Native Canadians In Literature Essay, Research Paper
Introduction: Literature offers a strong and passionate voice for the past. The literature of the Native Canadian is a voice we, the people of Canada, can no longer ignore. There is little to be gained by dwelling on the past. Nevertheless, there is much to be realized by accepting what has passed, with all of its mistakes and dust we might otherwise wish to hide under the carpets. English literature, since at least the sixteenth century, has a firm grounding in Canadian history. As a white Anglo Saxon Protestant, we can see where we came from, who we are, what we are and, maybe most importantly, why we are the people that comprise this enigmatic Canadian continent. But what if you aren’t one of those fortunate enough to be of European Christian descent?
Abstract: Christianity is one of the most profound influences this world has ever known. Almost every facet of Canadian life, past or present, is manifest with it. White Anglo Saxon Protestants came to this country with adventure in their hearts and spreading the word of God on their minds. The new settlers soon found that they were not alone in the country they proclaimed as their own. They found a people, different from themselves and with no loyalty to the Almighty God. This untamed, human was called ?savage’ and, ignorantly, despised for their commitment to no one but themselves. With Christianity as their guide, the European settler managed to almost destroy that culture for no other reason than it was different than its own. The historical record of the literature of those two cultures serves as the proof that Christianity was at the center of the cruel treatment the European showed the Native Canadian.
Systematically, through war, genocide, legislation and ?wayward Indian camps’ the people were broken, their culture decimated and their souls eventually converted to the word of God. Literature contributes to this destruction in two ways: 1) by perpetuating and adding to the fallacies that existed about the native Canadian and; 2) by serving as an extensive record of the injustices served the native Canadian by other Canadians. The natives have their own literary record of the indignities they faced at the hands of the merciless Canadian settlers and government. A simple comparison of the two cultures literature would not befit what actually transpired between the cultures.
The following analysis will serve to present an argument that Christianity is a central cause of the modern tragedy of the Canadian Native. There is no differentiation among the various Native cultures. Native, for the purpose of this exploration, will be a combination of any, and all, Native people who came into contact with the European. French Canadian relations are not explored because they did not have the same detrimental impact as that of English speaking Canada. In particular, specific examination of the English literature from the 1700’s to the mid 1800’s will be conducted. The historical context will be the main focus and various examples of literary prose from both cultures, will serve as the tangible proof that, to borrow a phrase from the composition, ?What ails the Indian’, is actually nothing more than a big, white, lie.
Protection. Civilization. Assimilation. These words represent the ideals serving as the foundation for legislation set forth by the Canadian government, struggling to manage the problem of having people indigenous to a country, living in the nation, they were assuming for their own. The Canadian government believed that the Indians were incapable of dealing with people of European ancestry without being exploited. Therefore, the government had to protect the person and property of the Indian from exploitation by the European, which meant that the Indian was to have special status in the political and social structure of Canada.1 They also had a duty to protect the Canadian from the ?uncivilized’ ways of the Indian and, when protection and civilization were achieved, assimilation would already be in place. The special status was assigned to the Natives through a series of legislation called the Indian Acts and, which acted as the backbone for most Indian legislation until the 1960’s (see Acts endnote). So, under the guise of protection from the masses, and after civilization to the cultural standard, only then would assimilation of the native into the Canadian population be complete.
Even before the government enacted the legislation giving it control over the Natives and their land, writers were diligently at work, forging their own disparaging distinction between the two cultures. Take for example, the words written by David Thompson in the Narrative of His Explorations in Western North America 1784-1812; Chapter VI, Life Among the Nahathawaya;
“Both Canadians and Indians often inquired of me . . . Neither the Canadians nor the Indians . . . ”
Although much of what Thompson writes about the Native Canadians is positive and favorable, the distinction between “us” and “them” is still evident; Indians are not Canadians, nor should they be given consideration as Canadians. (See Hedley endnotes) Thompson tries valiantly to present a positive image of the Indian. However, his own biases are blatant even in his own verse as he considers the writings of other authors;
“Writers on the North American Indians always write as comparing them, with themselves, who are all men of education, and of course (the Indians) lose by comparison. This is not fair. Let them be compared with those who are uneducated in Europe; yet even in this comparison, the Indian has the disadvantage in not having the light of Christianity. Of course his moral character has not the firmness of Christian morality, but in practice he is fully equal to those of his class in Europe; living without law, they are a law to themselves.”
The special distinction given to the people indigenous to this country continues to haunt the relationship between Canadians and Native Canadians. By designating Natives as special and different from other Canadians, the framework was established for the systematic exclusion of the Native from being an equal Canadian. Through a history of enactments legislated in colonial parliament, the institutions of this country were used to segregate native people from the dominant culture and to legitimize paternalistic control over all aspects of their lives. (Frideres 1993; p 11). Therefore, we discover that institutionalized racism is a cornerstone upon which Canada was built. (See Shadd endnote)
Canada’s dominant world view is a product of religious beliefs, science, democratic ideals, & economic ideas. But Christianity, and not the others, is the central reason for the disenfranchisement of the native Canadian from their traditions and culture. Scientific, democratic and economic manifest destiny came only after the Christian crusades took place (although they were used in conjunction with Christian thought). ?Christianity would cure the evil that ailed the Indian,’ hailed the masses. Consider these words from Alexander Morris, who arranged the initial treaties with Native peoples;
“Let us have Christianity and civilization to leaven the masses of heathenism and paganism among the Indian Tribes; let us have a wise and paternalistic government faithfully carrying out the provisions of our treaties.” (1880: 296)
Most of the new European Canadians, beyond their ethnocentrism, were anthropocentric in their view of the natural world, in accordance with themselves. They believed that humans were not part of nature and that nature is that part of the world devoid of human influence. (Biosphere 2000) This anthropocentric mind-set emphasized and encouraged the exploitation of nature. A frontier mentality drove settlers (see Innes Footnote) and the colonists felt no ethic toward the land upon which they built their new homes. Canadians envisioned the land as useful only if they could flatten it of its trees, hunt the animals to the brink of extinction and farm what was left for the European “food of custom.” Consider this somber passage that defines the early Canadian mentality from Winter Studies and Summer Rambles, by Anne B. Jameson;
“A Canadian settler hates a tree, regards it as his natural enemy, as something to be destroyed, eradicated and annilhiated by all and any means. The idea of useful or ornamental is seldom associated here with even the most magnificent timber trees . . . “Christianity, with its roots in Judaism, is a major factor in the development of a Western world view. Judaism and Christianity maintain there is a single God who created the universe but is separate from, and outside, His Creation. A basic Christian belief is that God gave humans dominion over creation, with the freedom to use the environment in any manner. Another important Judeo-Christian belief predicted that God would bring a cataclysmic end to the earth sometime in the future. Some people interpreted this to mean the earth was only a temporary way station on the soul’s journey to the afterlife. (Biosphere 2000)
These beliefs tend to devalue the natural world and they foster attitudes and effects that have a negative impact on the environment and any people who believe contrary to them. The rise of science and Sir Francis Bacon were two other major influences in the development of the Western world view, but also linked to Christianity. Bacon, a 17th century philosopher and essayist, believed that they would re-establish God’s kingdom on earth when humans, via science, achieved dominance over nature. (Biosphere 2000) The presence of dominance over nature by means of a God given right is contained in the literature of European, and eventually of the native, culture. Nature is not perceived as valuable until there is something useful, by standards of the European culture, being made of it; In, The Rising Village by Oliver Goldsmith, there is a lament for the poor settler that must dispose of nature to make a home;”. . . When, looking round, the lonely settler sees
His home amid the wilderness and trees:
How sinks his heart in those deep solitudes,
Where not a voice upon his ear intrudes . . .
. . . And where the forest once its foliage spread,
The golden corn triumphant waves its head . . .”Even some Natives were enticed into believing that the destruction of one culture in favor of another was a noble goal. Contemplate this passage from George Copway’s The Life of Kah-Ge-Ga-Gah-Bowh. In the preface, entitled A Word to The Reader, he sets the tone for writing that is to follow;
“It would be presumptuous in one, who has but recently been brought out of a wild and savage state . . . to undertake, without any assistance, to publish to the world a work of any kind.”
The first few lines of the story continue the attitude that is exposed in the preface with tenacity;
“The Christian will no doubt feel for my poor people, when he hears the story of one brought from that unfortunate race called the Indians . . .”
There is further evidence of the profound influence of Christianity on Copway’s formerly native life;
“The mind for letters was in me, but was asleep, till the dawn of Christianity arose . . . no light shone on my way, until the men of God pointed me to a star in the East.”
By no means should this be considered as an evil manifestation of Christianity, it is just tragic proof that brainwashing, under the guise of Christianity, was successful on some of the Native people.
The dominant theme within the Native literature is, for the most part, the negative effect contact with the European had on the Native people and the impact of Christianity. The Natives suffered because of Christian ideals used as a tool of oppression against the native. Until contact with the Europeans, natives only had an oral tradition, for the most part. It was only after contact that many of their stories, songs and poems were set to print. They created their “oral literature” primarily for the embetterrment and enrichment of other people and as a form of thanks to that which gave them life. Early Native literature reflects the immense respect and gratitude the people felt for the entity that gave them their daily sustenance. Here are three examples from the earliest available written literature:
From To Cure Sickness Among Neighbors (Aua),
I arise from my couch with the grey gulls morning song.
I arise from my couch with the grey gulls morning song.
I will take care not to look toward the dark,
I will turn my glance toward the day.
From To Stop Bleeding (Aua),
This is blood from the little sparrow’s mother.
Dry it up! This is blood that flowed from a piece of wood. Dry it up!
And from, To Heal Wounds (Nakasuk),
You, like the ringed plover,
You, like the wild duck,
The skin’s surface here,
Full of wounds,
Full of Cuts,
Go and patch it!
This collective, selfless type of tradition quickly changed into an individualistic, rhetoric similar to the self-serving prose of the European settlers. European Canadian literature is usually concerned with the individual or author / narrator and “her” or “his” suffering, triumph, failure, success, hardship, or struggle. There is a distinct change in the content of the Native literature as time passed, and as the ill effects of the European ways became ingrained upon, the Native. The writing gradually becomes tainted with feelings of frustration, anger and alienation and hatred toward the culture decimating their own. Take into consideration this tormented passage from Halfbreed by Maria Campbell;
“So began a miserable life of poverty which held no hope for the future. That generation of my people was completely beaten. Their fathers had failed during the Rebellion to make a dream come true; they failed as farmers; now there was nothing left. Their way of life was a part of Canada’s past and they saw no place in the world around them, for they believed they had nothing to offer. . . I hurt inside when I think of those people. You sometimes see that generation today: the crippled, bent old grandfathers and grandmothers on town and city skidrows; you find them in the bush waiting to die; or babysitting grandchildren while the parents are drunk. And there are some who even after a hundred years continue to struggle for equality and justice for their people. The road for them is never ending and full of frustrations and heartbreak.”
Here, are some excerpts from The Disempowerment of First North American Native Peoples and Empowerment Through Their Writing, by Jeannette C. Armstrong.
“Once total subjective control was achieved over my peoples through various coercive measures and the direct removal of political, social and religious freedoms accomplished, the colonization process began.”
The realization of what actually transpired between the two cultures is made evident from these few lines. Natives are well aware of what really happened to their ancestors. Disempowerment continues to redefine history;
“There is no word other than totalitarianism which adequately describes the methods used to achieve the condition of my people today. Our people were not given choices. Our children, for generations, were seized from our communities and homes and placed in indoctrination camps until our language, our religions our customs, our values, and our social structures almost disappeared. This was the residential school experience.”
Natives were hunters and gatherers who lived in harmony with their physical environment. Their limited technological developments placed few constraints on the ecology and the small number of people meant that population pressures were light. (Miller 1989) Europeans, on the other hand were continually developing their technology to achieve superiority over nature.8 (Frideres 1993; p 9) The idea that Canada should be populated as quickly as possible is present in many authors work. Consider these passages form The History of Emily Montague by Frances Brooke;
“England, however populous, is undoubtedly too small to afford very large supplies of people to her colonies: and her people are also to useful, and of too much value, to be suffered to emigrate, if they can be prevented, whilst there is employment at home.”
Armstrong makes note of the Western ideal that a large population is to be valued, over the value of an individual;
“…that the dominating culture’s reality is that it seeks to re-affirm itself continuously and must be taught that numbers are not the basis of democracy, people are, each one being important.”
Nature has a different meaning for the Native culture. Even in the present, natives have managed to retain some sense of their traditional values and insights into the natural world. No European can assess the Nature as eloquently as one who is born with the knowledge that Nature is coursing through their veins. Consider this passage from April Raintree, by Beatrice Culleton;
“Man thinks he can control nature. Man is wrong. The Great Spirit has made Nature stronger than man by putting into each of us a part of nature. We all have the instinct to survive. If that instinct is gone, then we die.”
The general end of their culture, game and tradition did not go unnoticed by many older, native peoples. This example is taken from, Blueberry Days, by Ruby Slipperjack, a story about a family adventure while picking blueberries one summer day. The story is appears to be following ancestral traditions – until you get to the end;
“We’ll all have a good sleep tonight. Tomorrow we’ll be going to the general store to trade in our berries. I hope Mom buys bananas and tomorrow is Wednesday, the day the way freight comes to unload groceries for the general store. I lay on the grass with my eyes closed, smelling the earth and wildflowers beside me.”
Older natives (and younger ones) knew that their children no longer valued the old ways. Consider this passage from We, the Inuit are Changing by Martin Martin;
“Our forefather’s ancestors . . . taught our fathers how to share any kill made amongst their people. So my father taught me to share my kill as it was the traditional way. When I was a young man every time I went hunting and came back successful I invited the poor, the less fortunate and the old Inuit to share in my kill . . . Our Creator had blessed me and I had carried on this blessing by sharing . . . It is sad how this tradition is being forgotten. Young people now keep their kill to themselves. . . . I am aware that this tradition is no longer practiced. I hope this will be written down so that our children can be made aware of what used to take place.”
The impact one culture had on another is chilling when you realize that many Natives feel distaste and disgust about their heritage. Consider this passage from April Raintree, by Beatrice Culleton;
“I wasn’t really thinking about anything when I noticed my arms and hands. They were tanned a deep, golden brown. A lot of pure white people tanned just like this. Poor Cheryl. She would never be able to disguise her brown skin as just a tan. People would always know that she was part Indian.”
Nevertheless, there is some sense of renewed hope that the old traditions and culture will survive, albeit in some fragmented manner. Here is an example of modern native folklore as from a passage in The One About Coyote by Thomas King;
“She goes North, and their is nothing. She goes to the South, and there is nothing there, either. She goes to the east, and still there is nothing there. She goes to the west and there is a pile of snow tires. . . some televisions. . . vacuum cleaners. . . a bunch of pastel sheets . . . a humidifier. And there is a big mistake sitting on a portable gas barbeque reading a book. Big book. Department store catalogue.”
The conclusion of the Coyote contains the moral of the story;
“But what happens to Coyote, says Coyote. That wonderful one is still flat. Some of these stories are flat, I says. That’s what happens when you try to fix the world. The world is a pretty good place all by itself. Best to leave it alone and stop messing around with it. . . And I can’t talk anymore because I got to watch the sky. Got to watch out for falling things that land in piles. When that Coyote’s wandering around looking to fix things, nobody in this world is safe.”
Euro-Canadian literature brandishes the land as inhospitable and a vast expanse of land in dire need of taming. Native writings reflect a deep respect for the natural world they called home. Europeans were ethnocentric and had a mission to Christianize the world (Frideres 1993; p 9)
Frideres: James Frideres elequently sums up exactly what the situation with the Indian Acts is in his book Native Peoples in canada: Contemporary Conflict: the first Indian Act after Canadian Confederation, was passed in 1876. It was first revised in 1880, and received minor alterations in 1884 and 1885. For the next 65 years, the Act underwent minor changes. However, in 195, the Act underwent a major revision which left it essentially in its present form. Interestingly enough, the 1880 version of the Act and the present one are remarkably similar, indicating that Indian affairs has not undergone any major ideological shifts in the past one hundred years of dealing with the Native population. For a more detailed description see Frideres chapter on the … in Native Peoles in Canada. (Frideres:1993; p19)
Shadd: Adrian Shadd provides a difference reference point for those who think the natives were the only people to face systematic racism by the Canadian white majority. She unerths the theory that racism is an instituion in Canada is not restricted to colonial periods or outlets.
Innes: Harold Innis, one of Canada’s most celebrated economists, conceived the Staples Theory. This theory maintained that Canada was built on an exceedingly, explotive tradition of abusing the natural resources until they ran out and then finding a new “staple” product to pillage. With the advancement of each new staple product, there was an ensuing growth in the population.
Hedley: Max Hedley’s “Native Peoples in Canada” takes a broad look at the native Canaians history. He draws a distinction between the “them” and “us” mentality. It also provides a dismal portrait of what should be by now, the shamed-faced European settler.
Careless: Provides an alternative view on the Fredrick Turner’s “frontier thesis”, which states, specificaly, America, and more liberally, North America, is founded from “metropolitanism” instead. While the frontier thesis held environmental determinism as the shaper of this continent, metropolitinism said the big urban centres were what controled the destiny of the colonies and their people.
Van Kirk: Van Kirk provides an interesting account of the investment and contribution native women represent to Canada. However, her essay, “Women in Between: Indian Women in Fur Trade society in Western Canada,” follows with the theme that the natives were severely abused at the hands of the savage new Canadians.
Currie: For an enriching perspective on the residential school experience, see Vickie English- Currie’s disturbing essay. Currie devotes herself to presenting an accurate and truthful view of the vicious indignities little children and their parents suffered because the were native. She assess and remarks on the educational system that she attended and which, in other words, was nothing more than an internment camp for wayward Indians and an excuse to beat torture small children for the slightest infration.
Erasmus: George Erasmus’ essay “Twenty Years of Disappointed Hopes” is an account of the modern Canadian natives struggle for self government. Erasmus contends there could be dire consequences, no matter what transpires, between those who are in power and those who seek to be in power: the Canadian Native and the Canadian.
Duchemin: Parker Duchemin recounts the sordid tail of the native Canadian’s horific experiences, with even more gruesome examples, than usually expressed. He describes the history of how the stereotype of the native evolved and says the justification was for the massive land tract available. Duchemin attempts to extinguish the myths and fallacies that have been kicking around for the last one hundred years, or so.
Lehmann & Myers: By no means are Christianity or native beliefs the only two religions available for scrutiny. For a reasonably unbiased view of some of the more prominent and persecuted religions in the world examine “Magic, Witchcraft and Religion.” It provides, using many authors, most of whom are speciaalists in a realted field, introductions into subjects we don’t often think about – except on Halloween!
1) John L. Tobias, “Protection, Civilisation, Assimilation: An Outline History of Canada’s Indian Policy” Sweet Promises: A Reader on Indian – White Relations, J.R. Miller ed., University of Toronto Press; 1992, pp127-144.
Parker Duchemin, “Stealing History” in Briarpatch, October 1988, pp 17-21
Adrian Shadd, “Institutionalized Racism and Canadian History: Notes of a Black Canadian” Seeing Ourselves: Exploring Race, Ethnicity and Culture, Carl E. James ed., Oakville, Ontario: Sheridian College, 1989, pp151-155.
James S. Frideres, “Native Peoples in Canada: Contemporary Conflicts”Scarborough, Ontario, 1993, 2-22 and 66-69.
Vic Satzewich and Terry Wotherspoon, “First Nations: Race, Class and Gender Relations” Scarborough, Ontario, 1993.
Kenneth Pryke and Walter Soderlund, Profiles of Canada, Mississauga, Ontario, 1992
Max J. Hedley, “Native Peoples in Canada” Profiles of Canada,Kenneth Pryke and Walter Soderlund
ed., Mississauga, Ontario, 1992; pp 73-96.
Kenneth G. Pryke, “A Profile of Canadian History” Profiles of Canada,Kenneth Pryke and Walter Soderlund ed., Mississauga, Ontario, 1992; pp 36-57.
David Taras, B. Rasporich and Eli Mandel, eds., A Passion for Identity: An Introduction to Canadian Studies, Taras, et al, Scarborough, Ontario; 1993
Harold Innis, conclusion from “The Fur Trade”A Passion for Identity: An Introduction to Canadian Studies, Taras, et al, 2nd ed., Scarborough, Ontario; 1993
J.M.S. Careless, “Frontierism, Metropolitanism and Canadian History” A Passion for Identity: An Introduction to Canadian Studies, Taras, et al, Scarborough, Ontario; 1993
Vickie English-Currie, “The Need For Re-evaluation in Native Education,” A Passion for Identity: An Introduction to Canadian Studies, Taras, et al, Scarborough, Ontario; 1993 pp 110-119
George Erasmus, “Twenty Years of Disappointed Hopes” A Passion for Identity: An Introduction to Canadian Studies, Taras, et al, Scarborough, Ontario; 1993 pp 120-138
Joane Cardinal-Schubert, “Near the Ledge, Writing on the Stone” A Passion for Identity: An Introduction to Canadian Studies, Taras, et al, Scarborough, Ontario; 1993 p 110
Sylvia Van Kirk, “Women in Between: Indian Women in Fur Trade Society in Western Canada.”A Passion for Identity: An Introduction to Canadian Studies, Taras, et al, Scarborough, Ontario; 1993
Donald G. Kaufman and Cecilia M. Franz, “Biosphere 2000: Protecting Our Global Environment” New York, New York, 1993.
Daniel Moses & Terry Goldie, “An Anthology of Canadian Native Liiterature” Don Mills, Ontario
Aua, ?To Cure Sickness Among Neighbors.” Moses et al., p
Aua, “To Stop Bleeding.” Moses et al., p
Nakasuk, “To Heal Wounds.” Moses et al., p
George Copway, “The Life of Kah-Ge-Ga-Gah-Bowh.” Moses et al., p
Maria Campbell, “Halfbreed.” Moses et al., p
Jeannette C. Armstrong, “The Disempowerment of First North American Native Peoples and Empowerment Through Their Writing.” Moses et al., p
Beatrice Culleton, “April Raintree.” Moses et al., p
Ruby Slipperjack, “Blueberry Days.” Moses et al., p
Thomas King, “The One About Coyote.” Moses et al., p
Martin Martin, “We, the Inuit are Changing.” Moses et al.,
Russelll Brown, Donna Bennett & Nathalie Cooke, “An Anthology of Canadian Literature in English,” revised & abridged ed., Don Mills, Ontario 1990.
Anne B. Jameson, “Winter Studies and Summer Rambles.” Brown et al., p
Oliver Goldsmith, “The Rising Village.” Brown et al., p
Frances Brooke, “The History of Emily Montague.” Brown et al., p
David Thompson, “Narrative of His Explorations in Western North America 1784-1812; Chapter VI,
Life Among the Nahathawaya.” Brown et al., p
Alexander Morris, as quoted from,
Joane Cardinal-Schubert, “Near the Ledge, Writing on the Stone.”