This page last revised 3 June 1997
At the outset, it should be noted here that the use of the term "Indian" to describe the aboriginal peoples of North America is somewhat contentious. As is well known, its use derives from Columbus's mistaken belief that he had arrived in the East Indies; and this situating of Natives within an already existent European discourse is in many ways paradigmatic of what was to follow during the centuries of colonisation and settlement. For it should be made clear that the "Indian" is a European invention, and that there has always been a great deal of slippage between the representations of this figure and the realities of the lives of Native North Americans. In fact, the Indian has always represented as much about European fears and concerns as it has about actual Natives. Add to this the fact that the popular image of the Indian has in large part been shaped by commercial considerations - give the audience what it wants to see - and it becomes clear that we are dealing with a very complex set of relationships. For this reason, the purpose of this page is principally to outline some of the characteristics of the Indian as he has been created by Europeans, and not to consider the lives of real Natives.
Now, the most obvious problem with the term should be that it lumps together all the various nations, ignoring the wide differences which exist between the diverse cultures which originally inhabited the continent. But the masking effect of the stereotype runs deeper than this. As is often the case with Western encounters with alien peoples, the representation bifurcates. What we tend to find is either the "noble savage" or the barbarous, bloodthirsty primitive. The first term here was coined by John Dryden, and conveys the idea of man in a state of nature, untainted by the perceived evils of civilisation, such as avarice or ambition. It is a projection of the fear that somehow the Western way of life has become corrupt, and is in need of redemption. Traces of this view of the Indian are still apparent in the twentieth century, when many people believe Natives to have a kind of spirituality connected to a universal harmony and a balance with the natural world. In the nineteenth century the Canadian poet Charles Mair wrote a long poem called Tecumseh, which included the lines:
There lived a soul more wild than barbarous;
A tameless soul - the sunburnt savage free-
Free, and untainted by the greed of gain:
Great Nature's man content with Nature's good.
The idea of the Indian as a bloodthirsty barbarian will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a Western. This image became predominant over the centuries as European expansion into the continent brought increasing conflict. Early Canadians justified this expansion by painting it as the rational, inevitable progress of civilisation. The Natives who hindered them could thus be portrayed as everything that is irrational, violent and evil.
As the nineteenth century wore on, and it became apparent that the European colonisation of the Americas could not be stopped, a new set of attitudes toward the Indian began to emerge. They were now seen as a doomed specimen of an earlier stage of human evolution, who needed to be studied and recorded before their culture disappeared forever. The Indian became a site of particular interest for early anthropologists and museum collectors. And now that Natives seemed to pose less of a threat, they could be exploited for their entertainment value, their exoticism, as in Buffalo Bill's famous Wild West Show. The idea of the disappearing Indian sparked a flurry of activity amongst people desperate to preserve knowledge of their traditional customs and appearance, for either commercial or academic reasons. The Canadian painter of Indians, Paul Kane viewed his mission in heroic terms:
All traces of his footsteps are fast being obliterated from his once favourite haunts, and he those who would see the aborigines of the country in their original state, or seek to study their native manners and customs, must travel far through the pathless forest to find them.
That Native Canadians have on the contrary survived, and in terms of their cultural activities at least, flourished, up until the present day, can be seen by looking at Native peoples in Canada today - Cultural expression and Thomas King's All My Relations.
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.
This page was written by David Harris.
The Imperial Archive Project is supervised by Leon Litvack. E-mail me with your suggestions.
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