The figure of St. Anne appears frequently in North American French and Aboriginal cultures – from an annual Novena at St. Anne of Detroit to the Pilgrimage of Lac Ste. Anne in Alberta, to the numerous parishes named in her honor in what was once New France. Integral to this tradition are the lives of our grandmothers: Indian, French, and Métis. Today I share some thoughts on St. Anne, whose feast day is July 26, and our grandmothers. This editorial does not necessarily reflect the views of contributors to Voyageur Heritage or members of the FCCAGL. – James LaForest, Editor
A grandmother is a woman whose light shines in the hearts of her descendants, long after she is gone. In the best of all possible situations, she was a woman who guided us in a way that our parents never could. An elder, a heroine, a saint. An irreverent comedian, a dancer, and artist. A revolutionary. The best cook ever.
St. Anne was a grandmother. She accompanied the French to North America, petitioned many times no doubt from the galley and deck. And when they arrived, she accompanied the voyageurs on their river journeys. Settlers founded parishes in her honor. Indigenous cultures revered their elders and many came to revere St. Anne. An example of how her veneration is expressed in North America can be found in the “Franco-Amerindian” Pilgrimage at Lac Ste. Anne in Alberta. For many of us, among our ancestors there are indigenous women who became the mothers and grandmothers of a new people – the Métis. The presence of contemporary Métis communities at the Pilgrimage reflects our relationship to St. Anne.
Our indigenous grandmothers were the cultural, familial, and economic security to countless voyageurs and coureurs des bois, forming the heart of communities throughout the Pays d’en Haut, at Kaskaskia, Michilimackinac, La Baye (Green Bay), and Detroit. Contrary to popular belief, they are not always anonymous to history. Many people have studied the impact they had on their tribes and communities through events like baptisms and bequests. Indigenous women were strong figures in the rapidly changing societies of early colonialism. While their lives may not have been filled with unlimited choices, they had opportunities to shape their own destinies and that of their children.
To what extent the women of the Kaskaskia tribe of the Illinois Confederation, for example, turned to St. Anne for inspiration is difficult to know. Researchers have speculated about the motivations of women like Marie Rouensa and many others of her people who converted to Christianity. Still more difficult to know is what sort of indigenous knowledge our grandmothers imparted to their children after they became Christian.
What became of their language? Did their children and grandchildren learn it? Was the fourth generation of descendants simply seen as ‘French’ or ‘Indian’ to the Americans moving westward into the Great Lakes, depending on the clothes they wore? Was literacy in French or English and adherence to Catholicism proof of a total rejection of ancestral traditions? Our understanding of the nature of ‘metisness’ is clouded by the legacy of racial categorization, imposed on the Native, Métis, and French peoples of the Pays d’en Haut, the Great Lakes.
Today the descendants of people like Marguerite Ouabankikoue (and her husband Pierre Roy), Marie Nekesh (and her husband Jean Baptiste Marcotte), and Suzanne Capsiouekoue (and her husband Jean Gautier dit Saguingora) are spread throughout the Great Lakes and beyond. Some identify as Native American or First Nations. Others identify as French Canadian, Métis, or French Métis. Still others do not identify with them at all, perceiving them as distant ancestors with no impact on cultural identity today.
Some people today are critical of what they see as an over-emphasis on finding and honoring Native American or First Nations ancestry. They say it’s dishonest for people in the 21st century with ‘insignificant’ amounts of indigenous DNA to claim to be Métis much less First Nations/Native American. The invisibility of Native and Métis ancestry among French Canadians is thus perpetuated through decades of dishonor. Such critics misunderstand the nature of culture and mistake old colonial agendas for our heritage.
For this Saint Anne’s Day, I honor my indigenous grandmothers. I honor their sacrifices and their legacies. I remember that they were mothers, craftswomen, traders, and teachers. I do not believe that they or their descendants simply shed away all traces of their histories and way of life. The thread of their deep ancestry on Turtle Island was woven into their spirits and was passed down through the generations. I honor them by remembering this and by remembering their lives and the lives of their descendants in ways that move beyond politics and genealogy and scholarly research.
I honor them by remembering that they are my family.