Anthropologists who have overlooked the supposedly dull role of women in native cultures— planting, cooking or child-rearing while the men carved totem poles or hunted—are like gullible guests at a barbecue. It makes no difference who bought the steak, made the potato salad, remembered the shish kebab skewers, and prepared the marinade; the person who throws the meat on the fire is the one that counts. Although much has been written about the society of the North West Coast Indians, this is the first biography of a Haida woman, and author Margaret Blackman has found a splendid subject—Florence Edenshaw Davidson, who still lives and works on the Queen Charlotte Islands at the age of 87. Although men were the artists and leaders among the Haida, the women, as this portrait demonstrates, exercised a subtle power of their own.
Davidson, known as “Nani” (Haida for grandmother), is the daughter of the Haida carver and artist Charles Edenshaw and one of the last women to have lived through the pre-Christian ritual of seclusion at puberty. When she was a young girl, the traditional “pollution taboos” still applied to women: men kept their hunting equipment out of the house to avoid its contamination by a woman’s gaze, and men’s and women’s clothing were washed separately to safeguard a hunter’s luck. As was the custom, at the age of 14 Nani was married to an appropriate stranger.
While it is true that Nani did nothing but cook and raise children all her life, the details of such ordinary labor tell the real story of the role of Haida women: child-rearing was no small matter in a community that aspired to 10 babies per family; Nani had 13, several of whom she delivered herself. Furthermore, food preservation was a vital aspect of the economy. Regardless of the number of fish a husband brought home, if they were not properly sliced and dried for the winter, a family
would go hungry. Every fall Nani prepared 500 halibut to be eaten until spring.
Nani’s idea of cooking needs elaboration to be appreciated: “During the last war I used to bake a hundred loaves of bread a day. Sometimes fifty pounds of flour lasted me only three days.” During the winter months, weddings, dances and potlatches were all occasions for hyperactive baking, and it was not unusual for her to whip up “a thousand dinner rolls” for some community event. Women’s work may have been more ephemeral and less flamboyant, but it was hard work nonetheless.
Obviously, such a life might be repetitive, but never dull. The same cannot be said of During My Time, which threatens to overwhelm Nani’s delicate, rather shy reminiscences with an overly academic context. As if worried that so many days filled with jam-cooking and fish-slicing might not warrant serious attention, anthropologist Blackman is formal and scrupulous in providing ethnographic background, bracketing Nani
with forewords and afterwords, footnotes and bibliographies. What the book lacks is exactly what Nani specialized in—spirit and energy. For all its polish, During My Time is still a diamond in the rough: the untold stories lie beneath the facts.
The main element missing in this life story is conflict. If Nani ever suffered in the process of conforming first to Haida womanhood and then to Christianity, Blackman is too tactful to find out. When Nani goes through with her marriage at the age of 14, the only hints of her feelings are a few tantalizing asides: “Everybody but me was real happy. I don’t remember any more about the wedding, it was too awful.” When the missionaries arrived in her home town of Masset, the public coming-of-age of Haida women (their banishment to 10 days of seclusion represented a sort of negative female power) became a matter of secrecy and shame. A similarly benign reticence hovers over Nani’s own memories, and Blackman, out of respect perhaps, accepts this. Nani, Blackman suggests, is a good example of cross-cultural integration—so good that the sense of looking through a window into another time and culture is almost obscured. -MARNI JACKSON
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