Report from a Re-Enactment II: Conversations with a Mohawk Warrior and a Damn Yankee

We Don’t Do First Person

One thing preoccupied me during the battle: what are they thinking?

What do they think while they’re marching up and down the field, and firing muskets at one another, or wandering in and out of the white canvas tents. Obviously, a lot of their attention would be taken up trying to figure out where you were supposed to be when, just because the choreography for a crowd that large has to be pretty demanding. But when they were in position, and taking aim at the opposing line, what did they think? Did they imagine themselves to be in 1812, representing a person who might actually have lived through the original version of that moment? In other words, if the battle was theatre, were they actors as well as re-enactors?

Teyoninhokarawen in 1805, also known as Major John Norton.

After it was over D and I were waiting in the hotdog lineup, when I saw one of Major John Norton’s “Mohawk Warriors” wandering toward us. You knew Major Norton—Teyoninhokovrawen—by the curling white feather he wore in his turban, which stood out clear across the field. His “Mohawk Warriors” were stars of the afternoon, getting a lot of the cheers with their successful attack on the American position. Without uniforms, they were easier to distinguish one from the other, and I watched one man in an HBC robe, another whose face was half red, another in a tall black hat.

The man I saw from the hotdog lineup was painted red, both his face and hands. Around his eyes he had painted a spiky black shape that reached from temple to temple, across the bridge of his nose, and crept down his cheeks and up to his eyebrows.  His clothes were beaded and embroidered and sashed.  He wore a rust-coloured calico shirt and red feathers on the back of his bald head, long leather gaiters and a buckskin coat.

Just let me ask you a question, I said as I walked over. He seemed happy to talk, though you could tell he’d been answering a lot of questions.

I asked him if he had a character in mind when he was out on the field and he said, Do I do ‘First Person’?  No, I don’t.

Several re-enactors said the same thing to me when I asked, that “first person” re-enactment is unethical, because it means taking someone else’s identity, rather than re-creating the appearance of another time. This event was an exception because you need a Brock for it to work as national commemoration, someone to pretend to be him, and to die as him, so that we can have the funeral on Sunday. The rest of them avoid that kind of personalized detail.

I’m just a Mohawk Warrior, he said, I can’t pretend to be someone who actually lived back then, because you don’t know who they were. You just don’t know.

He told me about spending a weekend on a campaign for the French and Indian Wars, a battle that started at 3 AM on Friday and didn’t end until Sunday evening, each action, each moment choreographed by the historians who planned it.

Queenston Heights was my last for the year, but it’ll all start up again in May, he said. The hardcore guys will go all winter, though.

The American Civil War Got Too Political

While we were waiting for the shuttle—the sun was setting and it was raining by then—we talked to a man from Tennessee who had come up for the weekend. He said that he used to do Civil War re-enactment, but it got too political, all the conflict between historians and soldiers, or officers and enlisted men. Besides, he told us, he was a “damn yankee”—an Iowan who’d lived in Nashville for years and years, but never shaken his yankee-ness, as far as his neighbours were concerned.

His wife, he said, was smarter than him.  She was back at the Comfort Inn in Niagara Falls, keeping out the damp.

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5 comments

  1. ianamclennan

    It’s great to see into the psyche of these re-enactors. I would never have guessed that there was such a strong ethic of not portraying real people in this type of activity. I think that I would feel compelled to get into the skin of a man who lived 200 years ago to get closer to the war I’m pretend fighting. Then again, I have no qualms about wronging the dead.

    • whereishere

      Exactly! I would totally come up with some tragic epic story in that situation. I couldn’t help myself. But then, I’m more interested in story than history, and probably not so burdened with ethical qualms. Which is why I work on literature and culture instead of fact, I guess?

      • ianamclennan

        Well my education is in history and research. When we don’t have all the information about a person’s life, we extrapolate from what we know about others, and we imagine what we have to to fill in the gaps. Of course one can never cite these ideas as facts, but they’re still valuable thought experiments. These guys are more hard line than I ever had to be.

  2. Pingback: Prologue to a Series on Queenston Heights: What I Know About the War of 1812 I Learned from Johnny Horton « Where is Here?

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