- Paddling to Where I Stand: Agnes Alfred, Qwiqwasutinuxw Noblewoman
Any discussion of as-told-to autobiographies will probably evoke the example of John Neihardt's Black Elk Speaks (1932), which exemplifies the motives of ethnographers in recording the details of the past and also the problems inherent in translating, organizing, and editing oral performances into a continuous narrative. Most American Aboriginal narratives have been collected and published by non-Aboriginal editors, and few have been Aboriginal women's narratives. To make available the life experiences of Qwiqwasutinuxw noblewoman Agnes Alfred, a non-literate woman of Alert Bay, British Columbia, and to reduce as much as possible the complications inherent in translation and editing, cultural and aesthetic anthropologist Martine J. Reid collaborated with her subject's granddaughter, Daisy Sewid-Smith, a cultural historian and Qwiqwasutinuxw language instructor at the University of Victoria. Their primary objective, according to Reid, was also the primary objective of Agnes Alfred: 'to record everything she was willing to tell for the written record. … to ensure the continuity of cultural identity and traditions.'
Born in about 1890, a generation after the practice of slavery among the Qwiqwasutinuxw had ended, two generations before oral storytelling began to give way to the written word, Agnes Alfred attended a missionary school for too short a time, according to Reid, 'to deprive her of her cultural and human identity.' Although they were baptized Christians, she and her husband, Moses Alfred, worked to keep alive their traditions of potlatch and winter dancing while making their transition into a money economy and experiencing the changes brought about by White technology and culture. Both were arrested for participating in potlatch, but Agnes Alfred lived to see the return, in 1978, of Qwiqwasutinuxw ceremonial paraphernalia from the National Museum of Man in Ottawa. She died in 1992, survived by seven of her thirteen children.
Paddling to Where I Stand (the title comes from a name meaning 'Many guests are paddling towards me;' i.e., to attend her family's potlatch) begins with sections that Agnes Alfred might call 'long ago'; that is, mythic and historical events which she conveyed to Sewid-Smith through songs, storytelling, and chants and which were transcribed by Reid, and continues through the 'not long ago,' or events she personally had witnessed, such [End Page 335] as her childhood, marriage, and memories of ceremonies and rituals. Although this arrangement of material suggests a loose chronology, in fact the text is associational and seemingly spontaneous, doubling back and repeating itself as memory serves it, only occasionally interrupted by questions from Sewid-Smith or Reid. The result is a strong sense of Agnes Alfred's voice and personality, strong and specific and peppered with humour.
Paddling to Where I Stand contains Agnes Alfred's family stories about disputed events, such as the Bella Coola massacre of a Qwiqwasutinuxw village in 1857 or 1858, which will help to fill out the historical record. As well as a trove of rescued detail about Qwiqwasutinuxw ceremonial and daily life, the book includes glossaries, aids to pronunciation, maps with place names, and copious appendices and a bibliography. Reid warns that readers who are not scholars of Pacific Northwest Coast Aboriginal culture may find the book difficult, what with the many names and words that require unfamiliar typesetting and pronunciation, and she is right to give this warning. The pleasure of Paddling to Where I Stand for non-specialists, however, will be found, first, in Reid's interrogation of autobiography and her strategies for ensuring that this story is Agnes Alfred's story, and second, in the successful outcome of these strategies. Agnes Alfred emerges, in her own words, the 'extraordinary woman with an extraordinary life' that her granddaughter describes in her funeral elegy. [End Page 336]
Mary Clearman Blew, Department of English, University of Idaho