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Great-great granddaughter reflects on gifted gem

Kanien’kehá:ka women in Kahnawake wore shawls over their head and shoulders during the early 20th century. (Courtesy McCord Museum)

Charleen Schurman doesn’t know much about her great-great grandmother, but is fond of a photograph that was given to her over 20 years ago.

“A long time ago, the Cultural Center published these calendars for a few years in a row. Every month had an old picture. This particular month had a collage of pictures and she recognized her grandmother in it,” said Schurman.

“My grandmother died 20 years ago, so we’re talking somewhere between 20-25 years ago. She had cut it out and gave it to me. She wrote her name and her grandmother’s name and said that’s me in the cradle board.”

Sarot Kanonsaka’enion Paul and her granddaughter Charlotte Paul-Deer circa 1915. (Courtesy KORLCC)
Sarot Kanonsaka’enion Paul and her granddaughter Charlotte Paul-Deer circa 1915. (Courtesy KORLCC)

Schurman’s grandmother, Charlotte Paul-Deer, was born in 1915. She was most likely no more than one year old when the photograph was captured of her in a cradleboard with her grandmother Kanonsaka’enion Paul cloaked in a shawl.

“I know is that her English name was Sarot and it was really just the name Charlotte with a Mohawk twang to it – that’s what’s on her tombstone,” said Schurman.

The photograph is also the only baby picture Schurman has seen of her late grandmother Charlotte.

“In that picture, she looks like she’s less than a year old. But, I have no way of verifying that. When I look at her face, I recognized other family members, so I’m pretty sure,” said Schurman.

Charlotte gave Schurman the photograph before she passed away on August 5, 1996.

“She was well-liked. My favourite person,” said Schurman. “She was very gentle and nice. She was a Christmas person and that’s where I think I got it from with all the decorating – she loved to decorate her house at Christmas.”

Schurman recently decided to post the family photo to Facebook earlier this week, along with several other old photographs of Kahnawake she found on the McCord Museum’s online archives.

“I don’t know what the symbolism is of the shawls. I always thought that if you were wearing a black shall, you were in mourning,” said Schurman.

“The one that they’re all sitting – that tells a big story to me. I keep looking at that picture over and over again. I like history as a hobby, but sometimes I think I should have probably went into that as a career.”

Courtesy McCord Museum
Courtesy McCord Museum

The two photos outside of the St. Francis Xavier mission were taken by Joseph-Amédée Dumas, following a church fete. They’re a part of the Notman Photographic Archives at the McCord Museum.

Little is known about who is pictured in the photographs or why they were taken, but according to information from McCord, they were taken circa 1910 using silver salts and the Albumen process of photography.

Darlene Montour grew up two doors from the catholic church and recalled many women in the community wearing shawls over their head during colder months.

“I was young when they started to stop wearing them. A few now and then would wear them, put it around just to go get something in the yard so they’re not cold,” Montour told The Eastern Door.

“They didn’t wear jackets. I think it was primarily because a long time ago, they didn’t have the money. It took a lot of money to buy a warm winter coat and stuff like that. It was easier to just get a nice big warm wool shawl.”

Montour recalled that her mother had some of her own, given to her from her grandmother.

“The ones from my grandmother were plaid. They were beautiful bright wool plaids. My mother used to put it on just to go to the store – it was just a convenient thing to use,” said Montour.

“They had nothing to do with mourning or death. The black ones were the cheapest, I imagine, but there were some beautiful ones.”

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Jessica Deer was a staff reporter from 2015-2018 who started out in 2008 as a summer student.