The Discourse of Aboriginality (Pt III): The Historical Discourse of Aboriginality

The purpose of this chapter is to apply the model of analysis suggested by the insights and methodologies of Said and Foucault to Native/non-Native relations in Canada. To reiterate the major points of this analytical model, the primary focus of examination is placed not at the level of individual subjective intent but at the more concrete level of the discursive effects of power. The idea that power is best understood to operate as a function of expressed intent is bracketed in favour of an approach to power which recognizes that ideal objectives and the reality of lived experience bear no necessary correlation. Moreover, as the strategies and mechanisms of power are best seen as constantly evolving, an analysis of its effects must be historically located if the continuity of these effects is to be determined. According to Foucault, from such an historical perspective, politics in Western democracies emerge as simply war continued by other means.

Accordingly, this paper situates its analysis of Native/non-Native relations in Canada within an understanding of the effects of that relationship’s approximate 500 year history as a whole. The immediate implications of adopting such an approach are obvious: the analysis of the relations between the Indigenous peoples of these lands and what are properly seen as European immigrants to them, must take as its starting point the various material conditions and circumstances of Aboriginal cultures prior to contact with Europeans. Thus, a fundamental operating assumption of this paper is that, pre-contact, these cultures had total and undisputed control over their lives and the ways in which they related to the lands they traditionally occupied; now, clearly, they do not. A second assumption is that, unless these peoples are the only known group in the history of the planet to freely, willingly and unilaterally give up this ability en masse to determine their own lives, on their original lands, one is forced to conclude that such lands have been taken, and continue to be held, by force.

This chapter sets down two major themes of the dominant Canadian discourse on Aboriginal peoples: namely, The Noble Savage and The Vanishing Indian Race. As shall be argued throughout the remainder of this paper, both of these themes rely upon the fundamental Western assumption of European superiority. This assumption clearly recalls the analysis of Said, and thus provides an opportunity to reiterate and apply the major operating assumptions of imperialist discourse discussed in the previous chapter. Again, Said presents three major organizing categories of imperialist discourse: its Eurocentric perspective, its positioning of the Orient as a problem, and the dehumanizing consequences of its cosmic view of the Orient. While the two broadly conceived themes under discussion do not cover the entire scope of the discourse of Aboriginality, together they capture much of its essential content. However, before proceeding to an examination of these two themes and their political implications, some comments concerning the methodological aspects of this paper’s approach are in order.

Firstly, the examples to be cited in this chapter are not to be regarded as the sole source of evidence upon which this paper’s thesis is based. Rather, the examples to follow simply serve as illustrations of the theoretical analysis put forth by this paper concerning the discourse of Aboriginality. Thus, the true test of this paper’s thesis will consist not in the specific examples it produces here, but in the general applicability and plausibility of its theory. This approach owes a direct debt to that of Said in Orientalism:

It should be noted at once that even with the generous number of books and authors that I examine, there is a much larger number that I simply had to leave out. My argument, however, depends neither upon an exhaustive catalogue of texts dealing with the Orient nor upon a clearly delimited set of texts, authors, and ideas that together make up the Orientalist canon. I have depended instead upon a different methodological alternative—whose backbone in a sense is [a] set of historical generalizations…

In the case of this paper, such historical generalizations are of a thematic and ideological nature, namely, the hypotheses of the Noble Savage and the Vanishing Indian Race.

The other methodological consideration to note here is that the examples included in this chapter reflect neither a random nor whimsical process of selection; indeed, it is this paper’s contention that similarly effective examples exist close at hand at virtually any given point within the discourse. In other words, the examples to follow are neither exotic nor obscure. Instead, as Said points out, they merely indicate the fact that discourse operates precisely by making itself and its putative object widely and readily available. Discourse is not a subterranean phenomenon lurking within the depths of society but rather one which functions everywhere at the level of appearances. Again, given that the main argument of this paper rests on its general application, no amount of specific examples will clinch it.

The Noble Savage

While the conventional theme of the Noble Savage recurs consistently throughout Canadian discourse on Native peoples, it does so in a variety of forms. Nonetheless, at the core of all these various manifestations have been a number of key, albeit contradictory, assumptions. These assumptions can generally be seen as falling into one of two groups. The first group of assumptions posits the existence of a global hierarchy of man, wherein the perceived superiority of European culture places it above all others. This notion of cultural hierarchy derives from the intellectual ties of the Noble Savage to Christian cosmogony, which sought to explain the origin and history of all humankind. The presence of Aboriginal peoples in the ‘New World’ thus created certain theoretical problems for Orthodox Christian thinkers, who subscribed to the notion that God created all peoples at one time and in one spot. In order to preserve this monogenetic account of the world, Christian thought developed two responses: the first, the idea of a land bridge connecting the New World to the Old, solved the dilemma of the Indian’s physical presence in the New World; the second, the notion of cultural degeneracy, accounted for the cultural and social differences between Native and European peoples. From this logic emerges the conclusion that Native peoples exist as a degenerate and derivative form of human beings who occupy the lowest rank of human socio-cultural evolution. Thus, it is not long after contact that one can see what Said refers to as the Eurocentric perspective in operation. According to Robert Berkhofer Jr., the positioning of the world’s peoples on an evolutionary scale persists through and beyond the period of the Enlightenment, and to the extent that Western thought presumes

the fundamental unity of all humans in psyche and intelligence, then the Christian belief in the brotherhood of all God’s souls left its impression on the subsequent social sciences. In these basic outlooks the Christian parenthood of the social scientific image of the Indian becomes apparent.

The other major group of assumptions underlying the notion of the Noble Savage in a sense celebrates the so-called ‘primitive’ aspects of Native societies as a romantic alternative to European life. European Primitivism, a tradition of thought existent around the time of the Renaissance, sought to criticize Western society for what were perceived to be the ills and inequality of its social order. As a notion with roots in the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman mythical traditions of Paradise and the Golden Age, primitivism inherited a vision of an ideal landscape in harmony with nature and reason. This quest for paradise on earth influenced many Renaissance explorers, and consequently shaped the vocabulary with which they described and portrayed the indigenous populations of the New World. Their accounts, in turn, appeared to corroborate in fact the theoretical propositions of primitivist thought.

Eventually, Native peoples come to be understood by the West as a contemporary representative of mankind in its original ‘state of nature,’ or a condition of existence where social organization has yet to achieve the ‘advanced’ form then known to Europeans. In the eyes of Europeans, then, pre-contact Indians live in a ‘pure’ and ‘untainted’ manner free of the attendant evils of ‘civilized’ Western society. The nobility of the ‘savage’ Indian, therefore, resides within his simplicity.  It is this same quality, however, that permits the European to regard the Indian as ‘primitive’ and ‘unpolished.’ In the process of romanticizing Aboriginal peoples, European writers are quick to remind themselves and their readers of their inherent superiority as Europeans. That this notion persists within the later Canadian context as well is a proposition to which this essay now turns.

Providing an early example of the Noble Savage theme within the context of New France, the precursor to French Canada, is the Jesuit Relations. The Relations is a chronicle produced annually by the Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century intended to convince their financial supporters back home of the worthiness of their religious pursuits of conversion and civilization of the ‘savages’ of the Americas.  In order for such ‘savages’ to be capable of conversion, however, they had to be acknowledged in some sense as human beings. The theme of the Noble Savage thus serves two functions: on the one hand, it allows the Jesuits to designate Native peoples as human, indeed rather nobly so; yet, on the other hand, it makes such nobility conditional, as a degraded and simplistic form of human social organization. Sieur de Cobes, who visited the missions of New France in 1605, concluded that Native peoples are amenable to evangelization, and his comments serve as an accurate reflection of the prevailing European attitude towards Indians at that time:

Now to describe the nature of those that inhabit it, you should know that they are very handsome men, white as snow, who let their hair grow down to their waists (both men and women), with high foreheads, eyes burning like candles, strong in body and well proportioned. The women too are very beautiful and graceful, well formed and dainty, so much so that given the fashion of their clothes which is somewhat strange one would say they were Nymphs or some goddesses, very charming and tractable, but apart from that prepared to be massacred rather than consent to their dishonour, or have knowledge of any other man besides their husbands. Apart from that, in their manner of living they are very brutish…

The above quotation provides an indication of the excessive attention of imperialist discourse to detail, a literary device Said regards as the prerogative of the Eurocentric perspective. Rather than choose to focus on the more human aspects of Aboriginal social and cultural life, the European observer reduces such aspects to constituting mere functions of their physical environment. Drawing upon the suggestive analysis of Said once again, these notions of biological determinism create a rather schematic view of the Indian, wherein Native peoples cannot be understood except as the embodiment of certain patterns within their physical surroundings.

Ultimately, what the connection made by European discourse between the Noble Savage and a ‘primitive’ and ‘wild’ state of existence permits is the intrusion of Western forces on Indigenous lands. Returning to the ideas of Cobes, his comments reveal the imperialist motivations accompanying the ostensibly religious project of the Jesuits:

…but they are beginning to become civilized and to take on our manners and our ways. They are easily instructed in the Christian religion and are not too opinionated in their Paganism, to the extent that if Preachers went down to them I believe that in a short time the whole country would give in to the Christian faith without being otherwise constrained, and that by this means the way would be opened in the whole of the remainder of America for the conquest of souls, which is greater than all the lands one could ever conquer.

The dovetailing aspects of the imperialist and civilizing projects thus revealed, the political implications of the notion of the Noble Savage become glaringly obvious. The West’s portrayal of the Indian as an individual in dire need of the finer attributes of civilised, Christian society obfuscates the inherently violent nature of its colonial presence in the ‘New World.’ Although the initial attempts at French colonization met with only partial success at best, the stage for its eventual justification had been set.

Over the course of the 16th to the 19th centuries, lands traditionally occupied by Aboriginal peoples come to be increasingly encroached upon by predominantly French and English settlers whose numbers grew steadily with each passing decade. Facilitating the dispossession of Native lands throughout this period is the key tenet of the policy of civilization, namely, the permanent re-settlement of Native peoples on reserves. The reserve system, where Native peoples are forcibly segregated on land often less arable and desirable than that allotted to European immigrants, was a policy made directly possible by the notion of the Noble Savage. For a common conception (or misconception—the difference is slight) introduced by the Noble Savage theme is that Native peoples were largely nomadic, and thus wandered ‘aimlessly’ across the countryside. The reality is quite different; while it is true many Native peoples did relocate from time to time, this relocation was designed to prevent the physical over-use of any one particular area. Nonetheless, the Noble Savage paradigm, by positioning Native peoples as nomads who move without purpose or reason, served to justify European occupation of lands they perceived as either ‘unused’ or insufficiently so for the ends of ‘progress.’

The persistence of this notion of Native nomadicism is so strong that one Canadian author, writing in the early 20th century, echoes it almost verbatim, couched in terms of protecting the Indians “as a people of limited intelligence.” As a result of such perceived beneficence on the part of Canadians, the author claims the “Indian became practically independent and self-supporting.” The author concludes that

All over the Dominion [the Indians] are prosperous and content; nomads as they are bred up wholly to war and the chase, they have nevertheless acquiesced peacefully on the new conditions of life which the onward march of the white man has imposed on them, because they have been treated with justice and with what even more to the purpose, with a sympathetic tact.

Implicit within the above 1907 comments is the notion of the White Man’s Burden. Individuals who subscribe to this notion see their self-designated mission and responsibility as Westerners to take up the perceived ‘challenge’ of bringing civility, reason and progress to the uncivilised parts of the globe. While usually attributed to the English poet Rudyard Kipling, Canada had its own inimitable version of the great White Man in the person of Duncan Campbell Scott, whose own assimilationist policies as the Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs in Canada were justified in terms that could easily pass for those of Nazi Germany: “final results may be attained, maybe in four centuries… by the merging of the Indian race with the whites [emphasis added].”

A critical feature of the Noble Savage theme most evident within Scott’s “Indian policy” is the inability of the Savage to take care of himself in light of the superior and advanced ways of the Europeans. In Scott’s view, the Indians were “indeed a problem.” In his 1931 tract, The Administration of Indian Affairs in Canada, Scott begins by laying out the entire history of Native/non-Native relations prior to and post-Confederation:

Whenever new countries are opened up, disease and degradation will be found among the outriders of the march of civilization.  These our [sic] Indians encountered… Thus in their first contact with the white man and his ways the Indians tended to sicken and deteriorate. As colonization proceeded they began to leave their healthy teepees and became shack and cabin dwellers. Of sanitation they knew nothing. They fell a prey to tuberculosis and other maladies hitherto unknown to them. For a time it seemed that they were doomed. But the Government [of Canada] determined that the race should be saved.

One witnesses not only Scott’s commanding view of history but a heralding of his department’s openly paternalistic attitude toward Native peoples as well.  Indeed, throughout The Administration of Indian Affairs, Scott presents many prime examples of the organizing categories of imperial discourse as identified by Said.  At one point, he refers to the tested and true “procedure[s] and methods of dealing with Indians [emphasis added]” of Sir William Johnson, who, after the so-called “conquest” of Native peoples, “extended to the territory now known as Canada the principle of administration which had made his treatment of the Indians a success [emphasis added].” Clearly, ‘The Indian,’ that universal yet individual whole, presents not a human face but an administrative problem for Scott and his department. As one might by now expect, “success” is a standard to be measured by Westerners, not Indigenous peoples who after all are but “minors in the eye of the law.”

Yet not only is Scott considered an able administrator, he is also thought of by the past and present literary establishment as one of the great poets of Confederation. In adopting what Said might term a third-person omniscient perspective in much of his poetry, Scott conveys a totalizing picture of Indian life. Indeed, in his sonnet “The Onondaga Madonna,” Scott summarily consigns the Indian race to a quick and inevitable end in the face of European encroachment:

She stands full-throated and with careless pose,
This woman of a weird and waning race,
The tragic savage lurking in her face,
Where all her pagan passion burns and glows;
Her blood is mingled with her ancient foes,
And thrills with war and wildness in her veins;
Her rebel lips are dabbled with the stains
Of feuds and forays and her father’s woes.

And closer in the shawl about her breast,
The latest promise of her nation’s doom,
Paler than she her baby clings and lies,
The primal warrior gleaming from his eyes;
He sulks, and burdened with his infant gloom,
He draws his heavy brows and will not rest.

Not only are the form, a sonnet, and the main archetype, the madonna, employed by Scott clearly Eurocentric, so is his supervisory and judgemental capacity as narrator. Scott’s ultimate control over the narrative denies all agency to highly romanticized Native protagonists, who can only await their “tragic” fate.

As demonstrated above, the political implications of the Noble Savage theme are clear: if the Indians “of Canada” are to be weaned from their primitive state, they must “progress into civilization and finally disappear as a separate and distinct people not by race extinction but by gradual assimilation with their fellow-citizens.” The difference seems hardly worth noting.  Ultimately, however, the policy of assimilation was widely regarded as a failure, for Native peoples did not integrate with their “fellow-citizenry.” According to most interpretations of that policy, the major reason for its alleged ‘failure’ lay in the white mainstream’s consistent rejection of Native people. Yet in the apparent rush to deem assimilationist policy as a ‘failed’ attempt at cultural genocide, as so many claim, a crucial question remains unasked: what has that ‘failure’ in fact accomplished? It is here that we are compelled to recall the approach of Foucault to power. For whereas the stated goals of colonial policy have long been to assimilate the Indian, the effect of such policy has ultimately been to isolate Native peoples on reserves. In other words, the very actions of the federal government reveal the more global aims and objectives underlying and motivating colonial power: to displace and dispossess the Indigenous populations of their lands.  Again, this larger strategy of colonialism neither resides nor derives from the intent of one or more individual subjects. Rather, colonialism operates through those individuals, including by means of their thought, writing and speech. Thus, those writers who echo the claims of policy makers as to the utter ‘failure’ of assimilationist policies in fact fail themselves to note what such policies have achieved beyond such reputed goals.

It was a scant 38 years after the administrative regime of Duncan Campbell Scott that Jean Chrétien, then minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development in the Trudeau government, would voice a similar lamentation of the White Man’s Burden:

Some of you may ask what is wrong with the present system of land management? Well, let me tell you how it works. First, the band Council decide that they want to do something constructive and reasonable with a piece of their land as many of them want to do. They pass a Council resolution which they hand over to the Department’s Agency office. It is sent from there to the Regional office. The Regional people, anticipating that their superiors in Ottawa will ask questions, attempt to outguess the Head Office and ask questions themselves. Back it goes to the Agency and back to the Band… Eventually all the questions are answered and it comes to me. I look at the date and find it is over a year old.

I complain, but I find that all the questions were reasonable if you consider that I am the trustee and could be held to blame if they had not been asked. The fact is, the position of a trustee is never satisfactory to the beneficiary or to the trustee himself. [emphasis added]

The length of this quotation is merited by the degree to which it points out the irony of Chrétien’s 1969 statement. For 1969 was the year Chrétien and Trudeau devised the infamous White Paper on Indian policy. The essential premise upon which the Paper was based was the elimination of the so-called ‘discriminatory’ aspects of the Indian Act so as to allow Native peoples to finally become “equal partners” with the rest of Canadian society. What is ironic in the above statement (and in fact the entire policy-making exercise of the White Paper) is the complete lack of recognition on Chrétien’s part of the circumstances which have allowed him to be in the position of colonial administrator. Although Chrétien may consult with Native peoples, only he can initiate those discussions, as it is only he, and not Native people, who sets the final terms of debate. Ultimately, it is Chrétien and the government who decide as to the place Native peoples are to be given within Canadian society. And yet, under the guise of ‘equality before the law,’ the Liberal government attempted to effectively eliminate what little guarantees Native peoples had of the unique treatment afforded them by virtue of their special status as the original inhabitants of this land. The federal government’s appeal to the notions of ‘equality’ and ‘right’ thus masks its efforts to erode Native people’s historical claim to the land. The government, in its attempt to ‘force Native peoples to be free’, employs a discourse which articulates Native peoples’ own best interests for them: as such it is extremely condescending and not at all inconsistent with the historical theme of the Noble Savage. To paraphrase Said, the Canadian state’s grand vision of equality overrode the historical narrative of Native/non-Native relations by posing the situation as an ahistorical, single-issue problem of right. While the Paper was eventually dropped, some Native peoples claim the federal policy of transferring responsibility for Native peoples to the provinces remains an unspoken goal of that policy.

The Vanishing Indian Race

The actual appearance of the Vanishing Indian Race theme in Canada did not occur in earnest until the 19th century; in other words, when the threat of Indian retaliation was safely past. The myth of the vanishing Indian race is inextricably linked to the notion of cultural purity.  As an “inferior” race (a European concept), Indian people cannot hope to continue in their primitive, albeit “noble,” ways for very long in the face of continued encroachment by the so-called advanced Europeans. This perception locks Native people into an inert view of Aboriginal culture that must remain the same if it is to continue to be regarded as ‘authentic’ by Europeans, who saw their own cultures as naturally ‘progressive.’

In short, to be Native was to be static. By lamenting the tragic ‘loss’ of Native ways of life, writers deny Aboriginal peoples’ ability and right to change like any other dynamic culture. Europeans thus perceive there to be an irresistible and inevitable force working against Native peoples.  Usually, this inevitable force takes the form of Western progress, as we see in this excerpt from the 1873 travel writings of George Grant:

Poor creatures! not much use have they ever made of the land; but yet, in admitting the settler, they sign their own death warrants. Who, but they, have a right to the country; and if ‘a man may do what he likes with his own,’ would they not be justified in refusing to admit one of us to their lakes and woods, fighting us to the death on that issue?  But it is too late to argue the question; the red man, with his virtues and his vices—lauded by some as so dignified, abused by others as so dirty—is being civilised off the ground.

Grant was not alone amongst his contemporaries in the assumption that “these vast regions were surely meant to maintain more than a few thousand Ojibways.”

The anachronistic view of Native culture held by Euro-Canadians ensures that Native people lose in two ways, in a kind of cultural ‘Catch-22’: by even taking on some of the more superficial aspects or elements of Western culture, Indians are seen to lose their “Indian-ness”; and by not doing so, Indians are seen to be dying out as a race and as a culture. Such a narrowly defined view of culture and race assumes that Native culture is one monolithic culture when in fact it contains a number of cultures. Just as the cultures of the mainly French and English colonists were originally composed of many different ethnic groups before coming to take on their more familiar nation-state form.

A major political implication of the Vanishing Indian Race theme is the belief that the best and brightest years of Aboriginal culture have long since passed. Aboriginal peoples are conquered and vanquished, and their eventual disappearance, to recall the sentiments of Scott, is only a matter of time. While such a fate can be seen by Canadians to be either a negative or positive development for Native peoples, it is ultimately the needs of the former which must prevail. In 1910, Ernest McGaffey, a Canadian journalist and poet, had this to say regarding the appropriation of Native lands in British Columbia:

the Indian, except in occasional instances, will not labour, and he should give up the land to those who will work.  The tools to the man who not only can but will use them.

According to McGaffey, these weaknesses would seal the doomed fate of Native peoples, who must yield in the face of White Anglo-Saxon superiority:

For it is so that the wilderness falls before the axe, that the old order passes as the new regime comes in;  that you cannot stay the current development by a dogged refusal to go with the tide; and that the iron pen of history has written time and time again, the survival of the fittest is the law of the nations.

As if to ensure that Native peoples are indeed eliminated from public view, Canadian historians have contributed a rather distorted picture of that country’s development as a nation by consistently failing to include the contribution of those peoples. In his 1983 review of historical writing about the Indian in Canada over the period of 1972-1982, James W. St.G. Walker provides a synopsis of the role Native peoples have played over the past three centuries according to recent Canadian historiography:

The Indian’s allotted place in Canadian history was in keeping with his personal qualities, or lack of them. Indicative of the Indian’s historical position was the ways in which he was first introduced into Canada’s story. The typical history began with geography, then the Vikings, then John Cabot, and then Cartier, when the first reference would be made. They would appear suddenly to greet Cartier, or they would be introduced to explain some of the hardships faced by the early settlers. Indians were treated as part of the setting, the environment in which the history of the European newcomers would unfold. Once the Whites arrived, the Indian was given a role of subservience…

In fact, Walker continues, the only two events in Canadian history where most historians acknowledge the involvement of Native peoples were the War of 1812 and the Riel Resistance of 1885, which Walker terms the Indian’s “final curtain call.” A recent historical account published in 1992 by Olive Dickason entitled Canada’s [sic] First Peoples appears to stray little from the pattern outlined above by Walker.

The final aspect of the myth of the Vanishing Indian Race theme involves the ‘inter-mixing’ of Native and non-Native peoples. It is here that one hears of a threat posed by such intermarrying to Native peoples’ “original integrity,” an idea that in part refers to the prevailing association among Europeans of Native people with the wilderness. These “children of nature” recall the “pure” state of man and serve as a contrast to the so-called developed men of European society. The effect of such notions is to undermine Native peoples’ ability to experience cultural dynamism. Canadian authors, by not allowing Native peoples to determine for the outside world what are to be regarded as Native cultures, contributed to an entrenchment of European cultural assumptions about Indians that, as demonstrated in the next chapter, linger to this day.


PART IV > The Contemporary Discourse of Aboriginality

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