|Mary Greyeyes (second from the left) and fellow CWAC members. Leader-Post (Saskatchewan, Canada) August 5, 1943, Page 3.
Indigenous history has a long relationship with the Canadian military. When the Great War broke out, many Indigenous men enlisted. In 1939, when the Second World War broke out, Indigenous men answered once again and joined. However, new divisions were created, opening the door to Indigenous women to serve. In 1942 the Canadian Women's Army Corps (CWAC) was created, and the first recorded Indigenous member was Mary Greyeyes. Greyeyes was from Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. She would become a valued asset and be used to represent the military's recruitment campaign around diversity.
The CWAC provided women with an opportunity to serve in the war. Women in the CWAC performed traditional female occupations such as cleaning, working as office personnel, dental and medical technicians, or telephone operators. Greyeyes was originally shipped off to Aldershot, where she was a laundress. Greyeyes did not like the job and asked to be transferred. Her sergeant wrote on the papers, “does not speak English.” After this incident, Greyeyes was relocated to London to be a cook. Greyeyes had a unique experience in the military, as she was expected to both perform her service duties and also be present as a public figure.
| Mary Greyeyes and Harry Ball staged photo 1942. Library and Archives Canada, PA-129070
There are a lot of misconceptions around the photo to the left, as it had a couple of different names since its circulation in 1942. The woman in the photo is Greyeyes. During this time, the military wanted to be seen as pro-diversity, and they used Greyeyes to promote this image. In 1942 she posed for this photo, which would be circulated in Canada to try and boost Indigenous recruitment. In return for posing in this photo, Greyeyes would receive a new uniform and a hearty meal. Greyeyes appeared in the photo kneeling before what appears to be a chief. The photo was originally captioned "Unidentified Indian Princess Getting Blessing From Her Chief and Father to go Fight in the War." However, the man in the photo was neither a chief nor her father; he was Harry Ball, a First World War veteran from Piapot First Nation northeast of Regina. He borrowed cultural clothing items such as the headdress, blanket, and tobacco pipe to pose for the photo.
Having an Indigenous identity at this time was hard. The Indian Act restricted Indigenous people, and residential schools were taking their toll on the very fabric of these communities. Greyeyes herself attended a residential school and received up to her grade eight education. The photo fits into this time period because Canadians were not seeing the issues arising from the oppressive laws and institutions affecting many Indigenous communities in Canada. The photo demonstrates how the Canadian Military was willing to appropriate what they thought an Indigenous identity was.
Many of the written records about Greyeyes commented on her Indian name and how she could speak fluent English. People saw Indigenous names as whimsical because they were different from Anglo last names. Greyeyes was a name that really grabbed the media's attention.
Representation is important, and there is a lot to unpack from how the photo is titled and how Greyeyes was used in the photo. The picture’s title chooses to omit who Greyeyes and Ball were and lie about the transaction captured by the photo. Thanks to Greyeyes' daughter-in-law, Melanie Fahlman Reid, we know how Greyeyes recalls the conversation with Ball during the blessing in the photo. The conversation between the two was in Cree, and Greyeyes starts by saying “Christ.” Ball followed up with, “God, it’s hot. What Did you get for this?” Greyeyes proceeded to tell him she got a good meal, and Ball told her he got 20 bucks. Greyeyes asked why he is complaining when he got 20 bucks, and she was the one down in the bugs. This was the conversation happening during the blessing you see in the photo.
It took over half a century to have the photo's name updated to "Private Mary Greyeyes, Cree, from Muskeg Lake, Cree Nation, Canadian Women's Army Corps." The update came because Fahlman Reid gave an accurate account of who Greyeyes was compared to "Unidentified Indian Princess."
The photo does provide some representation. It demonstrates that Indigenous people were contributing to the war effort. Canada has an oppressive legacy when it comes to its treatment of Indigenous communities. A motivational factor for many Indigenous people to join the military was to prove they were worth the same as any Euro Canadian. Greyeyes' photo is a part of this legacy and gives visual affirmation that Indigenous representatives served and did their part during the war.
Greyeyes saw the military as an opportunity to expand her knowledge and receive reasonable compensation. By the end of the Second World War, over 3,000 First Nations members would serve in the conflict. Greyeyes is a part of these important contributions, and she is not forgotten. Her CWAC experiences are unique and offer so much valuable information about being an Indigenous woman serving in the Second World War.
Conn, Heather. “Mary Greyeyes Reid.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Last modified November 22, 2017. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/mary-greyeyes#.
Fahlman Reid, Melanie. “What Does This Photo Say?.” The Tyee. Last modified August 12, 2012. https://thetyee.ca/Life/2012/08/07/Canadian-War-Photograph/Poulin, Grace. Invisible Women: WWII Aboriginal Service-Women in Canada. Thunder Bay: Ontario Native Women’s Association, 2007.
Veterans Affairs Canada. “Indigenous Veterans.” The Government of Canada. Last modified October 30 2020. https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/history/historical-sheets/indigenous-veterans.