Pictures I Like: “Mary Greyeyes”, photographer unknown 1942

mary-greyeyes

The Story: This photo is in the Library and Archives of Canada with the following untrue caption: “Mary Greyeyes being blessed by her native Chief prior to leaving for service in the CWAC “. Other places have Mary as an “Indian princess” being blessed by her father and chief. Also untrue.

The Facts: Here is the true story as related by her daughter-in-law, Melanie Fahlman Reid. Mary Greyeyes, aka Mary Reid, enlisted in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps  in 1942. Her brother David had joined the Army not long before, so Mary decided to give it a go as well. She was living on the Cree reserve at Muskeg Lake, north of Saskatoon, at the time. She wrote to the War Department and eventually got a letter telling her to travel to Regina and take a test. Mary had gone to a residential school and, in those days, there was no education for Indians beyond Grade 8, so she was apprehensive. But she passed with flying colors and became the first native to join the Canadian Women’s Army Corps.

Lt. David Greyeyes, 1943. [Department of National Defence]

Lt. David Greyeyes, 1943. [Department of National Defence]

The white women didn’t want her in the barracks and so Mary boarded outside the barracks. One day, her sergeant and two Mounties came by the boarding house and told Mary that, if she came with them and had her picture taken, they would give her a new uniform and a really good lunch. So they drove out to the Piapot Reserve, which is northeast of Regina, and there Mary knelt in the grass before band councillor (later chief) Harry Bull and had her picture taken. She remembered that there were a lot of bugs in the grass and it was uncomfortable. She and Harry had a conversation:

Harry says, “God it’s hot. What did you get for this?”
Mary says, “I get a good lunch.”
Harry says, “I got 20 bucks.”
Mary says, “So what are you bitching about? You get 20 bucks and I’m down here with bugs.”

Harry was a World War I vet and probably the original notion was to show an elder blessing the youth going to war or some such. The photographer went to local houses and found some stuff — pipe, bonnet, blanket, a knot of sweetgrass –that was cobbled together into a costume for Harry. He wasn’t Mary’s chief — they’d never met — and she wasn’t an Indian princess, whatever that was supposed to be.

Anyway, after the picture was taken, Mary was shipped out to England where she mostly worked in a laundry, which she hated. She asked for a transfer and her sergeant wrote on her application “Does Not Speak English”. But she did get reassigned to a kitchen. Whenever there was a need for a bit of colonial color to brighten up the news, they called on Mary who became “The Indian”. “She’s A Full-Blooded Indian But Now She Cooks For Palefaces” was one headline. It wasn’t all bad. She met Princess Elizabeth and the Queen Mother and sometimes enjoyed her status. Later she said that these were some of the best years of her life.

In 1946, Mary shipped back to Canada and was discharged. She returned to the Muskeg Lake reserve. One day, during a federal election, her old sergeant and a couple of Mounties showed up. They said, “Mary, you’ve got to come and vote.” The deal was, Indians who had served in the war could vote, if they gave up their treaty rights:

So Mary says to them, she says, “Can my mom vote?”
And they said, “No, she didn’t fight in the war.”
She said, “Well, what about my cousins over there, can they vote?”
And they said no. They said, “C’mon Mary, you gotta come, we’ve got the photographer.”
And she said, “All those years, I said nothing. Now I’m saying no.”

And that’s the real story of Mary Greyeyes.

[for a more complete version of the above, see Melanie Fahlman Reid’s account in The Tyee]