“Manly-Hearted Women” and Other Stories of Epic Indigenous People We Need to Hear Right Now

The past week has been a difficult one for many people. I’ve been spending a lot of my time feeling anxious and overwhelmed, scrolling through social media to stay informed, and trying to meditate on how to use my privileged position to take action in meaningful ways to combat racism, particularly in my own country. Many in the United States are facing violence while protesting against racist police violence. However, Canada in general and Saskatchewan in particular have their own problems with racism, particularly anti-Indigenous racism. I’m an educator, both in my personal life and work life. A lot of what I do is try to amplify the right voices and stories, and change hearts and minds in wider society. I provide historical context for the world came to be as it is today, challenge misunderstandings of the past, and try to bring to the fore lesser-known stories that may cast nuance and shades of grey on a past many see in terms of black and white.

It’s a chilly and rainy day today where I am, so as I often do I turn to some of my favourite history books. Sarah Carter’s The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation-Building in Western Canada is one of the first books I ever read that really tilted my understanding of the world on its axis, just a little bit. (You can download a PDF of this book in full for free from Athabasca University Press’s website.) In her introduction, Carter discusses how the idea of “traditional” marriage – ’til death do you part, between one man and one woman of the same race in a church ceremony – was not in fact ubiquitous in what is now Western Canada. Intra-racial marriages, plural marriages, non-church ceremonies… these were all very, very common in the West for generations.

In this post, I want to highlight the stories of a few people, largely Blackfoot, who bucked what some would call “traditional” gender norms. I think that the stories of these awesome people, thriving, are the kinds of stories I and others need to hear right now, particularly during Pride Month. This passage is taken directly from Carter’s book:

“Aboriginal people of the plains also permitted marriages of people of the same sex. One of the spouses might be a ‘two-spirit’ who took on the activities, occupations, and dress of the opposite sex, in whole or in part, temporarily or permanently. There was no insistence on conformity to binaries of masculinity and femininity. Indian agents were frustrated by their inability to tell men and women apart, and they made mistakes, or were misled, when describing certain individuals. Oftentimes they did note the flexibility of gender roles when they described individuals to which annuities were paid, as evident in terms such as ‘wife shown as boy last year,’ ‘boy paid as girl last year,’ and ‘boy now a man formerly ran as a girl.’ Clothing, hair, footwear, and personal décor did not differentiate men from women in the way that Euro-Canadians were accustomed to. Qu’Appelle storekeeper Edward J. Brooks wrote in an 1882 letter to his wife-to-be that ‘I saw a couple of pure blooded Indians down at the station a couple of days ago and could not tell whether both were [women] or not but finally made up my mind that they were man and wife. They were both dressed as nearly alike as possible, had long braided hair, wore lots of jewellery and had their faced painted with Vermillion paint.’ An English visitor to Western Canada named Edward Roper wrote in his 1891 book that “most of us found it almost impossible to tell the young men and women apart; they were exactly alike in face [the men had no ‘beards or whiskers’], and being generally enveloped in blankets the difficulty increased.’ All wore similar beautifully decorated moccasins, bangles, and earrings, Roper wrote.

In Plains societies there were women who did not marry and pursued activities mostly associated with men. They hunted buffalo and went to war. An informant to [anthropologist Esther] Goldfrank described a woman warrior who was treated as a true leader. She was renowned for acts of bravery such as going into an enemy’s tipi and taking headdresses from behind the bed. ‘She used to leave her legging at the enemy camp and they would say ‘that woman has been here again.’ She always slept alone, while the men remained in camp. She would sleep on top of the hill and she sang a song. The next day she would know where to lead the party.’ This may have been the warrior another informant identified as “Trim Woman,” saying that ‘that kind of woman is always respected and everyone depends on them. They are admired for their bravery. They are ‘lucky’ on raids and so the men respect them.” Another Kainai woman, Empty Coulee, had a story similar to Trim Woman’s, but she had more courage, killing enemies and capturing guns, while Trim Woman only captured horses. After she became expert in raiding she changed her name to Running Eagle, a man’s name. She wore women’s clothing, but she ‘got respect as a ‘real man.’’ She never married.

Some of the women who took on ‘manly’ roles were married. . . Edwin Thompson Denig, a fur trader during the years 1833 and 1856, described a Gros Ventre woman who was a respected warrior, negotiator and hunter, and who was regarded as the third-ranked chief of her band. She had a wife.” (page 123-4)

Carter goes on to describe several historical accounts of people we today may call transgender women, who went to war but also excelled at sewing and had “a devoted husband.”

We today are informed by our past but are not beholden to it. I have found that oftentimes, people use imperfect understandings of the past to justify the status quo, that things can’t change because “it’s tradition” or “this is how it’s always been,” as if that is reason enough to justify a refusal to change things that hurt people. However, it is worth noting that many of these simplistic histories cited so triumphantly by people as they learned in school or in the movies erases the stories of people that run counter to their arguments. Our histories for many years were written by those in power, those who were literate, who could read and write in the dominant language of the state. The stories of women, the stories of people who didn’t fit the mold, were often ignored or written about by outsiders who didn’t know the people involved or who didn’t understand what they were seeing. If their stories were documented by contemporaries they may have been ignored or forgotten because they didn’t fit the dominant narrative.

However, just because we as a society aren’t broadly aware of these historical figures doesn’t mean they never existed. That’s one of the reasons why I really appreciate researchers like Sarah Carter and others, who use the very documents being produced by the state, read against the grain, to catch glimpses of these people: the men who formerly ran as girls and the women who took on men’s names and led men into battle.

While Self-Isolating, Why Not Consume Some Books and Podcasts on the History of Medicine?

So maybe you’re now more interested in the history of medicine all of a sudden. I specialized in the topic during my undergrad and I’ve found that studying the history of medicine and surgery a really good way of thinking critically about some of the ways people talk about health concerns today. How do we know what we know about how diseases work, spread, and should be treated, and how did we as a society come to learn that? Our medical knowledge today is an accumulation of observations and practices that are centuries old. It’s imperfect and incomplete. We go down dead ends. But we’re trying. Some things are well known among medical professionals, but imperfectly known among  the greater populace (and I count myself among the second group). New research is emmerging every day, adding nuance, confirming, or debunking prior knowledge – or just raising more questions. Studying the history of medicine, however, has helped me to think critically about the (mis)information flying around today. Here are a few of my favourite works on the history of medicine that may help you along this path too.

First, right off the bat, a reputable and topical modern source: the World Health Organization has assembled a “mythbusting” page, on some of the rumours and misinformation spreading about the current COVID-19 outbreak. Wash your hands (soap and water will do, if done properly), avoid crowds, stay calm, and pay attention to good sources of information on the outbreak.

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If you like to consume your learning in audio format (and I love to listen to podcasts while driving, on long walks, and while doing chores), I highly recommend these two history of medicine podcasts:

  • This Podcast Will Kill You: two disease ecologists and epidemiologists, both doctors, both named Erin, walk you through notable diseases. They always seem to start with a first-hand description of the disease, talk about how it works, how it spreads, sometimes how it’s treated, as well as how scared you should be about it. (For example: don’t worry about catching leprosy anytime soon.) Super informative and in-depth.
  • Sawbones: A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine: Dr. Sydnee McElroy and her husband Justin McElroy talk not only history of medicine but also some dangerous alternate modern ideas about medicine. This podcast in particular is very accessible for people like me without a science background.

In terms of books, two really stick out in my mind:

  • Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. This is about the cholera epidemic of 1854 and how someone used maps of deaths to track down the source of the epidemic: one water pump that had a reputation for clean, clear water. It was the case that showed that cholera was waterborne, not airborne. Plus, the doctor who led this initiative was called John Snow. This book really goes in depth into the study of this epidemic and what kind of information fed into the reaction to it. How do you determine the right information to tell people to convince them (the public, but also the city) to take the right action to save lives?
  • Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThis book isn’t about epidemics, but the cells that were taken from Henrietta Lacks in 1951 without her permission have shaped so much of modern medical research today. This book is about science and ethics of medical study and how complicated that can be.

Whenever people ask me about why I chose to study history at university, and how that’s helped me in my current career (I supervise a team of interpreters AKA educators/tour guides in a national park), I often point out the skills I developed in research and writing. Training as a historian, you really must think critically about sources of information and what you can legitimately glean from that source. There’s no such thing as unbiased material. You have to acknowledge the perspective of the person producing that document and why they may have created it. Knowing all of that, what can we learn from that source of information?

That’s equipped me to think critically about the types of information circulating in the media about this new coronavirus outbreak. There’s a lot of misinformation out there circulating widely without a source to back them up. Many well-meaning people uncritically pass it along. (I in general am an optimist and choose to believe that people generally act out of concern for each other.) There’s a real sense of urgency and a lot of fear in the face of so much that we don’t know. What we do know (or think we know) sometimes leads us down the wrong paths. Some advice circulating is actively harmful – like, don’t spray yourself all over with chlorine. Some advice is pretty innocuous and won’t hurt (i.e., eating more garlic) but is not going to be effective. As in all things, don’t put all of your eggs in one basket and assume you’re safe because, for example, you’ve been taking more hot baths lately. (Note that WHO says that extreme cold or heat outside of the body isn’t going to do anything, because your body temperature is still pretty constant.)

The World Health Organization has some good tips. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water. Don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. Avoid crowds. Practice social distancing (staying several metres away from people). Keep up to date on the latest news from reputable sources.

Look out for and check in with friends and family – but know that that might mean not seeing them in person.

Stay safe out there!

Author Erin Kinsella Interviews Me About My Bison Book

I have talented friends! The ever-gracious and enthusiastic Erin Kinsella interviews me in this video on her YouTube channel about my book, Through the Storm: Canada’s Bison Conservation Story. Learn some nifty anecdotes from my research and the publication process with the federal government, why my book has two different titles (or four, if you consider the French versions), and some photoshop secrets about the cover!

Stepping Off the Page: Ron Chernow’s Biography of Alexander Hamilton

I have been working my way through Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton over the course of the last few months. It is a truly excellent work of popular history. As a Canadian historian, I’d never really been exposed to much of the detailed history of the American revolutionary era and early decades of the United States, and the early financial and political history of the independent country is surprisingly fascinating. I think a lot of my newfound fascination is a testament to Chernow’s ability to both humanize historical figures but also parse out their politics in an engaging, clear, and detailed way. The country could have gone in so many other directions. Chernow does an amazing job of laying out just how fragile the early republic was. Too often the success of the revolution and the formation of the American state as we know it today is treated almost like political certainty, or some sort of destiny, but reading this book you get a real sense of how figures like Washington and Hamilton could have lost, not just the revolution but in other great projects of theirs that they’re known for. I now understand much better why there were amendments to the American constitution. I understand early banking a lot better, and how sketchy people thought it was then … and I can see parallels to today with people who are not financially literate having very firm ideas about the politics determining the finances of a nation. I have a better sense of just how vicious the early politics could be, with politicians publishing anonymous diatribes about each other either using proxy authors or thinly-veiled pseudonyms themselves. Some of it was incredibly petty, and a lot of it was character assassination and treating rumours as fact. (So… the more things change, the more things stay the same?) Nevertheless, the sheer amount of detail that Chernow draws together in this work boggles my mind.

I really like Chernow’s authorial voice. He sets the tone early, in his very first author’s note before the title page:

In order to make the text as fluent as possible and the founders less remote, I have taken the liberty of modernizing the spelling and punctuation of eighteenth-century prose, which can seem antiquated and jarring to modern eyes. I have also cured many contemporary newspaper editors of their addiction to italics and capitalized words. Occasionally, I have retained the original spelling to emphasize the distinctive voice, strong emotion, patent eccentricity, or curious education of the person quoted. I trust that these exceptional cases, and my reasons for wanting to reproduce them precisely, will be evident to the alert reader.

Chernow has an evocative way of gathering together content from what must be thousands of pages of primary research into an incredible cohesive narrative. It almost reads like a novel. The historical figures nearly step off of the page, and not just in their grander moments. Take, for instance, this bit about Hamilton’s immediately post-war job as an up-and-coming New York lawyer:

The departure of many Tory lawyers had cleared the path for capable, ambitious men in their late twenties and early thirties, including Burr, Brockholst Livingston, Robert Troup, John Laurance, and Morgan Lewis. They were constantly thrown together in and out of court. Much of the time they rode the circuit together, often accompanied by the judge, enduring long journeys in crude stagecoaches that jolted along jumpy upstate roads. They stayed in crowded, smoky inns and often had to share beds with one another, creating a camaraderie that survived many political battles. (pg. 188)

These are the kinds of details I find fascinating. (I am a social historian, not normally a political one.) How did these people know each other? What had they been through together? It’s often in little details like these that we get really good contextual information to the relationships of historical figures. It’s interesting how the everyday details of people’s lives influenced their politics.

I also loved the moment where Chernow describes the secular leanings of Hamilton at Constitutional Convention:

When [Benjamin] Franklin suggested on June 28 that each session start with a prayer for heavenly help, Hamilton countered that this might foster a public impression that ’embarrassments and dissensions within the convention had suggested this measure.’ According to legend, Hamilton also rebutted Franklin with the jest that the convention didn’t need ‘foreign aid.’ The Lord did not seem much in evidence at this point in the convention. One story, perhaps apocryphal, claims that when Hamilton was asked why the framers omitted the word God from the Constitution, he replied, ‘We forgot.’ One is tempted to reply that Alexander Hamilton never forgot anything important. (pg. 235)

I now have a much better understanding of how the story of Alexander Hamilton inspired Lin Manuel Miranda to write his amazing musical, famously based on this book. The life of Alexander Hamilton is almost too dramatic to be true. I wanted to highlight the following story in particular, as it really stuck in my mind. I believe it would make an amazing television episode by itself. During the revolutionary war, Hamilton was acting as aide-de-camp to General George Washington…

Washington dispatched Hamilton, Captain Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee (father of Robert E. Lee), and eight cavalrymen to burn flour mills on the Schuylkill River before they fell into enemy hands. While Hamilton and others were destroying flour at Daviser’s … Ferry, their sentinels fired a warning shot indicating the approach of British dragoons. To guarantee an escape route, Hamilton had moored a flat-bottomed boat at the river’s edge. He and three comrades now leaped into the craft and pushed off from shore, while Lee and others took off on horseback. Lee recalled the British raking Hamilton’s boat with repeated volleys from their carbines, killing one of Hamilton’s men and wounding another. All the while, the intrepid Hamilton was ‘struggling against a violent current, increased by the recent rains.’ Hamilton and his men finally drove from the boat into the swirling waters and swam to safety. Scarcely stopping for breath, Hamilton dashed off a message to John Hancock that urged the immediately evacuation of the Continental Congress from Philadelphia. Just before Hamilton returned to headquarters, Washington received a letter from Captain Lee announcing Hamilton’s death in the Schuylkill. There were tears of jubilation, as well as considerable laughter, when the sodden corpse himself sauntered through the door. (pg. 98-99)

This is what public history is supposed to do. It is a good story, and an evocative and accessible one. This one scene, in and among all of the others that Chernow writes about, highlights elements of Hamilton’s character, the part he played in the revolution, and the relationships he has with other historical figures such as Washington. Drawing these types of vignettes together to tell the story of a person’s life: that’s a historian’s job.

The role of a historian is in part to gather together evidence of past historical events, critically analyze them, and assemble them into coherent narratives. As Chernow himself has said: “History is long, messy, and complicated.” However, Chernow does an excellent job at portraying that messiness in a way that doesn’t put people on a pedestal, and makes sense of the many factions of that period in American history. The men and women that Chernow writes about don’t feel as remote to me anymore. I particularly like how Chernow sometimes highlights their handwriting. The materiality of a document can tell a historian a lot about the person writing it and the circumstances under which they wrote it. For instance, lot of the surviving dispatches in Washington’s name from the revolutionary war are in Hamilton’s handwriting (being an aide-de-camp involved effectively being a secretary among other duties), testifying to just how involved Hamilton was with Washington’s inner circle at critical moments during the war. There’s also this charming aside about Hamilton and his wife Eliza:

On April 30, 1781, Hamilton sent a marathon letter to Morris – it runs to thirty-one printed pages – that set forth a fully-fledged system for shoring up American credit and creating a national bank. Portions of this interminable letter exist in Eliza’s handwriting (complete with her faulty spelling), as if Hamilton’s hand ached and he had to pass the pen to his bride at intervals. (pg. 156)

I’m not only picturing them as static paintings and statues, as formal words spoken in florid or stoic language, but as real human beings with all their foibles and physical weaknesses and petty words, with their passions and dedication to duty.  The figures in Chernow’s biography get tired, they get sick, and they get frustrated with one another. They defend their ideals against all comers. They have great passions and they have tender moments with their loved ones. They’re people. Fascinating ones.

And oh man I’m only about 400 pages into an 800 page tome, and I’m so excited to read more.

Resources

  • Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. (Of course.)
  • Ron Chernow Interview: Hamilton on Broadway: Chernow talks about how he came to be involved in Lin Manuel Miranda’s project, and the process of adapting an 800 page book into a two hour musical. Adaptation necessitates a straightforward narrative, so how does a historical consultant grapple with ideas of “historical accuracy” in a new medium?
  • Speaking of writing: if you’re interested in learning more about the clever writing of Lin Manuel Miranda in his musical based off of this book, I highly recommend this video: “Hamilton and Motifs: Creating Emotional Paradoxes.” (Bonus, it has clips of the musical that I can’t find elsewhere!)

“Like Distant Thunder: Canada’s Bison Conservation Story”

After years of work, I’m pleased to announce the publication of my book Like Distant Thunder: Canada’s Bison Conservation Story!

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Those who know me well know that I am always eager to share stories of bison history. Like Distant Thunder gathers together stories of bison conservation in what is now Canada, with a focus on the origins of the herds now protected by Parks Canada. These are tales full of twists and turns, successes and mistakes, and of course people with amazing names.

Much has been said about individual bison herds like Yellowstone, but I feel the stories north of the Medicine Line haven’t been told nearly as much. The story of wood bison in particular, the lesser-known but larger of the two subspecies of North American bison, is hardly discussed by historians. I’ve also come to learn a lot about what came to be known as the Pablo-Allard herd and its importance. An estimated 80% of plains bison today are descended from Pablo-Allard stock via either Elk Island or the National Bison Range in the US. Elk Island National Park has played an important role in bringing back both plains bison and wood bison from the brink of extinction. If you’ve seen a bison in Canada today, odds are they had an ancestor who passed through Elk Island. What came to be known as the Pablo-Allard herd initially began with the capture of a small number of bison calves by Indigenous men (Samuel Walking Coyote, or possibly/probably Peregrine Falcon Robe) in what is now Montana. These bison were raised by Metis men (Michel Pablo and Charles Allard), who expanded the herd until it was the largest and most genetically diverse bison herd in all of North America. Since 1907 they have been protected by Canadian national park staff. Getting these bison to Canada? Well, that’s an exciting story that deserves to be its own movie.

While studying at Carleton University I became particularly interested in the history of photography and the use (and misuse) of images of the past. Because of that, I was very conscious of my choice of images to illustrate this text. I’d like to draw your attention to the following images:

One of the things I find most fascinating about the history of bison conservation is how very nearly it came to failure on multiple occasions. All bison herds today (plains and wood bison) are descended from about 7 discrete populations: wild-caught and raised herds (Bedson/McKay, Buffalo Jones, Goodnight, Pablo-Allard, a handful of others) and wild herds that had national parks formed around them (Wood Buffalo National Park and Yellowstone National Park). When we say that bison were on “the brink of extinction”, we really mean it. It’s only due to a lot of hard work that bison still live in the world today.

I also wanted to highlight the continuous role of Indigenous people in bison conservation all the way through to today. Too often textbooks only speak of First Nations in their introductions and first chapters. From Walking Coyote to Michel Pablo to signatories of the Buffalo Treaty, Indigenous people have continued to protect bison through to the present day. The importance of bison to different Indigenous cultures isn’t a thing of the past; it’s an ongoing relationship that still informs the activism and actions of people today.

When I speak about this history in brief with visitors, I often say that many people know a little bit about the history of bison. They know that bison were important to First Nations people, that there used to be a lot of them, and that bison nearly went extinct. What I want to do with this work and in my interpretation is to fill in a bit of detail in that picture, but also to tell the sequel to the story that people kind of half know: what’s happened to bison since their historic lows of the 1890s, and how they came to be here on the landscape today.

Like Distant Thunder has been published by Parks Canada. Because it’s a government of Canada publication, it is of course available in both official languages. It was expertly translated into French by Claudine Cyr from the Translation Bureau. I swear some of the passages are even more evocative in French than in my English! If you are a French reader I highly encourage you to read that version as well.

We currently an to print Like Distant Thunder in the fall, but digital versions are currently available for free on Elk Island National Park’s website. Below are the download links. I recommend the PDF version on desktop computers and tablets, for printing, and to admire the beautiful layout. The PDF versions are how I intended this book to be read. There are also HTML versions, which are for accessibility: good for visually impaired folks using readers, or if you are reading it on your phone and would find HTML easier to read.

Please enjoy! Don’t hesitate to contact me to start a conversation about the fascinating history of bison conservation.