Monday, November 27, 2017

My November Project: A book-length draft of Lisette's Journey for #NaNoWriMo!

I did it! Thanks to NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month),  I have a very rough draft of a book-length manuscript of Lisette's Journey. Here's the synopsis and excerpt.

Lisette's Journey

Author: Lynn Noel
Genre: Historical


The biographical memoir Lisette's Journey tells a cross-cultural love and adventure story of the Northwest Company fur trade. The true tale of Lisette Laval Harmon (1798-1863) and her husband Daniel Williams Harmon (1778-1843) is based on Daniel's journal Sixteen Years in the Indian Country 1800-1816. Their epic transcontinental voyage together is brought to vivid life by Lynn's thirty years of experience, following in the Harmons' footsteps, with an award-winning living history roleplay of Lisette originally developed for the Canadian Heritage Rivers System. Featured by the Vermont Humanities Council, at fur trade reenactments from Ontario's Old Fort William and Manitoba's Festival du Voyageur to Fort de Chartres in Illinois, and most recently at a maritime festival in the Netherlands, Lisette's Journey brings the spirit of the voyageur to life with a woman's voice and a paddler's passion.


 Any modern canoeist longs for the era of the voyageurs. The landscape itself evokes them. When the mist rises on Saganaga Lake, you can almost see the stern of the great canoes vanishing ahead of you in the fog. In the silent dip of the paddle, there is an echo of the rhythm of a song long vanished, yet recognizable as a heartbeat. In the call of wolf and loon, you can hear the voyageurs singing.
We all talk to the past. Women who value the voyageur mystique have a particular and dual challenge in seeking to reenact it. Modern, culturally European "woodswomen" identify with both halves of the fur trade split: we are white like the men and women like the natives. When we succeed in achieving this dual vision, it pops the fur trade into stereo.
The story of Daniel and Lisette Harmon has a unique ability to fuse the dualities that have been used for so long to define not only the fur trade era, but North American history itself. Strong, adventurous women long to put ourselves in the picture, to feel personally connected to a history in which we have long been taught we are invisible-or identified as male. When both men and women can identify with both Lewis and Clark and with Sacajawea, with both Lisette and Daniel Harmon, we will have gained new dimensions to the history of our continent and our place upon it.
We choose living history as a means to walk a mile in another's moccasins. I began Lisette's journey in 1988 with a passion for paddling and singing, those twin loves of the voyageur. Lisette has since given me a second language, a second country, three national awards, a major book and a CD, a passport to the past, some hoped-for insight into those not of my race or gender, and an enduring fascination with our great continent and its history of adventurous women. Lisette Duval has become my hero, and I am proud to walk in her moccasins.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Detailed StoryMap: 1806 to 1808 Saskatchewan to Ontario

Lisette's first journey with Daniel started when she was only fourteen, given to him as a "country wife" at South Branch House. They were soon posted to Cumberland House, one of a string of NWC forts on the Saskatchewan River under Daniel's management. From there they traveled down Lake Winnipeg, up the Winnipeg River, and through today's Boundary Waters to Fort William on Lake Superior. There Daniel fell sick with a mysterious illness at a turning point in his career.

Daniel was the NWC's first choice to lead an "expedition of discovery" to the Mandans on the Missouri River to meet Lewis and Clark. Instead of meeting her counterpart Sacajawea, the young wife of interpreter Toussaint Charbonneau, Lisette would find herself in the company of the fierce-looking and formidable Doctor John McLoughlin, who took Daniel into the Nipigon District with him for a cure. The doctor would deliver her first child when she was but sixteen. George Harmon came into the world in December 1808, at a desolate post in the wilderness of North Ontario that McLoughlin and Daniel had built with their own hands earlier that summer. With a babe in arms, Lisette would retrace her steps come spring, journeying over 1500 miles back to Cumberland House for Daniel's new posting to the Athabasca District. An even longer journey lay ahead.


Sunday, October 15, 2017

An Orphan of the Company: Lisette's Parentage At Last Revealed

Whenever I'm revisiting Lisette's Journey for an upcoming gig, I do a Google search on keywords related to Lisette and Daniel Harmon, to see if anything new has turned up in the vast reaches of the internet. One of the keywords I tend to use when pursuing leads on Lisette herself is "snare indian," which is an older term for the Secwepemc or Shuswap people of British Columbia.

Daniel's journal records October 10, 1805 at Cumberland House, Saskatchewan that 

"This day a Canadians daughter (A Girl of about fourteen years of age) was offered me...Her mother is of the Tribe of the Snare Indians, whose country lies about the Rocky Mountain." 

This puts Lisette's birth year around 1791, and her mother's birthplace in present-day Alberta or British Columbia. The term "Canadian" in this context indicates that Lisette's father was a voyageur, most probably a Métis of mixed parentage himself. 

Today a search for "Snare Indian" yielded a 2013 book by Joachim Fromhold, Alberta History: West Central Alberta, 13,000 Years ..., Part 2; Parts 1750-1840. The searchable text on Google Books yielded 9 hits on Snare, including a thrilling entry that is the best lead on Lisette herself that I have found in thirty years. 

This is a remarkable finding, since it confirms the original spelling of Lisette's last name as Duval, a name I used for the first 20 years of the program. It also gives the full name of Lisette's father, Jean Baptiste Lavallee Jr., as well as the date and place of Lisette's parents' marriage circa 1789 at Rocky Mountain House, now a National Historic Site in Alberta where I have presented my roleplay of Lisette. The marriage date aligns well with Lisette's birth year of 1791, so we can be confident that these are indeed Lisette's parents and confirm that her mother was a Shuswap. 

Fromhold reports that "a number of births occurred during the 1770s or slightly before among the ASINI WACHI--the dates being uncertain due to the lack of existing records....somewhere to the west, across the North Saskatchewan River, the future Mrs. Lavallee was born, possibly in the Jasper area, to the Snare Indians." (p. 5) This would make Lisette's mother no more than 21 at her birth, and likely younger. 

Fromhold's 2010 book, The Medicine Hills: Sacred Ground, 13,000 Years of History and Notes, includes the earliest known reference to Lisette (Lizette) herself, as an infant at Rocky Mountain House with the party of fur trader Peter Pangman. Lizette is listed with both birth and death years, indicating that more is known of her life history. (As her death certificate in the Montreal archives indicates, she died at Sault-au-Récollet, Montréal, February 14, 1862 aged 70.) She is listed with acronyms for Cree, Shuswap, Rocky Mountain House, Snake, and others.

As ASINI-WATCHI, Lisette's mother would be a member of the Asini Wachi Wi iniwak,  ("Mountain People"), which Fromhold gives as a confederation of several Cree and Assiniboine bands. These people's lands were known as the Asini Wachi Nehiyawak (Mountain Cree), who can be identified in the region as early as 1650. Today, the Asini Watchi Nehiyawak are a traditional band of the Mountain Cree. This aligns well with references in Daniel's journal to the languages he spoke with his wife and children.

"In conversing with my children, I use entirely the Cree, Indian language; with their mother I more frequently employ the French. Her native tongue, however, is more familiar to her, which is the reason our children have been taught that, in preference to the French language." (pp. 218-219)

There is a notable omission in Peter Pangman's party. Louise Paul (Cree) is listed by name, and two other wives are also listed, but there is no mention of "Lavallee, J. (wife)." Since Irvine Martin, b. 1790, is also listed as an infant with both his parents, the most likely explanation is that Lisette's mother died, either at or shortly after her birth. This could provide one logical explanation for why she was "given" to Daniel at such an early age. However, the fact that Cree was Lizette's native language and was more familiar to her indicates that she was brought up in a native, Cree-speaking community. Perhaps Louise Paul or one of the other wives in the party took on her upbringing in her early childhood. 

Fromhold includes an image of the well-known Peter Rindisbacher painting "A Cree Lodge at Red River" from the West Point Museum. RIndisbacher painted in the Red River District in 1822, three years after Daniel and Lisette left for Vermont, but this scene is very familiar to me. One of the most powerful experiences I had during my own years in the pays d'en haut was roleplaying Lisette at Rocky Mountain House, both out on the riverbank and in a teepee furnished almost exactly like this one. It is easy to imagine these women as Louise Paul, Madame Martin, and Madame Pierre Pangman, thirty years earlier at Rocky Mountain House, smoking together with a young orphaned Lisette kneeling at the fire. I can still smell the tobacco-pungent woodsmoke, the tallow on the snowshoes, and the musk of the beaver skins. 

It is a thousand kilometers by road from Rocky Mountain House to Cumberland House. Today it would be a 12-hour drive. How did Lisette make her way there to be offered to Daniel in October of 1805? That answer most likely lies with her father and his career in the fur trade. It did not end well for him.

Fromhold's Alberta History makes reference to M. Lavallee in 1806 from the records of the Dunvegan journal. Today known as Dunvegan Provincial Park and Historic Dunvegan, this important fur trade fort on the Peace River in western Alberta was built in 1805 by Archibald Norman McLeod, a wintering partner in the North West Company. Daniel Harmon was posted to Fort Dunvegan in 1807-1808, a year after accepting Lisette, so it was their first posting together. It is likely that she knew Dunvegan well, though the memories may not all have been happy ones. 

In April 1806, the journal makes several references to traffic between Rocky Mountain House and Dunvegan. On April 21, "three of the men that went to the R. Mountain arrived with letters from here. This is the eighth day since they came off." It was, therefore, a bit more than a week's paddle from Lisette's birthplace to the home fort of her father during the period she met Daniel.

A telling incident from April 1806 in the Dunvegan journal shows the power that the masters of the fur trade forts had over their men, and over the women "belonging" to them. After a man stole some meat from a drying rack, 

"in order to punish him, [Mr. McLeod] took his wife and gave her to M. Cadieu, who is more able to maintain her, Martineau being much in debt." 

It is clear not only that it was a voyageur's responsibility to provide for his woman and not that of the Company, but that inability to do so would be swiftly dealt with. A wintering partner who could take a man's wife and give her to another of his men could easily have taken a young girl from her father the previous fall and given her to an up-and-coming young manager like Daniel Harmon.

Indeed, it was Archibald Norman McLeod himself who placed Daniel in charge of his first post. In 1800, the year Daniel arrived in the Northwest, McLeod was the wintering partner at Fort Alexandria, in charge of the Swan River District. In the summer of 1800, Daniel had signed up at Grand Portage for a winterer's post, and was taken by "John MacDonald, Esq." (John MacDonald of Garth) to work for MacDonald at Fort des Prairieson the Saskatchewan River, now Fort Edmonton, Saskatchewan. Having built the new fort at Rocky Mountain House in 1799, John MacDonald was newly made a wintering partner in 1800 and placed in charge of Fort des Prairies, which was then the largest department in the northwest and in direct competition with the Hudson's Bay Company. 

On August 2, 1800, Daniel writes from the mouth of the Winnipeg River near Lower Fort Garry, now WInnipeg, in Manitoba.

"When I left the Grand Portage, it was expected that I should go up the Sisiscatchwin (sic) river to spend the winter. That river falls into the north western end of Lake Winipick (Winnipeg). But, since our arrival here, we have received intelligence from the Swan River Department, which country lies between Lake Winipick and the Red and Assiniboin(e) Rivers, that in the opinion of Mr. McLeod, who superintends the concerns of that region, that it is necessary to make another establishment there. It is therefore determined that I shall go and take charge of it; and I shall accordingly remain here a few days, to await the arrival of the brigade, destined to the Swan River department." (Harmon journal pp. 21-22)

Daniel worked in the Swan River Department under McLeod for the next five years, and was well respected by his wintering partner. He liked McLeod, and it was apparently mutual. Daniel writes from Fort Alexandria that "I am happy in meeting him, after so long a separation, and he appears to be pleased to see me, safely here." Later he commented that 

"While at Alexandria, my time passed agreeably in company with A.N. McLeod, Esq., who is a sensible man and an agreeable companion. He appeared desirous of instructing me in what was most necessary to be known, respecting the affairs of this country; and a taste for reading I owe, in a considerable degree, to the influence of his example." (Harmon journal p. 47)

Archibald Norman McLeod also knew Jean Baptiste Lavallee, who was in his employ at Fort Dunvegan in 1806 at the time of his death. Fromhold recounts that on May 6 of that year, La Vallet (Lavallee) died from eating a poison plant.

"This morning the children went to gather a kind of root called des Quesnes du Rat (rat root, also called cow parsnip, swamp root, and squaw root). In place of that they brought a great quantity of hemlock of which several of the men ate of it, and especially Toussignant and La Vallet. The latter ate such a quantity that he soon was sick, and went to the block house. He was no sooner (arrived) than he fell senseless. In that situation he remained for some time. When Mr. McLeod was informed of this, he immediately gave him an emetic, but it had no effect, he being at the time senseless. He remained in that dreadful condition until 4 pm, when he expired." (Dunvegan journal)

On the following day, May 7, 1806:

"this morning the young man that died (La Vallet) was buried, and his grave was surrounded by pickets. This evening Martineau was called into the Hall, and Mr. McLeod spoke to him about his having told Baptiste La Fleur that he intended to desert to go the the R. Mountain. Mr. McLeod reprimanded him for speaking so foolishly as he usually does, and explained to him what would happen to him was he to desert." 

It seems from this that Martineau and Lavallee were of the same brigade, meaning that Lisette's father would have known of, and likely been present for, the "giving" of Martineau's wife to their brigade mate Cadieu a month earlier. How poignant for a widower who had, most likely, had his own daughter "given" away from him six months earlier. But, it also seems that McLeod ruled with an iron will. At least he made the attempt to save Lavallee's life. His emetic succeeded with Toussaint and the children, so Lavallee was the only victim of a tragic accident. 

One cannot help but wonder if those hapless children who collected the rat tail hemlock were still at Dunvegan the following year, when the daughter of the man who died of their unfortunate harvest arrived as the wife of their new master of the fort. There is no mention of any of this in Daniel's journal, so it is pure conjecture. However, it does fit the facts.

The taking of a "country wife" in the fur trade was called "the custom of the country," or "à la façon du pays." It was a custom well known to Archibald Norman McLeod. Daniel's journal records that 

"Mr. A.N. McLeod has a son here named Alexander, who is nearly five years of age, and whose Mother is of the tribe of the Rapid Indians. In my leisure time, I am teaching him the rudiments of the English language. The boy speaks the Sauteaux and Cree fluently, for a child; and makes himself understood tolerably well in the Assiniboin(e) and French languages. In short, he is like most of the children of this country, blessed with a retentive memory, and learns very rapidly." (Harmon journal p. 54)

It is more than plausible that Daniel's mentor and boss, a towering figure in La Compagnie Nord-Ouest and a political force in early Canada, wished to instruct him most particularly in "what was most necessary to be known, respecting the affairs of this country" by arranging a mariage à la façon du pays for a promising young man who was so clearly fond of McLeod's own son. This is also one explanation of why Daniel may have accepted Lisette after having earlier declined the offer of a Cree woman in 1802. On August 11 at Bird Mountain, he writes

"On the ninth instant, a Chief among the Crees, came to the Fort, accompanied by a number of his relations, who appeared very desirous that I should take one of his daughters, to remain with me. I put him off by telling him, that I could not then accept of a woman, but probably might, in the fall. He pressed me, however, to allow her to remain with me, at once, and added, "I am fond of you, and my wish is to have my daughter with the white people, for she will be treated better by them, than by her own relations." In fact, he almost persuaded me to keep her, for I was sure that while I had the daughter, I should not only have the father's furs, but those of all his band. This would be for the interest of the Company, and would therefore turn to my own advantage, in some measure; so that a regard to interest, well nigh made me consent to an act, which would have been unwise and improper. But happily for me, I escaped the snare." (Harmon journal, p. 70) Three years later, he would meet another Snare that he would not escape, but would gladly walk into, for quite different reasons.

Daniel's stated reason for accepting Lisette was strikingly different from the economic motives he had expressed earlier, which would have done credit to a hustling Montréal Pedlar or an entrepreneurial coureur de bois. It indicates two critical pivot points in Daniel's career. The first is his own shift in self-perception from ambitious, hands-on Indian trader to a prosperous "gentleman" manager of the Company's forts. By 1805, Daniel writes that "it is customary for all gentlemen who remain, for any length of time, in this part of the world, to have a female companion, with whom they can pass their time more socially and agreeably, than to live a lonely life, as they must do, if single." Daniel had lived a lonely life for six years. Who more logical than his "sensible and agreeable companion,"  the McLeod of McLeod, to instruct his protegé in what was "customary for all gentlemen" among winterers. 

The second pivot point is a macro shift in fur trade corporate policy from the 18th to the 19th century, regarding NWC liaisons with native women. The advantages of family trading rights to the individual trader were tipping in the balance against the corporate overhead of this consequent population boom among the sons and daughters of the country. Within twenty years, this interracial powder keg would ignite in the Red River Affair, the Battle of Seven Oaks, and the Battle of Batoche. Daniel was just beginning to feel the effects of what was more than likely a very deliberate move by his senior management.

A very particular North West Company policy seems to have been at play in this transfer of the young Lisette from her Métis father to a rising American clerk. On the receiving end, Christian charity was also clearly a factor in Daniel's acceptance of Lisette, and also in her eventual, though patronizing, acceptance by the good people of Vermont. In the original preface to Harmon's journal, his editor Ezekiel Haskell "wishes to address a few remarks, through the medium of this preface, to the Christian public, and to all who feel any regard to the welfare of the Indian tribes, whose condition is unfolded in this work." While Haskell acknowledges that Daniel, having returned to the northwest, would not have an opportunity to review or comment on the preface, he did indicate that Haskell's (distressingly racist) call for a missionary establishment might succeed based on "some facts that the author has disclosed to me." These facts include a NWC policy explicitly favoring liaisons with Métis like Lisette over native women like her mother, whose welfare was taking its toll upon the Company's corporate purse by the 1820s. 

"In the numerous establishments of the North West Company, there are from twelve to fifteen hundred women and children, who are wholly, or in part, of Indian extraction. Women have, from time to time, been taken from among the Natives, to reside in the forts, by the men in the service of the Company; and families have been reared, which have generally been left in the country, when these men have retired to the civilized parts of the world. These women and children, with a humanity which deserves commendation, are not turned over to the savages (sic); but they are fed, if not clothed, by the Company. They have become so numerous, as to be a burden to the concern; and a rule has been established, that no person, in a service of the Company, shall hereafter take a woman from among the Natives to reside with him, as a sufficient number, of a mixed blood, can be found, who are already connected to the Company." (Harmon journal p. xvi)

How effective, then, was the ruthlessly pragmatic implementation of this policy in 1805-1806 by Archibald Norman McLeod, Esq. In Martineau's case, he transferred the upkeep cost of a native woman from a man so far in debt as to steal food from the Company (perhaps for that very woman) to a more solvent workman. Cadieu is mentioned several more times in the Dunvegan journals, and clearly was a more compliant and successful employee.

In Jean Baptiste and Lisette Lavallee's case, McLeod (if indeed it was he) saved the Company, and his home fort, any further expense of supporting a presumably motherless young woman of marriageable age; transferred her living costs and the future cost of her children (eventually numbering fourteen) to one of his favorite middle managers, with that gentleman's full cooperation; and avoided any political or financial inconvenience from having that manager take up a native woman like the Cree being actively offered him, instead of one of the "sufficient number of mixed blood who are already connected to the Company." 

Some powerful character clearly influenced Daniel over those three years, to think not of his own trading advantage with a Cree chief, but of his standing as a gentleman in need of the social and agreeable companionship of a "fair partner." It seems quite a sales job for the fourteen-year-old daughter of a nameless Shuswap and a working-class Métis interpreter.

This seems entirely in keeping with what we know of the wintering partners and their droit de seigneur du département. A.N. McLeod was directly descended from the 6th Chief of Clan MacLeod of Lewis, of Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye. Alberta's Dunvegan was named for the seat of the "McLeod of McLeod", and Archibald Norman, Laird of Swan River, certainly embraced the role. Daniel had placed himself on the career ladder to wintering partner, and although events would eventually overtake him in later life, his patron seems the likely provider of "my woman and the mother of my children."

But Dunvegan was not destined to have happy memories of her father for Lisette, or of fatherhood for Daniel. On Sunday, February 25, 1810, Lisette was nineteen and Daniel thirty-two when their own Dunvegan tragedy befell.

"On the evening of the 15th int., my woman was delivered of two living boys. They appear, however, to have been prematurely born; and from the first, little hope was entertained that they would long survive. One of them died on the morning of the 22nd, and the other the last night, and today they were both buried in the same coffin. He who gave them life, has taken it away. He had an undoubted right so to do; and though his ways are to us, inscrutable, he has the best reasons for whatever he does. It becomes us, therefore, humbly to acquiesce in this afflictive dispensation." (Harmon journal p. 150)

Another grave with pickets at Dunvegan. How far was it from the grave of Jean Baptiste Lavallee? I can see Lisette and Daniel standing there in the February snow, small George clutching his parents' hands. Born December 4, 1807 at Sturgeon Lake, George had just turned three, and was his father's pride and joy. I wonder if Lisette thought of her own mother, and was grateful to have survived these premature twin births. Had there been little hope entertained that she herself would long survive? Surely Daniel must have hoped and prayed for her. We know they wept together, and I am sure they prayed together, for their sons and for her father, in the fort's spare church with the picket fence. 

Had Lisette been present four years earlier, when they buried that young man, Lavallee, her father? He had most likely been far younger than the man who stood beside her now, the father of her children. 

I hope her husband's humble acquiescence was a comfort to her, though I confess I doubt it. Four years later, when they received the devastating news of George's death in far-off Vermont, she did not exhibit any such restraint. 

"When I informed her that our beloved son George was dead, she looked at me with a wild stare of agony, and immediately threw herself upon the bed, where she continued, in a state of delirium, during the succeeding night." (Harmon journal p. 201) 

So many deaths. Mother, father, two sons, and then their firstborn. I have to imagine that those dark days at Dunvegan deepened the agony and drove the delirium. I have always been moved to tears by that description, and this new context runs chills down my spine. I am more comforted than ever by Daniel's decision to invite her to return with him in 1819. And I understand that decision better, because within a year of her meeting him, Daniel was the only family she had.

"We have wept together over the early departure of several children, and especially, over the death of a beloved son. We have children still living, who are equally dear to us both. How could I spend my days in the civilized world, and leave my beloved children in the wilderness? The thought has in it the bitterness of death. How could I tear them from a mother's love, and leave her to mourn over their absence, to the day of her death? Possessing only the common feelings of humanity, how could I think of her, in such circumstances, without anguish. On the whole, I consider the course which I design to pursue, as the only one which religion and humanity would justify." (Harmon journal p. 231)

By the time Lisette was a mother, she was an orphan, a daughter of the Company, "given into the care of some good man." And he was a good man, who gave her a longer, wider, and kinder life than either of her parents had. It seems The McLeod of Dunvegan did her a good turn after all. Still, it's not like she had much choice, either in her early years or had she stayed behind after Daniel's return. I often wonder what she might have done with different choices, in a different time.


Living History as Cultural Exploration, Not Colonization

“Some purists believe that creating a theatrical piece embodying the stories and myths of a culture without the native storyteller present, is a perversion and denigration of cultural patrimony. However, professionals in museum theatre believe that the most important part of creating meaningful experiences using others' stories is that the stories and the culture they represent are handled with respect and every effort is made to portray them accurately.”

One of the most interesting recent reflections about my living history work is how intentionally it differs from my membership as a community leader in the folksong and traditional music community. I have the deepest respect for “tradition-bearers,” like Thomas MCarthy, Anita Best, or others who have married their life’s work to the cultural heritage of their family of origin.

However, the point and the purpose of my living history series A Woman’s Way, including Lisette’s Journey and Gudrid the Wanderer, was and is intentionally to step outside my own culture and take a journey of discovery and exploration by immersion in an archetype—“voyageurs, vikings, pirates, and other traditional women’s roles.” My goal has never to be what I am not, but always to become more than I am. This is the gift, and the practice, of living history.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Notes on a Lifetime of Passing

Thinking about the continuum between experiential learning, living history, participant-observation, and passing as I read this excellent article from someone who, like me, passed for a "real professor" as a respondent, like me, to Dartmouth scholars (I was one of those too, though it felt like passing). Like me, the author's racial identity has created tensions with his choice of profession, although I've always been clear that living history stops short of genetics. His words invite paraphrase.

"Nevertheless, as I enter my thirtieth year of passing for a real voyageur, I find myself less and less inclined to correct those who mistakenly call me one."

Passing has allowed me to ask, and answer, important questions in my life both personally and professionally. Am I "passing," or am I real? Are those who challenge me mistaken, or accurate? Which lies do I tell, and when am I only acting? What does it mean to be:
  • Voyageur
  • Canadian/Canadien(ne) (notice how place identity is gendered in French)
  • American/Americain(e) (ditto)
  • Francophone
  • Québeçois(e)/Manitobain(e)/Métis (all different experiences under "French-Canadian")
  • Native American/Ojibwa/Cree and Métis again
  • Of the Country (in the French sense of the term authochthonous)
  • Woman
  • Married
  • Singer of work songs
  • Scholar
  • Maritime
  • Traditional
  • Authentic
I'm going to the Netherlands in a month to present this work at the Liereliet Workum maritime festival. Because Lisette's Journey has taken so many different shapes over the years, I'm spending a lot of time thinking about--not what to present, the repertoire is clear--but how to present it, and myself. What's an Irish girl from Boston doing singing French Canadian songs (and maybe telling Ojibwa or Cree stories) in the Netherlands? It's a reasonable question on the surface. But the answer is, I'm challenging the assumptions that pose the question. And I'm doing so at the express invitation of the festival organizers.

The simple answer is, because this is a maritime festival, and we all love boats. In my case, canoes. I'm crazy about canoes. How did people travel so far in something so small? Well, if you love tall ships, you will love war canoes, which became voyageur canoes.

I have variously experienced life in a voyageur canoe as a bourgeois woman carried into one, a whitewater paddler dumped into rapids with my lower body still in one, a racing coxswain singing the rhythm for the winning brigade, a trip leader offering tobacco to the river to start the journey, a distance traveler peeing over the side (pride of skill for a woman!), and an exhausted hiker carrying one on my head for a mile in moccasins. I arrived at my first wedding in a war canoe. I bought my first car to carry a canoe across the continent to paddle the Yukon River. I hope I've done my part to put voyageur songs on the festival stage and in the session circle with capstan chanteys and forebitters as a world-heritage body of work songs in traditional maritime music. But there are much deeper undercurrents of authenticity and identity that motivate the journey.

I have passed, successfully, for Franco-speaking at a three-day French teacher's conference. I've been booed off a stage by Ontario fishing lodge owners who assumed I was Franco from Quebec. I've debated whether it's more inappropriate to play across race than across gender when roleplaying the British Columbia Métis partner of a Scottish-American fur trader from Vermont. Ethnically, I'm Daniel Harmon. Gendered, I'm Lisette Laval.

Spoiler: even at my most athletic, my waist-to-hip ratio and a certain other measurement never made cross-dressing a credible option. The stereotypical voyageur is a French-Canadian (often Métis) male. That's the archetype I set out to inhabit, and then to bust, until it included me, and women like me, as voyageurs. Of the three remaining cultural/ethnic choices--European male, European female, native/Métis female--I chose a combination of the two that were visibly believable. Frankly, a long braid was easier for an audience than trousers. It was that simple. But it strained credibility for the label "voyageur." Somehow, I had to get people to see the archetype beyond the gender.

I was experienced at this. I'd gone on my own to England as a morris dancer and pub singer in 1984. The British women's team wouldn't dance with me because I was American. The American men's team wouldn't dance with me because I was a woman. So I danced a solo jig, and people were amazed. They didn't seem to realize that a 36" inseam, not what was at the top of it, explained the height of my jumps. With my peers on Ha'Penny, Muddy River, Wake Robin, Ring O' Bells, and Bells of the North, we radical American women were changing the default term from "morris man" to "morris dancer." Voyageur? Just another occupation that needed a gender update from the women's movement.

On the same trip, I had gotten bored at a sagging chantey session and ripped off a spirited version of Rio Grande. Some old guy clapped me on the shoulder and said, "most women shouldn't sing sea chanteys." That was how I met Johnny Collins, one of the leading lights of the chantey revival who was, even then, advising the Liereliet Festival in its formative years. I didn't dare to clap him back and say "I'm not most women."  I was certain that Lisette Laval Harmon wasn't most women either. After all, she'd traveled 3000 miles from Fort Saint James to Vergennes in a canoe (and given birth halfway).  I made it my mission to get people to see Lisette, through me, as a real voyageur.

Since it was important to me--as a geographer, very important!--to represent the truth of Lisette's experience as a "femme du pays," a woman of the country, rather than as an immigrant or a visitor, I very slowly, over the course of years, added artifacts that made her (me) read more French and native, to reflect her Métis heritage. It's a point of pride that every piece in my collection was acquired locally, and most often as a gift from a fellow reenactor of Franco, Métis, or Canadian origin. All my clothing is either handmade, some entirely hand-stitched, or purchased from a sutler or in a museum shop. I never dyed my hair or darkened my skin, and I always made it clear that the construct here was first-person living history roleplay. I'm an actor, and a reenactor. Passing is an invitation to practice suspension of disbelief. Not everyone accepts the invitation.

I spent years of time and angst reflecting on disapprovals of my Lisette persona from Native American women historians (too native), hard-core fur trade reenactors (too female), and Franco-Manitoban schoolchildren (too French). I struggled to respond to the implicit suspicion and hostility in a phone call from a man who said "What are you doing roleplaying my great-grandmother?" We had a spirited discussion about where family history and genealogy ends and public history begins, and whether that is, or ought to be, different for women than for men.

Ultimately, I wrote my own grandmother's biography and a memoir about my great-grandfather, and at last I began to understand why I had so passionately portrayed the nostalgia, heimweh, and multicultural pride I had poured into Lisette's story. Truth is, it was gripping stuff, and it made good copy and good theatre. Seen through Lisette's eyes, there was more to life in the fur trade than the voyageur's boast that "I can carry, paddle, walk and sing with any man I ever saw." I was in the first class of women at Dartmouth, so had learned to pass doing all of that, and more. I wanted to learn how to be a voyageur without having to be a man. In the process, I learned a lot more about how to be a woman, traditional as well as nontraditional roles. It served me well when I married for the second time, and I have a lot more respect for the role of a wife than I did as a fierce young feminist in the 1980s.

None of this "passing" and identity politics was an issue in 1988 when I began this work. (I'm aware now of the privilege inherent in that statement.) In 2017, it seems the height of absurdity for an American to try to pass as Canadian, let alone be hassled for it. We have bigger fish to fry in identity politics. But thirty years of uncomfortable privilege as a white Ivy-League scholarship kid, and of defending that privilege as a starving artist and independent scholar, masked a truth that Trey Evans speaks openly: the pride of passing. The raw desire to be something you're not, or not entirely. The desire to be only what you have made of yourself, not a prisoner of your DNA or your first family. My Netherlands booking is a bucket-list measure of success on that score.

So I have gone back to first principles with Lisette's upcoming gig. I'm going to give the Liereliet Festival organizers exactly what they asked for. Here's the invitation.

"Last Summer, we were very impressed and inspired by the things that you told us about your ‘Voyages’-programme. So now we are asking you: could you do that, in whatever form, in Workum this year on the Friday-evening?"

Whatever form? So many choices. That program was my livelihood In some form for over a decade. By 1998, I had a full week's bilingual arts residency for K-12,  a two-act storytelling theatre script with productions from Vermont to Saskatchewan, a festival week's worth of adult solo workshops, a self-published article-length biography of Lisette, a raft of conference presentations, and a standing offer from a publisher for a messy pile of manuscript that I somehow couldn't edit into a book that had a central narrative. That's why it's a blog today.

By the time my life as a professional Canadian fell apart, I knew more about who Lisette Laval Harmon was than who Lynn Noel was. But here's what I know today. I learned a lot of it on those voyages of Lisette's Journey.

Lynn Noel is a Canadian-American born in Boston whose great-grandfather was a Nova Scotia sea captain. Starting as a canoe instructor in Cape Breton at age fifteen, she has paddled in every province and territory in Canada as the Director of River Programs for the Quebec-Labrador Foundation, education and outreach consultant to the Canadian Heritage Rivers System, and the author of VOYAGES: Canada's Heritage Rivers. Her B.A. and M.S. in geography studied the tensions between conservation of natural resources and cultural heritage in single-resource island economies, from post-hurricane subsistence farming in Dominica to the collapse of the Newfoundland fishery. National parks emerged as a common theme, and Lynn spent two decades working with national/state/provincial parks programs and the World Heritage program.

A graduate of Dartmouth College and former Research Fellow of the John Sloan Dickey Center's Institute of Arctic Studies, Lynn has blended the disciplines of geography, women's studies, anthropology, history, folklore, music, storytelling, genealogy, experiential education, and heritage interpretation in her award-winning concert series Crosscurrents: Sense of Place in Song and Story. Crosscurrents includes the first-person living history series A Woman's Way: Voyageurs, Vikings, Pirates, and Other Traditional Women's Roles, or The First Millennium of Adventurous Women.

Lisette's Journey tells the story of the Northwest Company fur trade from the perspective of Lisette Laval Harmon (1798-1863) and her husband Daniel Williams Harmon (1778-1843), based on Daniel's journal Sixteen Years in the Indian Country 1800-1816. Featured at fur trade reenactments from Ontario's Old Fort William and Manitoba's  Festival du Voyageur to Fort de Chartres in Illinois, Lynn brings the spirit of the Voyageur to life with a woman's voice and a paddler's passion.

So yeah. I pass. Because I can. But not on purpose, not anymore. I only ever tried it because I wanted to learn. Experiential education and participant-observation work best when you pass, in the moment. Detectives go undercover, and so did I.

Chanteysingers who revere Stan Hugill sometimes forget that after he retired to dry land but before he became the last of the old salts, he was an Outward Bound instructor for 25 years. Participant-observation on the Garthpool is how Stan Hugill learned all those songs, and experiential education is how he taught them in Aberdovey. It's how, in the manner of the Velveteen Rabbit, he became Real. That's all I ever wanted. I watched Talitha MacKenzie struggle to be Real as a woman chanteysinger at Mystic Seaport. "I'm a female chanteysinger, no ifs or ands or buts / I may not have the register, but at least I've got the guts." She did, too. Talitha's as Real as it gets these days.

When it came to being a chanteysinger, I decided that my best route to being Real was to turn my back on the whaling ships and pick up my paddle. Because in a canoe, I never had to worry who thought I was Real. I knew I was. When I'm paddling, I'm not passing.

I'm very clear on this. I'm not Métis, and I'm not native, and I'm not Franco, and I wasn't born in Canada and I've never held a driver's license there. I know what's real in terms of DNA and my passport. And even though there's more to cultural identity than legal, genetic, and gender identity, I'm not looking to challenge any of mine.

I do have a life lesson in how gender affects perceived cultural authenticity with age. I'm not 25 anymore, so I'm a bit less "authentic" about portaging, racing, whitewater, and fitting into my 18th-century clothing. But so are many men my age. When I worried about it, several other female performers reminded me that a plus-size fur trader can (and should!) simply be seen as sleek and successful. They do call it queen size, after all. I'm doing my best to embrace that, just like my peers, those portly pirates at the Renaissance Festivals. If a Pirate Looks at Forty, then surely a voyageur can look at fifty and beyond.

At the first CHRS conference, Lisette Laval Harmon was named the Official Voyageur of the Canadian Heritage Rivers System, and I received a national award for my portrayal of her. Was I passing? No. I was the co-chair of the conference. That was real.

It felt a bit like passing when the CBC called to ask me to consult on their biography of Daniel Harmon: The Winterer. But they'd gotten my name from two women scholars of the fur trade, in whose books I'd originally found Lisette. In my quest for authenticity, I had amassed more primary research on the Harmons than Sylvia Van Kirk or Jennifer Brown. Both women became mentors, colleagues, and friends. I found they struggled with many of the same issues about passing and credibility as I did, and as Trey Evans does in his article.

Just this month, I received a copy of the walking tour map of Mount Royal Cemetery in Montréal, where my friend and board member Helen Meredith has gotten them to include Lisette in their Historical Burials and Famous Women sections after she and I found Lisette's grave together. We are both very proud to have given Lisette that place in history.

Why are the Liereliet organizers "impressed and inspired" by this work? Because like me, Nanne Kalma and Ankie van der Meer think globally as passionately multilingual world citizens, and act locally as grassroots community leaders promoting participatory local heritage.

"We started a kind of revival of traditional Dutch sea music and we started to write songs within this theme. And ... that has led to a repertoire of hundreds of songs within this theme in the Dutch and the Frisian languages. One of our own ideas and demands was that every guest or participant of Liereliet had to sing in her or his own language. Nearly all the Dutch folksingers, at that time, sang in English."

Nanne and Ankie, and I, love to sing not-in-English, to swim against the musical tide of that particular linguistic monoculture. Nanne and Ankie are advocates and ambassadors for Esperanto as a more neutral alternative to English as a common language. Me, I just try to sing in as many languages from my continent as I can find. It's a start. Since every life has its limits, I have elected to leave Spanish to others so far. It hasn't been a political choice, just a practical one, and I do think I'll bring Somos El Barco to the party. I am an American, after all, and boats are what bring us all together in Workum.

I am still functionally bilingual. I read French for fun and even dream in it sometimes. I'm proud of that. I have official papers and a couple of awards saying I was a "professional Canadian" for a good solid career. I'm proud of that too. But what I'm proudest of these days is that the world seems to have gotten used to the idea that there were women voyageurs.  Because that's who Lisette was. That's who I am too. We are different women, two centuries apart, but she's my hero. After thirty years of thinking about her, I like to think that she might have admired me as well. Truth is, I'll never know.

These days, I'm mostly trying to learn to pass as myself. Because I agree with Trey Evans. "Passing as anything other than yourself just seems sad."

So, I'll sing paddling songs in French, to share the world heritage of these wonderful not-in-English work songs from that not-tall-ships vessel deserving of more maritime fame, the voyageur canoe. I might tell an Ojibwa story or sing a Cree song, with respect as they were given to me, just to give the flavor of the country and honor the non-European half of the fur trade. And I'll tell the story of this amazing woman from British Columbia who married a Vermonter when she was fourteen, and paddled across the continent while pregnant, and outlived all but one of her fourteen children. But I don't think I'm necessarily going to tell the whole thing in first person any more. That was my own experiential learning. Now I want to come back from undercover and share what I've learned. To provide experiential education, I think Lynn Noel, not Lisette Laval, probably has to be the primary source.