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Essay Paper on The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture

by Sylvia Birence 

The images of Indians are intrinsic in Canadian culture. Since 1850 these images have been presented in a variety of different ways in a multitude of sources. 19th century paintings, Mounted Police members’ stories and memoirs, various TV shows, performances of speakers and writers of the native and non-native background – this list of sources of information about the Native culture is far from complete.

Throughout the Canadian history the imaginary Indian has been portrayed as an enemy and a friend, as a peace-lover and a brutal warrior, as an alcohol addict and the wisest of men, illiterate progress-hater and the lover of nature.

“The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture” by Daniel Francis occupies an important place among literary works dedicated to the Native culture. It is a captivating book, the main subject of which is the image of the Indian, which due to extensive mythologization is primarily viewed in the light of the popular socially accepted stereotypes. These stereotypes are very far from reality, but they proved to be very lasting and still exist.

The greatness and value of Francis’ work lies in the comprehensive analysis of the Native culture interpretations and the fully justified thesis that Native culture does not equal Indian culture. According to the author, starting from the very settlement of the North American continent, misinterpretation of the Native culture took place. Labeled as Indians and covered by the veil of romanticism, native people were pictured highly unrealistically by painters and writers, who concentrated on the way they thought Native culture was like rather than on reality.

The author deserves a lot of credit for thoroughly tracing the opinions and perceptions of the Native culture throughout the history ofCanada. Francis analyzes various sources of information about Native culture and points out those who misled the Canadians and gave birth to misconceptions. According to the author, artists are among them. Kane was the first artist to select Indians as the subject of his paintings. Kane’s interest towards Native culture might have been caused by the popularity that the photographs and paintings portraying it acquired among the Canadians. Francis voices an opinion that such artists as Kane and Carr contributed greatly to the distortion of the perception of Native culture. The artists were determined to make a significant contribution to the world art by portraying the Indian culture, which they believed to be dying. In fear that the aborigines might pass away into history soon, they committed to preserve their appearance, as well as traditions and customs in their paintings, their ultimate goal being to depict the “noble savage” in his natural surroundings, not in any way affected by the white outsiders. However, the artists failed to portray the Native Culture realistically. Kane often “…added details of setting and landscape to highlight the romantic flavour of scenes….‘cheated’ by adding clothing and artifacts foreign to the Indians in the paintings” (Francis 21). As for Carr, she “sought to preserve an idealized image of them and not the reality of Native people” (Francis 38).

The author draws the reader’s attention to the fact that not only the artists were lured by the mysterious Native culture. Travelers and tourists, missionaries and sportsmen, their interest towards Indians heated up by the paintings and books, craved to see “the wild “redskin” in his natural setting before he passed away into history (Francis 44). The irony of this lies in the following: the expectations of the travelers were so high and unrealistic that it was absolutely impossible for the native people to measure up to them. As a result, the Indian culture enthusiasts felt as if their efforts had been wasted, because they failed to see anything that extraordinary. Southesk described Indians as “an ugly, hard-featured set…. gypsy-like, neither handsome, interesting, nor picturesque” (Francis 45). Southesk was convinced that there was no way for the older Indians to be changed to “normal people”. However, he believed that for the younger people there was still a chance to forget about their rough habits and the inhumane traditions of their culture and set on the right path.

The author also refers to the notes made by the travelers Milton and Cheadle. At first they seemed quite sentimental about the irreparable damage done to the Indian culture by the invasion of the outsiders. However, later on it seemed to the author that the travelers believed that it was due course of things as progress was inevitable (Francis 47).

Another source used by the author is the notes by William Francis Butler. The leitmotif of this source is the utter loneliness, which is felt in the “GreatLoneLand” (Francis 47).Butlerdescribes the gradual transition of the white man from an honorable guest to the destructor. The Indian in his turn is attributed many positive qualities, such as pride, independence and virtue. However, the Indian culture inButler’s view was doomed to destruction and oblivion.

Sam Steele, a member of the Mounted Police, wrote in his memoirs that the Canadian West was in many ways similar to the savage and dangerous American Wild West. Cecil Denny mentioned that the Canadian West was imbued with violence. According to Denny, slow deterioration of the Indian race was taking place due several factors: the introduction of alcoholic drinks by the white traders, disappearance of the buffalo, major epidemics, etc.. MacBeth compares Indians to children, who have very little control over their behavior. According to MacBeth, Indians were driven by desire to drink whiskey and fight – the motives, both of which present danger to personal safety (Francis 64). Mention must be made of theCalgaryexhibition, which took place in 1918 and featured Indian people. The Natives were involved as representatives of the primitive past in contrast to the civilized present. Thus the bottom line was the celebration of the advent of the white man, who changed life for the better. The country officials thought it necessary to convert Indian people to modern ways. Under the governance of John A. Macdonald, who believed the Indian potlatch to be a sheer den of inequity, the oppression towards Indians escalated. It was considered essential to ban the Indian dances, as they supposedly manifested the inhumane Indian traditions and hindered the assimilation of the natives (Francis 99).

The author also refers to the notes made by a group of Edwardian intellectuals among which were Duncan Campbell Scott, a poet and Indian administrator, Pelham Edgar, who was a literary critic, and Edmund Morris, a painter. The author traces the opinions voiced by the three travelers. The predominant impression of Edgar of the area was the beauty of the scenery. Edmund Morris provided a deeper feedback, as he was appalled at the terrible conditions the natives lived in, which presented start contrast to the civilizedCanada. Scott dwelt on the major transition which occurred in the image and behavior of Indians in the recent decades. According to Scott, at first the Indians represented sheer threat to colonization. However, peaceful tribes that his group encountered made him acknowledge the change and attribute it to education and assimilation of Indians. Scott believed that further introduction of civilization was the best solution to the Indian problem (Francis 198).

Thus, in his book Francis conducted thorough investigation of how the Indians have been portrayed starting from the middle of the 19th century, tracing how the false perception of the Native Culture, based on subjective opinions and stereotypes, replaced the facts, based on knowledge. By providing a detailed account of the Native Culture interpretations, Francis reveals that it is often the case that the authors of the Indian life descriptions are primarily guided by their own preconceived icons and their works are far from being authentic interpretations of the Native reality. According to Daniel Francis, Canadian aboriginal studies are confined to the images, which are projected on the natives based on the personal experiences and opinions of the non-native writers, their very own cultural legacy. The Imaginary Indian is how the white culture wants to see it and this utterly unauthentic image is exploited in a great number of spheres.

The author states that unfortunately the common impression of the Indian was often made without any references to the Natives. Mention must be made of the people, who claimed they were of Indian background and shared their view on the life of the Natives “from the inside”. A vivid example of such “plastic shaman” was Forrest Carter, the author of Little Tree, who in reality was far from being Indian (Francis 109). The author remarks that all the wrong people assumed the status of the Indian culture representatives. Such native culture ambassadors as for instance Pauline Johnson or Grey Owl fully complied with the public notion of what an Indian should be like. In the author’s opinion, “plastic shamans” like Grey Owl gave rise to even more misconceptions, stereotypes and beliefs of which there is no solid proof. For instance, the conservation work done by Grey Owl led to the common belief that Indians have a special connection with the land, which may not necessarily be true.

The writer mentions an interesting fact that we get most of our knowledge about Indians in childhood. The figure of the Imaginary Indian appears very appealing to children. He is independent, uncultured, free, brave, animal-loving. This perception of Indians is imposed on children and adults by TV shows, books and movies. Having very little knowledge of what Indian life is like in reality, people absorb the information offered by white writers and educators. Some of their opinions were negative, others were positive, but none of them were authentic. Francis analyzes various sources of information about Native culture, such as works by non-native writers, performances of “plastic shamans” andHollywoodfilms featuring Indians.  The author comes to a fully justified conclusion that in all those spheres Indian culture is portrayed primarily to entertain the audience, so the truthful depiction of it is very little of a priority.

One may think that throughout Canadian history Indians would be portrayed negatively, however, this is not always the case. Francis provides examples of positive images of Indians. The book “Two Little Savages” by Ernest Thompson Seton was a crucial point in American literature as it pictured Indians as worthy role models for children. Instead of the negative stereotype of the Indian, his positive image was promoted (Francis 145).

The author draws special attention to the attempt of the marketing people to make use of the Indian image as part of their marketing strategy. Numerous manufacturers used Indians in the commercials of their goods. It stands to reason that largely positive images of the “noble savages” are used in commercials and advertisements; attention is drawn to such positive qualities as physical strength, virtue and bravery. It is a common occurrence that companies use aboriginal culture and its attributes in relation to their products in order to evoke the association with nobility, grace, nature, speed. This can be accounted for by the fact that there was a strong stereotype that an Indian would only use high-quality goods, as bad quality stuff wouldn’t last in the wilderness. Such marketing interest heightened the attention to the Imaginary Indian, whose image was now everywhere. “Aboriginal culture was reduced to a series of slogans, a set of simplistic, patronizing attitudes” (Francis 175).

The major point of this non-fiction book byFrancesgoes as follows: Indian images, which are thought to be true-to-life, are in reality concoctions of the non-native Europeans and do not correspond to reality.  Francis acknowledges in the introduction that The Imaginary Indian is “is a book about White – and not Native – cultural history” (Francis 5). The goal of the author is to demonstrate the deeply-rooted mythologies nourished by Canadian culture. The book can’t be related to Native literature, but it is a must for those interested in the Native culture.  Francis doesn’t dwell upon what Native culture really is, but he does point out what it is not.

Speaking about positive and negative issues associated with author’s opinion and his thesis, mention must be made of the fact that it is somewhat frustrating to realize that the commonly accepted image of the Indian is nothing but a subjective combination of stereotypes. On the other hand however, the unseating of mythologies makes it possible to truly understand the Native culture. Francis is convinced that the use of the Indian symbols by the whites illustrates their realization of the fact that they are the dominant race, which stole the continent from the native people.

Overall effectiveness of the book is quite impressive. I believe that this literary work is invaluable in a way that it eliminates preconceptions in the reader about Native culture. It calls into question the stereotypes and takes away the icon previously taken for gospel truth. There is no doubt about the fact that Francis explains his idea clearly and defends his thesis quite effectively. He provides a detailed account of misconceptions, which are still taken for reality. Daniel Francis believes that the word “Indian” encountered in European vocabularies is a misnomer, a mistake and he provides sufficient proof of this poignant statement.

In my opinion, the authority of Francis is unquestionable. The facts that speak in his favor are the following: he is a well-known academician and he is not native toCanada. Taking this into the consideration, one can say that the book is highly credible, opinion is unbiased and arguments are authoritative. It seems natural that in their works dedicated to Native culture white writers would have a certain bias. However, due to the fact that Francis talks about the misconceptions in his own society, he appears unbiased.  The author believes that “Our responses to Native peoples reveal more than racism, fear and misunderstanding.  It is more complicated than that.  Our thinking about Indians relates to our thinking about ourselves as North Americans” (Francis 222). Another important fact that has to be mentioned is that the work is very well structured and organized from the scientific point of view, which adds credibility and authority to it. The sources referred to in the work are very illustrative examples of the misconceptions abundant in the public perception of Native culture.

Mention must be made of the fact that the book provides a very good perspective of the Canadian history in the 1930’s in the light of the perception of the Native culture. At that time the North-West mounted police was introduced to keep law and order in the troubled areas ofCanada. Correspondingly, in the novel by R.G. McBeth the Indians are depicted as villains, “wild and unruly”, who conditioned the introduction of the mounted police in the first place (Francis 62). This kind of perception of Indians stands in stark contrast to the classic American novels, in which Indians are often portrayed as faithful companions of those who keep the law and order. Sam Steele, a member of the Mounted Police, wrote in his memoirs that the Canadian West was in many ways similar to the savage and dangerous American Wild West. Cecil Denny mentioned that Canadian West was imbued with violence (Francis 63). Thus, measures were taken to cease the violence and assimilate the natives, who were considered potentially very dangerous. It is interesting to remark that with the marketing era came a drastic shift in the perception of Indians. It brought about emphasis on their positive qualities.

Speaking about my own impression of the book I should say that I found it very thoughtful yet interesting. It was rather easy to read. The illustrations used by the author helped visualize the material presented and deepen the understanding of it. As for the audience it was meant for, I believe that anyone would be able to appreciate the literary skill of the author and the depth of the insight, however, it is a must-read for those interested in the Native culture.

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Works Cited

Francis, Daniel. The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture.Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 1992

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