

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.]