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Tracking Doctor Lonecloud: From Showman to Legend Keeper

by Ruth Holmes Whitehead

Don’t be fooled by appearances. Tracking Doctor Lonecloud is a short book, but it contains more information than most books twice its size, and much of the content isn’t documented anywhere else.

The subject, Jerry Lonecloud, was a Mi’kmaw storyteller, herbalist, wilderness guide, and entertainer who supplied the Nova Scotia Museum with Mi’kmaw artifacts. Born Germain Laksi in Maine in 1854, he relocated to Nova Scotia at the age of 14, after the death of his parents. His life story came to the attention of author Ruth Holmes Whitehead, an assistant curator at the Nova Scotia Museum, who spent 10 years in the Nova Scotia Archives transcribing the atrocious handwriting of Halifax reporter Clara Dennis. Dennis had interviewed Lonecloud on various occasions from 1923-29, recording her notes and his words in a scribbler – in pencil. The interviews had never been published, and some of the stories Lonecloud told were thought to be lost.

Whitehead has edited the interviews and completed her own research on Lonecloud’s biography. The first section of the book is dense with biographical detail: Lonecloud toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show; he married a Maliseet woman from New Brunswick; he wrote land-rights petitions on behalf of the Mi’kmaw; and two of his children died in the 1917 Halifax Explosion.

The second section of the book contains aknutmaqn, or news stories, about the everyday life and history of the Mi’kmaw, including seasonal migrations, marriage customs, and the division of work between Mi’kmaw men and women. This section repeats some of the earlier biographical material, but in Lonecloud’s own words. It is thought to be the earliest Mi’kmaw autobiography, and it is fascinating stuff. The final section contains a’tukwaqn, or mythic stories, including the Mi’kmaw creation story. These tales were told to make sense of the world and to illustrate proper behaviour, and they too are captivating.

Other authors might have cluttered these stories with the relentless analysis of the well-meaning (but intrusive) cultural interpreter. Whitehead lets them stand alone, and her economy is the reason for this volume’s success. Lonecloud’s voice is a true original, and this book is a singular accomplishment.