Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Rudy Wiebe's Essay, "On the Trail of Big Bear"

The origins of one of Rudy Wiebe's old works has some interesting detail about the writer's own roots.  Wiebe has not been relegated to the has-been dusty classics section just yet.  He was recently featured on the television series Extraordinary Canadians, presenting the case of Cree chief, Big Bear.  As the author of Governor General's Award winning The Temptations of Big Bear (1973), Wiebe was a natural choice to write on this well-known chief for the show's sister series of Extraordinary Canadians books.  His comments in a 1975 collection of essays give an intimate look at the creation of the original ground-breaking biography.  Written in Wiebe's experiential voice, the essay shows that First Nations' history in the 1970s was only beginning to be told.

Rudy Wiebe.  Athabaska University
Wiebe's, "On the Trail of Big Bear", published in Western Canada Past and Present, the proceedings of the Western Canadian Studies Conference, is as interesting for its insight into the state of Canadian historical scholarship as it is for providing a window into Wiebe himselfThe essay sheds interesting light on the path by which Wiebe came to Big Bear as the source of his literary non-fiction, and contains some visceral prose in-itself.

Of his difficulties telling the story of Big Bear, Wiebe wrote that when thinking historically the novelist had to attempt to let the senses "be his guide through the maze of life and imagination."
Through the smoke and darkness and piled-up factuality of a hundred years to see a face; to hear, and comprehend, a voice whose verbal language he will never understand; and then to risk himself beyond such seeing, such hearing as he discovers possible, and venture into the finer labyrinths opened by those other senses: touch, to learn the texture of leather, or earth; smell, the tinct of sweetgrass and urine; taste, the golden poplar sap or the hot, raw buffalo liver dipped in gall (Wiebe, p. 183)
Wiebe writes that it was in 1967 that he remembered his earlier reading of William Cameron's The War Trail of Big Bear, and recognizing a connection between the events of the 1885 Rebellion and his own prairie origins.  Wiebe writes,
it was from reading Cameron in the '50s that I first realized that the bush homestead where I was born in northern Saskatchewan probably was traversed in June, 1885, by Big Bear and his diminishing band as among the poplars they easily eluded the clumsy military columns of Strange and Middleton and Otter and Irvine pursuing them; that I first realized that the white sand beaches of Turtle Lake, where Speedwell School had its annual sportsday with Jackpine and Turtleview Schools, right there where that brown little girl had once beaten me in the grade four sprints, a race in which until then I was acknowledged as completely invincible: perhaps on that very beach Big Bear had once stood looking at the clouds trundle up from the north (Wiebe, p. 184)
Wiebe's 1973 Temptations of Big Bear
Wiebe's comments also speak of the lack of First Nations in the history taught in schools during his day.  He wrote:
Of course, thanks to our education system, I had been deprived of this knowledge when I was a child; we studied people with history - like Cromwell who removed a king's head, or Lincoln who freed slaves - but I can see now that this neglect contained an ambiguous good.  For in forcing me to discover the past of my country on my own as an adult, my public school inadvertently roused an anger in me which has ever since given an impetus to my writing which I trust it will never lose.  All people have history. (Wiebe, p. 184-85)
Writing in 1975, Wiebe seems to premeditate the direction that Canadian history would soon turn, from the nation-building heroes of the majority towards the untold story of the "other".  He wrote of the difficulty in discovering the life of Big Bear, who had been neglected by the works focused on founding fathers.
Beneath the giant slag heap left by the heroic white history of fur trader and police and homesteader and rancher and railroad builder (O, the heroism of that nineteenth-century computer Van Horne as sung by that twentieth-century computer Pierre Berton Incorporated!), somewhere, under there, is the story of this life.  Can I dig it out? Will I dare to look at it once I have, if I dare, unearthed it? (Wiebe, p. 185)
Wiebe's new work on Big Bear for the Extraordinary Canadians series.

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