Lethbridge Herald Review - Honoré Jaxon

Reviewed by: Yale D. Belanger

Prairie Imposters

With "Honore Jaxon," University of Calgary history professor Donald Smith has produced his third biographical portrait exploring non-native society's fascination with becoming Indian. In this, his most recent and arguably insightful work, Smith chronicles the life of William Henry Jackson, a southern Ontario Methodist student, who, upon his move to Saskatchewan, became the personal secretary of Louis Riel prior to the famed 1885 Metis resistance. Narrowly avoiding the hangman's noose for his role (he was deemed insane), Jackson eventually walked away from a Winnipeg asylum where he was sentenced, for a new life in the United States. 

This is wehre the story becomes interesting. After arriving in Chicago, he quickly became involved in the organized labour movement, travelling to the Crowsnest Pass to recruit. He started a sidewalk construction company, pledged the Baha'i faith, and became a well-known man about town. While in Chicago, Jackson also adopted a Metis identity, becoming Honore Jaxon and initiating a four-decade period collecting as much print material he could find ostensibly to write the true history of his people. 

An affable and energetic individual, Jaxon eventually made his way to New York to become a real estate developer while collecting materials about and speaking to anyone interested in listening to his stories about the Metis. After several fortunes made and lost, he reconnected with his estranged sister in the 1940s who found him living in a basement apartment daily stoking the building's central fire. Soon thereafter, he and his more than two tons of colleted materials were removed, most of it destroyed, and within months Jaxon was dead (1951), his story almost forgotten. 

This meticulously researched tale demonstrates Smith to be a master storyteller. The product of three decades of investigation, the primacy of narrative over chronology and the simple recitation of facts and dates makes this a fascinating read. Also intriguing is how a man's obsession with the Metis led to his adopting that cultural affiliation, continuing a theme Smith has explored in prevous books about the Englishman Archie Belaney (Grey Owl) and African American Sylvester Long (Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance). These works combine with Jaxon's biography to reveal how these men achieved public acclaim by pretending to be Indian and acknowledged by the media as the legitimate voices of Canada's Indians.

Belaney's transformation is traceable to his upbringing in industrial Birtain and obsession with the romanticized Indians he had long read about in dime novels. Sylvester's conversion to a Blackfeet chief was attributable to his time spent in the Carlisle Indian Schools, the U.S. equivalent to Canada's vilified residential schools. Jaxon's makeover from Methodist student to Metis citizen is likewise as complex and arguably fuelled by mental illness, an entertaining story that Smith handles in a sensitive manner. 


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