Notes on a Lifetime of Passing

Thinking about the continuum between experiential education, living history, participant-observation, and passing as I read this excellent article from someone who, like me, passed for a "real professor" as a respondent, like me, to Dartmouth scholars (I was one of those too, though it felt like passing). Like me, the author's racial identity has created tensions with his choice of profession, although I've always been clear that living history stops short of genetics. His words invite paraphrase.

"Nevertheless, as I enter my thirtieth year of passing for a real voyageur, I find myself less and less inclined to correct those who mistakenly call me one."

Passing has allowed me to ask, and answer, important questions in my life both personally and professionally. Am I "passing," or am I real? Are those who challenge me mistaken, or accurate? Which lies do I tell, and when am I only acting? What does it mean to be:
  • Voyageur
  • Canadian/Canadien(ne) (notice how place identity is gendered in French)
  • American/Americain(e) (ditto)
  • Francophone
  • Québeçois(e)/Manitobain(e)/Métis (all different experiences under "French-Canadian")
  • Native American/Ojibwa/Cree and Métis again
  • Of the Country (in the French sense of the term authochthonous)
  • Woman
  • Married
  • Singer of work songs
  • Scholar
  • Maritime
  • Traditional
  • Authentic
I'm going to the Netherlands in a month to present this work at the Liereliet Workum maritime festival. Because Lisette's Journey has taken so many different shapes over the years, I'm spending a lot of time thinking about--not what to present, the repertoire is clear--but how to present it, and myself. What's an Irish girl from Boston doing singing French Canadian songs (and maybe telling Ojibwa or Cree stories) in the Netherlands? It's a reasonable question on the surface. But the answer is, I'm challenging the assumptions that pose the question.

The simple answer is, because this is a maritime festival, and we all love boats. In my case, canoes. I'm crazy about canoes. How did people travel so far in something so small? Well, if you love tall ships, you will love war canoes, which became voyageur canoes.

I have variously experienced life in a voyageur canoe as a bourgeois woman carried into one, a whitewater paddler dumped into rapids with my lower body still in one, a racing coxswain singing the rhythm for the winning brigade, a trip leader offering tobacco to the river to start the journey, a distance traveler peeing over the side (pride of skill for a woman!), and an exhausted hiker carrying one on my head for a mile in moccasins. I arrived at my first wedding in a war canoe, and I hope I've done my part to put voyageur songs on the festival stage and in the session circle with capstan chanteys and forebitters as a world-heritage body of work songs in traditional maritime music. But there are much deeper undercurrents of authenticity and identity that motivate the journey.

I have passed, successfully, for Franco-speaking at a three-day French teacher's conference. I've been booed off a stage by Ontario fishing lodge owners who assumed I was Franco from Quebec. I've debated whether it's more inappropriate to play across race than across gender when roleplaying the British Columbia Métis partner of a Scottish-American fur trader from Vermont. Ethnically, I'm Daniel Harmon. Gendered, I'm Lisette Laval.

Spoiler: even at my most athletic, my waist-to-hip ratio and a certain other measurement never made cross-dressing a credible option. The stereotypical voyageur is a French-Canadian (often Métis) male. That's the archetype I set out to inhabit, and then to bust, until it included me, and women like me, as voyageurs. Of the three remaining cultural/ethnic choices--European male, European female, native/Métis female--I chose a combination of the two that were visibly believable. Frankly, a long braid was easier for an audience than trousers. It was that simple.

Since it was important to me--as a geographer, very important!--to represent the truth of Lisette's experience as a "femme du pays," a woman of the country, rather than as an immigrant or a visitor, I very slowly, over the course of years, added artifacts that made her (me) read more French and native, to reflect her Métis heritage. It's a point of pride that every piece in my collection was acquired locally, and most often as a gift from a fellow reenactor of Franco, Métis, or Canadian origin. All my clothing is either handmade, some entirely hand-stitched, or purchased from a sutler or in a museum shop. I never dyed my hair or darkened my skin, and I always made it clear that the construct here was first-person living history roleplay. I'm an actor, and a reenactor. Passing is suspension of disbelief.

I spent years of time and angst reflecting on disapprovals of my Lisette persona from Native American women historians and Franco-Manitoban schoolchildren. I struggled to respond to the implicit suspicion and hostility in a phone call from a man who said "What are you doing roleplaying my great-grandmother?" Ultimately, I wrote my own grandmother's biography and a memoir about my great-grandfather, and at last I began to understand why I had so passionately portrayed the nostalgia, heimweh, and cultural pride I had poured into Lisette's story.

None of this "passing" and identity politics was an issue in 1988 when I began this work. (I'm aware now of the privilege inherent in that statement.) In 2017, it seems the height of absurdity for an American to even want to pass as Canadian, let alone be hassled for it. We have bigger fish to fry. But thirty years of uncomfortable privilege as a white Ivy-League scholarship kid, and of defending that privilege as a starving artist and independent scholar, masked a truth that this author speaks openly: the pride of passing. The raw desire to be something you're not, or not entirely. The desire to be only what you have made of yourself, not a prisoner of your DNA or your first family. This latest booking is a bucket-list measure of success on that score.

So I have gone back to first principles with Lisette's upcoming gig. I'm going to give the Liereliet Festival organizers exactly what they asked for. Here's the invitation.

"Last Summer, we were very impressed and inspired by the things that you told us about your ‘Voyages’-programme. So now we are asking you: could you do that, in whatever form, in Workum this year on the Friday-evening?"

Whatever form? So many choices. That program was my livelihood In some form for over a decade. By 1998, I had a full week's bilingual arts residency for K-12,  a two-act storytelling theatre script with productions from Vermont to Saskatchewan, a festival week's worth of adult solo workshops, a self-published article-length biography of Lisette, a raft of conference presentations, and a standing offer from a publisher for a messy pile of manuscript that I somehow couldn't edit into a book that had a central narrative. That's why it's a blog today.

By the time my life as a professional Canadian fell apart, I knew more about who Lisette Laval Harmon was than who Lynn Noel was. But here's what I know today. I learned a lot of it on those voyages of Lisette's Journey.

Lynn Noel is a Canadian-American born in Boston whose great-grandfather was a Nova Scotia sea captain. Starting as a canoe instructor in Cape Breton at age fifteen, she has paddled in every province and territory in Canada as the Director of River Programs for the Quebec-Labrador Foundation, education and outreach consultant to the Canadian Heritage Rivers System, and the author of VOYAGES: Canada's Heritage Rivers. Her B.A. and M.S. in geography studied the tensions between conservation of natural resources and cultural heritage in single-resource island economies, from post-hurricane subsistence farming in Dominica to the collapse of the Newfoundland fishery. National parks emerged as a common theme, and Lynn spent two decades working with national/state/provincial parks programs and the World Heritage program.

A graduate of Dartmouth College and former Research Fellow of the John Sloan Dickey Center's Institute of Arctic Studies, Lynn has blended the disciplines of geography, women's studies, anthropology, history, folklore, music, storytelling, genealogy, experiential education, and heritage interpretation in her award-winning concert series Crosscurrents: Sense of Place in Song and Story. Crosscurrents includes the first-person living history series A Woman's Way: Voyageurs, Vikings, Pirates, and Other Traditional Women's Roles, or The First Millennium of Adventurous Women.

Lisette's Journey tells the story of the Northwest Company fur trade from the perspective of Lisette Laval Harmon (1798-1863) and her husband Daniel Williams Harmon (1778-1843), based on Daniel's journal Sixteen Years in the Indian Country 1800-1816. Featured at fur trade reenactments from Ontario's Old Fort William and Manitoba's  Festival du Voyageur to Fort de Chartres in Illinois, Lynn brings the spirit of the Voyageur to life with a woman's voice and a paddler's passion.

So yeah. I pass. Because I can. But not on purpose, not anymore. I only ever tried it because I wanted to learn. Experiential education and participant-observation work best when you pass, in the moment. Detectives go undercover, and so did I.

Chanteysingers who revere Stan Hugill sometimes forget that before he was the last of the old salts, he was an Outward Bound instructor. Experiential education and participant-observation is how Stan Hugill learned all those songs. It's how, in the manner of the Velveteen Rabbit, he became Real. That's all I ever wanted. I watched Talitha MacKenzie struggle to be Real as a woman chanteysinger at Mystic Seaport. "I'm a female chanteysinger, no ifs or ands or buts / I may not have the register, but at least I've got the guts." She did, too. Talitha's as Real as it gets these days.

When it came to being a chanteysinger, I decided that my best route to being Real was to turn my back on the whaling ships and pick up my paddle. Because in a canoe, I never had to worry who thought I was Real. I knew I was. When I'm paddling, I'm not passing.

I'm very clear on this. I'm not Métis, and I'm not native, and I'm not Franco, and I don't have a Canadian passport. I know what's real in terms of DNA and my passport. And even though there's more to cultural identity than legal, genetic, and gender identity, I'm not looking to challenge any of mine.

I do have a life lesson in how gender affects perceived cultural authenticity with age. I'm not 25 anymore, so I'm a bit less "authentic" about portaging, racing, whitewater, and fitting into my 18th-century clothing. But so are many men my age. When I worried about it, several other female performers reminded me that a plus-size fur trader can (and should!) simply be seen as sleek and successful. They do call it queen size, after all. I'm doing my best to embrace that, just like my peers, those portly pirates at the Renaissance Festivals. If a Pirate Looks at Forty, then surely a voyageur can look at fifty and beyond.

At the first CHRS conference, Lisette Laval Harmon was named the Official Voyageur of the Canadian Heritage Rivers System, and I received a national award for my portrayal of her. Was I passing? No. I was the co-chair of the conference. That was real.

It felt a bit like passing when the CBC called to ask me to consult on their biography of Daniel Harmon: The Winterer. But they'd gotten my name from two women scholars of the fur trade, in whose books I'd originally found Lisette. In my quest for authenticity, I had amassed more primary research on the Harmons than Sylvia Van Kirk or Jennifer Brown. Both women became mentors, colleagues, and friends. I found they struggled with many of the same issues about passing and credibility as I did, and as Trey Evans does in his article.

Just this month, I received a copy of the walking tour map of Mount Royal Cemetery in Montréal, where my friend and board member Helen Meredith has gotten them to include Lisette in their Historical Burials and Famous Women sections after she and I found Lisette's grave together. We are both very proud to have given Lisette that place in history.

I am still functionally bilingual, and I even dream in French sometimes. I'm proud of that. I have official papers and a couple of awards saying I was a "professional Canadian" for a good solid career. I'm proud of that too. But what I'm proudest of these days is that the world seems to have gotten used to the idea that there were women voyageurs.  Because that's who Lisette was. That's who I am too. We are different women, two centuries apart, but she's my hero. After thirty years of thinking about her, I like to think that she might have admired me as well. Truth is, I'll never know.

These days, I'm mostly trying to learn to pass as myself. Because I agree with Trey Evans. "Passing as anything other than yourself just seems sad."