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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.

By Melanie Fahlman Reid 7 Aug 2012 |

Melanie Fahlman Reid is an instructor at Capilano University. Her areas of specialization include teaching composition, the British Literature Survey, and Drama.

[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, on Twitter @raincityvan or online here.  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous Affairs

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