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Memorable Manitobans: Frances Nickawa (1898-1928)

Cree performer and recitalist.

Baptized Fanny Beardy, also known as Nai-ka-way-a and Ny-acka-way-a, Frances was born circa July 1898, probably near York Factory, Manitoba. Daughter of Jack or Thomas Beardy and Betsy Necoway (Nickawa), she was baptized by the Rev. Edward Paupanekis (Methodist) at Split Lake. In October 1901, she was adopted at Norway House by Hannah Tindall Riley, an English-born sewing teacher at the Methodist Residential School there. When in Winnipeg with Miss Riley to attend a Methodist conference, Frances, aged four, was asked to perform and made a wonderful impression with her voice and singing. The two moved to Vancouver, British Columbia in June 1907 when Riley took a position at an orphanage.

In her teens, Nickawa studied elocution and won medals in contests organized by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Her teacher, a former theatre director, described her as “unusually gifted in the interpretation of the legends and character portrayals of the Indian race” and as successor to the famed Mohawk performer, Pauline Johnson (d 1913). She gave her first solo performance in January 1919 and, over the next couple of years, toured Canada giving recitals. In July 1921, Nickawa and Riley went to Britain where they spent a year, returning in September 1922 to continue performing. A year later, after a summer trip to her Cree homeland, she suffered a breakdown and memory loss. Seemingly recovered, she toured Australia and Britain in 1924 and 1925, then gave a number of Canadian performances through 1926. In the summer of 1926, she met English businessman Arthur Russell Mark in Vancouver. They married on 29 January 1927. They had no children.

At Ottawa in May 1928, Nickawa suffered another collapse and returned to Vancouver. There, after a prolonged illness, she died of tuberculosis on 31 December 1928.

Like Pauline Johnson and other aboriginal performers of her day, Nickawa faced endless public demands for idealized stage Indians of yesteryear. She shunned commercialism, using the stage to support Methodist goals for Native missions and aid. In the early 1930s, the Rev. Egerton Ryerson Young wrote a biography of her entitled From Wigwam to Concert Platform: The Life of Frances Nickawa. It did not find publication, however. Documents pertaining to Nickawa’s life are held in the Archives of the United Church of Canada (Fonds 3431).

More information:

Frances Nickawa by Jennifer S. H. Brown, Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.

“A second Pauline Johnson: Frances Nickawa,” Christian Guardian, 6 April 1921, page 16.

“Frances Nickawa: Cree girl who is a gifted interpreter of the poetry of her race,” Saturday Night, 3 Febuary 1923, page 12.

Sources:

This profile was prepared by Jennifer S. H. Brown.

Page revised: 3 June 2009

Memorable Manitobans

Memorable Manitobans

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