Tatsea

by Armin Wiebe, Turnstone Press, 2003, 249 pages.
Reviewed by Jack Heppner.

Tatsea is a novel depicting the story of the Dogrib people living between the Great Slave Lake and the Mackenzie River in the late 1700s. It paints a vivid picture of how the injection into the region of European traders looking for furs wreaked havoc on its inhabitants. The Enda people, who encountered these strangers first, invariably became raiders who attacked the small migratory groups of Dogrib people in search of furs and even human hair. Once they had traded these for “thundersticks”, metal knives, cooking pots and needles they became an enemy with an advantage. As the story unfolds it documents how a once relatively peaceful existence of a people living off the land becomes a violent struggle for survival.

Tatsea, a young Dogrib woman who was forced to marry the strange looking but skilled Ikotsali, is the only adult survivor of an Enda raid. Before being captured to become a slave worker for the Enda raiders, she was able to hide her infant daughter outside the camp. Meanwhile, Ikotsali was away collecting birch bark. The story line then proceeds on two fronts; Tatsea’s heroic efforts to stay alive in very harsh conditions and Ikotsali rescuing their child from certain death and then avoiding death at the hands of the Enda raiders. Both, of course, keep the seemingly impossible dream of being reunited once more alive.

Wiebe has created a page-turner by bouncing back and forth between the experiences of Tatsea and Ikotsali, always leaving the reader in suspense when heading off to check on the experiences of the other. Along the way, he skillfully weaves into the story a description of traditional Dogrib ways that allowed them to survive and even thrive in sometimes harsh and unforgiving conditions. Wiebe does an excellent job of entering into that world and describing what the new European ways and technologies looked like from inside the Dogrib mindset. How it created new conflicts and challenges for a people who had done quite well on their own without them.

Tatsea is a story that will remain fixed in the reader’s mind and imagination long after having read the last page. Not only has one learned a lot about the culture of the Dogrib people of the time, but also about the cultural clashes and violence that invariably takes place when one group of people tries to exploit another. It helps one reflect in a more focused way about the cultural clashes taking place in the 21st century and the violence that often accompanies them. This is a “must read” book for all persons interested in the Canadian story as well as the dynamics that always accompany the meeting of two cultures, especially when one is more technologically advanced than the other. Tatsea and Ikotsali have found their way into my soul – and I like it that way.