As historians, we are often at our best when we allow those who lived the past to speak for themselves. This is what Brian D. McInnes sets out to do in his remarkable biography of Francis Pegahmagabow, the Indigenous leader and decorated First World War soldier from Wasauksing First Nation on Georgian Bay, Ontario. Sounding Thunder [End Page 819] is grounded in the written historiography, but it impresses most as an oral history. As a great-grandson of Pegahmagabow and a member of the Wasauksing First Nation, McInnes has a unique level of access to, and an intimate understanding of, the community and its oral history. His work is based on several face-to-face Ojibwe-language interviews and stories (traditional and contemporary) from community members, most notably Francis Pegahmagabow's son and daughter, Duncan Pegahmagabow and Marie Anderson.
Francis Pegahmagabow is, of course, best known for his wartime service, including his three Military Medals and the 378 "victories" that he achieved as one of the most effective scouts and snipers of the war –and perhaps of any war. The wartime experience is a theme that runs through this book, but it occupies a place that is more proportionate in this story than it is in other soldier biographies to what was, overall, a truly remarkable life lived. Only a single chapter is dedicated to Pegahmagabow's wartime service, but this is one of the book's strengths. Pegahmagabow was more than a soldier. He was an Ojibwe nation member deeply connected to his community and its traditions and a dedicated family man who loved his children dearly. He was also a chief of his community and a strong advocate of Indigenous rights and self-government.
McInnes's book is as much a history of Wasauksing and the larger Ojibwe nation as it is a history of any one man. As McInnes shows, Francis Pegahmagabow was very much a product of the community in which he lived–to understand the man, one must understand this community. In this way, Pegahmagabow serves as a medium through which McInnes, Duncan, Marie, and others from Wasauksing recount the history of their community, its culture, traditional knowledge, way of life, storytelling heritage, and language. Francis Pegahmagabow had a foot in both the pre- and post-colonial worlds, which is why he provides such a valuable perspective through which the reader can learn about the Ojibwe nation more generally. As McInnes explains, Pegahmagabow was "among the last to grow up with the older generations whose lifeways were not significantly influenced by settler culture expectations, institutions, and implements" (79).
In addition to being an invaluable contribution to the Ojibwe nation historiography, Sounding Thunder is a tremendous Ojibwe-language resource. Every chapter is accompanied with an illustrative full-length story, and each story is recounted in both the original Ojibwe and in English-language translations that were developed in consultation with the speakers themselves. The centrality of Ojibwe language in Ojibwe culture comes across strongly. "This beautiful language is [End Page 820] worth more than anything," explains Duncan, "and [it] is what truly lets us know and feel what it means to be Nishnaabe" (81). McInnes's deep concern for the long-term future of his community's language is also apparent. His book is as much a resource for the linguistic heritage of Ojibwe people as it is a call to action for their linguistic future.
The way in which Pegahmagabow responded to his wartime experiences was in large part a product of the culture in which he grew up and in which he lived. (Perhaps more soldier biographies would benefit from being recounted in this way.) Much of Pegahmagabow's success at the front, for instance, was the product of his conviction in the spiritual beliefs of his community. This enabled him to act boldly and decisively in the face of danger, to the point that some of his Euro-Canadian comrades adopted some of Pegahmagabow's cultural practices to ensure their own safety, such as sacrificing tobacco. We...