Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Ruth Holmes Whitehead (1947-2023): keeper of Mi'kmaw testimony

I was sorry to hear of the recent passing of two historians I knew slightly. Christopher English (1939-2023), was a historian of France at Memorial University who went to law school in mid-career  and then developed a popular and successful legal history program at Memorial. William Westfall (1945-2023), was a York University historian of nineteenth century Ontario Protestantism and wise and knowledgeable about much else too.

But I wanted to note in particular the loss of Ruth Holmes Whitehead, (1947-2023) whom I did not know at all. Without being deeply involved in the topic, I usually found that the richest and most insightful material on the Mi'kmaq of Atlantic Canada often came from Whitehead. Almost all her publications were compilations of Mi'kmaw oral testimonies, though often backed up with archival references to previously recorded material. 

I rather assumed she was herself Mi'kmaq. The brief author biographies in works of hers have called her a "Mi'kmaw scholar" or "Mi'kmaw historian and ethnologist" -- which is rather ambiguous -- and I called her that myself in print at least once. 

But the rather scant obits of her I have seen note her birth in South Carolina and her career in Nova Scotia, particularly at the Nova Scotia Museum, in ways that seem to make clear that she was not indigenous. (Glad to be corrected here)  I don't think there is a "pretendian" issue; the misunderstanding was mine. And the material she collected and published will endure. 

Update, September 18:  I'm not trying to make this an obituaries blog, but ... death happens.  My X/Twitter feed this weekend was full of grief for University of New Brunswick historian Elizabeth Mancke, gone too soon and much mourned, it is clear.  She helped inspire the Borealia website, I understand. As yet no formal obits or profiles have turned up there or from UNB.

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