A Letter from Jim Martin
La Martre Falls on the La Martre River between Wha Ti and Bechoko,
Northwest Territories. (Credit: Sara Jane Wiebe, 2007)
As per your request I have provided a few comments about the novel Tatsea...I
have appreciated the opportunity to read it, although I really have some
trepidation about commenting on it...I am not a particularly critical
or sophisticated reader...nor am I any kind of subject expert on Dogrib
culture or history.
I have lived and worked in the Dogrib communities for the past twenty
years and this gives me some context for the stories. I remember as a
young teacher having just moved into the community of Lac La Martre, being
repeatedly disconcerted by the stories of violence and horror I heard
again and again from people when talking about "the way things were
before they become the way they are now". It was not until many years
later that I learned that these stories did actually have a specific place
in time...to people in the community they could easily have happened yesterday
as they still provided the context for some occasional, very modern fights
with Cree men in the bars in Yellowknife. People told stories of great
violence and slaughter between the tribes...I learned the Dogrib have
their own Masada...an island in the middle of a northern lake on the Indaa
Trail where women and children threw themselves off cliffs to avoid capture
by the Cree! I still vividly remember the long silence in the canoes during
a school trip as we passed at a safe distance from the "bad medicine"
represented by this spirit island. Even the name of Lac La Martre, a community
situated on a pristine lake that glistens in the sunlight like a Carribean
paradise, reflected the heritage of this past violence. Its real name
was Tso Ti or "shit lake". The old Oblate priest said that the
French name was really supposed to be Lac la Merde or Lake of Excrement
but was changed to the more innocuous Lac la Martre to soothe the outside
sensibilities of northern mapmakers...why would anyone ever call this
beautiful place excrement lake? ...local people told me it was because
of the way the lake looked with the bodies, blood and entrails of Dogrib
men, women and children floating in the surf after a particularly vicious
attack by Cree marauders. The stories were in stark contrast to the naive
visions of paradise that I imagined for a pre-contact aboriginal people.
By their own words, the Dogrib elders described a violent, brutal and
very dangerous world.
I heard the story of
the frog faced boy, of the Cree who chased the man down the Lac La Martre
River and were lured to their deaths over the falls (and it was said still
can be seen and heard at the base of the cliff), the young woman who was
the first to meet the white traders and the first guns that were brought
back to the Dogrib.
I read with growing recognition and excitement these stories placed so
skillfully into the single narrative of Tatsea and Ikotsali. It was the
story of an unlikely couple that grew to respect and love each other in
a dangerous time of war between the tribes. I felt that this is the way
it could have been!
Years ago I read Jean Auel's trilogy of stone age people and I remember
being fascinated as much by the imaginative story line as by the descriptions
of the stone age technology. Although I am unable to comment on the specific
"correctness" of Armin's descriptions of the tools, the plants
and the creative use of every possible natural element around Tatsea and
Ikotsali, it rings true to my experiences. My mother-in-law who lives
in Lac la Martre has a freezer filled with plants, roots, bark and berries
which can be put into the service of healing most everyday ailments. "Tatsea"
is a compelling story. I read it on transit to and from work and as I
got into the story, I found it so powerful and unrelenting, I wished my
day away to get back on the bus and continue the story! I gave the manuscript
to my 12 year old daughter who finished it in 2 days with great enthusiasm
and excitement. What else can I say. It is a good, exciting read!
Armin...thank you for the opportunity to read it. I apologize for the
lack of critical insight but I hope this is in some way useful to you.
Best of luck with the publication.
La Martre Falls (Credit: Armin Wiebe,