What’s It Like To Be A Non-Mennonite in Steinbach?

The other day, I spent some time in the Storied Places exhibit at the Mennonite Heritage Village with my friend Alexandra Ross. She’s a skilled artist and articulate conversationalist and is not a Mennonite at all. I wanted to hear her thoughts on this particular piece, a negligee set from 1947, which had belonged to a new young non-Mennonite bride, stepping into Steinbach…I recorded our conversation and then transcribed it. 

E: So I’ve brought you here to see and talk about this negligee set: it represents someone who’s not from here, what it’s like for someone to be someone from outside coming in, and what is that experience like?

A: There’s so much to say. And I think for me, when I look at this, there’s two different things, there’s this information here but if we just look at the object itself, in and of itself in the context of the MHV it’s a really interesting item, the cultural history of a group of people whose immigration story and retelling of the story is often framed by religious experiences and values. So then often those religious values are conservative…and this is not a conservative piece of clothing. So as an object it’s maybe a little bit out of place, as other pieces are defined by use, things that were useful. Like, you could just wear a paper bag to sleep in…I’m thinking in 1947 this was not something you’d be seen wearing in public…this was for your own private enjoyment just being beautiful in your own home, which is fantastic.

E: This object hints at or suggests some surprises maybe for this woman who was brought into the community, Maybe there were some unpleasant surprises with how conservative everything was, in this community that she was brought into.

A: Yeah! This actually brings to mind my first clothing experience in coming to Manitoba. One of the first things I did…I did a little bit of reading about where Manitoba was and what the population was. I went out and bought the most conservative clothing I could get. Floor-length skirts and I don’t know, just really conservative clothing, because I assumed that I would be in a community of conservatively-dressed people, I’d be surrounded by them. And of course when I got here…I mean, I was at Prov…and when I got to Prov, I was the most conservatively dressed person in the whole school! And that was really shocking. So I guess things have changed, obviously…

E: But our reputation proceeds us…

A: I suppose! And maybe on some level, stereotypes and this idea of what it means to be a Mennonite and maybe where Mennonites have come from is one thing, and where they’re going is a different thing. The cultural vestiges of what it has meant to be a Mennonite from this area…like, it’s always easier to look back and have an identity…and then where that identity brings you…is unknown. That’s the creative work of individuals. And so, this woman was breaking tonnes of boundaries, and trailblazing in her own cultural way. (Leaning in to read closer.) Oh, she wasn’t allowed to wear lipstick or earrings.

E: I wonder how she learned that. By trying, maybe? Would’ve been uncomfortable. These are stories that are perhaps not told publicly…because there would’ve been a feeling of shame, and then also not wanting to betray the community you ended up staying with…I don’t know.

A: I wonder if this would’ve been like her own piece of self, that if she wasn’t allowed to wear lipstick in public, if she couldn’t wear her earrings, maybe this represents that one piece of self that she was able to keep. And then she gets married and I can’t even imagine the transition. What that would’ve been like. With seemingly no warning. “Later baptized”…that means she wasn’t Mennonite…was that like her will? You have to wonder what role did she have in decision-making? It is a really interesting artefact. And one can only imagine…

E: So how does this connect to your thoughts, independent of this, about what it means to be an outsider, a non-Mennonite, coming into this area…does that at all connect to this piece in any way?

A: Sure. I mean, I have to ask, what is a stereotype of Mennonites versus what is my experience. And often the stereotypes and the experience are hard to put together. Or, they’re complex. Like, the experience of being an outsider in Steinbach is complex because here and in the surrounding area I have come to call home, and that’s because I’ve met some of the warmest, kindest people here. People who I love dearly and want to live around for the rest of my life. I’ve lived in so many different places, and met lots of people, and here is where I’ve found a home. So, that’s really significant. But at the same time, I feel like I come up against these cultural things that are really hard to name. Where it’s really hard to identify what’s going on or, even just communication. Like, communication can be a burden sometimes because many people here, in my experience, are a little bit passive. The example I often use is the first-person, second-person, plural-singular: when people say “we should do this”. But what they really mean is “will you go do this?” But they say it as “we should take out the trash”. And to me that sounds like us going together hand-in-hand taking out the trash and I wonder, why should WE take out the trash? Why don’t I just take out the trash. But there’s like a…it’s hard to identify what exactly is so odd sometimes about being here. Sometimes it’s frustrating when people say things and you’re not really sure if they’re thinking something or feeling something very different and are just being polite. It’s hard to get into fights here.

E: (dissolves into laughter) I love that!

A: It’s hard to get people to tell you that they really disagree with you! I mean I have some friends who are very direct with me and that’s really good, and people are warm and friendly here and it’s probably good that people don’t get into fights. Yeah so there’s things like that and then…it’s a very creative community, so there’s a lot of music, there’s a lot of art…but it’s also not a place where you’d expect to see certain types of art, or there’s not a space for contemporary art in the sense of artists who are pushing the boundaries of gender or roles in society. Some of those conversations are still hard to have in this community. And, I can only imagine that that is part of a long legacy. And, I mean, whatever, I come from the States, so obviously many of us in the States are still having this problem and this conversational difficulty. It’s not unique to Steinbach. But I guess it’s just unique in the way we go about having these conversations. In this very peaceful, but not-so-peaceful kind of way. I guess the way that differences manifest and how they’re dealt with is unique to the history, the legacy of Mennonite people. There’s a culture. It’s hard to name, but it exists.

(Thank-you Alexandra for taking the time to wander around this museum and chat with me. AND thank-you for telling me how to set up these photos. I needed your artist’s eye. Okay that sounds creepy I guess.)