A Native Woman Battles Neocolonialism and Werewolves in “Empire of Wild”
Cherie Dimaline on writing a novel steeped in folklore and the struggle for Indigenous representation
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In Cherie Dimaline’s new book, Empire of Wild, the main character, Joan, goes on a journey to prove that a traveling preacher is really her missing husband who has been lost for the past two years. As I turned each page, I began to understand how deeply important it is to me, as a Haudenosaunee woman, to read other Native heroines by writers like Metίs author Cherie. They are few and far between in literature. These haunting pages reminded me of our shared trauma—the missionaries evoked the abusive Residential Boarding Schools inflicted on us by settler control. But it also reminded me that, like Joan. our great-grandparents and grandparents were resilient anyway.
I wish this interview had been a podcast so that you could hear what this sounds like when Indigenous female authors speak to Indigenous female authors. Across the Zoom waves there was a connection and a language that doesn’t happen often for Indigenous authors when faced with the media. I hope that in this written interview, you can hear our laughter, our immediate sense of comfort and trust, and the urgency for interviews such as this. As said in this interview, we need more of us in these spaces. And quite frankly, we just need more of us recognized for doing the work we already do, for we are here, we are writing, and we are generations of connections colliding. That’s why you should publish us. And that’s what you should pick us up at the bookstore.
Melissa Michal: I’ve read that the first two opening lines of the novel are a set of your favorite lines: “Old medicine has a way of being remembered, of haunting the land where it was laid. People are forgetful. Medicine is not.” They struck me because I am at a space in my own Indigeneity where I understand better how our ways haven’t disappeared. It also aligns well with what Linda Hogan said in The Woman Who Watches Over the World—our old ways are there waiting for us. We’ll always be able to call on that medicine.
Cherie Dimaline: The beginning was one of those bursts of writing that you live for. Right. Where it sort of happens and it’s exactly what you wanted to say. It doesn’t happen very often. I was trying to write about my community. And I always try and be really really specific because you know you become the spokesperson for Indigenous whatever because you’re Indigenous. And I’m like well…I wouldn’t ask a German person to reflect on French history and how it impacted your family because you’re all European.
She’s a very modern woman and she’s still in her community, which can exist at the same time. She had just forgotten that beauty of being an Indigenous women—that she had forgotten, but that place that she is from had not forgotten. I always wanted it to be about Joan and that she had forgotten something and something beautiful that could be really powerful.
MM: I read in another interview that Reverend Wolff and this story first came from you reading an article about missionary revivalists going into Indigenous communities, bringing people off of their land and out of ceremony, often fronted by Indigenous preachers. A Rogarou [a trickster in Métis stories] was the one that you thought would commit such a horrible act. What followed this in your writing process when continuing the story and how did the revivalists tie to writing the rest of the novel, or perhaps not tie to other parts of the novel?
Cherie Dimaline: So here’s the real tea. I went to a First Nations literary event [a year before]. I had misread what we were supposed to do. I thought I was going to be on a panel with people like Lee Miracle, who is like my Auntie, and Tracey Lindberg who is a good friend of mine. I thought this is going to be fun. I love panels because I don’t need to really prepare. I just can come as myself and have a conversation. No ma’am. Each one of us was getting up in front of a packed audience and speaking for 40 minutes. Solo.
So I show up and I still don’t know. I sit on the stage. They have us sitting on the stage facing the audience like that’s not the most masochistic thing you can do to a writer. While each person is doing their brilliant talk…I think I was third…so two people go, 40 minutes [of] well prepared, brilliant Indigenous writers, thinkers, and I’m sitting there having a full panic attack facing the audience like… “Yes I’m totally fine. I am prepared like everyone else.” The topic of the whole conference was storytelling. I thought, “What are you going to do?” I looked out and it was mostly Indigenous people. I can crack some jokes to waste some of those 40 minutes and I can just talk honestly.
[And] so I [said] “Instead of talking about storytelling, I want to tell you a traditional story. And we can talk about what that means and what it meant for me and where it comes from. But I’m just going to tell you a story.” For the first time in a very long time, I told a Rogarou story. I tell the story that comes from my family. My grandmother had all of those stories. And then we talked about it. I realized how I’ve been thinking of him and really he is this character who does this great and horrible work of showing you what can go wrong. He doesn’t say it. He doesn’t stop you from it. But he demonstrates in a lot of ways how things can go awry. When I was done, Tracy Lindberg turns to me and says you have to write a Rogarou story.
And then a year later, I’m on this flight, Vancouver to Toronto, and it’s late and someone had left a magazine in the pocket of the seat in front of me. I pulled it out and it had this picture of a super sexy Jesus with the long hair. I wanted to read about this sexy Jesus. It was an article about these American financed, very heavily financed, missionaries that were coming into Canadian First Nations, up into the north into Inuit communities. They were having these full on missionary gatherings. And one of the main messages [was] that people were experiencing poverty, abuse, racism, not because of colonization, but because they had been worshipping false gods and sprits, so this was their punishment. The way forward was to come in and leave their paganism behind. So no more ceremony. Go to the grocery stores. Stop hunting like animals. Come in and your fortunes will turn around. That was the main message that people were getting from these missionaries.
[Previously I had done] consulting work. The TransCanada company was trying to put a pipeline all across Canada. I was hired by the Indigenous firm that they had brought on to collect the stories. People were going into all the communities, all the First Nations and Métis communities that were going to be impacted by the proposed pipeline. They were collecting their concerns as stories. Then it would come to me. I had to try to piece it together to go into the approvals board for consideration to the National Energy Board. What I realized in putting these stories together is that communities were almost completely united in their giant “no.” It wasn’t going to happen. They weren’t going to allow a pipeline through. But some of the communities that had been Christianized for a long period of time, those communities involved in oil and gas were a little more like, “While that could be good for our community. There’s opportunities for jobs.” But more terrifying than that was that if you looked at what the National Energy Board was looking [at] in order to give approval was a formula called TLU. Traditional Land Use. So [they want to know] are the people in the community using this land already for ceremonial purposes? Are there trap lines? And the higher the traditional land use is, the harder it is to get approval to do any resource extraction or do any project.
So therefore, I’m sitting there with this article, which has nothing to do with sexy Jesus. This is about horrible missionaries. Totally catfished. And here I am reading it. I’m thinking about this. Who would do this? They’re fronted by these Indigenous preachers. So who would do this and allow this and promote a missionary group and bring people up off the land? Who’s financing them? Who could benefit from it? And then I remembered the TLU. If you could get people up off the land, it’s easier to exploit the land. And then I’m horrified. I’m outraged and swearing under my breath on this flight! Then I’m thinking specifically about the preachers. Who would do that? Your auntie would kick your ass. Right? Where’s these people’s aunties?
MM: [Laughter] Cherie. Then I started thinking who would really do this and then the Rogarou came to me as someone who would take that loss to demonstrate the ways in how horribly this could go. The thing with the Rogarou, too, is you never know if he’s really showing you the wrong way or is this actually his intent. He’s a wily fucker. He’s completely terrifying. Anyway, it started from being reminded of the Rogarou because I totally screwed up and did not prepare a speech. And came full circle on that flight and reading the article. God, it’s terrible and I really want to talk about it.
There’s an idea weaving throughout here of Christianity and control, or at least Westernized religious organization, changing our identities and the very ways in which we carry ourselves as Indigenous people. Can you speak more about where this came about for you and what you were commenting on in regards to organized religion? Was it simply seeing the missionary revivalists, or had this already been on your mind?
CD: The summer before I spent some time in Winnebago. I was spending time with Stuart Snake who is part of the Native American church. Stuart, who just passed away a couple of months ago, was a brilliant Ho-Chunk man, keeper of knowledge and songs and language. I didn’t know a lot about the Native American church and he explained it in a really lovely way. You know when you have something important that you need to bring forward, you find any way that you can to carry it. If you have teachings or language or songs, or anything that you need to make sure is there for your kids and your grandkids, you find a way to move it forward. He said for him, the way that they carried those teachings forward during those times when we weren’t allowed to gather, when we weren’t allowed to sing or practice our spiritualities, he said that they put it inside of the Bible. In this way, religion became this really important vessel. Christianity became a vessel for something else. I remember sitting in his living room while he was working on his feathers and beading feathers with them, telling me that, and it stuck with me. Because I thought, “Isn’t that the way with everything?” Isn’t that what Indigenous storytelling is? Isn’t that the essence of what it is? Isn’t it just us finding ways to move our cultures forward? Even when you’re writing a crazy, sexy fiction story, right, you’re still in a way taking what’s important and putting it in there.
The reason why I love that you loved the beginning of Empire is I write first and foremost for community. There’s no way I can remove myself from my world view, who raised me, who I am, where I come from. But I am very cognizant of that when I write. My first audience is always you, is always us, especially when in the editing process to make things marketable, absolutely easier to understand and read. That’s the business side of it. I really stick to that idea, that this for some people might just be a fun story or a thriller. But for some people, maybe they haven’t heard about the Rogarou. Maybe there are Métis kids who have been taken into care outside of their community and this is the first time they’re going to hear about it and understand. Maybe some of the jokes where I throw a word or two of the language in and that’s the first time someone is going to hear it. There is that extra layer of responsibility.
MM: How do you feel about the novel being categorized and/or described as incorporating magic or as magical?
CD: [Loud laughter]. I love this. I think it’s hilarious! A lot of the conversations that you’re going to have about where to categorize Indigenous literature, I’ve had many of those conversations. My first book was published in 2007. I went into a bookstore and for the first time I saw my book called Red Rooms. It’s connected short stories about being an urban Indian. It’s pow wow weekend and here’s what’s happening in the hotel when we sort of take over the city. The first time I saw my book on a shelf, it was in a section called New Age/Occult/Native spirituality. This is a fiction book of short stories where not one person is like “Let me explain to you how to do a sweat lodge ceremony.” People are hanging out. They’re snagging. They’re dancing. It has nothing to do with Native spirituality and nothing to do with the occult and sure as hell nothing to with New Agers!
I remember [thinking] I should just be grateful that it’s in the bookstore and then also I should probably burn the bookstore down. It’s that moment where I think, “What did I expect? How can I make this better?” I spend a lot of years trying to figure out…the first way I thought I was going to avoid this because I had heard a lot of other writers say “Good luck. We are a niche market.” Once they have one or two Indians, it’s like the Highlander, they can only have one. Once they have one, the door is closed. I started publishing with an Indigenous publisher. I thought that’s going to help because I’m keeping it in our community.
And it did in terms of editing. My editor was Lee Miracle and her mother is Métis and she was raised Sto:lo. I had to explain some things. Not very much. But then working with Cree people, I had to explain nuances. It was a shorter distance to get there because we had a general understanding.
I talked to Eden Robinson, who is apparently the Queen of magical realism, so I’ve read in articles, I asked her about this. I’ve heard myself be called dystopian, fair enough, but sci fi?! I don’t think so. Horror, magical realism, fantasy. So we had that discussion and I said how do you feel about it. She said you just take it in stride. People are trying to put you in a category. In a lot of ways not out of harm, but just to get your stuff out there. That’s why it’s important that you talk about your work so that you can be the actual expert and you can say, “Well actually, this is not Magical Realism, this is based on a traditional story.”
Every time I say to someone, the Rogarou is real, they laugh. I’m like, no, I’m 45 years old and I swear to you that the Rogarou is real. They just think I’m being cute or selling something. No, you don’t have to buy what I’m selling. I’m telling you, he’s real. I can bring you to where he lives. It’s not far from where I live now. Sure he’s a teaching tool. Yes it’s metaphorical. Yes there’s many layers to him. But he wasn’t told to me as a story. These are people in my family that these things happened to, that ran into him, that saw him. They’re telling me it as a part of my history of who I am and who I need to be moving forward.
There’s two ways we can combat the very strange colonized view of our story-telling. One is to talk about it and to be the expert. And two is you! Two is having Indigenous people represent us in media, at publishing houses, at literary festivals. I can’t tell you the difference when I speak to an Indigenous media person or when I’m at an event with an Indigenous moderator—the difference even in the quality that you’re going to get from me, I’m just going to tell you everything! Electric Lit is going to be like, “What the fuck happened? Do you guys know each other.” Kind of! I’m comfortable. I’m going to talk, as opposed to when I’m going to be like, here’s the history from 1928 and I’m trying to be measured and careful. It’s good to be with family and good to talk in a space where we already understand where we’re coming from in a way, what we’re facing, and what the nature of our stories is.
So [being called] magical realism used to make me angry. I’m at the point where I think it’s hilarious because I don’t know what else to do. I just keep telling my stories. Just yesterday I visited my uncle and he told me a different story and it’s creepy as hell. “Well that’s another book, do you mind?” “Yeah, go ahead they’re yours. Take them.” So you keep learning and growing and talking about it. We’re seeing a difference. Now Indigenous people are studying Indigenous literature. I’m praying and waiting for the day when all the professors of Indigenous literature are perhaps maybe Indigenous. Right? [Laughter]
MM: [Laugher] Right. I mean go figure.
CD: Listen, I worked for a university once where they hired a brilliant white lady to teach a language course for the Inuit language over an Inuit woman. And I was…[very long pause] And this is common. It happens. The more of us there are, the harder we are to ignore. The more that people hear our point of view and our stories and expertise and our fucking badass knowledge, how can you deny that? If I was building a house, I wouldn’t ask a farmer how this structure can stand. I would find a carpenter. If I was planting a crop, I wouldn’t ask a carpenter which is the best soil. Find the expert for the land that you are on. Ask an expert. We are here. We are still here. We are not going anywhere. The more people realize that these are brilliant ways of knowing based on the land that we are now on that is currently now occupied as Canada and the United States, and one day might be something else—we don’t have all the answers, but we have ways of living that could be the best version of your life. We need more of each other.
We live in a time where a lot of our elders, our grandparents, of Indigenous literature are still with us. It’s beautiful, right. I can literally pick up the phone and call Maria Campbell, or Lee Miracle, send an email to Thomas King at the same time that I’m talking to all these beautiful, brilliant babies. They’re just these young, brilliant Indigenous writers. We’re all existing at the same time and it’s so powerful.
I think now’s the time where we make a lot of big moves. Don’t fucking hire an Indigenous consultant or freelance in an Indigenous editor for one project. You need to have Indigenous people at the table making decisions, rebuilding a broken system of publishing. If you don’t have people of color, or if you don’t have queer people or you don’t have Indigenous people at the table, how do you think you are going to handle with care and expertise the brilliant work that’s coming out of those communities. You can’t because you’re part-time hiring someone so that you can check a diversity box. And you’re not properly training people who are from outside of those communities, even.
I have an editor at Random House and Collins who is an older white lady, but who Eden Robinson works with. That was the main reason that I chose her. I had good success with Marrow Thieves and suddenly I had my pick. I picked specifically Anne Collins because she immediately started talking about the story. It wasn’t like ‘Here’s all the other Indigenous people that we have and we’re going to add you to our collections.’ And she spent years working with Eden Robinson and Eden said brilliant things about her. And Anne Collins says Eden’s been such a tremendous teacher and mentor for [her.] Anne is a legend in Canada, but she recognized that she had a lot to learn and she learned.
Frankly, we’re all tired of doing this work of making people better. But there are people learning and they will mentor other people. Most importantly we need diversity at a decision-making level. Enough with this tokenism. Have people of power. I want to see people of color, queer people, Indigenous people, making real decisions that will impact the industry because that’s how we move forward.
MM: Did the Rogarou come for Victor because he wanted to sell the land? Or does he represent that it could have come for any of them? And then why does it come for Zeus?
CD: Thank you for bringing this up. There is a layer to it. Yes, there are two reasons the Rougoru is coming for Victor. One is that he’s trying to sell the land, absolutely, and he’s not being considerate of Joan’s response. Victor at his essence is a lovely man. I thought, he probably doesn’t deserve this right now. The other reason is that the Rogarou has a vested interested in Joan.
I desperately, desperately wanted to write an Indigenous woman as a hero. I so badly had to write her. I wanted to talk about that yes there’s trauma. Yes, there’s violence. Yes, there’s bullshit Indigenous women deal with the most for the longest time. But there is this capacity for such tremendous love. And I hear myself saying it. And I’m like God that sounds cheesy. Indigenous women can carry so much weight. And the heaviest weight we can carry is love. We keep trying to keep our families together. We keep choosing motherhood. We keep choosing community. We keep choosing to do the hard work. That’s not because we choose the burden. That’s not because we like it being hard. It’s because holy shit do we love our people. I think sometimes we forget to love ourselves. There’s so much negativity. It’s hard. It can be crushing if you allow it. She’s not perfect. It’s all her beautiful brokenness and the ways that she pulls it together while also then being pushed into a position to protect her family.
There is a part of the Rogarou that is trying to reach Joan. She is in love and she is genuinely in love and it is a good love. So that is the point where he can dance a bit closer to her. But he can’t take her. But he can remind her of her who she is by reminding her that he exists.
I named him Zeus because he was taking on more and more importance. I did hesitate because I love that kid. That kid was the best part of every little cousin that I had. But I thought I need to do this.
First of all, I have faith that Joan is on the way. Ajean is there with him. She’s not going to let him hurt himself or anyone else. We know now that Joan understands the power that she has.
He really dislikes his mother, but for good reason. She’s given him good reason. It’s one of those things where it’s a rule and it’s there. He should be able to say his mom has been horrible to him because she’s been horrible to him. You don’t feel good about it, but it’s there. It happens. When I wrote the part where Ajean says “Oh my girl, I hope you’re on the way home,” and the sense that I got, the absolute confidence that I had, of this pissed off, beautifully broken, powerful half-breed in her truck, barreling down the highway, I felt good about that. Now she’s a superhero. I feel that way about some of my aunties. I wanted everyone to feel that.
MM: Do you foresee writing a second novel to complete Zeus’ story, or do you feel the end merits a complete cycle?
CD: The way that I grew up hearing stories in my family, they were always open-ended. There was never the satisfaction of a clean, “This is what happened.” If you leave it a bit open, it means that you must be more involved. It means you’re here to think about it more. That’s the style that I write. I did that with The Marrow Thieves. So I said, I am not [going to write another book]. This is it because who knows what’s going to happen for us. I’m going to leave it open. This is the way I was told in my community. Therefore, that’s the way I’m going to tell it.
Then thousands of kids, many, many of them Indigenous, wrote petitions, letters, emails. They started Facebook profiles. The characters of the book have Instagram accounts. They send me messages: “Please don’t kill me.” “What am I doing now?”
It made me think about that discussion of the differences between history and tradition. History is a map of where we’ve been. Tradition is the ways in which we move forward. There’s a difference. Then I realized this is not the same time as when I grew up hearing these stories. I was able to meet with over 120,000 high school students in a year and a half with the Marrow Thieves. I met so many Indigenous kids and two spirit kids who had never seen themselves in a book before. For some of them it was the first time they had seen an Indigenous person on a book that wasn’t a cheesy Harlequin savage Indian man with abs. I realized that I understand the way I was told stories and they’re open-ended, but I owe these kids. I owe this to them. I sat down and started to write a sequel to Marrow Thieves. While I would say I’m not going to write a sequel to Empire, while I’m working on other stuff, I can’t say that with any certainty. I can’t say that my stories come from the community and are for the community if I’m not then listening to the community. We’ll see where it goes. Who knows.
The Marrow Thieves is being turned into a television series which makes me think I should keep writing it. At a certain point, you hand over the power. Right? I can’t do that. There’s so many pieces in this story that I’m trying to take care of. I don’t want someone else taking it and changing our narratives. If you’re going to put this story out there, you have a responsibility to it. I have a responsibility to take care of it as it lives its life, which is really scary, but also really great.