L.M. Montgomery and Indigeneity

By Carole Gerson [1]

Current interpreters of L.M. Montgomery’s stories are attempting to bring them up to date by inserting new characters from marginalized cultural groups. Early in 2019, the producers of the “Anne with an E” television series announced that they “are looking to cast a Mi’kmaq girl between the ages of 10 and 13 years old to play Ka’twet’s, the eldest daughter in a Mi’kmaq family of characters that are new to the series.”[2] While Montgomery’s private writings and scrapbooks show that she was not unaware of Native people, including the popular Mohawk poet Pauline Johnson (1861-1913), their presence in her publications was marginal and reflected common tropes of white engagement with Indigeneity, often contrasting a heroic past with a degraded present. This pattern began with one of her first pieces, written in 1891 while she was spending a year in Prince Albert SK with her father’s second family. Titled “A Western Eden,” her essay describes a quest for the “dusky warrior” of the past who “belongs to an extinct species now.”[3] Over the course of her career Montgomery would set a handful of stories in the West, in which passing references to “Indians” contribute regional colour.

LMM_signed_photo

L.M. Montgomery, ca. 1935.

Closer to home, rare appearances of Native people in Montgomery’s PEI and Ontario fictions reiterate conventional cultural assumptions that range from the pejorative to the romantic: from little boys devising games of “Indian ambush”[4] to the Story Girl’s erroneous explanation that the name of Shubenacadie commemorates a pair of tragic Native lovers, Shuben and Accadee,[5] whereas its actual Mi’kmaw meaning refers to a place where wild turnips or potatoes grow. Especially intriguing is the peculiarly named “Squaw Baby” of  the story titled “The Cheated Child,” a little girl whose real name is never revealed.[6]

As Montgomery well knew, from the 1890s through the 1930s, to engage with Indigeneity in Canadian literature was to engage in some way with Pauline Johnson. In 1917, she gave a talk (that has not survived) on “Pauline Johnson and her Contribution to Literature” to the Hypatia Club, the women’s literary society of Uxbridge, Ontario.  While Montgomery quoted Johnson on several additional occasions and the two women were both Canadian literary celebrities at the beginning of the twentieth century, they crossed paths more often in print than in real life, publishing their work in many of the same major Canadian and American periodicals.[7] Symptomatic of their synchronicity is the appearance of Montgomery’s poem “You” on page 272 of the July 1913 issue of the Canadian Magazine, opposite the beginning of Isabel Ecclestone MacKay’s article, “Pauline Johnson: A Reminiscence,” on page 273.

Moreover, Montgomery’s story “Tannis of the Flats” (1904)[8] resembles several of Johnson’s stories about Native women betrayed by white lovers. Montgomery was likely aware of these pieces, given the wide circulation of periodicals from central Canada into the Maritimes and her addiction to reading. Both “A Red Girl’s Reasoning” (1893) and “As It Was in the Beginning” (1899) focus on young mixed-race women who make the mistake of trusting white men, but then refuse to be victims of their lovers’ treachery. One walks out on her white husband when he seeks reconciliation, while the other poisons her weak white lover to prevent him from marrying the Hudson Bay Company factor’s insipid daughter. Johnson’s heroines deploy their gender to assert agency, thereby achieving a degree of satisfaction, albeit neither enjoys a conventional happy ending.

Montgomery’s Tannis is specifically Metis in her mixture of Cree, French and Scottish heritages as well as her last name of Dumont. Drawing on her memory that “the half-breed girls are the prettiest ones going,”[9] Montgomery describes Tannis as looking as if “all the blood of all the Howards might be running her veins.”[10] She is as attractive and as vulnerable as Johnson’s heroines and equally relentless in her refusal to acquiesce to common stereotypes. The attentions of Jerome Carey, a bored Englishman in charge of the telegraph station in the “Flats” community near Prince Albert, cause Tannis to fall deeply in love with him. Hence she is not pleased when the arrival of Elinor, a white woman, turns his affections. When Carey is fatally wounded, Tannis initially seems to enact the stereotype of the self-sacrificing Native woman when she braves stormy conditions to bring Elinor to Carey’s bedside. But she then triumphs after his death when she dismisses Elinor in order to keep her lover’s body and possess his grave. Like Johnson’s heroines, Tannis resists white expectations by taking control of the narrative.  In other words, in Montgomery’s most Johnson-like story, she moved beyond the stereotypes that typify most of her references to Indigenous people.

When we review writers from the past through the lens of the present, Montgomery’s work seems more enlightened than some stories by her best-known Maritime peers. In Montgomery’s oeuvre, I have yet to find a piece like Marshall Saunders’s “The Two Kaloosas” (1896), which offers Christian residential school as the only hopeful option for a Micmac child.[11]  Nor did she malign Native people as did Charles G.D. Roberts in several of his short stories. In “Indian Devils” (a local term for panthers), the attempts of two unsavoury Melicete men  to steal a geologist’s specimens – because they believe that his box contains real gold rather than fool’s gold – result in the death of one and serious injury to the other.[12] Most disturbing is “A Tragedy of the Tides,” date-lined Halifax, 18 Sept 1749, in which a pair of newly arrived white lovers are captured by “Micmacs” and tied to stakes at the shoreline where they drown in the rising tide. Roberts regarded this story as “one of his best things I have done in prose” for its “workmanship” and tragic unity.[13]

Comparing Montgomery with her contemporaries provides one point of entry into an examination of the Aboriginal presence in earlier Canadian literature, an issue all the more pressing in view of the TRC report, whose recommendations include an honest assessment of our cultural history. As a participant in that history, Montgomery was a woman of her time. “Tannis of the Flats,” one of her most distinctive stories, represents a singular effort to address issues that characterize Pauline Johnson’s fiction. Yet overall, while matters of Indigeneity were consistently within Montgomery’s general purview, her scattered references to Johnson and to Native people in her publications and the surviving documentation of her life indicate that they hovered outside her comfort zone as a writer and therefore remained on the margins of her literary practice.


Carole Gerson is a Professor of English at Simon Fraser University.


Notes:

[1] This post is drawn from my presentation on “L.M. Montgomery and Indigeneity” at the 2018 Atlantic Studies Conference at Acadia, which in turn derived from my presentation at the 2016 UPEI conference on “L.M. Montgomery and Gender.” Under the title of “L. M. Montgomery, E. Pauline Johnson, and the Figure of the ‘Half-Breed Girl,’” the latter is forthcoming in the resulting conference volume, edited by E. Holly Pike and Laura Robinson, now under consideration with McGill-Queen’s University Press.

[2] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/prince-edward-island/pei-anne-auditions-mi-kmaq-character-1.5010530 (accessed 218 April 2019).

[3]Montgomery, “A Western Eden,”(1891); rpt. in A Name for Herself: Selected Writings 1891-1917, ed. Benjamin Lefebvre (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2018); 11-16; 14.

[4] Montgomery, Rainbow Valley (1923; rpt. Toronto: Seal Books, 1973), 48.

[5] Montgomery, The Story Girl (1910; rpt. Toronto: Seal Books, 1987), 215-17.

[6] “The Cheated Child” was collected in Montgomery, The Road to Yesterday (Toronto: Bantam 1974). 185-234 and somewhat expanded in Montgomery, The Blythes are Quoted, ed. Benjamin Lefebvre (Toronto: Viking Canada, 2009), 267-311

[7]These included the Halifax Herald; the Toronto-based Globe newspaper, Canadian Magazine, Ladies’ Journal, East and West and Saturday Night; New York’s Smart Set and Outing Magazine; and Boys’ World of Chicago.

[8] First published in the Criterion (New York) in 1904, “Tannis of the Flats” was reprinted in the Canadian Magazine in 1914 and was significantly edited for inclusion in Further Chronicles of Avonlea (1920).

[9] Montgomery to Penzie MacNeill, 26 Aug 1890; rpt. in Francis W.P .Bolger, The Years Before “Anne” (n.p.: Prince Edward Island Heritage Foundation, 1974), 86.

[10] “Tannis of the Flats,” Canadian Magazine 42 (Jan 1914), 275-82; 276.

[11] “The Two Kaloosas” was collected in Saunders, For the Other Boy’s Sake and other Stories (Philadelphia: Banes, 1896), 192-212.

[12] “Indian Devils” was collected in Roberts, Around the Campfire (Toronto: Musson, [1896]), 315-29.

 [13]Roberts to Bliss Carman, 19 April 1892, The Collected Letters of Charles G.D. Roberts, ed. Laurel Boone (Fredericton: Goose Lane, 1989), 146. “A Tragedy of the Tides” was collected in Roberts,  Earth’s Enigmas (Boston: Lamson Wolffe, 1895), 139-56.

About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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