The University of Manitoba is re-publishing Devil in Deerskins this month, the book Anahareo wrote about her years with pioneering Conservationist, Grey Owl. It became a Canadian bestseller when it was released in 1972. It was an inspiring book to me personally and helped me immensely when I wrote Anahareo's biography. Now, under the careful editorial supervision of Sophie McCall, this new publication contains a critical review of the book and introductions by Anahareo's daughters, Katherine Swartile and Anne Gaskell. It is part of University of Manitoba's project to bring back under-recognized books by First Nations.
Sophie McCall is a professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver but has been familiar with Grey Owl and Anahareo's activities for some years. The interest in their work and the inspiration Anahareo provided for her she describes below during my interview with her.
Devil in Deerskins is available from the University of Manitoba Press and can be purchased through Amazon or their website
What in particular drew you to select ‘Devil in Deerskins’ for your project?
Like many of us I first met Anahareo through the pages of Grey Owl’s book, Pilgrims of the Wild. It was not until much later that I read Anahareo’s own book, Devil in Deerskins (1972). Although Grey Owl portrays her as an intriguing and independently minded woman, she’s a lot funnier, more down-to-earth, and more knowledgeable and accomplished than she comes across in Grey Owl’s writings. The title says it all: her mischievous, freedom-loving spirit, her wry sense of humour, and her defiance of the social conventions of the day. All of these qualities attracted me to her and to her writings. She is also exceptionally photogenic! She conveys a lot of strength of character, as well as roguish fun, through her images.
Can you explain a bit about the project behind this publication?
This edition of Devil in Deerskins is part of a series, @First People, First Texts, conceived by Warren Cariou, a professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of Manitoba. The idea of the series, which is published by the University of Manitoba Press, is to generate a list of the most important and underrecognized books by Indigenous authors that have gone out of print, and then to republish critical editions of these books that situate the texts in their Indigenous cultural contexts. Up until very recently, Anahareo was known primarily as Grey Owl’s wife (with some important exceptions of course—you being a pathbreaker in carving out her family history and biography from that of Grey Owl’s). She was rarely recognized as an author in her own right and her Mohawk identity was not well understood. In fact she was usually understood as an Indigenous woman who, as a result of displacement and acculturation, had become alienated from her people’s traditions and heritage. But a closer look at Devil in Deerskins reveals that Anahareo drew upon her knowledge of her Mohawk heritage, learned primarily from her grandmother, in very tangible and important ways. This series aims to reveal how, in spite of the many challenges facing Indigenous people, their lives and ways of knowing having survived and thrived.
Another important aim of the series is to reconnect these unjustly neglected classics with their authors’ home communities. A very rewarding and important part of this project has been to get to know Anahareo’s family, particularly her daughter Katherine Swartile, who has been immensely helpful in bringing this project forward.
Is there anything distinctive about Anahareo’s writing that is different from other women authors in general or First Nations/Native American women authors in particular?
Anahareo was a rebel who always led her life on her own terms. From a very young age, Anahareo resisted the social roles she was expected to fill as a girl growing up in a Catholic working-class neighbourhood in Mattawa, Ontario. Some of her gently sarcastic, eye-rolling comments in Devil in Deerskins suggest that she did not always see eye-to-eye with her sister, who comes across as more conservative. The most important person to Anahareo as she was growing up was her grandmother who, although staunchly Catholic, was also someone very grounded in her sense of herself as an Algonquin woman who married a Mohawk man and who very deliberately passed on her knowledge, stories, and craftsmanship to her granddaughter. When Anahareo left Mattawa to meet up with Grey Owl, ultimately staying with him unchaperoned in the bush for 2 months, she precipitated almost total loss of contact with her family for the next three decades. Throughout her life, Anahareo had to deal with the often contradictory and punishing stereotypes about Indigenous women that prevailed at the time, but that did not deter her from creating her own pathway in life. As her daughter Katherine says, she was a woman ahead of her time, who defined her own ways of living as a mother, a prospector, an author, a defender of animal rights, and an environmentalist.
How does Anahareo compare as an author to First Nations men? Is her approach any different, her topics?
Anahareo describes in a deceptively off-hand manner her talents and accomplishments that revolve around what is usually referred to as ‘women’s work’ – for example, making clothes, beading, tanning, cooking, caring for kids (or beaver kits!), etc. Grey Owl claims that he taught her everything he knew about the bush but I think she taught him more than he acknowledges. What really comes through in Anahareo’s writings is that she knows more than she lets on. A lot of the humour in the book revolves around her internal commentary that reveals significant differences from Grey Owl’s opinions. That sly sense of humour, based on the disjuncture between what is said internally and what is said out loud, and often considered a hallmark of women’s writing, is beautifully exemplified in Devil in Deerskins.
Do you see anything about her First Nations background influencing how she speaks?
The book is a series of anecdotes that are not separated into chapters, creating a continuous flow of stories, which may reflect her intention to recreate her early childhood education through storytelling from her grandmother. Her daughter Katherine says that storytelling was a huge part of her own growing up, and she was often spellbound by her mother’s stories. The style in which Devil in Deerskins is written, particularly the humour and the use of expressions, is very original and distinctive, and is one of the real pleasures of the book.
Was there anything in particular about Anahareo’s story that specifically resonated with you or touched you?
I love animals of all kinds (with a special soft spot for rodents, ever since my kids adopted two gerbils into our home) and I deeply admire Anahareo’s heartfelt invocation of their lives, tastes, and preferences, as well as her defense of their rights. Let me share with you a particularly funny and endearing section from the book that describes the antics of McGinty, one of the beavers that Anahareo had rescued as a kit, and the same beaver that ultimately led Grey Owl to give up trapping for good. In this scene, Archie (aka Grey Owl) is preparing to make some bannock:
With a flourish he heaped the bowl with flour, added salt, and rummaged in the grub-box for the baking powder. While his back was turned, McGinty, the opportunist, spied the abandoned bowl. She came at a dead gallop, zoomed through the air, and landed plop in the middle, sending flour in all directions.
Archie’s shocked surprise convulsed me, but I didn’t dare laugh, because it was awful thing for McGinty to have done. Then a wild and noisy battle erupted. Archie shouted her name and mine alternately as he tried desperately to pull her away, but McGinty had a firm grip on the bowl and was determined to stay. Archie was at his wit’s end, for it was like fighting a whirring electric fan in a tub of feathers. The overwhelming speed with which Mac propelled her webbed hind feet through the flour forced Archie to let her down.
The atmosphere was so thick with flour that I could barely see them. The scuffle ended at last in victory for Archie, and McGinty ambled off in a huff. She was not in the least repentant. She cast malignant glances at Archie as she sat back, cleaning her flour-clogged nostrils with clenched fists. Such was the stand the beaver invariably took to preserve their rights.
What other publications are in the works for this project?
There are a number of exciting projects at various stages of development, but none has been officially announced yet so I would be spilling the beans if I told you. The editorial collective of First People, First Texts have discussed many possibilities, including The Fourth World by George Manuel (Secwepemc), Forbidden Voice by Alma Greene (Mohawk), The Ways of My Grandmothers by Beverly Hungry Wolf (Blackfoot), Voices of the Plains Cree by Edward Ahanekew (Cree), Potlatch by George Clutesi (Nuu-chah-nulth), and Indians Don’t Cry by George Kenny (Anishinaabe).
What audiences do you hope to reach?
When Devil in Deerskins was first released in 1972, it became a bestseller, and I know it has tremendous potential to reach a wide audience again in 2014. As the groundswell of opposition to tar sands development (particularly on Indigenous lands) continues to grow in Canada, and as awareness of climate change continues to deepen, Anahareo’s environmental and animal rights messages have renewed urgency and relevance. Devil in Deerskins will also find its way onto university curricula. As a professor at Simon Fraser University, I am certainly looking forward to teaching Devil in Deerskins in my classes, and I have colleagues at SFU and at other universities across North America who have expressed their strong interest in teaching it as well.
Thank you, Kristin, for giving me this opportunity to talk a little about Anahareo’s book!
Kristin Gleeson is a writer, artist and musician who lives in the west of Ireland in the Gaeltacht.
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