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Island playwright tells the story of Indigenous woman who ‘saved the beaver’

Anne Nesbitt presents ‘Anahareo’ as part of TheatreOne staged reading series
Nanaimo playwright Anne Nesbitt is presenting a staged reading of her play about Indigenous conservationist Gertrude Bernard, also known as Anahareo (from left). (Photo courtesy Andrew Nesbitt/Riding Mountain National Park)

Nanaimo playwright Anne Nesbitt is revisiting a play she wrote 16 years ago about the trailblazing Indigenous conservationist who saved the beaver.

Nesbitt grew up in Manitoba and as a child she spent her summers in the province’s Riding Mountain National Park. There she learned the story of Mohawk woman Gertrude Bernard, also known as Anahareo, and her husband Archibald Belaney, a British immigrant who lived among the Anishnabe, invented a fabricated Indigenous identity and found fame as ‘Grey Owl.’ In 1931 the couple lived together in Riding Mountain National Park, where Belaney served as its first naturalist.

Nesbitt said Anahareo is credited for convincing Belaney to give up beaver trapping in favour of promoting beaver conservation through his writing. Nesbitt calls Anahareo “a strong Indigenous hero” who deserves to be more widely known.

“She was a woman ahead of her time and it was her determination and dedication that actually saved the beaver,” Nesbitt said. “Grey Owl was kind of the front man, as happens, but she was a woman of vision and bravery and tenacity, for sure, and determination and she stood up to the white male-dominated culture at the time to pursue her dream.”

The opportunity for Nesbitt to tell Anahareo’s story came in 2005, when the park, which Nesbitt had a lifelong relationship with, asked her to write a play about Anahareo. Through the park Nesbitt connected with Anahareo’s daughters and nieces, who consulted on the play.

“They were delighted,” Nesbitt said. “They were absolutely ecstatic and we had lots of conversation and they have told me things about Anahareo that have since been included in the play and I’ve worked with them very closely.”

In 2007 Nesbitt staged the play, Anahareo, at both Riding Mountain National Park and the Winnipeg Fringe Festival. Last January, after attending a workshop around reconciliation, she decided to rewrite the play to go deeper into the characters. Nesbitt also worked with two Indigenous advisors of Mohawk and Anishnabe backgrounds.

“The story is based around the relationship of these two people, one is a white settler and one is an Indigenous woman, and they come together, they learn from each other, they transform each other and then they both have to make sacrifices in order to save the beaver…” Nesbitt said. “[Anahareo] must eventually choose between her own independence and her family, so in the process she finds her power and her own story. So I went more deeply into her journey and how she finds her power and how she finds her relationship to her Indigenous heritage.”

On April 20 Nesbitt will debut her rewritten play as part of TheatreOne’s Emerging Voices staged reading series. As it will be broadcast online, Nesbitt said Anahareo’s descendants will finally get to experience the play for the first time.

“That’s going to be wonderful because Anahareo’s family – they’re in interior B.C. and Ontario – they’re going to be able to see it,” she said. “That’s going to be just so moving for me.”

WHAT’S ON … TheatreOne presents an online staged reading of Anahareo by Anne Nesbitt on April 20 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are by suggested $5 donation, available here.

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