Aspects of the Indian in Canadian Literature

Leslie Monkman, A Native Heritage:  Images of the Indian in English-Canadian Literature, University of Toronto Press, 1981.

It seems safe to say that the author of this work has dispelled conclusively a prevalent idea that the Indian has always been, at any rate, until recently, a minor figure in the literature of this country.  Beginning his work as a doctoral dissertation, and afterwards developing it into its present form, he has given us what must be the most comprehensive and the most thorough examination of the subject yet made.  Some two hundred and fifty works have been subjected to a painstaking scrutiny.1  Before the publication of Monkman's study, persons interested in the occurrence of the Indian in our literature would have had to resort to Lionel Stevenson's Appraisals of Canadian Literature, published in 1926, which however contained but a single chapter on the subject.

      Unlike Albert Keiser's The Indian in American Literature published in 1932, whose material was arranged historically, Monkman has opted for the primacy of the topical, although not to the exclusion of an historical treatment within that framework.  While there is something to be said for both methods, Monkman's way has enabled him to present the reader with coherent accounts of diverse themes and with a degree of illumination not otherwise obtainable.  A recital of his chapter headings "Indian Antagonists," "Indian Alternatives," "Death of the Indian," "Indian Heroes," "Indian Myths and Legends" will make clear what I mean.

     The author does not concern himself overmuch with the somewhat abstract question as to when Canadian literature began, although it may be mentioned in passing that he regards the frontiersman and Indian fighter, Robert Rogers, as entitled to inclusion.  That remarkable individual, nevertheless, was not born in territory destined to become Canadian, nor did he ever come to live in any part of it, except momentarily, as in the course of his raid on the settlement of the St. Francis Indians during the Seven Years' War.  With somewhat greater justice he accords with other writers in including Frances Brooke who, during her relatively brief stay, experienced some enlargement of sensibility from exposure to the climate, topography, and the local inhabitants of the town of Quebec and its immediate environs in the aftermath of the Conquest.  The world-wide cultural interactions in the human family do not permit us to lay down absolutes in our endeavours to establish the character of a national mentality which must be defined at least in terms of relative frequency and emphasis of mood, image, idea and motivation.  The fact that all humans possess the potentiality for the adoption of any trait, using that term in the anthropological sense, prompts the question as to the author's meaning when he states that no white man can write as a red man.  It must be inferred that this is not a "racist" judgment, but a recognition of the extreme difficulty confronting those on the outside in their attempts to experience an alien culture as though it were their own.  The degree of success of the anthropologist in the course of his field work will be determined by such factors as training, motivation, insight, imaginative endowment and duration of exposure, among others.  A relatively successful Canadian example is that of the late Thomas McIlwraith in his monumental study of the west-coast Bella Coola.  The experience is not different in kind from that of the novelist or playwright who must, in the course of his task, enter imaginatively into the minds of his characters if he expects to create them as living entities.  "Part of the fascination of several contemporary writers with Emily Carr", writes the author (p. 159) "stems from her identification as one who combined the Indian's way of seeing with her own vision."   Yet a complete sense of identity of a white man as a red man may be an impossible condition, in the sense that no two persons even of a single culture can attain to that state, but it can clearly be approximated more closely by some than by others depending upon the exercise of those faculties and advantages to which reference has already been made.

     One can agree with Monkman that the literary artist and something of the same thing can be said of the scholar — may very well reveal the nature of his own attitudes, preoccupations, and compulsions from the way in which he portrays the Indian in his work.  He may, as in the chapter on "the death of the Indian" and the disintegration of his culture in the face of white aggression or pressure, regard the Indian as an inferior being destined to disappearance or, at any rate, assimilation in the course of the historical processes inherent in the expansion of the stronger civilization of the white man.  A case in point was that of several members of the Canada First Movement, particularly John Schultz, Charles Mair, and George T. Denison whose arrogant behaviour towards the Métis and Indians helped to precipitate the Red River Rebellion and its sequel in 1885.  A type of racism in the form of the concept of the "white man's burden" was not absent from the imperialist sentiment of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, but was destined to dissipate with the evolution of imperial territories into self-governing units following the First World War.2

     Many changes indeed contributed to a growing recognition of the Indian as entitled to treatment not previously accorded.  In the Rooseveltian New Deal he was not forgotten, and through measures then introduced he attained a confidence not commonly felt at an earlier date.  At the same time the Great Depression of the 'thirties revealed to the Indian some of the glaring weaknesses in the civilization of the white man, as, for example, was evident from the benign resolution of the Indian delegates at a 1939 conference in Toronto, to the effect that the Indians would do everything within their power to help the white man whose civilization had evidently "gone on the rocks".3   Moreover the enrolment of great numbers of blacks in the American armed forces in the Second World War was a contributory fact to the rise of the civil rights movement in the United States.  Reaching its height in the 'sixties, it spilled over into Canada and made for new movements to help the Indian to gain his rightful place in society.   This was a far cry from the days of G.M. Grant, and his contemporaries of a like mind, who believed that the destruction of the red man's culture was historically inevitable and therefore justified.  Attitudes of this kind in that imperialist age were reflected in literary works, such as An Algonquin Maiden in which, as Monkman has written, the tragedy of the Indian was subordinated to the demands of sentimental romance (pp. 66-67).  A greater realism characterized the poems of Duncan Campbell Scott who contrasted the contemporary Indian with his ancestor who inhabited a heroic world no longer to be found in his own day.  And a time would come when the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, charged with the marking of historic places, and the com memorating of distinguished persons, would no longer shrink from placing a monument in St. Boniface honoring the memory of Louis Riel, as was several times the case as late as the nineteen-fifties.

     More recently an American writer, Joseph Kinsey Howard, in his Strange Empire:  The Story of Louis Riel, has revealed the famous rebel in a different light, and has had an influence, as our author has pointed out, on Don Gutteridge whose Riel:  A Poem for Voices appeared in 1968.   Works by many others, including Coulter, Livesay, Newlove, and Wiebe, may be said to reflect the new attitude.  Concomitantly certain twentieth-century writers "continue to find evidence of the white man's failure to acknowledge the red man's vision of the landscape".  Earle Birney, in his Damnation of Vancouver stresses the inadequacy, and even the collapse, of white civilization, and likewise Tom Wayman "insists on the redemptive power of Indian culture. . . ."  That Rudy Wiebe's Big Bear was seen to have had a mystical rapport with the vital forces of the universe, and that Emily Carr, in Florence MacNeil's creation, became "possessed" in the act of reading the landscape, both indicate how the writers themselves have been able to enter into these experiences.  It is as though writers of this generation went "after strange gods" to fill a spiritual vacuum left by the decay of traditional orthodoxies.

     Whatever the reason for the frequent appearance of this attitude, one that is not unrelated to the conception of Indians as heroes, it evokes the question as to whether parallels can readily be found in the course of cultural history.  Certainly, as one looks back, not that of King Arthur, since it took the English centuries, and only after many continental accretions, to recognize as a national hero that hazy individual who fought with such desperation to prevent their Anglo-Saxon ancestors from taking possession of the Celtic island.  It suggests, however, a principle that may well apply to the Canadian phenomenon, of a people acclaiming individuals execrated by earlier generations, namely that "place" seems ultimately to prevail over "race".  Turning, however, from what may sound like the enunciation of a sociological law, we may note that our author in treating of this subject, comes as close as he ever does to adumbrating a general tendency, since, all through his work, his focus tends to be on the individual and the discrete, rather than the collective characteristics of an era or phase in the history of thought and expression in this country.  It may be that his concern with particularities instead of representations of such generalities as romanticism, imperialism, realism, and the like, will be seen to be what gives his work its greatest value.  The varying treatment of Tecumseh will illustrate the point.  Longmore's Tecumseh is conceived as rising above the level of an unenlightened savage.  Richardson introduces Tecumseh "with all the epithets of the heroic leader", but at the same time paints him as a satanic savage.  Although Adam Kidd, in The Huron Chief (1830), "condemns white civilization in general in comparison with the world of the red man", his poem is used as an occasion for the expression of his anti-Americanism.   William Kirby displays his U.E.L. bias by carrying still further his denegration of the American treatment of the red man.  Charles Mair gives expression to similar sentiments, although it may be remarked in passing that his exaltation of Tecumseh was hardly consistent with his attitude to Métis and Indians in his previous Red River days.

     It will be seen that these early writers, in using the concept of the Indian hero in order to give expression to their prejudices, appear in marked contrast to contemporary poets and novelists who enter imaginatively into the Indian culture, not only to render the Indian as nearly as possible from within, but at the same time as a means to spiritual renewal, and once again one thinks of Emily Carr, as well as the way in which Big Bear is conceived, notably by Rudy Wiebe.  Monkman gives other examples, such as the image the reader would derive of Crowfoot from Norma Shuman's novel, Black foot Crossing (1959), or that of Sitting Bull in Andrew Suknaski's Wood Mountain Poems (1976).  Sharon Pollock's remarkable play Walsh (1973), which has some of the characteristics of a Greek tragedy, differs from other works already mentioned, in having two heroes, not only Sitting Bull, but the Mounted Police officer who, when confronted by an almost impossible choice between the path of duty and his basic humanity, is torn apart.

     In contrast with the historic figures already mentioned are the mythological and legendary personages and motifs to which our author devotes a lengthy examination.  Again in contrast with earlier writers who employed aboriginal subjects as a literary device or for some ulterior purpose, many of our contemporaries have been engaged in a search for deeper spiritual meanings in Indian myths, and thus to achieve, in varying degrees, an identity, in relation with both the natural and ideal worlds into which they thus have found it possible to enter.  The question of authenticity is raised in the reader's mind by Monkman's reference to the fact that readers and imitators of Longfellow's famous poem (that incidentally sold four thousand copies on the first day of publication) were not troubled by its anthropological inaccuracies.  It would however exceed the scope of this review to enter into a lengthy discussion of Longfellow's attribution to the Iroquois, Hiawatha, of considerable mythological material derived from the Algonkian-speaking Ojibwa.

     Another question having greater relevance to the matter in hand was that of the use made of Charles G. Leland's Algonguin Legends of New England or Myths and Folk Lore of the Micmac Passamaquoddy and Penobseot Tribes (1884) as a source for a subject our author refers to as a dominant one in the Canadian literature of the second half of the nineteenth century, namely that of Gluskap, the culture hero of these Indians, including incidentally, the Malecite.  It was apparently from Leland that Bliss Carman, Archibald Lampman and Sir Charles Roberts, derived their idea of a Norse affiliation of the Gluskap lore (p. 131).  Elsewhere I have argued against any direct influence of the Eddic literature, or the Finnish Kalevala, on the mythology of these Indian tribes.  While Norse contact with these eastern Indians was too brief to have left any mark on their folklore, it is necessary to understand that many of the motifs to be found among them were, in one form or another, almost world-wide.4  Of this many examples could be given, but it might suffice to mention the ludicrous tale of an old tippler or booby who, mistaken for an intrepid hero, is placed at the head of the king's cavalry and inadvertently saves the day by leading them in a rousing charge against the enemy.   This tale, probably derived directly by the Penobscot from one of the 'tit Jean stories of French Canada, has been recorded also in Chile, France, Ireland, India, and Central Asia.5  While our author has not queried the authenticity of Leland's theory of a derivation from the Elder Edda and the Kalevala, translations of which had appeared not long before the use to which that theory was put by our poets, he may feel that questions of this kind lie outside his province.   On the other hand, he has, throughout his work, made consistently just interpretations of the intent of many authors, such, for example, as George Bowering, Susan Musgrave, Robert Kroetsch and Leonard Cohen; none more so than in the case of Sheila Watson's The Double Hook in which, as he states the matter, "the inability of the white community . . . to come to terms with the unpredictable and ambiguous nature of human existence has led to the casting of Coyote not simply as trickster but as a powerful force associated with fear and death."  For such cogent statements, in which the work abounds, it must be considered to be a major contribution to the growing body of critical studies now available to all those who might seek enlightenment concerning the literature of our country.

Alfred G. Bailey


  1. The only omission that comes readily to mind is that of The Red Feathers by Theodore Goodridge Roberts, first published in 1907, and republished as No. 127 of the New Canadian Library.[back]

  2. Carl Berger, The Sense of Power, Studies in the Ideas of Canadian Imperialism, 1867-1914 (Toronto:  University of Toronto Press, 1976), pp. 223, 227.[back]

  3. The North American Indian Today, University of Toronto — Yale University Seminar Conference, Toronto, September 4-16, 1939 (Toronto:  University of Toronto Press, 1943), p. 349.[back]

  4. Alfred Goldsworthy Bailey, The Conflict of European and Eastern Algonkian Cultures, 1504-1 700: A Study in Canadian Civilization, 2nd Edition (Toronto:  University of Toronto Press, 1969), pp. 156-169 and 183-184.[back]

  5. It bears a resemblance to an incident in George Macdonald Fraser's Flashman at the Charge in which the anti-hero, inadvertently, and in a state of terror, leads the charge of the Light Brigade.  It even turns up in a Walt Disney animated cartoon.[back]