Rabbit-Skin Robes and Mink-Traps: Indian and European in "The Forsaken"

by Lee B. Meckler

     The most controversial word in the corpus of Canadian poetry must surely be the word "slunk"1 in the second part of "The Forsaken" by Duncan Campbell Scott. Time and time again since the poem was first published in the April 25, 1903 number of The Outlook readers must have wondered why, if it was indeed the accepted custom of the Indians to abandon their aged to die alone, why, then, do the Indians in "The Forsaken" 'slink' guiltily away from their dying grandmother? In the following paragraphs it wil be argued that there are good reasons for the word "slunk" in Part II of "The Forsaken," that, in fact, this carefully chosen word throws into relief one of the major themes of the poem: the encroachment and effect of European values on those of the Indians.

     Classroom discussions of "slunk" and its impactions for "The Forsaken" usually give rise to the following two theories:

(1) That the word is ill-chosen; that it results from the fact that Scott, a white man, is unable fully to empathize with the Indians in the poem and, hence, attributes to them a guilt and ingratitude which, in reality they would not have experienced. According to this theory, which has also been articulated by critics such as Keiichi Hirano and Chipman Hall, Scott the Methodist minister's son and the Indian Affairs Department official, was deficient in "understanding of and sympathy for"2 the Indians, their religion, and their ethics.

(2) That the discordant note struck by the word "slunk" is only one feature of the overall failure of the final thirty-odd lines of the poem which, according to this view, reveal Scott's lack of control of his subject, his unfortunate lapse into the kind of hypersentimentality that, instead of evoking pathos, provokes laughter. Citing such details as the woman's hands "Folded. . . across. . .breasts spent with the nourishing of children" and the "Column of breath" that rises from a "tiny cleft" in her "cryst, shroud" towards "God", proponents of this theory would adapt Oscar Wilde's famous pronouncement on the death of Little Nell to suit Scott's poem so that 'A man has no soul who can read the death of the forsaken woman without laughing.'

What both these theories have in common, it will have been observed, is that they both cast a negative light on the poem itself and on Scott as poet.

     The theory which will be advanced here is more positive. Briefly stated, it is that, as is the case with most of Scott's major Indian poems from "The Onondaga Madonna" (1894) to "At Gull Lake, 1810" (1935), "The Forsaken" has as one of its central themes the interaction between the Indian and the European. This interaction, and, with it, the two parts of the poem occur within an historical time scheme which, if the theory is valid, explains the word "slunk" and the problems which it raises for the conclusion of the poem. The argument is that the period of two generations (circa. fifty years) which elapses between Part I and Part II of "The Forsaken" not only sees the Indian woman move from being the mother of a small baby to being the grandmother of her son's grown "children," but also, and more importantly, sees the incursion of European technique and culture, tools and religion, into the Indian way of life. A corollary of the fact that the woman's grandchildren possess both "rabbit-skin robes" (Indian) and "mink-traps" (European), "birch-bark" and "kettles," it will be argued, is that they both abandon their aged to die in the snow (according to their traditional practice) and, at the same time, manifest guilt about doing so (as a result of the inroads made by Christianity into their thought patterns). Thus they are depicted as having "slunk away through the islands,/. . ./Without a word of farewell" to the forsaken woman.

     Susan Beckmann's article3 on the likely sources of "The Forsaken" in Hearne's Journey from the Prince of Wales's Fort in Hudson's Bay to the Northern Ocean. . .(1975) and in Wordsworth's "The Complaint (of a Forsaken Indian Woman)" (1798) obviates the necessity for an examination here of this aspect of the poem. What, for the present argument, is most significant about Beckmann's discussion of the convincing "evidence of a literary germ"4 for "The Forsaken" is the implication that, while apparently 'based on facts that had been communicated to [Scott] by the agent of the Hudson's Bay Company at Nipigon. . .during one of [his] trips to the North,"5 the poem received its major impulse from a literary source and, hence, deserves more than ever to be seen as a literary artefact, as a poetic construct in which each and every word contributes to the overall meaning and effect. With this an mind, we may turn to look at the overall structure of 'The Forsaken," not forgetting the possibility that it grew out of a tale recounted orally to Scott, but remembering, above all, that the poem is a carelly wrought artefact with a strategy that is more consciously thought out than might first be supposed.

     An idea of the overall structure of the poem can be gained by noticing the correspondence between Part I and Part II. Most obviously, there is the repetition of the phrase "Valiant, unshaken," which appears twice in the first part and is repeated again in the second. Several details as well — the island,"6 the "lake," the "cedars," the "two days" of endurance followed, on the "third," by "rest" of one sort or another — put in an appearance in both parts of the poem. Even the "wood-smoke" that emanates from the "Fort" Part I finds a correspondence in the "column of breath" that is exhaled by he dying woman in Part II. While many words and images are repeated in the two parts of "The Forsaken," however, the major effect of such repetitions is to alert the reader to the essential differences and contrasts between Part I and Part II. It is upon these differences and contrasts that the discussion may now concentrate, beginning at the beginning with the opening lines of the poem.

     "The Forsaken" begins with a generalized statement of the time and the place of the events to be described by the omniscient narrator:

Once in the winter
Out on a lake
In the heart of the north-land,
Far from the Fort
And far from the hunters,
A Chippewa woman
Wlth her sick baby,
Crouched in the last hours
Of a great storm.

The first thing to notice about this passage is its opening word, "Once," which serves, not only to place the poem in an indistinct past, but also to give to its beginning the suggestion of a fairy tale ("Once upon a time. . .").  This suggestion is appropriate to the opening of a poem the subject of which is an unindividualized Indian woman whose story will be told as, in part, an object lesson in cultural interaction. The second thing to notice abut the passage is that, like the time ("Once in the winter. . .in the last hours/Of a great storm"), the place is also non-specific and unindividualized: it is in "the heart of the north-land" on an (unnamed) lake "far" from an (unnamed) "Fort"7 and "far" from some (unnamed) "hunters." Although the woman is a Chippewa, and, therefore, a member of the tribe that occupied the northern shores of Lakes Huron and Superior ("the heart of the north-land"), she, too, is unnamed and unindividualized. The third and final aspect of the passage that is worth noticing is its short lines and vital rhythm. On one level the verse in Part I of "The Forsaken" may be said to 'mime' the steady, enduring pulse of the woman's heart as she struggles to survive the "great storm." Yet, on another level, and by contrast to the longer lines in the latter part of the poem (which may be thought of as 'miming' the life rhythms of the older woman), these spare lines and strong rhythms seem to reflect the very nature of the Indian life in the "north-land" at the time when the "Fort" of the Europeans is but a distant presence to be sought only in an hour of desperate need.

     As Part I of "The Forsaken" continues, the narrator gives us more details of the "Chippewa woman's" desperate bid to save the life of herself and her son:

Frozen and hungry,
She fished through the ice
With a line of the twisted
Bark of the cedar,
And a rabbit-bone hook
Pollished and barbed. . .

For the present argument, the most significant feature of this passage is the contrast between certain of its details and their correspondence in the second part of the poem. Here the "Bark of the cedar" and the "rabbit-bone hook" are entirely native and natural. In Part II there are as well the native "birch-bark" and the natural "rabbit-skin robes," but there are also in the possession of the woman's grandsons "kettles" and "mink-traps," items which, as already suggested, evidence the incursion of the "Fort," of the Europeans with their metal implements, their technique, and their commerce, into the Indian way of life. At the time in which Part I of "The Forsaken" is set, however, the Indian woman has no metal fish-hooks and no woven fishing line. Moreover, while in Part II of the poem, the Indian woman has a "kerchief" and a "shawl" — two items of clothing and two choices of words that have a distinctly European quality — in Part I her "sick baby" sleeps "in the lacings/of [a] warm tikanagan," or papoose. The fact that tikanagan, the only Indian word in the entire poem, appears in Part I — the fact that there are no Indian words in Part II is symptomatic, even symbolic, of all that the historical movement behind the poem implies in terms of the interaction between Indian and European. Susan Beckmann is more correct than she may have known when she says that in Part I of "The Forsaken" Scott "manages to preserve the atmosphere of an Indian world by paying close attention to authenticity in such details as the 'rabbit-bone hook' end the lacings/Of the warm tikanagan',"8 the point being that at the time when these details occur the "Indian world" itself still preserved its "authenticity. "

     In the middle portion of Part I the Indian woman is still "Out on [the] lake" but now, to heighten our sense of her suffering, the "iceflakes" (which correspond to the markedly gentler "snowflakes" that will shroud her in Part II) are described as "hissing" and the lonely island is likened, in a bitterly ironical simile, to a roaring "fire." It is at this juncture that there occurs the following passage:

Valiant, unshaken,
She took of her own flesh,
Baited the fish-hook
Drew in a grey-trout
Drew in his fellows,
Heaped them beside her,
Dead in the snow.
Valiant, unshaken. . . .

If this passage is viewed as a self-contained entity, it can be seen to break into halves around the repetition of the verb "Drew" and, before and after that, the verbs "Baited" and "Heaped" which, like the two "Valiant, unshakens," are symmetrically placed on either side of the crucial act of drawing in the "grey-trout" and "his fellows." The function of this repetition and symmetry is to reinforce the exchange that is taking place in the passage, the exchange of the woman's flesh for the life of her son. The sacrificial, and indeed, sacramental, aspect of this exchange is implicitly Christ-like — implicitly because, while the (Christian, European) reader is at liberty to interpret the Indian woman's action in the way, there is no indication whatsoever that she herself is a Christian, that she is performing her act of self-sacrifice in a Christian spirit. Such a distinction may seem overly subtle. But it is nevertheless important, for by Part II of the poem the woman to have been Christianized: in composing herself for death she folds "her hands. . .across her breasts" in the manner of a Christian funeral effigy and goes to her final "rest" under a "shroud" of snow. Susan Beckmann detects "an almost Biblical force"9 in the words "Then she had rest." And it is true that the word "rest" (a favourite of Scott's) may well have been chosen in this instance for the resonances that it brings with it from, for example, Job 3. 17 ("there [in death] the weary be at rest") and Matthew 11.28 ("I [Christ] will give you rest"). Of course it may be objected that the word "rest," and with it the descriptions of the woman's sacrifice and death, belong entirely to the poem's narrator and, hence, do not reflect the consciousness of the woman herself.

     Against this objection there stands the complexity and subtlety of the narrative strategy of "The Forsaken." For, while Scott has his omniscient narrator relate objectively, in the third person, the events of the Indian woman's life and death, he also provides for a degree of subjectivity by allowing his narrator's descriptions to reflect, in their grammar and vocabulary, the consciousness of the woman at the two points in time when we see her. The point has already been made that the short, vital lines of Part I and the longer, more attenuated lines of Part II are a mimesis of the youth and age of the woman. To the point which has also already been made, the point that the occurrence of the word "tikanagan" in Part I, as against the words "scarf" and "kerchief" in Part II, reflect the cultural changes that have occured between the youth and age of the woman, may now be added the suggestion that, just as with "tikanagan" the narrator uses a word that would readily occur to the young Chippewa woman, so with "kerchief" he uses a word that would readily occur to the older, Europeanized woman. Similarly, a grammatical construction in Part I such as "line of the twisted/Bark of the cedar" (where the italicized articles seem to be indicative of a speaker who is not entirely at home with English) and a choice of words in Part II such as "They came in their Northern tour on the verge of winter" (where the italicized words have a curiously European quality) seem to indicate that Scott is subtly merging the objectivity of his omniscient narrator with the subjectivity of the Indian woman. There would seem to be ample grounds, therefore, for arguing that in each of the two parts of "The Forsaken" Scott modulates the grammar and vocabulary of his omniscient narrator to reflect the different points of view of the Chippewa woman and, moreover, that he does so as part of his overall attempt in the poem to present the effect on the Indians of their contact with Europeans.

     If the foregoing analysis is at all valid, it would indicate that Scott intended his readers to compare the two parts of "The Forsaken" and to see in the differences between them an object lesson in the technical and cultural, religious and linguistic, changes wrought upon the Indians by the two generations of contact with Europeans that the poem subsumes. And if the analysis is correct it would also suggest that the word "slunk" as applied to the Indians who gather up their "rabbit-skin robes and their mink-traps" as they prepare, guiltily, to leave their grandmother to die, is entirely consistent with a major theme of the poem. In the final analysis, then, it can be seen that the 'slinking' away of the forsaken woman's grandchildren is just one aspect of the influence of European on Indian. For the unindividualized Indian family described in "The Forsaken" the gradual process of Europeanization may well have begun when the "Chippewa woman/With her sick baby" first made her way to the "Fort." At the end of Part I, it will be recalled, she had:

. . .faced the long distance,
Wolf-haunted and lonely,
Sure of her goal
And the life of her dear one;
Tramped for two days,
On the third in the morning,
Saw the strong bulk
Of the Fort by the river,
Saw the wood-smoke
Hang soft in the spruces,
Heard the keen yelp
Of the ravenous huskies
Fighting for whitefish. . . .

Perhaps it is not too far-fetched to see in these lines, in the Chippewa woman's movement from the realm of wild animals (wolves), where, earlier, she had caught "grey-trout," to the domain of the "Fort" with its domesticated animals (huskies) that eat "white-fish," a paradigm of the movement of Indian towards Europe, the movement which, it has been argued, is central to "The Forsaken."


  1. Duncan Campbell Scott, Selected Poetry, ed. Glenn Clever (Ottawa: Tecumseh, 1974), p. 38.  All subsequent quotations from "The Forsaken" are taken from this text.[back]
  2. S.L. Dragland, ed., Duncan Campbell ScottA Book of Criticism  (Ottawa: Tecumseh, 1974), p. 179.[back]
  3. "A Note on Duncan Campbell Scott's 'The Forsaken'," Humanities Association Review XXV (Winter, 1974), p. 32-37.[back]
  4. Ibid., p. 32.[back]
  5. G. Ross Roy, "Duncan Campbell Scott," trans. Peggy Dragisic, in S.L. Dragland, ed. Duncan Campbell Scott, p.143.[back]
  6. The "island" upon which the woman is left to die brings to mind the fact that, traditionally, the figure of the island is associated both with death (Calypso's island, Arthur's Avalon) and with the 'blessed' (the Isle of the Blessed or the Happy), two associations which are appropriate to "The Forsaken."[back]
  7. Since the "Fort" is by a "river," and its inhabitants feed "whitefish" to their "huskies" there would seem to be grounds for suggesting that it is on either Hudson Bay or James Bay.[back]
  8. Beckmann, p. 35.[back]
  9. Ibid.[back]