NICKAWA, FRANCES (baptized Fanny Beardy; also known as Nai-ka-way-a and Ny-acka-way-a) (Mark), Cree performer and recitalist; b. c. July 1898, probably in Split Lake (Man.), daughter of Jack or Thomas Beardy and Betsy Necoway (Nickawa); m. 29 Jan. 1927 Arthur Russell Mark in Victoria; they had no children; d. 31 Dec. 1928 in Vancouver.
Frances Nickawa’s people had long-standing connections with the fur trade around the major Hudson’s Bay Company depot of York Factory (Man.). In the 1890s, however, York Factory lost importance. Around the time of Frances’s birth, the Beardys moved inland to Split Lake. Frances’s father died soon thereafter. On 2 April 1899 she was baptized by Cree Methodist minister Edward Paupanekis* in St John’s (Anglican) Church at Split Lake as Fanny, the daughter of Jack and Betsy Beardy, although her adoptive mother would later refer to her father as Thomas Beardy.
In 1901 a staff member at the Methodist residential school in Norway House circulated her wish to adopt a Native child. The Reverend Charles George Fox, Church of England missionary at Split Lake, brought Fanny, with her mother’s consent, to Norway House in October, but by then the teacher had adopted another. However, the school’s sewing teacher, Hannah Tindall Riley, to whom Fanny had taken a liking, adopted her. Unmarried, English-born, and in her mid forties, she had joined the staff the previous year. On 25 Dec. 1901, Fox, Betsy Beardy, and Split Lake chief William Kitchekesik (Keche-kesik) signed an adoption agreement. The next month Hannah registered Fanny at the school as Frances Nickawa, using her mother’s family name. She would later explain that a colleague had suggested the change because Beardy sounded like a nickname rather than a Native name. Hannah and Frances visited Winnipeg for the General Conference of the Methodist Church of Canada in September 1902. Frances read Psalm 2 to a large gathering in Grace Methodist Church and sang a hymn in Cree. Her self-possession and clear, ringing voice at age four much impressed the audience.
In June 1907 Riley took a position with the Alexandra Orphanage in Vancouver. Frances entered public school, where she experienced racial prejudice for the first time. The Reverend Egerton Ryerson Young, her biographer, would record, “Bravely she would say, ‘I’m Indian; I’m Cree to the core, and I’m proud of it.’ But her sensitive spirit was constantly harried by ignorant, brutal snobs.” Riley left the orphanage in 1910 and she and Frances moved to Port Kells. Neither was in good health; Frances endured several leg operations to treat an injury which had occurred at Norway House. She became a popular soloist and reader at church events. When she was 15, she and Riley moved to South Vancouver. There, she entered elocution contests held by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and won medals in 1914 and 1916. Studying elocution with theatre director and elocutionist Harold Nelson Shaw, she paid her way with sewing, secretarial service, and dog walking. Shaw was keenly supportive of her talents. The remarkable career of performer Emily Pauline Johnson*, of Mohawk and English origin, who had died in Vancouver in 1913, was surely on his mind. Sometime later he would describe Nickawa as “unusually gifted in the interpretation of the legends and character portrayals of the Indian race, especially those by the late Pauline Johnson.”
In January 1919 Nickawa gave her first solo performance at Sixth Avenue Methodist Church in Vancouver. Then, invited to perform at a meeting of the British Columbia Conference in New Westminster, she recited from Johnson and others so effectively that many ministers asked her to visit their churches. In November 1919 she went on a three-month train tour with Riley, giving 18 recitals in cities from Vancouver to Winnipeg. Her style of presentation echoed Johnson’s, but she did not compose her own works. The Manitoba Free Press described a typical program. First she appeared in a European-style white dress, reciting with “great versatility” pieces ranging from humorous to dramatic. Then she “donned Indian dress” that she had made herself, with “buckskin fringe and strings of gay beads,” to recite from Johnson’s poetry, Longfellow’s The song of Hiawatha, and other works.
From September 1920, Nickawa and Riley toured for months at a time. On 24 March 1921 they reached Toronto, where Nickawa won great acclaim. There Ernest M. Sheldrick, musical editor of the Christian Guardian, heralded her as “a second Pauline Johnson” and “the embodiment of the Indian of the yesterdays.” “A pure-blooded Cree of fine presence,” he noted, “she possesses a beautiful speaking voice, which she uses with superb artistry.” While in Ontario, she had her portrait painted by John Wycliffe Lowes Forster*.
On 28 July 1921, carrying a strong testimonial from the Toronto Conference, Nickawa and Riley sailed for Britain, where they spent the next year. The Reverend Samuel Dwight Chown*, general superintendent of the Methodist Church of Canada, arranged for her to perform at a large ecumenical conference. Recitals at churches and at the Canadian Club in London drew enthusiastic reviews, enhancing her fame in Canada when she returned in September 1922. In constant demand, she began to give several presentations a week. In February 1923 the Toronto periodical Saturday Night featured this “gifted interpreter of the poetry of her race,” commending the “exceptional platform success” of this “fullblooded Cree Indian . . . an original Canadian.” She received half the proceeds from each performance for income and expenses; the rest went for the support of church work.
Nickawa’s only return to her homeland was in the summer of 1923. Methodist missionaries facilitated her travels to Norway House, Oxford House, and Cross Lake, where she performed with great effect, met relatives, and felt a range of emotions. “My life as a child came back slowly at first then . . . like a tornado uprooting all the works of civilization, where can your civilization fit in now? How does it make you feel toward your own people? It was like the tide rushing in on the sands of my life and washing away all signs of civilization that were not founded on Christ, that remained and stronger grew.”
In September 1923 Nickawa suffered a breakdown and memory loss. Following a seemingly complete recovery, she and Riley sailed for Australia in March 1924 to undertake a tour; it was warmly received. Rounding the globe, they reached England the next July, where she gave additional performances. After their return to Ontario in December 1925, they again went on tour, recording 57 engagements from March through May 1926. In Vancouver that summer Nickawa met an English businessman, Arthur Russell Mark. They married on 29 Jan. 1927. Mark became her agent and together they resumed her recitals. In Ottawa in May 1928 Nickawa suffered a collapse and returned to Vancouver. After a long illness, she died on 31 December.
Like Johnson and other aboriginal performers of her day, Nickawa faced endless public demands for idealized Indians of yesteryear. She shunned commercialism, using the stage to support Methodist goals for Native missions and aid. Her early death was much mourned; as her biographer wrote, “The light that was in her went out with startling suddenness.”
[The author is grateful to the late Harold Egerton Young, of North York (Toronto), for sharing a copy of an unpublished typescript written by his father, Egerton Ryerson Young, probably in the 1930s, entitled “From wigwam to concert platform: the life of Frances Nickawa” (n.p.; copy in the possession of J. S. H. Brown), as well as copies of documents and letters collected by E. R. Young. Most of this material has been deposited in the UCC-C, Fonds 3431. The author would also like to thank R. M. Shirritt-Beaumont, of Winnipeg, for use of his unpublished compilation “Nakawao or Brown family” (updated 27 Sept. 2004), tracing the family back to the early 1800s. In addition, the author would like to acknowledge the assistance provided by Lacey Sanders in obtaining copies of the registration of Nickawa’s baptism and her mother’s remarriage (Anglican Church of Canada, Diocese of Keewatin Arch. (Keewatin, Ont.), St John’s Church (Split Lake, Man.), Reg. of baptisms, 2 April 1899; Reg. of marriages, 13 Nov. 1906). J. W. L. Forster’s portrait, Frances Nickawa (Nyakawaya), is held by the Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto). j.s.h.b.]
BCA, GR-2951, no.1928-09-417422; GR-2962, no.1927-09-316920. LAC, RG 10, 4092, file 558902. Manitoba Free Press, 6 Dec. 1919. [E. M. Sheldrick], “A second Pauline Johnson: Frances Nickawa,” Christian Guardian, 6 April 1921: 16. “Frances Nickawa: Cree girl who is a gifted interpreter of the poetry of her race,” Saturday Night, 3 Feb. 1923: 12. Voices from Hudson Bay: Cree stories from York Factory, ed. and comp. Flora Beardy and Robert Coutts (Montreal, 1996).