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This is What They Say. Stories by Francois Mandeville: A Story Cycle Dictsted in Northern Alberta in 1928

By Francois Mandeville

Review By Patricia McCormack

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 172 Winter 2011-2012  | p. 136-37

Ron Scollon was an eminent linguist who worked for much of his life on Athapaskan languages and the ethnography of speaking. This Is What They Say was his final project; sadly, he died in 2010. He wished to honour a master Aboriginal storyteller – François Mandeville – and the master linguist who collaborated with him at Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca in 1928 – Li Fang-kuei. Li was also Scollon’s own teacher: the two collaborated in the production of an earlier version of these stories (Li and Scollon, Chipewyan Texts [Taipei: Academia Sinica, 1976]). Scollon traces the genealogy of the resulting intellectual tradition. He explains exactly how Mandeville and Li worked together and what each hoped to learn, then how Li and Scollon worked together four decades later, and finally how Scollon brought his own formidable scholarship to a new translation of these stories and his analysis of how they should be presented for readability in English and faithfulness to the original Chipewyan. (I am the fourth link in this chain at Fort Chipewyan; when I arrived in 1977 to conduct research for my PhD dissertation, Ron generously allowed me to read a major manuscript he had prepared.) The book is a fascinating reflective piece about fieldwork, tutelage, serendipity, and continuity of multiple traditions – linguistic, anthropological, and cultural – as well as an insightful presentation of a subset of Chipewyan oral traditions. 

The book’s organization reflects Scollon’s analysis of how the stories themselves are organized. It begins with a short “translator’s preface,” a prologue to the stories. There are three formal sections. Part One contains sixteen stories that were selected by Mandeville and constituted his “narrative ethnography,” the stories he used to guide Li Fang-kuei “in his understanding of the Chipewyan people” (13). They are presented in the order in which Mandeville told them in 1928. Many of the stories are classic Chipewyan traditions, which have remained remarkably consistent since they were first recorded by Oblate father Émile Petitot in the nineteenth century (see, for example, Petitot’s Traditions indiennes du Canada Nord- Ouest [Paris: Maisonneuve Frères et Ch. Leclerc, 1886]). Others reflect a Yellowknife historic tradition: the Mandeville family was more closely connected to Great Slave Lake than to Lake Athabasca. Some of the same stories are also found in texts recorded at Fort Chipewyan by Robert H. Lowie in 1908 (“Chipewyan Tales,” Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History 10, 3 [1912]: 171200) and at Cold Lake by Pliny Earle Goddard in 1911 (“Chipewyan Texts,” Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History 10, 1 [1912]: 165). While it was beyond the scope of the book to conduct a comparative analysis or to address the specific story genres, those subjects would have been fine additions. 

Part Two comprises “elicited accounts” (by Li). These narratives contain ethnographic information about how children were educated and what they learned; how to make fishnets, birchbark canoes, and a tanned moose skin; and how to fish and hunt beaver. 

Part Three presents biographical information about Mandeville and discusses the important processes through which Li worked with him and then Scollon with Li. Scollon then dissects the elements that contribute to the meaning of the story, such as linguistic markers and sequencing. He also considers possible historical influences on the structure of these particular narratives. The appendix depicts the presentations of one story by Li, Li and Scollon, and Scollon. 

Scollon included two archival photographs of François Mandeville and recent photos of the house that Mandeville built in Fort Chipewyan and the neighbouring Athabasca Café, which was rebuilt in 1932 after the original café burned down. Dan Mah, an immigrant from China, owned the café in 1928, and it is intriguing to speculate that Li may have stayed there while in Fort Chipewyan. 

While the specific analysis concerns Chipewyan stories, the interest of the book is much broader. It will appeal to scholars working with oral traditions, Athapaskan/Dene linguistics, and intellectual history. The careful construction and presentation of the narratives should also prove helpful to Chipewyans (Dene Sųłiné) themselves who are looking for earlier versions of their own oral traditions. 

This is What They Say. Stories by François Mandeville: A Story Cycle Dictsted in Northern Alberta in 1928.  Edited and translated from Chipewyan by Ron Scollon. Foreword by Robert Bringhurst
Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre 2009.  286 pp. Ill. $22.95