A performing artist from Montreal is celebrating the launch of her book in Yellowknife this weekend.
Singer-songwriter Nadine Neema released Journal of a Travelling Girl as a youth novel in October 2020. Due to pandemic restrictions at the time, she was unable to mark the release.
Now, an in-person event for the book – which tells stories about Tłı̨chǫ history – can finally happen.
The book draws on stories told by Elders to Neema during her time living and working in Wekweètì from 1999 to 2005, when she worked for the Dogrib Treaty 11 Council to help the transition to self-government.
Neema returned to the North in 2012 to participate in the Trails of Our Ancestors canoe trip from Behchokǫ̀ to Wekweètì. A year later, she joined a second trip from Wekweètì to Behchokǫ̀.
“I always wanted to take part in the trip when I lived there, but I never could because of work,” she told Cabin Radio.
“When I finally did go on it, it was such an incredible experience, and that was when I decided I would write this book.”
In 2005, Neema says she was told by John B Zoe – the council’s chief negotiator at the time – that she should write a book about her experiences. Only when returning to take part in the canoe trips did she realize how to best portray them in a novel.
Journal of a Travelling Girl follows three best friends that travel on the canoe trip for the first time. Though the girls and their stories are fictional, the novel does include some real stories.
“I shared a lot of the stories that the Elders shared with me about how their life used to be,” said Neema.
“All of the stories in the book that are shared by grandparents and Elders are true stories.”
The novel is set in 2005, a choice made by Neema to teach readers about the year the Tłı̨chǫ Government was formed.
“They’re talking about how this year is different and so she learns about the way of life and she learns about the importance of this specific trip, and about what self-government is and what it means for them,” Neema explained of the book’s protagonist.
“It’s been great so far. It’s been used a lot in schools in Montreal and the NWT, there’s a teacher’s guide for it, so our kids are learning about it in school, which is really exciting.”
The novel was initially published by Heritage House, a BC publishing house, then picked up by Penguin Random House as an audiobook, which Neema narrates.
While living in the North, she purchased a video camera to document her experiences. Sounds from her footage are used in the audiobook, as is the music of Chief Jimmy Bruneau High School’s drummers.
As the audiobook was being created, Neema decided to turn her footage into a short film. Wekweètì and the Ekwǫ̀ (Caribou) is a 15-minute film that will be premiered at the book launch.
“I want people to learn from it. A lot of it is centred around the land and the caribou,” said Neema.
“There’s so much about the Tłı̨chǫ way of life and connections to the land that I think a lot of people don’t know about, and I want to share this film to kind-of show a little bit of it from my time up there.”
Although writing the novel and editing the film happened at her home in Montreal, Neema was determined to include the community of Wekweètì in her creations.
“It’s all about them taking me out on the land, skinning caribou, tanning the hide, cleaning the hide. All of it was what they taught me,” she said.
“While I was editing the film, I was editing pieces and sending it to them, editing pieces and sending them, because it just really mattered to me that they were part of it.”
She says she did the same with the book, writing and sending chunks at a time for feedback from the community.
The book celebration will take place on Saturday, April 22 at Yellowknife’s Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, starting with a feeding-the-fire ceremony at 1:30pm. From 2-3:30pm, Neema will be in conversation with Tammy Steinwand, director of culture and lands protection for the Tłı̨chǫ Government. The two will discuss the book before showing the film and hearing some of Neema’s original songs.
The celebration will wrap up with tea and bannock offered by the museum.
“This is the first in-person event ever for this book, and it was really hard to put it out there and not be able to share it with anybody in person,” Neema said.
“This is really exciting for me and is really just going to be a celebration.”