Indigenous Voices in the Archives: Nora Gladstone and the 1937 Coronation

Dr Kate Rennard (University of Kent)
Research Associate, ‘Beyond the Spectacle’

On a foggy morning in May 1937, Nora Gladstone, a Kainai teenager from southern Alberta, woke early in the London hotel room she shared with Cree student Ida Vandall. They, along with about 200 other Canadian students, made their way towards their reserved seats opposite Buckingham Palace to watch the Coronation parade of the newly crowned King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. They waited through the gloomy morning and the afternoon downpours, cheering as the Coronation coach passed and the monarchs appeared on the balcony clad in their robes. As Gladstone described in a letter to her schoolmates at St. Paul Residential School and in the speeches she gave afterward, the pomp and pageantry on display were thrilling. It was, she noted, “a most wonderful spectacle to see.” In an interesting reversal of the Indigenous performers of the Wild West shows that previous blog posts have discussed, here was a First Nations woman turning the gaze of empire back on itself. For the four Indigenous teenagers chosen to represent their nations on this trip, the spectacle continued in the weeks afterward as they toured England. First, Gladstone and Vandall went north to Kendal, Westmorland, with the other two Indigenous students, Clyde White (Mohawk) and John Jeffries (Cree). Hosted by a local family, they spent time attending school and seeing sights like Hadrian’s Wall and Gretna Green, before heading south again. To an extent, it was not they, but rather empire itself, that was the spectacle here.

The four First Nations students who attended the 1937 Coronation. Back left – Clyde White (Mohawk); back right – John Jeffries (Cree); front left – Ida Vandall (Cree); front right – Nora Gladstone (Kainai).
[Photograph from the Westmorland Gazette, Nora Baldwin fonds, Glenbow Archives.]
One of the major concerns of this project is to prioritise Indigenous voices and experiences of Native North American visits to Britain. Luckily for us, Nora Gladstone kept and then gave to the Glenbow Archives an incredible collection of materials about her trip – her scrapbook filled with programmes and photographs, her script for a BBC interview, newspaper clippings, letters from family and friends, speeches she gave when she returned home, even menus from the ships on which she travelled with her choices marked off. Unlike my colleague Jack’s dilemma with the White Cloud case, outlined in an earlier blog post, here we are not faced with a lack of information or having to read against a colonial archive to hear Native voices. And yet the collection still raises questions that are not easily answered. Whose perspectives are represented? What is Gladstone trying to convey about her travel through these materials? Can we take the materials at face value or do we still need to read against the archive?

A section from Nora Gladstone’s scrapbook.
[Nora Baldwin fonds, Glenbow Archives.]
While the teenagers’ experiences on this trip are an example of turning the empire’s gaze back on itself, the performative aspects of Gladstone’s trip are evident. As she mentioned in her speech to the General Synod, “[f]rom the time I left my people until I returned, I had only one feeling, and that was: to represent my school and my family as best I could.” She frequently reflected on how lucky she felt to have been chosen and the responsibility of representing her people and family. Given that most people in England were also “very ignorant about the life of the Indians,” associating Alberta with the Wild West and often thinking that “Indians still scalped people,” it’s likely that Gladstone and the other First Nations teenagers felt an additional duty to counter these stereotypes of Indigenous peoples. One friend alluded to these expectations in a letter sent just before Gladstone left on her trip, noting that “no other girl on the reserve is more fitted or qualified to uphold the dignity of your people.” How did this sense of responsibility shape her experiences and her recollection of them? How did it influence her letter to her classmates or her public speeches?

 

We get a tantalising glimpse of this through what appears to be Gladstone’s correction to Ida Vandall’s portion of their BBC script. Initially, it read, “Before the white man came to Canada, the Indians led a wild and warlike life in the West,” but Gladstone crossed out “warlike” and replaced it with “carefree.”

Section from Ida Vandall’s corrected BBC script.
[Nora Baldwin fonds, Glenbow Archives]
The word choice alone is fascinating. Gladstone clearly read the script and thought about the implications of “warlike” as an adjective, especially in perpetuating the stereotypes British people had of Indigenous peoples. She then deliberately chose a word that not only erased that connotation of the “savage” Indians but also conveyed that empire had been far from beneficial for Indigenous peoples. She didn’t choose a more neutral word, such as “nomadic.” Instead she implied, with just one word, that colonialism had imposed burdens on them, introducing cares rather than “civilization.” This signals just how carefully these teenagers had to think about their image and performances on the tour and suggests a dissonance between the breezy tone of Gladstone’s recollections in her letters and speeches and the serious considerations she and the other three Indigenous students faced as representatives of their nations. While they were in Britain to witness the spectacle and pageantry of the coronation, these teenagers were clearly conscious that a performance was still required of them, one that strategically undercut the impressions provided by the Wild West shows only 30 years earlier. Even at this early stage of our exploration of Nora Gladstone’s archive, her collection clearly illustrates a recurring theme of our project, namely the complicated and contradictory ways in which Indigenous peoples encountered Britain.

 

Do you have any stories about Indigenous peoples in Britain that you’d like to share? You can contact us via Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, or simply comment below!

 

Sources:

Nora Baldwin fonds, Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB, Canada

James Gladstone family fonds, Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB, Canada

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