Ruth Buck and the publication of Edward Ahenakew’s Voices of the Plains Cree

by Brendan Frederick R. Edwards
Photograph of Ruth Buck and Voices of the Plains Cree with note to Patrick Crean

During his lifetime, Reverend Edward Ahenakew received little or no payment for his writing, and struggled financially. Through family ties, Ruth Buck became the steward of Ahenakew’s manuscripts after his death. Her association with the Ahenakew papers, eventually editing and publishing his Voices of the Plains Cree (McClelland & Stewart, 1973), brought Ahenakew’s writing to the reading public and brought Buck herself considerable literary success.

Reverend Canon Edward Ahenakew, D.D. (1885-1961) was not a well-known writer in his lifetime, but his literary accomplishments and aspirations are nonetheless significant. Born into a Christian Cree family at the Sandy Lake reserve in Saskatchewan, Ahenakew attended the Atahkakohp Day School on the reserve, Emmanuel College Boarding School in Prince Albert, Wycliffe College in Toronto, and the Anglican Theological School at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. He was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1912. Reverend Ahenakew later attended (but never graduated from) medical school at the University of Alberta where he was a member of the University of Alberta Literary Club.

Ahenakew’s literary aspirations began as early as 1903, when at the age of eighteen he began producing a handwritten newsletter in Cree syllabics while teaching at the John Smith’s Day School (the original run of the newsletter was short-lived). He published “Cree Trickster Tales” in the Journal of American Folklore (volume 42) in 1929. Archival records indicate that he wrote prolifically for a time, but published little else. In the early 1920s, Ryerson Press expressed interest in Ahenakew’s writing, but financial difficulties prohibited the press from publishing his work without a subvention. Editor Lorne Pierce turned to Duncan Campbell Scott at the Department of Indian Affairs for financial assistance, but was told the department could offer no funding.

CP00527.jpgPosthumously, Ruth Buck (1905-2009) edited his handwritten manuscripts of Cree stories. and published them as a collection entitled Voices of the Plains Cree with McClelland & Stewart (M&S) in 1973. As Buck notes in her 1973 introduction to the work, Ahenakew based much of the content of Voices of the Plains Cree on stories he collected in the spring of 1923 from Chief Thunderchild (Peyasiw-Awasis, or Kapitikow, 1849-1927). Ahenakew had come to Thunderchild’s reserve in 1922 after illness terminated his studies in medicine and he was sent there to regain his health under the charge of a mission worker. Buck observes: “It was a period of deep discouragement for him, and he was urged to use the opportunity that his convalescence offered to collect the legends and stories of his people. That proved sound therapy.” But this period of writing was not long-lived. With the return of Ahenakew’s health, the demands of his responsibilities with the diocese increased, and his writing activity was largely put aside.
Many years later, when Buck first submitted Ahenakew’s text to M&S, editor Patrick Crean considered the work “undoubtedly an important cultural document … a beautifully wrought piece of poetry,” offering a “unique insight into the Indian mentality.” Ruth Buck herself was considered by the publisher as “very promotable,” and in contrast to their refusal to support Aboriginal writing fifty years earlier, the Department of Indian Affairs agreed to purchase $5,000 worth of the books prior to publication. Indeed, correspondence suggests the Cultural Development Division at Indian Affairs commissioned Ruth Buck in late 1968 to undertake the editing and composition of Ahenakew’s stories, providing her with a significant sum of CP00065.jpgmoney to do so. In total, Indian Affairs appears to have committed some $9,000 to Voices of the Plains Cree. Ruth Buck was paid $4,000 by the Department for “services rendered” in editing Ahenakew’s manuscript, and also received royalties from sales. A letter she wrote to officials on 18 January 1973 indicated Buck’s intention to give a percentage of royalties from the book to a fund in Ahenakew’s name, established by the Anglican Diocese of Saskatchewan.

During his lifetime, Reverend Ahenakew received little or no payment for his writing, and constantly struggled financially. The Reverend was confined in his writing by his role as a cleric; his involvement with the Church of England brought him considerable status and respect (although little financial reward), but at the same time set up considerable obstacles to exploiting his creativity CP00066.jpgas a writer in pursuit of Aboriginal causes.

As steward of Ahenakew’s manuscripts following his death, Ruth Buck brought Ahenakew’s voice to the public, and bolstered her own career as an author and amateur historian. In 1974, M&S published Buck’s biography of her mother, Elizabeth Matheson, titled The Doctor Rode Side-Saddle.

Author’s note of clarification: Even though Ruth Buck was paid for her work on Voices of the Plains Cree, while Edward Ahenakew laboured in poverty and ceased writing during his lifetime for financial reasons, the point of my article is not to be critical of Ruth Buck for accepting financial reward. Rather, by emphasizing the fact that Buck was paid and Ahenakew was not, I intended to make a point about the inequitable treatment of Indigenous people by the Canadian publishing establishment and the fact that societal perspectives had changed in the decades between Ahenakew writing the manuscript (and failing to find a publisher for it) and Ruth Buck picking it up again well after his passing.

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Further Resources

Cuthand, Stan. “Introduction to the 1995 Edition,” Voices of the Plains Cree, by Edward Ahenakew, ed. Ruth M. Buck. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 1995.

Edwards, Brendan Frederick R. “A War of Wor(l)ds: Aboriginal writing in Canada During the ‘Dark Days’ of the Early Twentieth Century.” PhD dissertation, Department of History, University of Saskatchewan, 2008.

"Longtime Sask. writer, teacher Ruth M. Buck dies at 103." Obituary, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation website, 9 July 2009.

Matheson, Ruth Buck. “The Matheson’s of Saskatchewan Diocese,” Saskatchewan History 13.2 (1960).

Archival Resources

McClelland & Stewart Ltd. fonds, McMaster University