Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Mohawk Friend and School Teacher - Celia B. File

Finding Celia

While I was researching Molly Brant for my upcoming book, I encountered another interesting woman. I would loved to have met her in person, but she was of my grandmother's generation. She died in 1973.

Celia B. File was born Celia Vandervoort in 1887 in Napanee, Ontario. As an adult she was a farmer's wife as well as a school teacher. For six years she taught at the Mohawk Central School at Tyendinaga.

That experience turned her preconceived, racist opinions of Native people upside down, so much so that she called the six years she spent living among the Mohawk the happiest years of her life. She was given a courtesy title by the Mohawk at Tyendinaga —Kanoerohnkwa — meaning the loving-hearted, for her unselfish devotion as a teacher, nurse, and friend.

* * *

It had seemed only logical for me to begin my research on Molly Brant at the Tyendinaga Mohawk Library. It was an easy forty-minute drive from my home. It was here that I learned about author and poet Beth Brant, who'd grown up at Tyendinaga with her father's family, and who had fairly recently returned to the library to work on a special project, collecting stories from the Mohawk elders. The end result of this was Brant's book titled I'll Sing Till the Day I die: Conversations with Tyendinaga Elders (McGilligan Books, Toronto, 1995).

Kanhiote – Tyendinaga Public Library. Photo from library's website.

One of the elders Brant interviewed recalled that during the 1920s there'd been a white woman teaching school on the Reserve. AND this woman was writing a book about Molly Brant. NOW I was really intrigued!

Who was this woman? And where was her book now? Was it ever published?

During the course of my investigation I learned that the teacher's name was Celia File and that what she was writing would become her Masters thesis in 1930.

She'd been teaching at Tyendinaga about three years when she became an extramural student at Queen's. Eventually she made the decision to become a full time student and said a sad goodbye to her little school and all her Native friends. She admitted that the love of study had gotten the upper hand.

In 1929 Celia B. File earned an honours degree in English and history and won the Sir James Aikens Fellowship in Colonial History. That meant her M.A. She'd spent a summer working at the Public Archives in Ottawa and she wrote that Molly Brant kept "thrusting herself into the limelight." Celia knew she had found the topic for her thesis.

Bust of Molly Brant at Rideaucrest Nursing Home, Kingston. 

When the thesis was accepted File wrote that she wouldn't say it was completed, for "the woman will not let me go." She had become obsessed with her subject,

It was only natural that she would go on to write a book. How disappointing to learn that before the book was published the manuscript was lost in a fire, while Celia was teaching at Oil Springs, Ontario. She never felt well enough to rewrite it.

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