Amazing story. Glad that the real, fuller story behind this photo is available. Yet another reminder that history is far from fair, or neutral, and that the “official” version is far from the only one.
STORY OF A CAPTION
When I first heard Melanie Reid tell the story behind this photograph at the Duty Calls edition of Rain City Chronicles, I was, like the rest of the audience, absolutely spellbound.
It didn’t take much to convince my editors at The Tyee that it was a captivating and important narrative that deserved a wider audience. But could I fact check it, they wondered? Could I verify that the caption on the photo did indeed change as Reid had described?
That proved to be a more difficult task. When I put my query to the Library and Archives of Canada (LAC), its senior rights and licensing specialist Nancy Fay told me that the short answer was, they didn’t know.
Ultimately, it’s up the individual archivists at any particular organization to determine a photograph’s caption. And when photos are in the public domain, like this one, the LAC has no control — or authority — over how they are captioned.
So it appears that there are at least three versions of this photo. One is the original caption that Reid described seeing in the Canadian War Museum: “Unidentified Indian princess getting blessing from her chief and father to go fight in the war.”
The second is the version that Reid says the photo was changed to after she identified the woman as her mother-in-law (The Tyee also spoke to Reid’s husband on the phone, who confirmed that yes, the woman in the photo was his mother). That caption was as Reid described in the end of her story: “Private Mary Greyeyes, Cree, from Muskeg Lake, Cree Nation, Canadian Women’s Army Corp.”
(This Department of National Defense website includes the photo with this caption as well.)
And the third is the one that the Library and Archives of Canada currently has attached to the photo: “Mary Greyeyes being blessed by her native Chief prior to leaving for service in the CWAC, 1942. Source: Library and Archives Canada/Department of National Defence fonds/PA-129070”
With no clear answer for my editors, we decided to go ahead and publish the story anyway. Mostly because it’s just such a darn good one, but also because it reminds us that history is often one particular version of events, and no one version is ever the whole story.
What Does This Photo Say?
Images can mislead, as the subject of this one, my Cree mother-in-law, revealed to me. The story behind a famous Canadian war photograph.
[Editor’s note: Melanie Fahlman Reid is an instructor at Capilano University. Her areas of specialization include teaching composition, the British Literature Survey, and Drama. This is an edited version of a transcript of the story Melanie told at Rain City Chronicles “Duty Calls” edition in Nov. 2011. Transcription by Colleen Kimmett.]
I’m telling the story about that photograph, but it’s not really about the photograph. It’s about my relationship with the woman getting the blessing. That’s my mother-in-law, Mary Reid.
I married into a family that was dominated very much by the mother, and Mary kind of wanted a different kind of daughter-in-law, I think. I’d known her since I was 14. She met me when I was screaming at her son, telling him to fuck off and leave me alone.
And it kind of bounced up and down from there until we got married at 26. She organized the wedding and after the wedding she kept trying to remember what I did for a living.
She’d show up with brown pottery that she got at Super Value that she thought I’d like, and I didn’t, and brown towels.
She’d give me advice about how to cook at 5 a.m. to have dinner ready, and then when I came home I could just pop it in the oven.
It was a rough start. And though I kind of never got her, we got along better.
After her husband died, Mary got talked into going to a [military] service reunion. We encouraged her to go, to Calgary. I thought, great — Calgary! I drove her to the airport. And she came back with that photo.
‘They all knew me’
Now, I’d always known Mary had been in the Canadian Women’s Army Corp.
And that wasn’t unusual — I’m a boomer. My parents fought in the army for World War Two, my grandparents fought in World War One, and it’d been going on forever. I’m the first generation that didn’t fight in a war.
But I hadn’t quite realized what Mary did. She brought this picture back, and she said it was wonderful.
“They all knew me,” she said, “but I didn’t know them.”
And I asked her about that photo.
She joined up when she was a 20-year-old woman from Muskeg Lake, just north of Saskatoon. It’s a Cree reservation. Her brother had joined the war. It was the Depression, there wasn’t much to do, so she thought she’d join too. She wrote a letter, and she got a reply. The postmaster came and found her on the reserve. He was from Marscellin, and he said, “They’re looking for you.”
She went down to Saskatoon and took the dayliner to Regina, she told me. She was met by a sergeant and she had to go and get a test. She was the fourth woman to get the test and she was nervous. Everybody ahead of her had gone to school. Mary had gone to a residential school, and of course natives weren’t allowed to go past Grade 8 in those days. So she didn’t have a good education, she thought.
They were just starting to recruit women into the army in Canada, and each one, each woman ahead of her, was rejected. Mary went in and she took the test and she passed. And she became the first native woman in Canada — full status Cree — to join the Canadian Women’s Army Corp.
But that’s not the story. Though it’s a good story.
When Harry met Mary
When she enlisted, they didn’t really want her in the barracks. There was a lot of racism against natives and it was all kind of hushed up. But she said, “I knew what was going on.”
So she boarded outside the barracks. One day her sergeant and two Mounties showed up and said, “We’ll give you a good new uniform and a good lunch. We want you to take a picture.”
And this is the picture.
They drove over out to the Piapot reserve. The man standing there is a man named Harry Ball. He’s a World War One veteran. He wasn’t the chief of the Piapot reserve [at the time he was a councilor, and later became chief], but he was a vet. And he happened to be hanging around.
The regalia that he’s wearing was cobbled together by the Mounties. They went into people’s houses and pulled out a blanket here, an old headdress from a powwow there. And they found a pipe. The stem on it was pieced together with some tape and a bit of twine one of the Mounties had.
And they told them to pose. And this picture is apparently an Indian princess getting a blessing from the chief of her tribe.
Now Harry is from Piapot. Mary is from Muskeg Lake, Cree. And they didn’t know each other.
They took picture after picture. Mary joined up in June, so this picture was taken in late June in Saskatchewan. If you know much about the prairies, you know how goddamn hot it is there.
She’s kneeling in the grass. The grass is full of bugs. And they’re flying up and the Mounties are telling them to stand still and the photographer is trying to get the picture.
And Mary and Harry are talking. Mary says, “Christ.” (They’re speaking in Cree, and this is Mary’s story now, I’m telling you.)
And Harry says, “God it’s hot. What did you get for this?”
Mary says, “I get a good lunch.”
Harry says, “I got 20 bucks.”
Mary says, “So what are you bitching about? You get 20 bucks and I’m down here with bugs.”
And that’s the blessing that you see.
This picture was published in the Regina Leader-Post, and it went viral, I guess, in those days. It appeared all over the British Empire to show the power of the colonies fighting for King and country.
‘This is her real story’
Mary shipped out very rapidly and she went to the theatre of war. She became a laundress at Aldershot, which she hated. And when she asked her sergeant for a transfer, her sergeant wrote on the papers — which I have — “Does not speak English.”
So they shipped her off and she went to headquarters in London to become a cook for the war centre. She was a big deal. She got to meet this lady [Melanie points at a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II hanging up] who was then a princess, she got to meet the Queen Mother, she got to meet the King. She said every time they needed an Indian, there she was. She was known as the Indian.
Her picture was in a lot of London papers. And the headline of my favourite one reads, “She’s a full-blooded Indian but now she cooks for palefaces.” So she was always the Indian. She’d get proposals from what she called “limeys.” Limeys would write her letters, some of which we have, offering to marry her.
Mary stayed in the army, she was asked to stay on in England after the war ended. And she finally shipped back to Canada in 1946, at which point she was discharged and went home. She went back to Muskeg Lake. And this is her real story.
I asked her, I said, “How did you put up with this shit?”
(I’m a union activist, I’m usually out there on weekends protesting or getting arrested or whatever I do, and I always took the kids with me, which appalled her.)
And Mary said, “Well, my real story,” she says, “happened when I was on the reserve with my mom. My sergeant shows up with a couple of Mounties again, and they want to take a picture of me. It’s a federal election. So they came out and said, ‘Mary, you gotta come out and you gotta come and vote.’”
Now, Indians who fought in World War Two were allowed to renounce their treaty rights and vote.
So Mary says to them, she says, “Can my mom vote?”
And they said, “No, she didn’t fight in the war.”
She said, “Well, what about my cousins over there, can they vote?”
And they said no. They said, “C’mon Mary, you gotta come, we’ve got the photographer.”
And she said, “All those years, I said nothing. Now I’m saying no.”
When Mary told me that story, I finally kind of got her. That picture hangs in the Canadian War Museum, I found out in about 1995. And it was stated as “Unidentified Indian princess getting blessing from her chief and father to go fight in the war.”
So I thought, what I’m going to do is get that identified. I phoned Oxford Canada, they publish pictures in the Oxford University Press about native people in Canada. I phoned up and said, “I know who that woman is and I can prove it.”
So the author, in a panic, immediately pulled the picture in the next edition.
And Mary eventually went into a home.
Mary liked the army, it was the best days of her life. She liked how all the people knew who she was, and after she died, I found out that in the public archives of Canada (and this took me 12 years, this was me kind of paying back, for not getting Mary) the picture now reads: “Library and Archives of Canada, PA 129070. Private Mary Greyeyes, Cree, from Muskeg Lake, Cree Nation, Canadian Women’s Army Corp.”
And she’s not a princess.
This story was told at Rain City Chronicles, a Vancouver community-building storytelling night produced by Lizzy Karp and Karen Pinchin. The theme of the night was “Duty Calls.” They’re always on the hunt for new stories, community partners and friends, so get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @raincityvan or online here.
Good to know.
So that whole slavery thing just didn’t exist, right? Okay. Just checking.
I suppose no one should mention how Black Canadians get 1/3 of racial hate crimes while only being about 2% or so of the Canadian population…
Next you’ll talk about Canada’s history of segregation & all kinds of shit will pop off.
Good to know.
So that whole slavery thing just didn’t exist, right? Okay. Just checking.
ATTAWAPISKAT HOUSING-CRISIS (by charlieangus)
PLEASE WATCH AND REBLOG
I will be posting this video onces an hour [you’ve been warned]
3 weeks ago Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency and no one has helped. This is a place in Ontario, we need to help.
This is extremely fucked up. We need to start looking into alternative energy resources for our reservations.
re-reblog for those of you who have begun following me since November. This is still an on going issue/reality though the media has now almost all together stopped paying it mind.
please watch this video, educate yourself on this issue and help these folks out.
The importance of language in the replacement of Indian culture “cannot be overstated,” according to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples: “The entire residential school project was balanced on the proposition that the gate to assimilation was unlocked only by the progressive destruction of Aboriginal languages” (Canada, Report 1.10.1). Yet in “Black Robes” (1996), her grandmother will not let the young Lee Maracle speak her own language. Her advice to the girl is to “Master their language, daughter; hidden within it is the way we are to live among them.” From that directive the writer’s work grows.
[ADR Warning: ableist language ahead]
By Lee Maracle
The children of our people must seek knowledge wherever life presents it. Black Robe was a new thing: thus, she was there in the green meadow where Mexica horses lolled about, clipping grass and enjoying the soft warmth of mother sun. Here, indeed, was something different. Wordlessly, she absorbed its newness.
Black Robe seemed agitated. He spoke fast, and later the girl learned from her father’s account to her mother that he never repeated his listeners’ words as we do (very rude). She heard everything Black Robe said only because her father spoke in the old way. He was careful to repeat Black Robe’s words verbatim, to show respect for the speaker’s vision of truth and to ensure that no misunderstanding or distortion of his words occurred. Then, her father answered him.
“There is only learning and knowledge, Black Robe. We do not deny our children knowledge. You say that you have teachers who will show my children how to live. Can you not see? Behind me sits my daughter, who is neither blind nor deaf no imprisoned. She is free to seek knowledge among whomever she chooses to learn from. Her presence among adults indicates her desire to know. Hence, are we not obligated to give her our knowledge whenever she walks among us? You see her. She will have no need of interpreters if we continue to counsel, you and I. What need, then, has she of this place called ‘school’?
“Her brothers and she can learn things that we cannot teach them, like medicine, sanitation, housekeeping and flight, you say.” Her old father laughed. “When she grows wings and learns to fly, will she also acquire the beauty and sense of freedom of the eagle, the brazenness and wit of raven? Will her eyes see at night like owl? Black Robe, show me how you fly and my daughter will fly tomorrow; then, she will have no need of canoes. It takes a long time to build a bridal canoe.
“You say she will learn not flying, but different things than her brothers; that her brothers will learn about flying in something of their own making, not by themselves. In a glider, you say. That they will not actually make such a thing but only know of its existence. Of what use is such knowledge? You will fill my young men’s minds with useless knowledge, Black Robe. You say my daughter will learn how to be a good Christian wife, to do a thing called read from deadwood leaves. What need has she to be a woman different than what she is? To kill trees and put marks on deadwood leaves o remind her of how she must conduct herself? She is not lazy, nor is she forgetful. She is a good girl and will become a good woman. She will make a good wife –maybe Pierre’s wife,” he teased. She blushed and looked at the ground. Her old father chuckled sensuously.
Black Robe sucked in his breath. (I should not say this, nor even think it, but written on his face was exasperation, like when a young girl weaves her first basket and her fingers disobey the heart and will not weave it right.) The interpreter interjected, trying to bring depth to Black Robe’s shallow vision of life. He tried to make the father and Black Robe see each other’s point of view; to make them understand hat there is no disagreement over the value of different (new) knowledge, but only a difference in how to learn –at home, or far away, with children from many different villages.
The interpreter is not speaker or listener, so neither Black Robe nor the father responded. But his words stayed with the young woman. She looked hard at the interpreter. She knew that her father would not relent. Her eyes tried to tell the interpreter that Black Robe was wasting his time. She wanted to save him more embarrassment. Soon the father would look upon his pleas as begging. No woman should sit and watch a man reduce himself to a beggar without first warning him. Black Robe was blind to the young woman’s eyes and the interpreter dared not say what he thought he saw in the young woman’s eyes.
Black Robe did not stop talking.
In the end, the father did not relent, but he invited Black Robe to counsel whomever he pleased. “Turn anyone around that you may, Black Robe.” It was for her father a great and generous concession.
His prophecy about the young woman and the interpreter came to be. Pierre Deneuve, a man whose father came from a place called France and his mother from her own people, came to be her partner.
Partner. Husband in English. She learned to understand his immodest and mean language which has so many names for the same man; as though they were the land, not men from-such-and-such a land. She never bothered to speak the language much, and by the time I came to be it was hard for her to speak English.
In the warmth of her kitchen the soft tones of her voice toughed my ears and gentled my raucous spirit. She brought me sadness but once in the multitude of after-school days I spent in her kitchen. I had learned not to query uselessly before I learned to speak. This day I mentioned all my great-grandmothers and how I would like to see them. She could not give me their presence; instead she gave me her story.
“Pierre tried to teach me all the new things he knew, but they never made sense.” She winced and laughed mischievously. “He said that he was a Christian, a Catholic, an interpreter, a Half-breed, a worker, and not just Pierre. To me, he was always Pierre. The funniest thing he said was that he was a Roman Catholic. Rome is in a place called Italy –far away. How could he be from here and from Italy?”
She stopped laughing. Silent, gentle tears flowed from her tired eyes. “He made me send my children to school. All my babies, I knew them only while they were small. They came home men and women. So different were they from me. So many of their words grated on my being, foreign words, like Pierre’s. So little did they speak their own language. Today, I am surrounded by the faces of our people speaking as the Black Robes spoke. IN the faces of the children are written the characters of the people of the Black Robes. The laughter of my ancients died in the house that Pierre built.
“ ‘My brothers, my sisters are all dead from the Black Robes’ disease or killed in their wars. How can you ask me to send my little ones to grace their presence and not shorten my own life with their smiles and their growth? Will you call me wife, yet deny me motherhood’ I asked him.”
She said that Pierre had said a lot of nice things to ease her pain, but he sent the children. “Of what use were nice words? Was he standing at the precipice of our son’s grave –my son–alcohol-crazed, screaming insane words at a room with deaf walls, in a dirty hotel, while alcohol ate the life from his body? No. The Black Robes’ disease had already taken his life and it was I who had to bury my son. All mothers ever ask of life is to die before their children. I have buried four of mine. Worse, now I must bury my tiny little grandchildren.”
She whispered in the language of the old people, a language she forbade me to speak lest the craziness of her sons and daughters who had died overtake me. Lest I have no one language but become a crippled two-tongue.
“Master their language, daughter; hidden within it is the way we are to live among them. It is clear that they will never go away. Every year more of them come. England, France, Wales –all must be terrible places, for they keep coming here to get away from there. I do not begrudge them a place here, but why do they have to bequeath to us the very things they escape from?”
It was like that in the 1950s in the wood-smoked kitchens of our grannies. I thought then that I would join the lonely march of six-year-old children going to grow up in the convent, missing my mom and unable to speak to my brothers. What a shock when school arrived and I was thrown not among Native children, but Europeans. The teacher was not a nun, but an ordinary white woman.
Back in my granny’s kitchen I was in tears, complaining about not being with the other children. She watched me weep until a deep sense of foolishness overtook me and I stopped the flow of my tears. “You are fortunate. How else will we master the language and keep our ways unless we can learn among them and still live with our mothers and grandmothers? You are fortunate. How else will we learn to master their ways and still master the ancient art of motherhood unless we are schooled by them and our mothers too? Further, it is not our way to bring misery to others. Better to teach them to treat you as a human being ought to be treated than to come here making gifts of misery to an old woman who has done you no harm.” Her silence spelled dismissal.
At age ten I stood at the edge of my granny’s grave, surrounded by Europeans, and witnessed the burial of our ancient ways. I wondered if the birth of a new world founded on the coming together of both our histories was really possible. Would Europeans ever look at me and see an equal, not an aborted cripple but a human being with all my frailties, my separate history, and our common future? I would not have had such thoughts if the grandmothers of this land had not battered themselves with the question, mused aloud in the presence of their granddaughters.
Had mass death, tuberculosis, and the loss of our grandmothers’ right to raise their young not have accompanied the development of Canada, the settlers would not have though thus. Should we have been invited not as inferior sub-humans, but as people with a great contribution to make the creation of a next nation, death would not haunt us as it does. More, our disappearance from the realm of history –the lingering realization that to most Canadians we do not exist –would not be our intimate agony.
Racism is an essential by-product of colonialism. That Europeans came her to escape something may be true, but it was not the real reason for erecting a colonial colossus all over the world. It was not the reason for he enslavement and importation of millions of African citizens to work our lands and build a meaner system than the world had ever known.
Europeans today see Natives without being able to imagine our grandmothers. They never see the old woman who shaped our lives: the ankle-length flowered and paisley cotton skirts; the warm earth colours of their clothes; the kerchiefs and laughing eyes are lost to Europeans. They can never hear the soft tones of our grandmothers’ ancient languages.
Europeans are blinded by Hollywood images. How sad. Not for me, but for them, as humanity is forever lost to those who would object to the colours and voices of the people of the past that have left their mark on the hearts and minds of the people of the present.
As a child I was humiliated by a string of teachers wearing brothel-tinted sunglasses. I was accused of sluttish behavior by a moralizing principal whose assessment of me was guided by the colour of my skin rather than my character. Now that line of teachers look pathetic and the poetry of T.S. Eliot burns new meaning into the pages of my own book: “We are the hollow men / stuffed men…”
I no longer weep for myself or the lost Europeans, but rather insist on writing myself into a new book that counts all of humanity on its tender warm and colourful pages.
We are not integrated people. We do not even co-exist peacefully. The reality of death still mangles our existence.
Death hangs over us
like a black widow-maker
on a treeless mountainside.
A beleaguered army
caught in a valley
we thought green, lush
and teaming with life
suddenly becomes a swamp
full of alligators
leeches, filth and disease
Caused more by the shame
of being fooled one more time.
In the darkness of our own
confusion we have forgotten
our reason for being.
In our grannies’ kitchens, where the scent of wood smoke and sumptuous meals cooked over a thousand fires lingered in the unpainted walls and cupboards, that is where I learned he laws which enabled me to love my children. In my granny’s kitchen, the sweet smells and gentle words soothed the aches and pains of a six-year-old growing up in a schizophrenic situation. Unlike in school, in my granny’s kitchen I as not made to memorize or even contemplate the meaning of her words.
“You will remember what you need to know when the time comes.”
Right then, it was he sunshine of her presence that I needed. Her radiance was neither finite nor momentary. It was this shower that I bequeath to my children.
Her love was not without discipline, but it did preclude violence. I searched her story for some parable, but after many years realized there was none. She could not give me my ancestors. I would have to find them myself. Not to let me walk away empty-handed, she gave me herself. She must have known I was desperate, for she never shamed me for begging. I was desperate, so desperate.
Before the fires of maddened Blacks burned their anger into the face of a frightened white America and made it forever impossible to erase African-Americans, there was sleep. The sleep of fools who know what they do but don’t think of the consequences of their actions. It was the sleep of an insipid historical continuum that repeated its idiocy, not just by force of habit, bt because no one raised any objections.
Force is the midwife of historical change.
“I was the best of times and the worst of times…” We need only add, “and the stupidest of times,” and we will have painted the prosperous ‘50s in the bleak colours of mass insensitivity and righteous, red-neck practice. In the ‘50s there was no challenge. The Red “man” was vanquished –cosigned to a kind of living purgatory in curio shops and tourist-trap trading posts. The Black “man” was reduced to a toe-tapping bundle of rhythm. (Black and Red women did not exist for anyone, yet.) All Natives were happy, and working-class European-cum-CanAmerica was movin’ up.
Before Rusty and Alexander Street,
skid row and my children
there was my grandmother.
On the shore by the lakes
and in the hills of our heritage,
our grannies sat on dead wood logs
behind the Black Robes
and their fathers.
Song: Viola Desmond by the Stolen Minks
On 8 November 1946, Viola Desmond, a black Nova Scotian, refused to leave her seat in the white only section of a cinema. She was forcibly removed from the theatre, held in a male cell block, charged with tax evasion in the amount of 1 cent (the cost difference between white floor seating and black balcony seating), tried without counsel and fined $26 dollars. She fought the conviction up to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia but her appeals were denied.
The authorities never acknowledged that she was black and arrested because of a racist policy. Her struggle contributed to the eventual changing of segregation laws in Nova Scotia. In April 2010, against the wishes of her family, the Nova Scotian government pardoned Viola Desmond.
Today I can’t find a single article acknowledging what should be a well known event in the history of Canadian civil rights. Without public recognition of systematic institutionalized racism in Canada (past and present) we are ill-equipped to identify interpersonal racism or our own prejudices. Those who experience racism remain oppressed yet invisible.
Viola Desmond is not Canada’s Rosa Parks by Renee Martin
Viola Desmond (and more links) from BlackHistoryCanada.ca