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"The Murmur of an Inner Voice Evokes the Untamed Beauty of a Land to Be Discovered" Read an Excerpt from Virginia Pesemapeo Bordeleau's Blue Bear Woman

Virginia Pesemapeo Bordeleau's hauntingly beautiful Blue Bear Woman (Inanna), follows                                   

Virginia Pesemapeo Bordeleau_hi res_photo credit Christian Leduc

Victoria, a young Cree woman, on a journey through the land of her ancestors towards self-discovery and a reckoning with her past. Days are spent navigating the joys and pitfalls of life along the edge of James Bay, while her nights bring about vivid, hyper-realistic dreams in which family members visit to stir long-dormant memories. Grappling with her current and past identities, Victoria must find peace with both in order to move on.

The first novel in Quebec published by an Indigenous woman, Blue Bear Woman (originally published in 2007 as Ourse bleue) was translated by Susan Ouriou and Christelle Morelli.

Today, we're thrilled to present an excerpt from the novel on Open Book.



Excerpt from Blue Bear Woman by Virginia Pesemapeo Bordeleau

Chapter One

This morning, we set out for James Bay. I have no idea the journey will lead me to obscure territories hidden deep in impenetrable atavistic memories. The dream that pulled me from sleep was most likely a warning.… In it, Daniel and I tour a church.

Peculiar its architecture, somewhere between medieval and modern. On the altar in the centre is Christ on his wooden cross. A lever protrudes from the granite flagstone in the floor. Daniel reaches out to see how it works. My warning comes too late. He’s already pulling the handle toward him. Immediately, the flagstones beneath our feet begin to shift. I grab Daniel’s arm and cry, “Follow me!” Without waiting, I run through the wide open doors. The steps pull free one after another behind me, my feet barely touching them. Certain that my husband follows close behind, I only look back once I’ve tumbled into the arms of my brother, Maikan, who stops me in my tracks. A terrified crowd witnesses the church’s collapse. But Daniel isn’t behind me. I see his hand, his ring hand, emerge from the pile of rubble. I cry out both in my dream and in bed as my worried spouse shakes me.

The morning begins with a timid sun hiding behind clouds. July’s heat is behind us and mosquitoes have grown scarce by day. To be on the safe side, we buy fruit, vegetables, rice, pasta, and packaged sauce in Amos. Red wine. We’ll eat off picnic tables and sleep in the van or tent.

We stop at a few interpretive signs the tourist bureau has labelled “Les voix de la voie du Nord”—Voices of the Northern Route. Mining sites. A lake with emerald waters. An esker. The afternoon hours tick by. We keep an eye out for a place for our evening meal. I’d like a discreet location, a lake to bathe in. At the crossroads to Joutel, a former mining town, we admire the view of distant hills. A few people are busy consulting a road map spread out on the hood of their car. A woman laughs loudly. Not that anyone is in danger of getting lost here since there’s only one road to follow.

Behind the steering wheel, Daniel waits for a Matagami-bound truck to pass. Across the road, I see a sign: Camping sauvage. I touch his arm and nod at the sign for wilderness camping. He smiles, crosses the road, and drives up a wide sandy path. A chain link fence surrounds the spot, but the gate is open. Through jack pines, we see a lake. We make our way to the empty campsites and crumbling fire pits invaded by pine and birch regrowth. We like the site and its ruggedness. I shed my clothes and slip into my swimsuit. The cold water invigorates me and I push through a few lengths, humming to give me strength.

A shout, somewhere between astonishment, incredulity and joy, sounds from shore. It’s Daniel calling me. I wade out of the water and am immediately swarmed by mosquitoes. Daniel stands by the picnic table, his hands full of chanterelles. My favourite mushroom! “And this is nothing!” he says. He parts the bushes to reveal the gleam of not just a multitude of saffron-capped chanterelles, but lobster mushrooms, too.

That evening, the mosquitoes give chase. We light a fire in the firepit that we feed with green grasses. The thick smoke gives us some respite as we prepare to dry our harvest. “Thanks be to Kitchi Manitou!” Daniel says. We have no idea that we’ve just entered nature’s fast food court and that we will have many more occasions to thank the Great Spirit.

A dream. A friend asks me to smudge her house haunted by a spirit. There are no windows, no light. I’m not sure I’ll be able to help. Daniel shoves me with his behind and I wake up. With the van parked on an incline, I’ve been rolling into him all night long. Because of that incline, I’ll remember the dream.

The rising sun throws the pine trees’ long shadows across the small lake by the road. We can already hear transport trucks driving by. The coffee gives off an enticing smell and I make a mushroom omelet. Meanwhile, my husband explores our surroundings. He discovers the relics of a large well-appointed campground with concrete foundations, tumbledown buildings, and an old playground. It’s as though I can hear the joyous cries of vacationing families in the wind brushing past. Where there are mines, cities are born then die. Men and women harbour the hope that the earth’s womb will provide gold or copper in perpetuity. The seam runs out. So hope is abandoned, to be buried and left behind, eyes averted. In sorrow.

We drive another few kilometres and enter Matagami. Some forty years ago, before the city was built, my mother’s cousin Jos Domind, his wife Allaisy, and their many children had their trapping grounds here. Before the James Bay Agreement. Trees were felled and foundations dug, and that was that. An Algonquin reserve farther south welcomed Jos and Allaisy. No more trapping or hunting. They grew old.

In a local paper, we read that Matagami is dying. With the mine’s closing, the government has announced logging restrictions. Word has it that forests are truly thinning, it’s no longer just a rumour. Jos and Allaisy’s spirits still roam this vast territory, as do their parents’ and grandparents’ roots. Forty years have passed and new inhabitants quake at the thought of their precarious toehold. They hope for a diamond mine.

We leave our names and addresses at the municipality’s tourist information bureau. Safety first. Soon a sign warns: “Remote road, continue at your own risk.” We’re being told to exercise extreme caution. Here I’ve come to look in on the country of my Cree origins, and I’m being warned of danger. I’m torn between laughter and scorn. I touch the medicine bag hanging around my neck. My anger dissipates.

The promised solitude galvanizes us. The murmur of an inner voice evokes the untamed beauty of a land to be discovered, a space to drink in with all our being, its breath to be woven into the days and nights to come. Suddenly, we’re happy.

We realize it’s our anniversary. Today. We stop on the shores of Lake Matagami. The wind is so strong we have to anchor the corners of the tablecloth with stones. We open a bottle of red wine in our honour and drink to Jos and Allaisy’s spirit and to their huge lake.

The main purpose of our trip is to meet up with Carolynn, my mother’s aunt, in Nemaska. She is the only survivor of that generation who still has memories of the Cree grandfather I never knew. We’re nearing the road to Waskaganish where my grandmother Louisa and great-uncle George were born. An artist friend lives here whom we hope to see as well. Maybe we should drive straight to Nemaska and visit my great-aunt first? Mulling over the choices, we admire the lichen and moss under the jack pines. Suddenly, out of the bush to the right, a black shape looms. My palms sweating on the wheel, I slow down. The good-sized bear crosses the road and runs some hundred metres ahead of us. By the Waskaganish intersection, it vanishes in the direction of the village. Daniel winks at me. I signal a left turn.

Chapter Two

Sitting under the shade of a grove of leafy birch trees, Maman prepares lunch over her summer fire. She always complains about the heat coming from the wood-burning stove. Perspiration runs down her face, wiped away periodically with a corner of her skirt cut from a large swath of flowered cotton and sewn by hand. Butter melts in the iron pan balanced on stones.

I shoo away the flies hovering by the fillets of walleye and northern pike caught by our parents overnight in a net strung along the bottom of the Nottaway River. We name the waterways in the language of the territory. The Nottaway runs the length of the village across the way, then flows into Shabogama Lake farther down. Papa says, “Les garçons, nous construirons un bateau que nous appellerons Shabogama…”

Maman asks what he’s on about. She laughs. “Josep, tchi tchish kwan….”

My father laughs in turn. He likes to tease her by speaking to his children in French, the language she doesn’t understand. Today is a day of peace and quiet, a haven of calm for our hearts, of warm light. As its juices combine with the butter, the fish sizzles and spatters, burning Maman’s hand.

She reaches for an old towel to cover the handle. My father grabs the axe and starts splitting a birch log. My mother raises the pan of fish to let him add wood splinters to the flames. With an air of complicity, they exchange a look born of their life together and their feelings for each other. Maman serves the boys their portion, warning them to eat slowly and watch for fishbones. Famished, my oldest brother doesn’t wait. He drops his dish, coughs, chokes. His red face grimaces from the strain. His eyes fill with tears.

Maman jumps to her feet and pounds on Jimmy’s back. She yells “N’Goussish! N’Goussish!” and forces Jimmy to open wide so she can insert her plump finger still oily with cooking grease inside.

Jimmy gurgles, “Aaaargh.…” Tragedy in their eyes, the little ones think he’s dying. They shiver in the sunshine. Calm is restored when Jimmy coughs up the fishbone.

My father hands him some bannock. I take it upon myself to check for any bones overlooked in the fillets on each of my little brothers’ metal plates since they’ve stopped eating and are eyeing their portions warily. It does look like Jimmy was the only one treated to a bone.

Makwashish, Little Bear, my second youngest brother named for his thick head of black hair, keeps imitating his brother’s cry. Clutching his neck with both hands, he groans, “Eurghh….” Then points at Jimmy.

The baby, asleep in her makeshift hammock slung between two trees, wakens to the din of conversation around Jimmy’s fishbone. She whimpers, still drowsy. My father picks up his daughter and rocks her as he waits for his wife to finish her meal. He says, “Sibi’s unleashed a river again.” His nickname for her is “Rivière” because he claims she pees like one.

My mother pulls off her blouse soaked with milk leaking from her breasts. She folds her top, lays it in the crook of her left arm to nestle her naked baby’s head there and, bare-chested in the summer’s light, she nurses Sibi. Her copper skin glistens with sweat. In one swift motion, my father dips the towel into a pan of cool water and wipes down my mother’s body. After an initial start, she sighs with pleasure. Next he lifts up her hair and pins it to the top of her head with the bobby pins she uses to keep her face free. He pats down her neck and shoulders front and back.

After the baby’s feed, Maman spreads a blanket out in the shade of the birch trees and fetches her beading bag from our cabin. She settles in comfortably, her thimble on her middle finger, multicoloured beads spread out in a saucer. One by one, she strings them onto her needle. She’s beading moose-hide moccasins for me for the coming winter. “You’ll check the traps with your father on weekends.…”

I lie down beside her on my back. Through the leaves, I see contrails left by an airplane, so far away they’re barely visible. I say, “One day, I’ll fly in a plane like that…” Maman looks up and a glimmer of panic flashes through her dark eyes.

“Don’t say that, Ikwesis, your words could come true!” Maman has taken seaplanes, trains, cars. But, being an unknown, international air carriers come under the realm of witchcraft.

Her voice softens and she says, “I dreamt of you last night. The dream must have scared me because your father had to shake me awake. I was screaming in my sleep. You were sitting on a Mist Pishou, like the ones that live on Maktesinabech land!She means a lion. That lives in the land of black men.

“Do you mean I was riding it like a horse?”

“That’s right.… You were clinging to its mane as it raced full-tilt ahead. I yelled for it to leave you alone or for you to let go, but you couldn’t hear me. It was running so fast. What will become of you, n’danch? That dream scares me. As though it’s not enough that when you were little, your dreams sometimes showed you things you could never have seen.…”

I don’t want to hear her worries. “Nigawi, tell me about the time Koukoum Louisa ate too many blueberries!”

She looks up from her beading, smiles, then laughs outright. Just then, two of my younger brothers fall onto us, caught up in one of their daily fights. With a moccasin in her hand, Maman swats at her sons crying, “Shoo, shoo!” as though they were two sled dogs. Flanked by the two youngest, aged four and two, my father drops the paddle he’s been carving and runs to separate the combattants. He grabs each one by the belt and lifts them up like featherweights. Philou and Demsy keep kicking and throwing punches in mid-air.

Now high spirits carry the day. The ridiculous scene has the littlest ones rolling on the ground laughing hysterically. Held at knee height in their father’s firm grip, the enemy brothers, at first crimson with rage, are now hiccuping as they stifle their giggles. Choking with laughter, Jimmy wipes his eyes with his shirt sleeve.

Then calm returns, brightened by the chirping of birds in the trees. One by one, the children grow drowsy and find a nearby spot for a nap. That’s when, softly, Maman tells me the tale of the grandmother who gorged herself on blueberries.

“It was September. We were on our way to our trapping grounds. You were born that hot, sunny summer. Your grandparents came along and your great-uncle George, my mother’s brother, and his family. We took three canoes and towed a fourth full of winter provisions. We’d be paddling and camping for at least a fortnight.” She stops, lost in memories of a happy, companionable, nostalgic past.

“One day, it might have been our third day out, we canoed down a branch of the river looking for a good spot to camp for the night. It was late afternoon. On every side stood blueberry bushes heavy with ripe berries. For quite some time, we’d been hearing muffled grunting and groaning. We knew it must be a bear feeding on the many berries. We paddled in silence. Then, at a bend in the river, we caught sight of Noumoushoum, Grandfather Bear, full to bursting with fruit. He rolled on his back, groaning in pain, his big paws clutching his aching belly. Seeing him, your koukoum burst out laughing. We have a great deal of respect for the bear, who’s our ancestor according to our legends. But your grandmother couldn’t help laughing at the greedy creature’s plight.”

My mother laughs silently, reliving the episode and what was to come. “We stopped sooner than planned to pick blueberries. We had to make do with handful after handful of the blueberries for supper that day. In the middle of the night, your father and I woke to moaning not unlike the bear’s. I grabbed the flashlight and your father the shotgun. Without waking either Jimmy or you, we stepped outside. The groaning was coming from your grandparents’ tent lit by a kerosene lantern.

“My uncle George and his wife Julia followed on our heels, curious and worried. Sound asleep, their children hadn’t budged. We announced our presence and pulled back the tent flaps. A stench of vomit wafted through the air. Sitting next to your prostate grandmother was my step-father, busy wiping her forehead with a wet cotton cloth. He seemed torn between his concern and a desire to laugh. To me, he said, ‘Noumoushoum Mackwa has punished your mother for making fun of him.…’ Indeed, lying on her side, my mother clutched her stomach with both hands and groaned, a basin by her head. Despite her suffering, we couldn’t help but laugh. Showing her sense of humour, Koukoum rolled back and forth on her back, imitating the bear’s sounds and actions, a victim of her own overindulgence.”

The story enlivened their evenings all that following winter. Miming a stomachache, Grandmother Louisa would exaggerate all the moaning and groaning to cut short the clan’s teasing.


Virginia Pesemapeo Bordeleau is an internationally-recognized visual artist and published author of Cree origin. She has published three novels and two poetry collections in French. Born in Rapides-des-Cèdres in 1951, of a Cree mother and a mixed-race Quebecois father, she holds a Fine Arts Baccalaureate and has participated in numerous exhibitions in Quebec, United States, Mexico, Denmark, and received several awards for her art. In 2007, she published her first novel, Ourse bleue. Her collection of poetry, De rouge et de blanc (2012) was awarded the Abitibi-Témiscamingue literary prize. Her subsequent novels include L’amant du lac (2013) and L’enfant hiver (2014). She lives in Abitibi, in northwest Quebec.

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Blue Bear Woman

Blue Bear Woman is the first novel published in Quebec written by an Indigenous woman. The story of a young Cree woman's search for her roots and identity, Virginia Pesemapeo Bordeleau's debut novel, Ourse bleue, was originally published in 2007, and is her second novel to be translated into English. The novel explores contemporary Indigenous life and the impact on the Cree of the building of the Eastmain dam in northern Quebec, posited as "virgin" territory, yet which has actually been part of the Cree traditional territory since time immemorial. In search of her roots, Victoria takes a trip to the country of her Cree ancestors with her companion, Daniel. It is a long journey to the north along the shores of James Bay. Colours, smells, and majestic landscapes arouse memories that soon devolve into strange and hauntings dreams at night. In bits and pieces, uncles, aunties, and cousins arrive to tell the story of Victoria’s family and bring with them images of her childhood that are tinged both with joy and sadness. Guided by her totem, the Blue Bear, she returns home to make peace with her soul, as well as release the soul of her Great-Uncle George, a hunter who has been missing in the forest for over twenty years.