- Benasní–I Remember: Dene Sųłiné Oral Histories with Morphological Analysis by Josh Holden
Josh Holden’s book offers a substantial and important collection of autobiographical narratives from Dene Sųłiné (Chipewyan) speakers from northern Saskatchewan, Canada. The collection is twelve accounts of life in the area of Dillon, Saskatchewan, during the middle and later parts of the twentieth century. The narrators were born between 1908 and 1944. Ten of the accounts are interviews and include Holden’s questions. The other two are monologues recorded before Holden began this work. Each autobiographical narrative is presented in three forms: unbroken Dene, continuous free translation, and interlinear form (p. 29). The readability of texts is important to Holden and the multiple presentations ensure that school children and professional linguists alike will want to return to this book over and over again. Further, the stories reported by Holden are almost entirely accounts of everyday life and personal experience. They are not myth texts and, as a result, offer a significant contribution to both the ethnography of the Dene Sųłiné and to linguistic analysis embedded in everyday speech and vocabulary.
The twelve oral histories found in Benasní describe the experiences of Dene Sųłiné community members facing and experiencing rapid cultural change. Holden recorded these accounts during dissertation fieldwork and he describes the book as “a cohesive multi-voice oral history of cultural loss and survival” (p. xi). The accounts of men and women, all elderly at the time of recording and some now deceased, offer rich presentations of seasonal foraging activities, trapping, the preparation of moose hides, hand-games, gender roles, and the impact of diseases like tuberculosis. Many speakers describe the tribulations they experienced at residential schools. As a resource for linguists, Holden’s work presents a large collection of texts in the Dene Sųłiné language. As an ethnographic resource, the collection of “told-to” narrative histories (McCall 2011:2) is immensely important. It takes readers through events of the twentieth century and provides a compelling account of Dene Sųłiné lives during times of cultural, economic, religious, and linguistic transformations (p. 9). The preface and first three chapters of the book present the linguistic and ethnographic contexts for the narratives. These chapters are brief, general, unpretentious, and readable without special knowledge of linguistics or cultural studies. They set the stories into a broader Dene cultural area and offer a community history of Dillon. Holden admits this is not a professional ethnography and the supporting material relies on only a small number of ethnographic and historical sources (p. xii).
The third chapter, “The Narratives,” is the most expansive chapter of the preliminary material. In it, Holden offers brief biographies of the storytellers and explains how the transcriptions and translations were accomplished. Orthographic conventions and challenges for transcription are explained. The impact of residential schooling on the Dene Sųłiné speech community at Dillon is addressed. These introductory chapters situate the stories. They are not distracting, nor are they even required reading for an [End Page 343] appreciation of words of the elders. In fact, many readers will gain tremendous insights into Dene Sųłiné lives by simply opening a narrative chapter. By its form, the book encourages readers to dip in and out of its pages.
The final analytical chapter comes after the narratives. Here, Holden addresses issues of morphology and etymology found in the interlinear translations. He offers extensive explanations of unorthodox choices relating to the segmentation and glossing of grammatical elements (p. 441). Additionally, he departs from standard Athabaskan terminology related to verb structure in order to avoid the problems posed by the fact that multiple definitions can be found in the literature for terms like root or stem (pp. 447–48). The position of this technical chapter at the end of the book is mindful of readers who may be less interested in specialized content related to verbs, verb stems, and the Dene lexicon. It will challenge nonlinguists...