For all the people who move North, settle into a small community and then leave again, changed by the experience, please know that at least one person actually did succeed in capturing much of what he learned in a novel.
Armin Wiebe moved to Whati as a teacher in 1983 and stayed for six years. “Frustrated by the dearth of printed learning materials relevant to the lives of the students,” he writes in the acknowledgements, he joined the school staff in writing stories based on the life of the community. Those stories later served as the backbone of Tatsea, which he published in 2003, long after returning to Manitoba.
Tatsea is a historical novel that imagines two eighteenth century lovers forced into exile in and around present day Whati.
The story begins with the title character, named for the Tlicho word for hawk, in tension with her community: literally tied by her grandmother into a menstrual hut meant to separate her from everyone else. Peeking through a hole in the tent, she observes Ikotsali, a strange, repulsively ugly man also in tension with the community: he lives in a hut on the fringes of the group, so covered in sores and scabs “even his parents felt sorry for him.” When we meet him, someone is telling a story about the time he used medicine power, as a child, to turn into a frog and survive a raid. Tatsea is horrified the story is told as though he is not even there.
[Editor’s note: Coincidentally, and belatedly — i.e. a few hours after first posting this — I learned that Ikotsali is based on the Dene legend of Ehke Tsilure, a boy who was covered with scabs but was so powerful that he saved his people. The more I learn about these stories, the more I see them everywhere.]
Ikotsali’s hunting prowess wins him the hand of Tatsea (she has little say in the matter) but soon the lovers (reluctant lover, in Tatsea’s case) are separated by a bloody Cree massacre. Tatsea is taken prisoner. Ikotsali, the only other survivor, escapes after leading several of the raiders to their deaths at the bottom of a waterfall (this is one of the old Tlicho stories Wiebe weaves into his tale).
Wiebe is tender towards both of his characters, each hard done by in their community, but highly capable when forced to rely on themselves. His story proceeds largely through action scenes as both Tatsea and Ikotsali confront animals, dangerous people, rapids, cold and hunger. Ikotsali’s story is softened further by the fact that he finds their baby, alive, after visiting the scene of the raid, and cares for her throughout his adventures.
Tatsea confronts some strange things on her journey: “What strange animal grew hide the colour of the sky?” she wonders, upon encountering a man in blue plants. “Thundersticks,” or muskets, are also a source of confusion, as is an object “flat like a piece of ice, the colour of water,” which seems to contain a person. These defamiliarizations become somewhat belaboured when Tatsea is taken to an actual traders’ fort and fully enveloped by the built world.
Meanwhile, Ikotsali seems to grow and grow in his power, briefly shacking up with a noisy widow like a regular person, but abandoning her and her group when he senses the baby is leading him in the direction of Tatsea.
Tatsea won the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction (awarded by the Association of Manitoba Book Publishers) and the McNally Robinson Manitoba Book of the Year Award. “Tatsea brings back the years when our grandparents lived their lives,” Mike Nitsiza, who worked for the Whati school with Wiebe, blurbs on the back of this book.
A friend of mine stumbled across this book among the book club reading sets at the Yellowknife Public Library. They have about six copies, and the book is available at other libraries in the NWT.
If you’ve ever traveled on the land in the Tlicho region and wanted to imagine what it might be like doing so in a different time, this is the book for you.
By Armin Wiebe
Turnstone Press, 2003
249 pages (including Tlicho glossary)