This page last revised on 14th April 2003
The Indian does not exist. It is an imaginary figure, according to Daniel Francis (The Imaginary Indian), invented by Europeans that originated in Columbus's mistake, as he believed he had landed in the East Indies, and developed into fantasy. "Through the prism of white hopes, fears and prejudices, indigenous Americans would be seen to have lost contact with reality and to have become 'Indians'; that is anything non-Natives wanted them to be," (5). Thus they were attributed a wide range of conflicting characteristics, simultaneously seen as noble savages, full of stoicism, the last representatives of a dying race and blood-thirsty warriors, void of emotion and dull-witted, reflecting European romanticised notions. This manufactured image was presented in popular fiction, art, Hollywood films, school textbooks, newspapers and documentaries, where it was readily accepted as fact.
So how did this effect the actual, existing indigenous population and how is their resistance to projected images of the 'other' manifested in today's post-colonial climate? In this short essay, I will examine how Native peoples of Canada have used literature to deconstruct the stereotypical manner in which they have been represented in European, Canadian and American portraits, creating a new style and, in certain cases, a new form which marries tradition with the present and looks forward to the future. I will be using All My Relations: Anthology of Contemporary Canadian Native Fiction, edited by Thomas King, alongside a variety of critical and theoretical works which illustrate the complex issues involved, in terms of post-colonial definitions, and some objections that have been raised in response to their application.
Daniel Francis stresses the importance of recognising the image of the 'Indian' as revealing more about the European settlers than members of the indigenous population. Yet there is evidence in memoirs of travellers and missionaries at this time, that some existing qualities were perceived. While these so called 'documenters' were often more concerned with providing the world with desired images of the warrior dressed in extravagant battle regalia than with accurate representations, evident in the work for example of celebrated painter Paul Kane, they did discern a power of speech and eloquence which they found surprising in what they deemed to be a 'heathen' race without knowledge of basic 'civilising' tools such as the wheel and writing. Indeed rhetoric was a symbol of great power and command since, as Penny Petrone states "chiefs were leaders only insofar as they were able to persuade their kinsmen to follow them," (Native Literature in Canada, 25). In addition to such social structuring, oratory had a didactic function as tribal history, incorporating story telling, would be recited at length, while stories were passed from generation to generation describing the world, nature and man's position in relation, often using allegory and fable with figures such as Coyote the trickster who appears time and again in various forms. The power of spoken language was also recognised in terms of medicinal purposes and communicating with spirits, "words did not merely represent meaning. They possessed the power to change reality itself," (Petrone, 10). This indicates that words of indigenous languages carried connotations which elevated them to a transcendent role comparable to symbolism, "words like road, tree, fire, chain, mat, sin and pipe were loaded with emotional and abstract meaning," (Petrone, 28) which was clearly lost in translation and under-valued by western prejudice. It is important to recognise, however, when researching Native cultures, that tribal divisions often represent different practices since to assume that there was a single language or type of narrative common to all would be a grave oversimplification. Nevertheless, in the interest of tracing general origins of persisting or reasserted practices which occur in contemporary literature, an emphasis on general trends must be tolerated.
The emphasis on oration remains a defining feature of Native literature in Canada today, both in terms of its didactic nature and its focus on the community, which have been incorporated into written narrative. This is evident from the title of the anthology All My Relations, a phrase traditionally spoken at the beginning or end of a prayer, speech or story. It acts as a reminder "of who we are and of our relationship with both our family and relatives ... the web of kinship extending to the animals, to the birds, to the fish, to the plants, to all the animate and inanimate forms that can be seen or imagined ... [it] is an encouragement for us to accept the responsibilities we have within this universal family by living our lives in a harmonious and moral manner," (Thomas King, "Introduction", All My Relations). The power of language and the contextual connotations it carries are clearly of prime importance in this collection and allow us to assemble ideas of a culture, diverse in its origins and misrepresented in its development, which cannot be defined easily. I shall return to these difficulties later, wishing now to concentrate on literature under the broad, admittedly problematic, term Native literature.
Both in his introduction to the anthology and an essay entitled "Godzilla vs. Post-Colonialism", Thomas King asserts that while many different techniques are used to introduce elements of oral tradition into written literature, only Harry Robinson's style achieves a complete marriage of oral and written narrative which King calls INTERFUSIONAL. Robinson creates an oral voice by manipulating the rhythms, syntax and sounds to force the reader to read aloud, ensuring the presence of a storyteller's voice and gestures which are usually lost in the direct translation from the oral to written medium. For example, the following extract from 'An Okanagan Indian Becomes a Captive Circus Showpiece in England' (All My Relations, 1) shows how an oral pattern and structure can be preserved, meaning it can only be read in the way it was forming spontaneously in the mind of the speaker. The reader in effect becomes a ventriloquist.
They don't know if it was August of September those days.
Now I can figure myself.
When they say it's choke cherries time,
choke cherries, they ripe,
choke cherries they ripe in the month of August.
I know that.
That could be in August.
However, while the place of the storyteller is filled, there is a sense of futility in the reader's double role as reader and audience, highlighting the difference between oral literature, dependent upon the attention of a listening audience in whose interpretations meaning is formed, and the practice of reading which is a solitary exercise. This heightens the awareness of a lack of community suggesting that while such literary techniques are useful in preserving an impression of the oral tradition, they fail to recreate storytelling as precisely as King claims. Or perhaps this merely reflects the inability of a non-Native to fully comprehend and appreciate the subtleties and tradition-based intricacies of this literature which depends on a contextual knowledge?
Community is indeed an important aspect of Native tradition and contemporary literature and, as indicated by the web of meaning bound within the phrase 'all my relations', as described above, has deeper and wider significance than the word in English may at first suggest. 'Community' carries an awareness of family and history in addition to man's relation to all other humans, and beyond that, a respect for all living matter that encourages an existence of harmony with one's surroundings. In both traditional and contemporary Native literature, therefore, aspects of community influence content, form, style and structure. It not only dictates themes, issues that were and are imperative in their everyday existence or of heightened cultural interest, but carries connotations of an implied audience, and so the form or style of the narrative must be moulded according to intention or desired outcome. In King's terms, some Native literature can be called TRIBAL or POLEMICAL. The former refers to literature exclusively for the tribe, the more immediate community, and is "virtually invisible outside its community, partly because of the barrier of language and partly because it has little interest in making itself available to an outside audience." Whereas the latter "chronicles the imposition of non-Native expectations and insistences (political, social, scientific) on Native communities and the methods of resistance employed by Native people in order to maintain both their communities and their and cultures," ('Godzilla vs. ...'). These 'types' of literature, and admittedly it would be naive to think they can be distinguished and categorised with ease, may have similar contents in describing and encouraging resistance. However, they differ dramatically in terms of an implied audience and intended effect, the latter reaching a wider, not exclusively Native, audience.
Community became increasingly important in contesting misrepresentation of Natives in western history, art and literature, since it was an important tool in demolishing the illusion of the Native population as a 'vanishing race'. Daniel Francis demonstrates how the image of the 'Indian' was created as a relic of the past, a fast disappearing primitive race which could not be modernised without becoming something else. In western eyes, a progressive Indian would be a contradiction of their defining and fixed (by westerners!) characteristics. The only way they could survive would be to assimilate into 'civilised' society, in which case they would no longer be 'Indians' anyhow. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Canadian authorities would pride themselves on their principles of 'assimilation', which were morally superior to the massacres happening as a result of American policies, failing to see that their attempts to wipe out a civilisation through assimilation rather that extermination amounted to a comparable attitude of arrogance, ethnic superiority and intolerance. Policies were enforced through measures such as the Indian Act of 1876, whereby authorities could strengthen their control over the Native population, and 'enfranchisement', where offers to become Canadian could be earned by learning 'civilised' skills. Resistance to such offers, perceived as generous and desirable by officials, was interpreted as a sign of laziness and a lack of intelligence.
On account of these stereotypes and the unattractive prospect of grappling with "the complex relationship between the nineteenth century Indian and the white mind," (King, Intro. xii) much contemporary literature is placed in the present, in order to forge a fresh existence for the Native community. In the anthology, these stories involve images of community as they exist in the present day, still in traditional terms as relating to identity and place which is maintained and carried by characters as they move from one place to another. Thomas King calls this literature ASSOCIATIONAL. It avoids focusing on conflict between Native and non-Native communities or cultures, "concentrating instead on the daily activities and intricacies of Native life and organising the elements of plot along a rather flat narrative line that ignores the ubiquitous climaxes and resolutions that are so valued in non-Native literature," ('Godzilla'). King is very clear in asserting such differences between Native and non-Native literature, as he highlights the tendency to examine communities rather than a single hero, and the consequential refrain from passing judgement or dictating moral values. Perhaps this assertion is indicative of a conscious decision made by Native writers to develop styles and examine human relations in a manner which will set them apart from non-Native literature and prevent the threat of cultural assimilation. King states, "we also have an active present marked by cultural tenacity and a viable future which may well organise itself around major revivals of language, philosophy and spiritualism," ('Godzilla'). This philosophy is reflected by various organisations that are working towards "a more self-sufficient Native community," such as the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto as listed on the Native web.
A good example of ASSOCIATIONAL literature in these terms is found in Ruby Slipperjack's 'Coal oil, Crayons and Schoolbooks.' The narrator, a young girl, is only concerned with that which immediately surrounds her, the community as represented by her family and school, in terms of the location as well as the people, and the everyday events they experience there. The importance of surroundings, or place, is emphasised in the beginning when the fog gives the unnerving impression of being displaced or uprooted. "I can't see anything. No island, no Aunty's cabin, no outhouse. What a weird feeling. Like I'm the only person in the whole world; white mist all around me,"(27). The straightforward syntax and diction indicates an awareness and understanding based on observation rather than judgement as she acknowledges the poverty of her classmates and the absence of her mother without expressing bitterness at what she sees or passing moral comment.
In 'Run', there is a breakdown of communication in the family following the death of their father ("we took our sorrow to a different part of the house, not willing to share it," 42), which indicates a disintegration of human relations and a lack of harmony with the earth, symbolised by his increasing unease the further he gets from his house. Locking up his dog, a present from his father, and the increasing distance from his family and place implies a pessimistic outcome for this broken-down community.
As I stated earlier, the attempts to define Native literature have not been straightforward and many complexities are raised which concern ethnicity, authenticity, race and nationality. There is a danger in accepting the centre/margin myth of imperial power, not only because it accepts a subordinate position, but because it allows for the recurrence of essentialising binaries in terms of authentic/inauthentic. In this case, only pre-colonial traits would be accepted as characteristic of Native literature disallowing difference on account of hybridisation. Furthermore, this depends upon a view of culture as unchanging and static which would clearly not be the case even if colonisation had not taken place. How can natural changes be distinguished from changes which took place on account of colonialism, when a thorough examination of the effects indicates that they are not all direct or immediately apparent? Even if such unrealistic tactics were employed, they would immediately create problems as to who would decide what was authentic, since the effects of misrepresentation by western portraits have already been shown to cause devastation and a hierarchy would be created if this was decided by Native people themselves, evoking a pure race policy which would lead to racism. While it is recognised that a degree of essentialising is necessary in providing a binding, collective identity for literature representative of a race or nationality, it would be difficult to achieve this without the silencing of subordinate or mixed-race voices. King achieves this, to a certain extent, in his anthology since he points to similar qualities found in a wide variety of Native literature, avoiding elitism where authenticity is concerned. However, these are very broad characteristics which are explored in literature of all ethnicities and do not apply to all the pieces he has included. For example, 'The Last Raven' and 'The Seventh Wave' examine the experiences of Native people outside their communities, dealing more with a perception of others and individual consciousness in a manner similar to many non-Native techniques. King himself admits these difficulties and emphasises the point that the collection is by no means a reflection of an entire range of native work which covers all aspects of life.
There is no doubt that the task of preserving distinction between the literature of different cultures and ethnic groups is preferable and necessary, but how can such grouping of literature be achieved if not by 'authenticity' or 'race' which adopt essentialising binaries? Stuart Hall points to a 'new ethnicity' where "ethnicity acknowledges the place of history, language and culture in the construction of subjectivity and identity, as well as the fact that all discourse is placed, positioned, situated and all knowledge is contextual." According to Hall, this definition of ethnicity must be contested so that it may be based on a process of engaging rather than suppressing difference, removing the myth of centralised knowledge and power and subordinate margins. For more information on Hall's readings of representation: http://www.geneseo.edu/~bicket/panop/author_H.htm#HALL. This is what King attempts to do, creating a new image of ethnicity based on on asserted difference rather than subordination to colonial, central definitions. However, there are additional problems hidden in questions of ethnicity which demand more than a redefinition of the term itself in order to correct methods of representation. In Canada, the Native population has always been considered as the alien 'other', as indicated by the manufactured images of a 'savage' race and attempts to assimilate them. Yet how can the indigenous population be considered as 'other'? Does that make the Canadians the aliens? But how can Canadians be alien in Canada? Clearly this reinforces the need to deconstruct binaries of self/other and replace them by considering difference on equal terms, but how does this solve the problem of ethnicity?
For King, labels such as post-colonialist literature are based on ethnocentric thinking since they suggest links between pre-colonial and colonial literature as though part of a progressive, natural cycle, while cutting off Native writers from their traditions and assuming that contemporary literature is a "construct of oppression ... Ironically, while the term itself - post-colonial - strives to escape to find new centres, it remains, in the end, a hostage to nationalism" ('Godzilla'). In contrast, King finds the terms described in this essay (tribal, polemical, interfusional and associational) more useful and accurate as they do not originate in unfounded assumptions.
While he includes a counterargument and concedes that the term may be useful for literature, such as Canadian, which perhaps stems from a struggle with colonisation, King's objections indicate the caution that ought to be practiced when applying 'post-colonial'. Yet, while it may be preferable to differentiate between Native literature and colonial and post-colonial literature, such distinctions may in practice bring us back to the problems of authenticity and threaten to recreate essentialising binaries, silencing those who cannot be categorised. Post-colonialism must be recognised as covering a wide range of complex issues but this cannot justify using it as an umbrella term that may become redundant through lack of specification and applying it to cases where it proves misleading. It must be disassociated from a suggestion that the colonial powers and struggle brought about progress in pre-colonial or traditional Native literature. Only by exercising caution will the term remain useful. Perhaps the use of a term such as 'ethnicity' once it is redefined in a universal and non-derogatory way, engaging difference without allowing hierarchy will allow group consciousness to develop in a manner which is unfettered by the associations of colonialism.
FRANCIS, Daniel. The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 1993.
FRIDERES, James S. Native Peoples in Canada: Contemporary Conflicts. Scarborough: Prentice Hall, 1988.
KING, Thomas, ed. All My Relations. McClelland and Stewart: Toronto, 1990.
KING, Thomas. "Godzilla vs. Post-Colonial."
PETRONE, Penny. Native Literature in Canada: From the Oral Tradition to the Present. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1990.
This page was written by Emma Hegarty.E-mail me with your suggestions.
This project was completed under the direction of Dr Leon Litvack as a requirement for the MA degree in Modern Literary Studies in the School of English at the Queen's University of Belfast. The site is evolving and will include contributions from future generations of MA students on other writers and themes.
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