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Manitoba History: “A sad hiatus in our national history”: Indigenous Representations in the Work of Nan Shipley, 1950s-1970s

by Jenna R. Klassen
History Department, University of Winnipeg

Number 88, Winter 2018

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Nancy “Nan” Shipley née Sommerville was born in Scotland in 1904 and immigrated to Canada with her parents at an early age. [1] In 1925, she married George Shipley who worked for the Canadian National Railway, and in 1930, they moved to The Pas. [2] This marked the beginning of Shipley’s fascination with northern Manitoba, an interest that became the focus of her long career as an author. Living in northern Manitoba and interacting with the residents of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation (located across from the town) stirred Shipley to realize that “this country was wonderfully rich in Indian history and my urge to write was very strong.” [3] Quickly, a trend of Indigenous themes appeared in Shipley’s work as, she argued, “it is impossible to write about Western Canada without an awareness of the Indians’ 25,000 years or longer presence, and acknowledge their contribution to our early tranquil existence on their land.” [4] Throughout her career, Shipley published thirteen books and hundreds of stories and articles, most of which were set in northern Manitoba, and produced a television program in which Indigenous legends were presented to viewers. [5]

Shipley’s first books, Anna and the Indians in 1955 and Frances and the Crees in 1957, centred on the experiences of white women in the untamed land of northern Manitoba. [6] Her research for these books inspired her interest in the experiences of Indigenous communities in Manitoba, particularly the Cree. As Shipley’s career as a writer continued, her stories shifted to a focus on Indigenous cultures, traditions, and history. Throughout her books, Shipley acknowledged the impact that encounter had on Indigenous peoples, and its destruction of their traditions and cultures, particularly in her later writing, such as Return to the River in 1963 and Wild Drums in 1972. Her primary motives were to preserve the history and traditions for the benefit of the non-Indigenous peoples of Manitoba, to educate the public, and to change negative perceptions of the Indigenous peoples of the province.

Shipley’s first major publication, Anna and the Indians (1955), tells the story of real-life nurse Anna Gaudin and her missionary husband at Nelson House at the turn of the 20th century.

Shipley’s goal to publicize Indigenous culture and history was generally well executed. However, her position as a non-Indigenous Euro-Canadian in the post-war period complicated her understanding and interpretation of Indigenous experiences both historically and in the period in which she was active. Despite her good intentions, her writing and perspective were not always free of stereotypes or assumptions of vanishing culture. Popular images of gender and race, and her tendency to ‘salvage’ Indigenous history and tradition reveal her failure to see how Indigenous culture and tradition could withstand assimilation and be a part of Indigeneity in the post-war period and beyond. The four books named above, plus the correspondence, newspaper articles, reader responses, and Shipley’s autobiography found in the Nan Shipley collection held in the University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, [7] inform this article about the complexities of Shipley’s interpretation of and interaction with Indigenous culture. An examination of Shipley’s career reveals that her position as an outsider limited her capabilities in championing the Indigenous peoples of Manitoba.

Encounter stories written by non-Indigenous peoples, whether fact or fiction, or a combination of both, have a long history in Canadian writing.[8] Early encounter stories came from travel diaries written by men and women who explored areas of Canada yet unsettled by non-Indigenous people, and the missionary accounts of those who lived among Indigenous communities. [9] Autobiographical and fictional literature spanning the 19thcentury to the early 20th century was inspired by authors’ experiences with encounter in the Canadian prairie and on the West Coast. By the early post-war period, Indigenous characters had permeated Canadian literature. [10] Shipley prided herself in writing historical fiction, rooted in her own historical research. [11] Her goal was to uncover and document the ‘true’ history of the Indigenous peoples of Manitoba, which she believed had been grossly overlooked.

Throughout her career, Shipley published thirteen books and hundreds of stories and articles, most of which were set in northern Manitoba, and produced a television program in which Indigenous legends were presented to viewers.

Early in her career, Shipley saw the need for more representation of Indigenous peoples in Canadian history and literature. While visiting publishers in Edmonton in 1966, Shipley told one journalist that children would be more interested in Indigenous history if only more authors wrote on the subject. She argued that “if the stories aren’t available, children aren’t made aware that there were hundreds of Indians ... who showed great virtue in their lives, virtues such as courage and wisdom...” [12] Although describing Indigenous peoples as ‘courageous’ and ‘wise’ creates a romanticized stereotype, her intention to shift non-Indigenous perceptions from a negative one to one that positively acknowledged Indigenous contributions to Canadian history was sincere.

Shipley’s endorsement of Indigenous representation in history aligned with shifts in Canadian history textbooks. Throughout Canada, committees reviewed school textbooks to remove negative depictions of Indigenous peoples and include more about their history and involvement in the Canadian national narrative. [13] In a letter responding to Shipley, George Johnson, the Minister of Education, echoed her concerns, writing that he, alongside the Curriculum Branch, was troubled “about the rather one-sided presentation of Indian participation in the history of our country, as it appears in our current textbooks,” noting that “the big stumbling block has always been the lack of available materials of an authentic kind upon which to base such a course.” [14] Johnson’s comment on “lack of available materials” also reflects the deficiency of Indigenous history in the academic scholarship of the period. It was not until the 1970s that academic historical scholarship began to re-examine the role of Indigenous peoples in Canadian history. Historians such as Robin Fisher, Sylvia van Kirk, and Arthur Ray becoming the prominent trailblazers in this period, encouraged by national and international movements for Indigenous rights. [15]

A significant motivation for Shipley’s writing was the preservation of Indigenous traditions and cultures. In a newspaper interview, Shipley suggested the reason Treaty Indians were hesitant to leave their reserves was “to hold their heritage, their only possession. If they relinquish their reserves, they lose it.” [16] Shipley’s concern that integration into mainstream society would result in the loss of traditional practices and Indigenous history is evocative of the anthropological practice of ‘salvage ethnography.’ Made popular by anthropologists such as Franz Boas and Marius Barbeau in the early 20th century, salvage ethnography was the search for “authentic” culture in the fear it would “vanish” or become “compromised.” [17] Although centuries of colonial processes justified the concern for the loss of traditional practices and culture, this anthropological method was problematic. In its search for pure authenticity, salvage ethnography failed to acknowledge the significance of adapting “authentic” cultural practices into an increasingly integrated and modernizing society. Ultimately, Indigenous peoples became disempowered as the definition of what was or was not authentic to Indigenous culture became determined by white intellectuals. [18]

For Shipley, Indigenous integration into mainstream society signalled the disappearance of what she considered to be ‘authentic’ Indigeneity. For her, authentic Indigenous culture was culture of the past, not the present. Furthermore, the way she attempted to insert herself into the mindset and experiences of Indigenous peoples follows what literary critic Eli Mandel has called the ‘myth of marginality.’ He argues that white authors:

concern themselves with the Indian as the marginal figure, one of a dying culture, a dispossessed culture, a besieged culture. All take a position sympathetic to the Native, critical of white culture and its history of exploitation and cruelty or indifference. Each attempts, in its own way, to enter into the alien culture to the point of fusing withit. [19]

These views were reflected in much of Shipley’s work throughout the years, and complicated her appreciation for and interest in Indigenous communities as a white outsider.

Nan Shipley in Churchill, summer 1955.
Source: Shipley Fonds, University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, A79-014_001_0005_075

Shipley’s first major publication, Anna and the Indians, tells the story of real-life settler Anna Gaudin, a nurse, and her missionary husband who served at Nelson House at the turn of the 20th century. This piece of historical fiction follows Gaudin as she adapts to life in the wilderness and develops relationships with the Indigenous community there. In Frances and the Crees, Shipley’s second book, Frances Stevens marries a missionary stationed at Oxford House and other locales in the area. Like Anna, Frances is set in northern Manitoba and tells the story of a white woman’s experiences living in the northern wilderness amongst the Cree and other Indigenous communities in the area. According to Shipley’s autobiography, the information she gathered for Anna came largely from Gaudin’s son and J.B. Tyrrell, a surveyor who stayed at the Gaudin Mission at Nelson House in 1896.[20] The extent of information available to Shipley for her research was the timeline of events and some insight into Gaudin’s personality and demeanour.[21] Therefore, much of the content of Anna and the Indians is Shipley’s own interpretation of the events and includes descriptions of Cree traditional practices and culture that she chose to include. Frances and the Crees, on the other hand, was an edited version of Frances Stevens’ own autobiography. Initially rejected by publishers, Shipley offered to revise the book (and perhaps enhance the story) before it was accepted for publication in 1957.[22]

Anna and Frances follow the trend of fiction and non-fiction writing about white professionals working in the North that flourished in the mid-20th century. Historian Joan Sangster has recently discussed this phenomenon in her study of nation-building, northern development, and popular interpretations of Indigenous experiences in the North in the post-war period.[23] White women who travelled to the North, whether for their own careers or with their husbands, for long or short periods, were generally educated Anglo-Canadians who came from middle-class homes.[24] Sangster describes how, marginalized by the ‘boys club’ nature of professional academia in this period, female contributors were often published in The Beaver, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s popular magazine. The magazine presented images of northern Canadian history, white exploration of the ‘last frontier,’ and Indigenous life through an ethnographic gaze to show readers the ‘progress’ and Canadian nationalism occurring in the northernmost part of the country. [25]

Throughout issues of the magazine were stories written by female contributors about the journeys of white women in the early 20th century. Sangster suggests that “women authors identified with these white women travellers, whom they celebrated as pioneering role models and proof of women’s ability and courage to create a northern Canadian nation.” [26] Shipley is exemplary of this group of female writers. She lived in northern Manitoba and was captivated by the environment and the people living there; she was even published in The Beaver, Canadian Geographical Journal (now Canadian Geographic), and Canadian Frontier Magazine, publications similar to The Beaver. [27] Through her personal experiences of living in northern Manitoba, she likely felt a connection to Gaudin and Stevens as pioneers in a northern setting in the late 19th century.

The North itself, as a site of wild, rugged adventure, was a popular concept among Canadians during the post-war period. Sangster argues that though the North had been depicted as an “exotic, romantic, terrifying, sublime, enigmatic, and intrinsically Canadian” [28] space since Europeans encountered Indigenous peoples, the post-war period saw a revival of interest in the North “as the last economic frontier of development.” [29] This revival was reflected in the popular literature of the period, as northern locales became a backdrop for established authors such as Farley Mowat, Gabrielle Roy, and Margaret Atwood.[30] Furthermore, stories of Indigenous communities set in northern areas also became popular. In her 1983 study of Northern Canadian literature, Allison Mitcham remarked that these stories emphasized:

...returning to a simpler way of life—particularly to a cabin in the woods, a preoccupation with the symbolic significance of the Indian (and by extension the Eskimo too) because of his ability to establish a balanced relationship and his natural environment, a distrust of the machine and the fear of the general debilitating effect of the encroachment of civilization, a poetic and almost religious belief in the relationship between the pine, the moose and the man, and an overwhelming faith in the therapeutic value of the ‘barks’ and ‘tonics’ of the northern wilderness as a cure for the ills of civilization ... [31]

Shipley was not immune to the trope of the North as the ‘last frontier’ and the excitement brought by the development of its wilderness. In her autobiography, Shipley describes The Pas as “a frontier town in northern Manitoba, a very exciting place to live. The new railroad to Churchill was opening the area to development, and the thrill of adventure and hope of discovering rich ore deposits attracted many weird and wonderful people.” [32] She further noted that the day steel reached Churchill for the construction of the railroad was “most dramatic of all,” and once it was complete she “quickly grasped the opportunity to ride the caboose-cupola of the first train carrying passengers.” [33]

More than just a setting, the North itself acts as its own character in Shipley’s stories. Most common are the descriptions of the North as a harsh wilderness. A chapter in Frances and the Crees is titled “The Rugged Raw North.” [34] On a canoe trip to Nelson House, Anna Gaudin notes how the boatmen traverse the rough current with “skill and bravery in the wild rapids.” [35] Despite the harshness of the “uncivilized” North, Gaudin finds beauty in the nature surrounding her. Travelling to Nelson House for the first time, the party passes by a waterfall by which Gaudin is spellbound. As the first white woman to visit this area, she wonders, “why should she of all women of her race be permitted this unforgettable sight? How long had it stood here unappreciated, unseen, and untouched? How long would it remain like a beautiful reward just for them alone?” [36] Not only does Gaudin romanticize the environment around her, but also by referring to it as “unseen and untouched” erases the Indigenous presence in the area, as she assumes that she, as the first white woman to have seen it, must be the first person ever to have seen it.

Shipley herself embodied this assumption and erasure while she was writing The Scarlet Lily. In her autobiography, Shipley writes of her “urge to know the country better,” to:

run up and down the Touchwood Hills. ... To taste the wild strawberries by the side of the lonely prairie trails where the wheels and moccasins of early pioneers were stained bright red with the sweet juice. To stand on the exact spot where Indian women long, long ago gathered goose quills by the bushel ... [37]

Despite Shipley’s interactions with Indigenous peoples in her every-day life, this passage reveals how she was quick to romanticize Indigenous people of the area, and relegated them to the past. Perhaps even more evident is how Shipley tended to describe Indigenous people as part of the scenery, here in her desire to run around the countryside and participate with nature.

Another running theme in Shipley’s writing was the spectacle of ‘the first white woman’ to do just about anything in the North. Sangster describes how in The Beaver, “women writers identified their travels with the histories of famous white explorers, and their accounts proclaimed their place as “firsts”: first white woman on a particular island, the first white woman to negotiate a particular journey, or the most northerly white wedding.” [38] This trope appears numerous times in both Anna and the Indians and Frances and the Crees. In one example, there is a scene in which Gaudin is in a difficult part of her journey but she gets through the challenge with the motivation “that I’m the very first white woman to make this part of the trip.” [39] In one of the most momentous parts of the book, Gaudin “gives” the Nelson House area its first white baby. [40] Shipley’s fascination with the ‘first white woman’ was so enthusiastic that she challenged a newspaper columnist for incorrectly naming the first white woman in the Canadian west. While the column declared Marie Anne Lagimodière as the first, Shipley argued that the historical character in her book The Blonde Voyageur was in fact “the first white woman to reach the Western Plains.” [41] Shipley was adamant that “the arrival of the first white woman is a historic fact that ought to be recognized ... and correctly recorded and acknowledged by the public.” [42]

The trope of the ‘first white woman’ is also a common theme in the scholarship on the colonization of western Canada. Sarah Carter has analyzed this theme in depth in her work regarding the significance of white femininity in the development of western Canada. Carter finds that white women were held as symbols of “western civilization” as their presence was the final part of securing and colonizing the west following treaties, settlement, and Anglo-Canadian institutions. [43] Following this line of thought, the ‘first white women’ in Shipley’s stories is the final civilizing factor in the conquest of the ‘last frontier’—the North. While Gaudin and Stevens’ husbands and other white men had already lived in the North long before, it was the arrival of these white women that signified it as a civilization. Furthermore, Carter also argues that white women were considered essential to the creation and reproduction of these new communities. [44] So when Gaudin “gives” the first white baby to the Nelson House area, she is essentially solidifying the Anglo-Canadian presence in the North and begins civilization in this area.

Intersections between the North, race, and gender permeate Shipley’s stories. Throughout the stories are a reverence for the white women who found themselves in the ‘uncivilized’ communities of northern Manitoba. Gaudin is portrayed as a saviour to the Cree in the Nelson House area as she battles to cure the ailments of the community. She sees her sacrifice of an easy life replaced by one of hard work as important, even crucial for the Cree community: “That she should forsake her own kind and undeniably easier life of the white woman in civilization to stand by their missionary and work among them, seemed of momentous importance.” [45] Gaudin feels distressed that she is unable to save lives or prevent disease. The climax of her work as a nurse and the climax of the book occurs when influenza hits the community in 1919. Shipley wrote: “In civilization, there were volunteer nurses, diet kitchens, and delivery of food baskets to stricken households in addition to free inoculation centres. But in the North beyond Cross Lake there was only Anna to fight the terror.” [46] Gaudin, then, is a saviour symbol in the North. While her husband saved the souls of the Cree, it was her duty to save their bodies.

The confluence of race and gender in these two books results in Shipley’s stereotyping of her Indigenous characters. For example, the white saviour symbol characterized in Gaudin and Stevens is contrasted with the stereotype of the ‘squaw’ in Shipley’s books. Throughout Anna and Frances, Indigenous women are depicted as unclean, lewd, and bad mothers to their children. When Gaudin is called to examine a baby in a Cree settlement, she determines the issue “was the old story—malnutrition and neglect by ignorant parents.” [47] When she takes the woman’s other child with her to save her from being struck, the mother shrugs in indifference. [48] In Frances and the Crees, the Stevenses visit the Little Cranes band. There they observe that the women were “treated like dogs or lesser slaves by their husbands and sons” and were forced into marriages with men with multiple wives. [49] After preaching to them about monogamy, Stevens’ husband marries fourteen couples by the end of the day. [50]

Nan Shipley, right, celebrating the publication of her Whistle on the Wind in 1961.
Source: Shipley Fonds, University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections A79-014_002_0005_522

The presence and use of these stereotypes creates a contradiction between Shipley’s writing and her goal of changing public perceptions. Such stereotypes were regarded by Shipley as one cause for negative views, toward Indigenous peoples among the non-Indigenous population. In an overview of representations of Indigenous peoples in post-war literature, Gordon Johnston argues that stereotypes can have a place in literature as symbolic representations. The problem, he argues, is that these representations—both positive and negative—have come to be regarded as real. [51] Rather than deconstructing these stereotypes, Shipley perpetuates them in her stories. As Johnston suggests, there could be value in such stereotypes if they served a symbolic purpose. However, the Indigenous characters in these two books are written as props, reinforcing the white characters’ positions as authority figures with little symbolism attached. Ultimately, Shipley failed to challenge negative stereotypes, instead focussing on the storylines of her white characters at the expense of multi-dimensional Indigenous characters.

Another trope of Shipley’s books are her descriptions of traditional ceremonies and practices. The prominence of these descriptions in her books (some of which feel almost forced into the storyline) demonstrate her drive to preserve, or salvage, the knowledge of these traditions. In one section, ‘dreaming-stages’ are described to the reader, through Gaudin, as a part of the coming-of-age process for young men. [52] Another is the custom of middle-aged male Indians “of periodically escaping by themselves into the wilderness.” [53] Gaudin wonders if this practice is “some primitive compulsion to return to the ways of their earliest forefathers to hunt again with bow and arrow.” [54] In another instance, when a Cree man hunts for food without his gun, Anna’s husband wonders if “some age-old instinct” comes back to the “Indian even after long association with civilization.” [55] Notably, the last two examples contain descriptions of Indigenous hunting practices as “primitive. ”By describing them as such, Shipley once again pushes these practices far into the past, with no place in the modernizing society of Anna Gaudin’s colonial Canada, nor in Shipley’s own place in time.

The themes in Shipley’s books brought success for her as an author. Similar to Joan Sangster’s conclusions about popular interest in the North, Myra Rutherdale argues that stories of Indigenous and white encounter in the North were popular among readers in the southern part of the provinces, and publishers such as Ryerson Press (later McGraw-Hill Ryerson)—the publishing company Shipley often worked with—were eager to take on stories set in the North. [56] Women’s autobiographies became particularly popular to southern readers as they transcended gender norms and travelled and worked in an environment vastly different from that of women in the south. Rutherdale states that these adventuring women’s lives “stood in stark contrast to other middle-class Canadian women in the 1950s and 1960s who were living lives shaped by suburban realities.” [57] Women living in southern Canada could experience the North and could ‘encounter’ Indigenous worlds through stories.

Shipley’s stories were among those that appealed to readers in the south. In her autobiography, Shipley attributed Anna’s success “to the fact that it was the first account of a white family living in that part of Canada, and it introduced the reader to many privations endured by those who had dedicated their lives to serving others.” [58] Not only did the locales draw in readers but so too did the aspect of mission and nursing work. The sacrifice of helping others in the (near) wilderness would be viewed as incredibly noble to southern readers, particularly the selfless work performed by the main—white female—character who was thrust into the wild to work with a community of people whose culture she knew nothing about. In fact, both Anna and Shipley’s similarly-themed Frances and the Crees, published just two years after Anna, remained popular nearly two decades after their first publication. In a letter to her editor at McGraw-Hill Ryerson, Shipley requested a re-print of these books due to the “phenomenal interest in the North and particularly around places mentioned” in the two books. [59] Anna went through a total of nine printings before it was discontinued.

Nan Shipley with Alex and Mary Grisdale, 1969.
Source: Shipley Fonds, University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections A79-014_002_0005_528

A sample of mail Shipley received from fans of her books reveals not only that women in the south were interested in this genre, but also the reasons why these books appealed to them so exceptionally. Many of the letter-writers who connected with the books had worked in health care in the same areas in northern Manitoba as described in Shipley’s stories. Grace Camden worked for the federal government’s Indian Health Services branch as a lab technician in the Norway House Indian Hospital, and enjoyed both Anna and the Indians and Frances and the Crees. In her letter, Camden described how many of the people who were at Norway House in 1957, when the letter was written, knew Anna Gaudin and Frances Stevens and provided short updates about relatives of characters in the books for Shipley’s interest. [60]

In her study of professional nursing in northern Manitoba in the post-war period, Kathryn McPherson found that nurses, such as the ones who enjoyed Shipley’s books, moved to areas of northern Manitoba where they were the front line for Indigenous health care. They worked in and with the communities, often without other professional support, to care for the Indigenous peoples in the area, and navigated race, gender, and colonial policies in their effort to help communities in need. [61] The themes of selflessness and devotion from a white woman clearly resonated with the women who had once worked in the locations described in the books, and who could imagine the struggles of these women not too many decades earlier. Florence Hill, a retired relief nurse who worked at Fisher Branch, enjoyed Frances and the Crees, and wrote to Shipley that it “afforded me a real thrill” as she “read of the struggles and achievements of that wonderful couple in their years of devotion to the Indians.” [62] Another fan, from Edmonton, described a yearning for the selflessness she saw in these characters, stating that she “couldn’t help but feel as [she] read of Anna how very small our lives are and of how little we ordinary individuals offer to society in these comparatively easy times. Her life must have been very satisfying and full—although very trying and sad at times.” [63] The readers of these stories related to the characters and saw themselves in these self-sacrificing heroines of the rugged north.

Shipley’s interest in Indigenous culture continued to grow over the years. Indeed, her interest was not limited to her writing. By the late 1950s Shipley had moved to Winnipeg, and while there she became involved with the Indian and Métis Friendship Centre (IMFC) in Winnipeg, helped organize Manitoba’s first Indian handicrafts sale, and wrote a brief for the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada on the experiences of First Nations and Métis women in Manitoba (although it was not published in the final report). [64] The growth of her interest coincided with an increasing rise of the Indigenous population in urban areas, and intensifying movements for Indigenous rights, as mentioned earlier in this article.

Shipley’s involvement with urban Indigenous communities was not uncommon in this period. Non-Indigenous Canadians were becoming more and more interested in addressing the needs of the Indigenous community within cities throughout Canada. Urban Indigenous communities experienced higher mortality rates and arrests than the rest of the population, and they struggled to adjust to the city without social and family supports and networks. [65] In response, the first Indian and Métis Friendship Centre opened in Winnipeg in 1959 to meet the needs of Indigenous newcomers by directing them to employment opportunities and housing, and creating a welcoming place where they could socialize. [66] According to historian Will Langford, many of the community members involved with the IMFC were liberal women, who were “central to raising concerns over the well-being of Indigenous peoples who either lived in or visited liberals’ communities.” [67]

Shipley’s writing reflected her involvement with the Indigenous community, as her stories demonstrated a shift in her representations of Indigenous peoples in her books. Whereas Anna and the Indians and Frances and the Crees featured white women as the main characters and the Cree as background characters, in 1963 she published Return to the River, a story set in the late 1940s about a young Indigenous woman, Nona, who leaves her small community near Roaring Rapids River to live in Winnipeg. Nona comes from a family struggling to make ends meet as fishing becomes more difficult because of government-established industry in the area. Nona’s parents send her to Winnipeg with the hope she will have better opportunities in the city. Once there, Nona quickly realizes that conditions are just as bad there as they are in her home community—perhaps more so, due to the lack of family supports. She comes up against racism as she looks for a job, and finds it difficult to make any meaningful connections with either Indigenous or non-Indigenous city-dwellers. In the end, she moves back to her family and marries a man from the community.

In contrast to Anna and Frances, Shipley includes critiques of colonial intervention in Indigenous communities. One of these is residential schools. Nona’s mother and father both attended residential schools as children. Nona’s grandmother recalls her schooling and as a result, Shipley writes, they “had taken precautions to make certain that their children should grow up untrammeled by native superstitions and the pagan beliefs transmitted insidiously from one generation to another.” [68] Nona’s grandmother considers the ramifications of the schools, recalling how “when her own children were very small they had enjoyed her stories, but after they were taken from home to attend the Anglican Residential School far to the south, and returned only for short holidays, there was bewildering estrangement, and the gulf between mother and child widened,” and her children became ashamed of their heritage. [69] Nona, on the other hand, demonstrates her interest in traditions throughout the book, wishing to learn these practices from her grandmother. As such, Shipley recognizes the intergenerational tensions that arose from institutional colonization such as the residential schools.

Shipley also criticizes the promises and conventions set out by the First Nations Treaties. Nona’s father exclaims: “what’s the good of my birthright, of owning land, if I can’t sell it without government sanction? I will live where I can buy and sell and move about like everyone else.” [70] Her grandfather, Chief Stoney, declares:

Ah, for the return of the honorable life our grandfathers knew! To be masters of our own lives again. We were kings then. We should never have let the white man do our thinking for us. We should be self-governing through the men of our Councils. As long as we remain on the Reserve it is the only way we can hold authority and respect. [71]

Although some of the vocabulary used in this passage may lean toward a romanticizing of life before a colonial government, Shipley does argue, here and throughout, the negative impacts of the Treaties.

Again, Shipley utilizes stereotypes, here illustrating the difficulty of urbanization and assimilation for Indigenous communities. For example, the Indigenous women that Nona interacts with who do sex work between other jobs (and it is hinted that one of them has tuberculosis), was considered not an acceptable career in the post-war period. [72] However, perhaps stereotypes are better used as symbols in Return to the River than those in Anna and Frances. Shipley is criticizing the racism within cities and among non-Indigenous communities that might have led to the negative images she presents. In a newspaper interview, Shipley comments on the issues facing the urban Indigenous community, stating that “we are socially indifferent, we do nothing about the neglect of Indians, even when we hear about it.” [73] Her goal was to show her readers the processes that led to the creation of such stereotypes, and to show that it was up to the non-Indigenous community to change its attitudes toward the Indigenous community.

Shipley’s goal of educating her readers is remarkably clear at the end of Return to the River. The epilogue of the book updates readers to the 1951 amendments to the Indian Act, noting that First Nations now have more rights, and she mentions the establishment of the Friendship centres. She finishes by arguing that “... progress is built on public attitudes toward the underprivileged. ... Progress moves only as fast as human understanding and compassion permit, qualities that cannot be legislated.” [74] Presenting this strong call to action demonstrates the sincerity in Shipley’s ambition to change negative perceptions of Indigenous peoples.

Perhaps Shipley’s greatest achievement in promoting Indigenous culture and history through her writing was Wild Drums. In 1972, Shipley sought to publish a collection of Indian legends. Shipley met Alexander Grisdale, an Ojibway man from the Brokenhead Nation when he was “once again travelling about the country gathering the old people’s tales relating to customs and rites that were commonplace before the white man appeared in this part of the world.” [75] Shipley notes that she, too, had been collecting Indian legends (although she does not reveal her method of doing so) to draw “back the curtain of ignorance and mystery that cloak much of the North American Indians’ own account of their early history prior to the arrival of the Europeans.” [76] She bought the handwritten stories from Grisdale, edited them “as little as possible to preserve the native idiom and charm” and set out to find a publisher for the collection. [77] Once again, Shipley was on a mission to salvage and preserve pieces of Indigenous history.

Shipley contacted several individuals, hoping they would take interest in the book. She corresponded with various publishing agencies, the Department of Education in Indian Affairs, the Cultural Development Section of Indian Affairs, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. One of her motivations was, as with her previous books, to educate Canadians about Indigenous history. Noting in her letters that these stories were more than “common myths,” she stated her primary interest lay in stories “of historic importance, handed down from one generation to another, recorded events of individuals and tribal courage, battle, and travel.” [78] In this correspondence Shipley argued the legends were invaluable to the education of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians alike, stating they should be printed “for the enlightenment and entertainment of people of all nationalities.” [79] To the Managing Editor of the University of Toronto Press, Shipley argued that to her knowledge, “there has never appeared a published version of western Canadian Indian history, from the native point of view—a sad hiatus in our national history. And our only true and unique folk-lore.” [80] In another letter, she noted that in her thirty years of studying the subject, the legends were the “closest thing to Indian history that I have found.” [81] Once again, while attempting to promote Indigenous history, Shipley erases Indigenous engagement in their own history, scholarship, and educating mainstream Canadians. Additionally, referring to these Indian legends (or, rather, oral histories) as “the closest thing to Indian history” discounts oral story-telling as a legitimate form of history. The collection was finally picked up and published by Peguis Publishers as Wild Drums: Tales and Legends of the Plains Indians in 1972, with Grisdale receiving royalties from purchases. [82]

Shipley’s relationship with Grisdale and Wild Drums reflects her ‘salvage’ approach to Indigenous history. Wild Drums was certainly Shipley’s work most informed by Cree thought and history. The collection was co-produced with an Indigenous man who collected the stories from various Indigenous communities, resulting in this Indigenous community-based project. However Shipley’s participation in the project was, as with her other projects, to capture ‘authentic’ Indigenous culture, believing the stories would soon vanish. Despite her best intentions, this project is just another example of Shipley’s belief that authentic Indigenous culture was on the verge of disappearing.

Wild Drums, a collection of Indigenous stories compiled by Nan Shipley and Alex Grisdale, was published in 1972.

Shipley’s final book was published, in 1983. Her thirty-year writing career was acknowledged by the North Dakota State University award for Historical Writing in 1970 and the Manitoba Centennial Medal by the Manitoba Historical Society in the same year. [83] Her interest and involvement in the Indigenous community was recognized in 1965 when she was awarded Woman of the Year by the Women’s Advertising and Sales Club of Winnipeg for “her writing and her service to the community, especially on behalf of Indians and Metis,” and the Good Citizen Award of Manitoba in 1973 for “furthering our understanding of the Canadian Indian.” [84] Her work was hailed as progressive, and her enthusiasm for changing public perceptions of Indigenous peoples was praised.

Nan Shipley’s life and career offer a unique perspective on Indigenous and non-Indigenous encounter in the post-war period. In both her personal and professional life, Shipley was fascinated by Indigenous life and culture, but was limited in her view of ‘authentic’ Indigenous culture and traditions. Despite her involvement with members of various Indigenous communities, Shipley consistently maintained that authentic Indigenous traditions were unable to withstand integration into mainstream Canadian culture. The themes that appear in Shipley’s published work—such as the ‘first white woman’, negative stereotypes of Indigenous peoples, and her attempts to ‘rescue’ the authenticity of Indigenous cultures—complicate her position as a white writer. Despite some problematic qualities, Shipley was a forward-thinking supporter of Indigenous peoples for her time. Perhaps her most outstanding contribution is the vast archive she left, allowing for an in-depth study of encounter in the post-war period.


1. “Nan Shipley fonds.” Home–Nan Shipley fonds–Lib Guides at University of Manitoba. Accessed 04 April 2017.

2. Nan Shipley, Most of It Was Fun. 1985. Box 1, Folder 3.MSS 21. Nan Shipley Fonds. University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, p. 85. (Hereafter, UMASC)

3. Most of It Was Fun, p. 94.

4. Most of It Was Fun, p. 6.

5. “Nan Shipley Fonds.” UMAS Collections. Accessed 31 October 2018.

6. Nan Shipley, Anna and the Indians, Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1955; Nan Shipley, Frances and the Crees, Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1957; I have adopted the use of terminology related to “the original peoples of the land and their descendants, commonly referred to as ‘Aboriginal Peoples’ or ‘Indigenous Peoples’” as outlined by The University of Manitoba guidelines. I have tried to abide by these guidelines by using the terms Indigenous and Indigenous peoples as collective terms for aboriginal peoples of the land in Canada, including First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples. See “Briefing Note on Terminology: Concept Note—Terminology Related to Indigenous Peoples,” accessed 30 October 2018,

7. As Shipley was active for a forty-five year period between 1940 and 1985, the collection is incredibly extensive, consisting of thousands of pages of Shipley’s writing, her autobiography, correspondence, photographs, research materials, lecture materials, her radio and television series, and newspaper clippings and interviews related to her work. The books I have chosen for this article are exemplary of Shipley’s interest in northern settings and interactions between the white settler and Indigenous communities there, and represent the most active part of her career. Additionally, correspondence between Shipley and her readers and publishers, and newspaper articles and interviews offer a range of responses to her writing by fans and publishers. Finally, I also use Shipley’s autobiography, which provides insight into her experiences, motivations behind her area of interest, and her personal opinions on the Indigenous issues she wrote about.

8. For more recent examples, see Patricia A. Roome, “‘From One Whose Home is Among the Indians’: Henrietta Muir Edwards and Aboriginal Peoples”, in Sarah Carter, Lesley Erickson, Patricia Roome, and Char Smith (eds.), Unsettled Pasts: Reconceiving the West Through Women’s History, Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2005: 47–78; Sarah Carter, The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation Building in Western Canada to 1915, Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2008; Myra Rutherdale, Women and the White Man’s God: Gender and Race in the Canadian Mission Field, Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2002; Sarah Carter and Patricia Alice McCormack (eds.), Recollecting: Lives of Aboriginal Women of the Canadian Northwest and Borderlands, Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2011; Katie Pickles and Myra Rutherdale, Contact Zones: Aboriginal and Settler Women in Canada’s Colonial Past, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2014.

9. Kristin Burnett, “Aboriginal and White Women in the Publications of John Maclean, Egerton Ryerson Young, and John McDougall”, in Sarah Carter et al. (eds.), Unsettled Pasts: Reconceiving the West through Women’s History, Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2005:101–122; Carole Gerson, “Nobler savages: representations of Native women in the writings of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill”, in Veronica Strong-Boag, Mona Lee Gleason, and Adele Perry (eds.), Rethinking Canada: The Promise of Women’s History, 4th ed., Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 2002.

10. For some examples of Indigenous peoples in literature written by white writers, see Thomas King, Cheryl Dawnan Calver, and Helen Hoy, The Native in Literature, Toronto: ECW Press, 1987; Leslie Monkman, A Native Heritage: Images of the Indian in English-Canadian Literature, des Libris Books Collection, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981; Cathy Rex, Anglo-American Women Writers and Representations of Indianness, 1629–1824, Farnham Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2015.

11. It should, perhaps, be reiterated that Shipley did not have formal training in historical research methods, and so the extent of her research is not always clear.

12. “Indian History Boosted,” Edmonton Journal, 1 February 1966. Box 1, Folder 1. MSS 21. Nan Shipley fonds. UMASC.

13. Sean Carleton, “Colonizing Minds: Public Education, the ‘Textbook Indian’, and Settler Colonialism in British Columbia, 1920-1970.” BC Studies 169:120 (Spring 2011).

14. George Johnson, Minister of Education to Nan Shipley, 30 May 1968. Box 1, Folder 10.MSS 21, Nan Shipley fonds, UMASC.

15. Robin Fisher, Contact and Conflict: Indian-European Relations in British Columbia, 1774–1890, Vancouver: UBC Press, 1977; Sylvia Van Kirk, Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670–1870, Winnipeg, MB: Watson & Dwyer, 1999; Arthur J. Ray, Indians in the Fur Trade: Their Role As Trappers, Hunters, and Middlemen in the Lands Southwest of Hudson Bay, 1660–1870, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974; Susan Neylan and Theodore Binnema, New Histories for Old: Changing Perspectives on Canada’s Native Pasts, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007:6–8.

16. Edith Paterson, “Author Shipley Warns of Possible Violence”, (unknown newspaper), 9 October 1965. Box 1, Folder 1, MSS 21, Nan Shipley fonds, UMASC.

17. Regna Darnell and Julia D. Harrison. Historicizing Canadian Anthropology, Vancouver BC: UBC Press, 2006:59.

18. Ibid., p. 63.

19. Eli Mandel, “Imagining Natives: White Perspectives on Native Peoples” in King et al. (1987),The Native in Literature, 34–49: 44

20. Most of It Was Fun, pp. 108–109.

21. Most of It Was Fun, p. 109.

22. Most of It Was Fun, p. 122.

23. Joan Sangster, The Iconic North: Cultural Constructions of Aboriginal Life in Postwar Canada, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016.

24. Sangster, p. 37.

25. Sangster. 70.

26. Sangster, p. 84.

27. “Nan Shipley fonds”

28. Sangster, p. 3.

29. Sangster, p. 6.

30. For a detailed description, see Allison Mitcham. The Northern Imagination: a Study of Northern Canadian Literature, Moonbeam, ON: Penumbra Press, 1983.

31. Mitcham, p. 11.

32. Most of It Was Fun, p. 85.

33. Most of It Was Fun. p. 86.

34. Frances and the Crees, p. 6.

35. Anna and the Indians, p. 22.

36. Anna and the Indians, p. 33.

37. Most of It Was Fun, pp. 126–127.

38. Sangster, p. 40.

39. Anna and the Indians, p. 27.

40. Anna and the Indians, p. 69.

41. Nan Shipley to Bob Bowman, History Today Column in BC; 24 August, 1972. Box 1, Folder 3, MSS 21, Nan Shipley fonds, UMASC.

42. Ibid.

43. Sarah Carter, “Categories and Terrains of Exclusion” in Contact Zones: Aboriginal and Settler Women in Canada’s Colonial Past, Myra Rutherdale and Katie Pickles (eds.), Vancouver: UBC Press, 2005.

44. Sarah Carter, Capturing Women, p. 6.

45. Anna and the Indians, p. 35.

46. Anna and the Indians, p. 219.

47. Anna and the Indians, p. 214.

48. Ibid.

49. Frances and the Crees, p. 68.

50. Ibid.

51. Gordon Johnston, “An Intolerable Burden of Meaning: Native Peoples in White Fiction” in The Native in Literature, pp. 50–66:51.

52. Anna and the Indians, p. 31.

53. Anna and the Indians, p. 126.

54. Ibid.

55. Anna and the Indians, p. 132.

56. Myra Rutherdale, “Nursing in the North and writing for the South: The work and travels of Amy Wilson”, in Caregiving on the Periphery: Historical Perspectives on Nursing and Midwifery in Canada, Myra Rutherdale (ed.), Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010, pp. 158–159.

57. Rutherdale, p. 160.

58. Most of It Was Fun, p. 118.

59. Nan Shipley to Robin Brass of McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 27 August 1973. Box 1, Folder 3, MSS 21, Nan Shipley fonds, UMASC.

60. Grace Camden of Norway House Indian House to Nan Shipley, 28 August 1957. Box 1, Folder 4, MSS 21, Nan Shipley fonds, UMASC.

61. See Kathryn McPherson, “Nursing and colonization: the work of Indian Health Service Nurses in Manitoba, 1945-1970, in Women, Health, and Nation: Canada and the United States since 1945, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003.

62. Florence Hill to Nan Shipley, 30 August 1962. Box 1, Folder 9, MSS 21, Nan Shipley fonds, UMASC.

63. Betty Bend to Nan Shipley, 26 May 1955. Box 1, Folder 3, MSS 21, Nan Shipley fonds, UMASC.

64. “Nan Shipley fonds”; Florence Bird to Nan Shipley, 10 December 1970. Box 1, Folder 3, MSS 21, Nan Shipley Fonds, UMASC; these aspects of Shipley’s career could be examined in future projects, particularly her work with Indigenous women in Winnipeg. In addition, her career as a female historical writer in the post-war period would be an interesting study on gender and academia in this period.

65. Leslie Hall, “Early History of the Winnipeg Indian and Metis Friendship Centre, 1951-1968”, in Prairie Metropolis: New Essays on Winnipeg Social History, Gerald Friesen and Esyllt Wynne Jones (eds.), Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2009, p. 224.

66. Hall, p. 223.

67. Will Langford, “Friendship Centres in Canada, 1959–1977”, American Indian Quarterly (Berkeley) 40, 1. Winter 2016, 1–37: 9

68. Nan Shipley, Return to the River: A Novel, New York: F. Fell, 1964, p.17.

69. Ibid., p. 6.

70. Ibid., p. 8.

71. Ibid., p. 9.

72. Ibid., pp. 27, 84–86.

73. Edith Paterson,”Author Shipley Warns of Possible Violence”. (endnote 16]

74. Return to the River, p. 186.

75. Most of It Was Fun, p. 141.

76. Ibid., p. 140.

77. Nan Shipley to Doubleday & Co. Ltd., 11 September 1967. Box 1, Folder 5, MSS 21, Nan Shipley fonds, UMASC.

78. Nan Shipley to Hugh Dempsey, Glenbow Foundation, 28 September 1967. Box 1, Folder 5, MSS 21, Nan Shipley fonds, UMASC.

79. Nan Shipley to Jean Goodwill, Cultural Development Section of Indian Affairs, 2 May 1972. Box 1, Folder 8, MSS 21, Nan Shipley fonds, UMASC.

80. Nan Shipley to Francess Halpenny, Managing Editor, University of Toronto Press, 18 September 1967. Box 1, Folder 9, MSS 21, UMASC.

81. Nan Shipley to Jean Goodwill.

82. Nan Shipley to Alexander Grisdale, 18 January 1973. Box 1, Folder 8, MSS 21, Nan Shipley fonds, UMASC.

83. “Biographical Awards and Data”, Box 1, Folder 1, MSS 21, Nan Shipley Fonds, UMASC.

84. Jager,”Profile—Nan Shipley” from “In Review” Spring 1973. Box 1, Folder 1, MSS 21, Nan Shipley fonds, UMASC.

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We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 14 April 2021

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