Devil in Deerskins: Anahareo and Indigenous Writing

I recently read Devil in Deerskins: My Life with Grey Owl the autobiography of Anahareo (1906-1985).  Anahareo was a Mohawk environmentalist, writer, and activist.  She is perhaps most well known for her marriage to Grey Owl, also known as Archie Belaney, the internationally acclaimed author who claimed to be of Scottish and Apache descent, but who’s roots as an Englishman were revealed after his death.

The original version of Devil in Deerskins was published in 1972.  The University of Manitoba Press republished Anahareo’s autobiography in 2014 as part of it’s First Voices First Texts series.  This series aims to republish critical editions of books by important under-recognized Indigenous authors and place these texts within their cultural contexts.  The republished version of Devil in Deerskins was edited and includes an afterword by Sophie McCall.  The critical comments by McCall add value to the discussion of Anahareo as an important historical figure in her own right and the republishing aims to introduce a new generation to Anahareo and Grey Owl.

McCall’s afterward rightly points out how Anahareo has most often been defined by her relationship with Grey Owl and at times has been “overlooked as an Indigenous writer because of her family’s history of displacement and relocation.” McCall’s close examination of Devil in Deerskins highlights the depth of Anahareo’s Mohawk heritage and the influence it had on her way of life and writing.  This is brought out through a discussion of Anahareo’s relationship with her Grandmother, her beading, her use of traditional medicine, and the use of oral history to impart traditional knowledge.

Prior to reading this book I knew very little about Anahareo other than her relationship with Grey Owl.  Anahareo is far more than the supporting figure that history has whitewashed her into.  She received the Order of Nature from the International League of Animal Rights in 1979 and in 1983 received the Order of Canada.  Her contributions to environmental, social, and animal rights go far beyond her relationship with Grey Owl and she was one of the first Indigenous women to publish a full length memoir in Canada.  Her autobiography is well worth a read if you are interested in early environmentalism or indigenous literature.

Anahareo’s use of place in her life narrative and her ability to recreate landscapes inspired me to look up some of the locations she mentioned in her autobiography. The cabin which Anahareo describes in her memoir as the spot Grey Owl picked to settle and begin creating a beaver sanctuary in 1931 still exists in Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan. The main cabin known as Beaver Lodge was built on the shoreline of Ajawaan Lake with a beaver lodge integrated into the design.  A larger cabin for Anahareo, her daughter Shirley Dawn, and visitors was nearby in 1932.   The Parks Canada description of the Cabin focuses largely on Grey Owl with just one or two mentions of Anahareo.  I would be interested to know what interpretive materials are at the site itself and how they depict Anahareo.

 

Public History and Environmental Engagement: Scotland’s Coastal Heritage

The recent special issue of The Public Historian focused on public history and environmental sustainability.  This issue builds on the sustainable public history theme that was the focus of the 2014 National Council on Public History conference and the digital collection Public History in a Changing Climate which appeared on the Public History Commons.  The special journal issue contains a number of interesting articles on the desire to engage the public with environmental history and a changing environmental landscape. 

The article “A View from Scotland’s Coast” by Tom Dawson which looks at coastal erosion and the impact of erosion of heritage sites provides a glimpse into the potential of engaging the public in issues of heritage, climate change, and natural heritage. 

Dawson’s writing focuses on the work of the Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion Trust (SCAPE Trust) and highlights examples of coastal erosion’s impact of heritage sites in Scotland.  For example, in Bora, a small coastal town in Northern Scotland, industrial buildings from the sixteenth century were uncovered on the coast.  Beginning in 2004 SCAPE worked with the local community and organizations to excavate buildings and begin to document the site.  However in 2012 a winter storm destroyed the sixteenth-century salt pans that had been uncovered.  All that remained were piles of ruble on a beach below.

This and other examples of heritage sites endangered by coastal erosion reminded me a lot of my trip to Ireland.  While touring the Dingle Peninsula there were a number of site that had been partially destroyed be erosion or were at risk because of the changing shoreline.  I remember thinking at the time about what could be done to save such sites, particularly in a country that is filled with similar heritage structures.

Dawson argues that “being able to demonstrate the value of an asset is key to getting the item preserved, or at least recorded before it is destroyed.”  Heritage sites need to advocate for the value of their existence and preservation, especially if an economic advantage to preserving the site isn’t immediately apparent. 

SCAPE believes that involving communities and local populations in archaeological and preservation projects is key, “working directly with heritage gives people a greater understanding of its importance, and this appreciation spreads through the community and beyond”  Additionally local residents often hold valuable knowledge which has been passed down through generations about local heritage sites, landscape changes, and past events. 

SCAPE’s development of the Scotland’s Coastal Heritage at Risk Project (SCHARP) highlights a collaborative effort to engage communities in preservation.  The project relies on the public to update and correct information collected via coastal surveys and report any changes to the sites.  The SCHARP project website includes data for 12,000 coastal sites and invites the public to update information based on local knowledge.  The site is relatively user friendly and interesting to explore even for those without a local connection to Scotland.

SCAPE also asks community members to nominate sites for preservation.  Though the ShoreDig project SCAPE works with communities to facilitate community excavation and to encourage engagement with threatened local heritage. 

Dawson’s work highlights the crucial role the public has to play in the preservation of coastal heritage.  Community engagement is essential to assessment of local heritage sites and working with the public can help preserve information and sites which would otherwise be lost in changing landscapes.

Cultural Landscapes at NCPH 2013

Tongariro National Park, NZ

Thursday afternoon I attended the “Whose Public? Who speaks for Cultural Landscapes” session at  NCPH featuring Susan Gray, Elizabeth Pishief and Aurelie Gfeller.  This session was a more traditional format with the presenters each reading a formal paper.  The common theme in the session was the preservation of cultural landscapes and the connections that indigenous people have to traditional landscapes.

Pishief spoke about her experience in the development of  land use and cultural landscape policies in New Zealand.  Pishief’s presentation provided insight into the cultural practices of the Maori people and the impact of their beliefs have had on the development heritage discourses.  Perhaps most signficantly, Pishief described the Maori understanding of land as being both material and spiritual and uniquely connected to a sense of place and belonging. This presentation provided food for thought regarding Canadian indigenous conceptions of land and stewardship. 

Gfeller’s presentation was focused on the UNESCO world heritage designation process.  Though this presentation was not focused directly on indigenous conceptions of heritage, Gfeller did explain the roots of UNESCO designation and the difficulties many indigenous communities have getting their cultural landscapes recognized.  Gfeller indicated that indigenous communities are often hampered by the UNESCO application process, the need to apply through formal government channels, and the need to explain non-tangible conceptions of cultural landscapes. 

This panel concluded with Gray’s description of her experience working as an expert witness during litigation surrounding the 1836 Treaty of Washington with an emphasis on the historical and contemporary definitions of settlement.  I found Gray’s discussion of settlement as a European term which is closely linked to the transformation of forest into farms intriguing and appropriate considering the many land disputes that are still occurring in North America. Understanding  language used in original treaty documents is crucial to land dispute resolution.

Overall, I found this panel to contain a lot of interesting ideas about indigenous and settler conceptions of cultural landscapes across international boarders.  The only drawback of the panel was that the format left limited time for audience questions and interaction.