The Centre for Research in Young People’s Texts and Cultures, in collaboration with The Manitoba Museum and Highwater Press, is pleased to announce the launch of the picture book Pīsim Finds Her Miskanow, which will take place at 7:00PM on Thursday, September 19 at The Manitoba Museum. The launch will include a reading and book signing by author William Dumas, and a reception.
In 1993, the remains of a twenty-five year old Cree woman, who lived 350 years ago, were discovered at South Indian Lake in northern Manitoba.
Now, twenty years after this extraordinary archeological discovery, the woman’s story has been imagined as a children’s book. The story covers a week in the life of Pīsim, a young Cree woman, who lived in the mid 1600s. In the book, created by renowned storyteller William Dumas and illustrated by Leonard Paul, Pīsim comes to terms with her miskanow, or her life’s journey.
The beautifully illustrated children’s book, written at a grade five level, has been a seven year labour of love for its creators, which include Dumas and Paul, as well as representatives of the University of Winnipeg, The Manitoba Museum, and members of the aboriginal community.
“The dream never died,” says writer William Dumas. “It started in 1993 and it never ended. It just took a little bit of time to come through,” he says with a chuckle.
“When her body was discovered, I was working in Nelson Lake,” says Kevin Brownlee, Curator of Archaelogy at The Manitoba Museum. “My boss went up to investigate the found human remains. There was a burial and it looked really important and significant. He knew we had to go back the next year and do a proper recovery. I became one of the first people in 350 years to see her tools.”
This remarkable discovery was the impetus for Brownlee’s 1999 publication, Kayasochi Kikawenow, in which he first wrote about the Cree woman. She would very likely have been part of the last generation of native people would have never had any contact with Europeans.
“The whole point of the book is to show the strength of the past and how it strengthens today’s community and helps us move into the future,” says William Dumas. “It’s to give youth a sense of identity. People need to know who they are. Ensuring the accuracy of the book demonstrates the importance of Cree culture and heritage to our youth.”
“The elders said everything happens for a reason,” says Brownlee. “This woman is showing herself to educate the youth because they’re starting to lose touch with their culture and history.”
The story is brought to life by the rich imagery of Leonard Paul, and is a primer on Cree culture and history. The sidebars on Cree language and culture, archaeology and history, maps, songs, and more illuminate a healthy and strong culture.
Pīsim lived at an interesting time of immense change. “Things were about to change forever,” says Brownlee. “At that time, there was absolutely nothing being traded off of Hudson Bay, it was all coming from the Great Lakes. She likely never saw a European. She would have heard stories about them, but didn’t see one. That whole change gave this story a universal appeal.”
“There was such a beautiful array of tools found with her body,” adds Brownlee, of what helped the team imagine Pīsim’s compelling life. “The red pipestone beads on her necklace were the furthest north ever found. She had made beads from pin cherries and attached them to her hood. She had a stone woodworking tool and hide scraping tool.”
The search for absolute authenticity drove the book’s creators and is partly why the process was so demanding.
“We were so meticulous about being accurate on what we were representing,” says Brownlee. “The South Indian Lake area had undergone significant flooding since the 1970s. What did the scenery look like? What did it look like when it was calm? 99.9% of the people will have no idea this is correct. However, the kids of this area will know that this is their home.”
Another of the instrumental contributors to this book was Dr. Mavis Reimer. Reimer is Canada Research Chair in Young People’s Texts and Cultures, Professor of English, and Dean of Graduate Studies at the University of Winnipeg, where she founded the Centre for Research in Young People’s Texts and Cultures (CRYTC).
The project of developing the story and collecting the additional information on Cree language and culture, archaeology and history, maps, and songs included in the book was supervised at CRYTC.
Dumas went to Reimer and proposed that they collaborate on the project. “I did not know at that time how persuasive William Dumas can be nor did I know how compelling was the story that he had to tell,” says Reimer.
Reimer is not in the business of publishing children’s books. Her work is to study them, but this project proved too good to resist.
“The moment in the book that makes my skin prickle every time I read it is when Pīsim’s grandmother says to her, ‘Come, my child, come and stand beside your responsibility.'” Reimer says her definition of miskanow has broadened as she has worked on the book. She initially understood it to mean career path, but over time, she came to see it more as “a pathway that is discerned for you by the people with whom you are in community.”
For Brownlee, who hopes this book will be the first of a series of six books, is as immensely proud of the final result as he is of the process. “I truly believe that I was part of the group selected by this young girl to tell her story. I felt we had to be respectful in telling her story.”
Reviews for Pīsim Finds Her Miskanow:
This enchanting book deserves a place in every school and library. It is a beautiful rendition of historical fiction that can give all young people a collective understanding of the power of our history in shaping who we are. Through the collaboration of many, the book has transformed a three hundred year old story of a young girl living on the shores of what is now South Indian Lake into a magical narrative that will enthrall young audiences, and I dare say many older readers as well.
— Hon. Lloyd Axworthy, President & Vice-Chancellor, University of Winnipeg
Pīsim Finds Her Miskanow is an honour song of beauty and life. Through rich story and complex detail, it brings alive the history and language of Asiniskow Ithiniwak in Manitowapow while illustrating the cultural breadth of a dynamic community. This book is a joy to read, teach, and share with my daughter.
— Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Native Studies, University of Manitoba
In imagining the life of a young Cree woman, this volume provides a wonderful evocation of the wisdom and language of Cree elders that seamlessly incorporates archaeology, ethnology, and oral traditions.
— Stephen Loring, Arctic Studies Center, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
The brilliant teamwork between archaeologists, the Cree, and an accomplished children’s book author gives us . . . a beautifully written and illustrated journey into a centuries-old world . . . [the book] promises to be a classic of Canadian history.
— Brian Fagan, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of The First North Americans
Pīsim finds her Miskanow…is a wonderful bringing together of archeology, anthropology, history, and Cree language to make a story that brings these disciplines to a living place in our hearts and minds. William Dumas has presented Pisim and her family in such a way that their lives will be etched into our memory. The story is complemented by the beautiful and realistic illustrations of Leonard Paul….This book is wonderful!
— Joe McLellan, Author of Nanabosho