Review: Rick Revelle’s “I Am Algonquin”

This is the first entry in a long-term project to create a descriptive list (AKA guide or annotated bibliography) of books, articles, webpages, films, etc. about the Algonquin First Nation.

Book-learning has its limits, particularly when it comes to indigenous topics. But it can help create a basic knowledge foundation – the kind of ‘Algonquin-101’ foundation that our schools and society fail to provide.

I grew up in the city of Ottawa, in the Kitchissippi watershed, but never realized I was on Algonquin territory until my mid-20s. As someone from a white settler background, I then felt a responsibility to learn something about the people of this territory. This list began as a tool I used for my own education.

Making sources of information about the Algonquin people more accessible will, I hope, help in some small way with the decolonization of this territory.

I’ll try to add 1-3 entries every week.

I’ll kick things off with a review of one of the best and certainly the most fun book on the Algonquin people that I’ve read. It’s based in part on a review I wrote for the Leveller.

I am Algonquin title page
Rick Revelle. I Am Algonquin: An Algonquin Quest Novel.
Publisher: Dundurn, 2013.
275 pages.

Aimed at the teen market, this novel is written by a member of the Ardoch Algonquin. It is the story of Mahingan, of the Kitcìpiriniwak tribe, a chief and “forefather of the Great Chief Tessouat,” who was born in 1305. (It’s not clear to me if Mahingan is fictional or based on a real historical figure).

The narrative is exciting and action-packed, with quite graphic descriptions of hunting and warfare. Along the way a lot of Algonquin vocabulary is introduced, and almost every aspect of Algonquin culture is touched on. It gives as thorough a picture of Algonquin life as Kirby Whiteduck’s Algonquin Traditional Culture, just embedded in an entertaining and easy-reading narrative. As such, the book seems like an extension of the indigenous practice of teaching youngsters their culture through story-telling.

The book suffers from some editing lapses – some of the transitions in time and perspective are confusingly and inconsistently handled, for example. The books also seems to perpetuate some minor stereotypes about indigenous culture that I have heard criticized in anthropological literature. (I.e. male hunters weren’t actually the main  providers for their families, calorie for calorie; warfare was often symbolic and involved relatively few deaths; starvation was occasionally a threat, but people generally lived lives of leisure and comfort). A little bit of distortion is introduced by the story’s focus on male characters, and some of the violence and privation seems overplayed for the sake of narrative excitement.

These are minor quibbles, however. The depiction of Algonquin life is generally quite nuanced, and often eye-opening. A warrior with a disability and two female warrior-hunters (who are partners) are shown to be respected and valued members of their community, for example. The book abounds in interesting details, which are generally used to propel the narrative forward, rather than bog it down.

In the end, this is honestly the best book I know of for introducing pre-Contact Algonquin culture.

Publisher’s page for “I Am Algonquin”
Ottawa Public LibraryCatalogue Entry
Perth Union LibraryCatalogue Entry
Kingston-Frontenac Public LibraryCatalogue Entry

Note: Since this review was written, Revelle has published Algonquin Spring and Algonquin Sunset, which are part of the same series.

Watershed Blues Autopsy

A shorter version of this self-interview ran in the Leveller. After they finished running Watershed Blues, the Leveller editors asked if I wanted to write an article as “a final sign off, an explanation of what the comics meant, or the issues that inspired you, or what you hope people took away from the series, or whatever.” Careful what you ask for.
Those who persist to the end of the interview will be rewarded with more and more self-mockery.

A Comic Artist Questions Himself

Tim: Can you describe Watershed Blues for readers who are unfamiliar with it?
Kitz: Watershed Blues is a mixed-media comic that ran in the Leveller for the last ten issues, from Issue 7.2 (Oct-Nov 2014) to 8.5 (Feb-March 2016).

Tim: What do you mean by mixed media? How did you create the art for the comic?
Kitz: I can’t draw, so I used photos – old historic photos, and ones I took myself. But I wanted the photos to look more cartoony, stylized, and analog. So I would print them out and outline everything in the photo black, using a brush. The idea was to ink the photos the same way a cartoonist would ink their pencil sketches. I was trying to ‘comic’ the photos or to ‘cartoon’ them, if that makes sense.

Tim: What was the comic about?
Kitz: It’s a series of meditations on the ecology of the Kitchissippi (AKA  Ottawa River) watershed. There’s some history, but also a focus on the present-day city of Ottawa itself.

Tim: Serious stuff. In fact, it doesn’t have any of the things we tend to associate with comics. There’s photo-art but no drawings – and no superheroes or jokes, no dialogue, and no real story. Is Watershed Blues really a comic?
Kitz:  I think it’s a comic, since it juxtaposes a series of images with text in an attempt to make an overall statement. But it’s all a big experiment, and it’s up to other people to decide if it works – and if it even counts as a ‘real comic’.

Tim: If it was an experiment, what were you trying to test?
Kitz: Having had a couple of collaborations go nowhere, I was trying to see if I could make comics alone, without working with an artist. I wanted to see if I could create satisfying art for words I’d written, despite having no real artistic talent.
Also, I wanted to make comics that weren’t story-based. Even in non-fiction comics, there’s still usually some sort of story. There’s a lot of biography and autobiography in indie comics for example – so it’s the story of someone’s life.
I didn’t want to do that. In my most pretentious moments, I would say I wanted to make a comic that was less like a story, and more like a song.

The Holy Trinity of Indie Comic Artists and some of their narrative creations. From left to right, R. Crumb, Dan Clowes, and Chris Ware (AKA the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit)

Tim: Can you unpack that a bit?
Kitz: It’s more straightforward than it sounds. Songs are a hybrid art; they combine music and words. Comics combine pictures and words. They’re both hybrid forms.
But while most comics have a story to them, a lot of songs don’t. Song lyrics tend to be more more impressionistic and poetic. Often they’re about what’s going on in someone’s head, what it feels like to be them. It’s much rarer to get a song with distinct plot, characters, and exposition – a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Of course there are exceptions – murder ballads and so on. But that’s not your average song lyric. I wanted to try making comics where the script was more like lyrics or a poem than a story.
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