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Fiction Historical

Daughters of the Deer

by (author) Danielle Daniel

Publisher
Random House of Canada
Initial publish date
Mar 2022
Category
Historical, Native American & Aboriginal, General
  • Paperback / softback

    ISBN
    9780735282087
    Publish Date
    Mar 2022
    List Price
    $24.00

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NATIONAL BESTSELLER

In this haunting and groundbreaking historical novel, Danielle Daniel imagines the lives of women in the Algonquin territories of the 1600s, a story inspired by her family’s ancestral link to a young girl who was murdered by French settlers.

1657. Marie, a gifted healer of the Deer Clan, does not want to marry the green-eyed soldier from France who has asked for her hand. But her people are threatened by disease and starvation and need help against the Iroquois and their English allies if they are to survive. When her chief begs her to accept the white man’s proposal, she cannot refuse him, and sheds her deerskin tunic for a borrowed blue wedding dress to become Pierre’s bride.
1675. Jeanne, Marie’s oldest child, is seventeen, neither white nor Algonquin, caught between worlds. Caught by her own desires, too. Her heart belongs to a girl named Josephine, but soon her father will have to find her a husband or be forced to pay a hefty fine to the French crown. Among her mother’s people, Jeanne would have been considered blessed, her two-spirited nature a sign of special wisdom. To the settlers of New France, and even to her own father, Jeanne is unnatural, sinful—a woman to be shunned, beaten, and much worse.
With the poignant, unforgettable story of Marie and Jeanne, Danielle Daniel reaches back through the centuries to touch the very origin of the long history of violence against Indigenous women and the deliberate, equally violent disruption of First Nations cultures.

About the author

 

Danielle Daniel est une artiste métisse multidisciplinaire. Elle a écrit Parfois je suis un renard pour encourager son jeune fils à découvrir ses racines autochtones. Enseignante pendant de nombreuses années, Danielle travaille maintenant comme professeur d'art à temps partiel au Canada et aux États-Unis. Elle habite dans le nord de l'Ontario.

 

Danielle Daniel is an author and artist whose first picture book, Parfois je suis un renard, won the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award and was shortlisted for the First Nation Communities Read Award for aboriginal literature. A former elementary school teacher, Danielle is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing through the University of British Columbia. Danielle lives in Sudbury, Ontario.

 

Danielle Daniel's profile page

Excerpt: Daughters of the Deer (by (author) Danielle Daniel)

Prologue
My father once told me that before I was born no white man walked our land, no church sat next to our village, no blackrobes circled our wigwams with their endless prayers. Before the whites arrived, our only enemy was the Iroquois, who had forced my parents to leave their ancestral territory north of the Ottawa River, in search of safety, for this place near the settlement the whites call Trois-Rivières.

With each passing spring after my birth, more settlers landed in their ships, taking space, speaking a different tongue. Every boat brought more white men to trap our beaver and mink, to explore our lands along the Saint-Laurent River, a channel they believe leads to a place called China, and also more French soldiers in blue coats sent by their king to protect the fur traders and settlers. To protect us too, they say. Even so, the Iroquois still far outnumber these soldiers and their raids persist. Five years ago, I lost my husband and my two children to the Iroquois. How I escaped I do not know.

Life is hard for the whites here, but they refuse to return home. They’ve built one of their churches at the edge of our village and a towering cathedral in Trois-Rivières. It seems like the blackrobes won’t rest until every one of us becomes a convert to their god. The settlers hunt our animals without real need, without gratitude—only for the coins they receive for their pelts. They take without asking and speak of this land being new. But how can it be new if we have always been here?

Our village has shrunk to only a hundred strong, and most of our warriors have been killed in battle. The Sachem, worried about our future and desperate that we survive, has now turned to us, the Weskarini women, the Daughters of the Deer, and asked us to strengthen the alliance between our Algonkin People and the French. It is not enough for me to have converted to Catholicism and surrendered my soul, I must surrender my body too.

In the year they call 1657, I am to marry a white man. A white man whose blood will flow in the veins of my children and my children’s children.

Part I
Marie
1
Panicked cries pierce me like quills. I huddle inside the church with the other women and children. Mothers squeeze their babies against their chests, but my hands hold nothing. I run toward a small boy, naked except for his loin­cloth, who is sobbing into his hands. His name is Luc and he was baptized last winter after his older brother died from a fever, to protect him, his parents hoped. I pick him up but I can’t find his mother.

My eyes fall on Nadie, our midewikwe, hunched over in the corner with her head bowed. Her long grey hair shields her face. Carrying the boy, I go to her, rest a hand on her small shoulder. “Nadie, are you hurt?”

She shakes her head slowly. I lift her fur from the floor and wrap it around her.

“Stay here. Rest,” I whisper. “I’ll be back to check on you.”

Nadie’s eyes close. I wonder what she sees. Does she know which of our men are dead, who among them are still fighting outside these church walls? Does she see the future of our People? Her sight is both a gift and a curse.

Ever since the Jesuits settled in our village, she doesn’t take part in our celebrations. The Elders decided to move her tent closer to theirs to keep her safe from the priests. I’ve heard Father Jolicoeur speak harshly of her powers during his mass. He thinks only one of them should share messages from beyond—that the devil speaks through her and that the almighty God speaks through him.

“Marie, come,” my cousin Madeleine calls, a streak of blood smeared across her cheek, her bloodied hands reach­ing for me across the pews. She’s kneeling beside Claire, Audrey and Gilbert’s young daughter and only child. They had prayed for more children but were unrewarded, the priest said, because they had Claire before they were wed. Audrey believed him and insisted the three of them be baptized. Despite their submission to Jesus, no other baby came, even after four winters.

Blood soaks Claire’s tunic and she’s shivering, her lips blue. I hand the boy to Madeleine and bend toward the girl. Audrey is also on her knees beside her daughter, rocking back and forth, clutching a small crucifix.

“They tried to take her,” she says, trembling. “They tried to take my girl, but Gilbert stopped them. Gilbert grabbed her, and their knife—I saw it strike her, when they leapt for her again. He dropped her in my arms and told me to run. I didn’t look back.” She wipes her snot-filled nose.

“I’ll help your daughter,” I say. “Madeleine, please, ask the sisters to bring me boiled water and clean cloths. And take Audrey to the front of the church.” I turn to the mother. “Go—you don’t need to see this.”

Madeleine helps Audrey to her feet, with Luc gathered close. The little boy has stopped crying. As she takes them away, I lift Claire’s tunic and find the wound—a gash the length and width of my finger. She’s lost so much blood already. It’s pooling on the floorboards, soaking into the wood.
“Claire, little bird. Look at me,” I tell her, smoothing her hair, tangled and wild like she’s been in flight. “Do you remember my name?”

“Marie,” the girl whispers.

“That’s right.” I try to smile. “Your mama’s cousin. I know it hurts, little one, but I’m here to help you.”

I place my hand on her forehead, which is clammy from shock. “Claire, you know how we ask you children around the fire to close your eyes and go on a journey before you go to sleep? I want you to do that now.” I move my hand to lightly rest over her eyes. “Walk out of here, and into the fresh air. Summer will greet you. Take the path through the trees toward the river. Feel the earth under your feet. Stop for a moment at the riverbank, and then step into the rushing water. Now fol­low the water like the brave girl you are. See the deer and the turtle up ahead on the shore? They’re waiting for you. They’ll comfort you and keep you company.”

Claire’s eyelids flutter under my palm like butterflies try­ing to settle. I shut my own eyes, and under my breath recite the words that were shared with me by my father when I was barely older than Claire—the words this church, the priest, these nuns tending to the wounded, forbid me to say. I draw a deep and slow breath and feel the child give over to me and to her vision. I then place both hands over her wound and repeat the words again, focusing all my energy on Claire. I pray to my father, who is dead, and to the ones before him who also carried the deer medicine, to help me stop the bleeding.

“Let me aid this child,” a voice demands.

Startled, I open my eyes to find an older nun at my side with a bowl of steaming water and some rags under her arm. “Move away,” she orders, and squats to set the water on the floor.

“I will take care of Claire,” I say.

“You don’t know what you’re doing.”

I caw at her loudly, like a massive crow, startling both myself and the nun.

“If she dies, it will be on you, then,” she says, getting to her feet and pointing a long finger in my face. I hear her mutter “Stupid savage” as she walks away.

I stuff my anger down and concentrate on Claire. I pull a few dried goldenrod leaves from my medicine pouch and drop them into the hot water, which quickly turns the colour of tea. I soak the clean rag, letting it absorb the medicine, then squeeze it out and place the compress over the girl’s wound. This time I pray aloud.

O Great Spirit,
I call you.
East, South, West, North,
I offer you tobacco.
Mother Earth,
Grandmother Moon,
Grandfather Sun,
please heal this girl.
Through my heart,
from your sacred light,
put the stars in my hands.

I offer sacred tobacco to the Creator by placing a pinch of it in a small ceremony bowl, a shell I keep in my medicine pouch. I find a single lit candle on a table and discreetly light the tobacco, watching the flame quickly singe the dried leaves, and walk it back without anyone seeming to notice.

I hope it will be enough to stop the bleeding.

I cup Claire’s small face with one hand as I slowly lift the cloth and hold my breath. The hemorrhaging has stopped.

“Meegwetch, Great Manitou. Meegwetch,” I murmur.

Once the tobacco has burned to ash, I reach for my nee­dle and a thin strip of sinew, and carefully stitch her wound closed, making twelve stitches in all. When I’m done, I dress the wound with another paste of powdered yarrow leaves and a little water and cover it all with another compress, hoping it will prevent infection from setting in.

“You did so good,” I whisper to her when I’m done.

Claire’s voice surprises me. “I found the animals,” she says. She opens her eyes, seeks mine. “They said they would wait for me near the big rocks for when I visit them again.”

“I’m happy you weren’t alone.”

I stand and wave to Audrey, who comes running. She falls to her knees when she sees that Claire is awake and that colour has returned to her face. She kisses the top of her daughter’s head, Christian prayers spilling from her lips. I don’t stay to listen. I get to my feet and look around for someone else to help. It’s then that I see the priest, Father Jolicoeur, kneeling in prayer, his eyes closed, and Antoinette, from our village, praying with him, holding his hands in hers.

*

The day is almost gone and the nuns move around the church lighting candles.

Luc and the other children have fallen asleep, exhausted, curled in their furs along the pews or on the floor. The weep­ing that surrounds us now is softer—women mourning the missing, more Weskarini who are likely dead at the hands of the Iroquois. I feel sadness in my heart for my People, but have had no tears to shed since losing my own family, five winters ago.

Two small boys died today. When the Iroquois attacked at dawn, they set their tent ablaze, and thick smoke filled their lungs while they slept. Their mothers carried them to the church and prayed for a miracle, but their sons’ bodies now lie under blankets placed there by the sisters, who also placed wooden crosses on their breasts. Even in death, the church wants to mark us as its own. A nun with corn-yellow hair escaping her wimple is perched in between the two dead children, her head bowed in prayer. Her black robe puddles around her in dark waves. We don’t need their wretched pleas to find our way home. The winged ones take us to our resting place.

I wonder how many more dead are outside these walls. And how many more were taken to the place where my little moths now lay their heads in another nation’s longhouse? The Iroquois are like a never-ending invasion of red ants, coming back to swarm our village and sting us. I fear they will con­tinue until every last Weskarini is gone.

“Marie,” Pierre calls.

I turn to see him standing by the door, Pierre Couc, a soldier sent from France several years ago with his friend Jacques and other white men. It seems his tolerance for war has weakened, as he now spends most of his days trapping and trading. Or maybe it pays him more coin. He’s been here long enough that it seems that he has no life to go back to in France, though he is devoted to his faith. I often see him walking with the priest.

“I’ll be watching the door,” he says, “to keep you and the other women and children safe. I wanted to make sure you were unharmed.” As usual, he tries to hold my gaze, but I look away.

“I’m fine,” I say.

“I’m glad. We’ll speak again, soon?”

I nod.

One white man will not be able to defend us if the raiders come back. But I keep that to myself. Despite his kind smile, I have not accepted Pierre’s proposal of marriage, and I’m not sure I will. I regret ever stitching up his thumb after he sliced it open, skinning fish with his sharp blade. Since that day, he’s brought me many small gifts to thank me—baskets and beaded boxes, and striking rare feathers.

I crane my neck to check on Nadie. I’m horrified to see a nun standing over her with her hands on her hips. I run to them.

The nun points to Nadie and says to me, “This sinful witch, get her out of here.”

I swallow. “She’s not well and—”

“She is not welcome in God’s house. She’s not baptized and the priest has told me that Satan speaks through her. Remove her now, or I’ll ask Pierre Couc to do so.”

“Please, I beg you. She’s an old woman. Let her rest here with us.”

Before the nun can answer, Nadie wobbles to her feet. As I help her steady herself, the fur slips to the floor. Nadie leaves it there, just squeezes my hand and walks out the church doors.

“You’ll be responsible if she doesn’t make it through the night,” I say, picking up the fur.

“The devil has no place here,” the nun says and flicks her chin upward, pleased with herself, before she turns and walks away.

Madeleine appears beside me and grabs hold of my arm. “Marie,” she says, “Nadie will be fine. She is stronger than all of us.”

“I hope so.”

Exhaustion overcomes me and I slide down the wall of the church to the floor and lean against it.

Madeleine sits down beside me and rests her head on my shoulder. “How are you?” she asks.

“Tired.”

“Me too.”

“No injuries to speak of,” I say, except for a wretched heart. “It seems I have unlimited lives while many others only have one.”

“Oh, Marie, this day must have brought back such mem­ories.”

My heart squeezes. “Yes.” Roots ripped from the ground, with gaping holes left behind. “It’s like losing them all over again.”

I close my eyes and hear my husband, Assababich, yell­ing, and the children crying out for me, while they were being stolen from us. Desperate cries carved inside my bones. I press one hand to my heart. I don’t tell my cousin how I wish they had taken me too—then at least I’d still be with them. My little moths, only two and five winters each, who nestled against me while we slept. Their tiny chests, rising and falling, rising and falling. I don’t tell her how sometimes I ask for winter to take me, knowing I will never hold them again.

Since they’ve been gone, I no longer sleep through the night, always listening for sounds of approaching disaster. Branches underfoot. Whispered calls. I lie awake wondering if my children remember me, if they recall the way I held them close and sang my songs into their small ears. Taken in the night like an owl’s prey. Seized from their beds with sharp talons. My son and my daughter, each clutched under a wing and carried to a new tribe. Forced to forget their own People and the mother who gave birth to them.

My body feels like an empty river—no fish, no water.

Often, I pray for that same owl to take me.

Some nights it is the only thing I pray for.

Editorial Reviews

"A deeply felt and personal story from an author who we can only hope has more tales to tell." —Quill and Quire

"This stunning adult debut from Daniel, who has already won awards for her children's books, has threads of what makes great kid lit: simple but powerful language, harnessing complicated ideas into strikingly distilled images. . . . A beautiful book, this is urgent reading for anyone seeking to understand more about the myriad ways European colonization in the 1600s still reverberates today, to devastating effect." —The Globe and Mail

"Danielle Daniel renders the stories of her ancestors vividly, poetically and with deep love and respect. Daughters of the Deer gives long overdue voices to the Indigenous women who came before. A subtle, moving demonstration of how colonization attempted to strip Indigenous women of their power and place, and a testament to the enduring strength and wisdom that no colonial power could extinguish.” —Jessica McDiarmid, author of Highway of Tears: A True Story of Racism, Indifference and the Pursuit of Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls

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