Native Peoples of Canada
The Indian does not exist. It is an imaginary figure, according to Daniel Francis (The Imaginary Indian), invented by Europeans that originated in Columbus's mistake, as he believed he had landed in the East Indies, and developed into fantasy. "Through the prism of white hopes, fears and prejudices, indigenous Americans would be seen to have lost contact with reality and to have become 'Indians'; that is anything non-Natives wanted them to be," (5). Thus they were attributed a wide range of conflicting characteristics, simultaneously seen as noble savages, full of stoicism, the last representatives of a dying race and blood-thirsty warriors, void of emotion and dull-witted, reflecting European romanticised notions. This manufactured image was presented in popular fiction, art, Hollywood films, school textbooks, newspapers and documentaries, where it was readily accepted as fact.
So how did this affect the actual, existing indigenous population and how is their resistance to projected images of the 'other' manifested in today's post-colonial climate? In this short essay, I will examine how Native peoples of Canada have used literature to deconstruct the stereotypical manner in which they have been represented in European, Canadian and American portraits, creating a new style and, in certain cases, a new form which marries tradition with the present and looks forward to the future. I will be using All My Relations: Anthology of Contemporary Canadian Native Fiction, edited by Thomas King, alongside a variety of critical and theoretical works which illustrate the complex issues involved, in terms of post-colonial definitions, and some objections that have been raised in response to their application.
Daniel Francis stresses the importance of recognising the image of the 'Indian' as revealing more about the European settlers than members of the indigenous population. Yet there is evidence in memoirs of travellers and missionaries at this time, that some existing qualities were perceived. While these so called 'documenters' were often more concerned with providing the world with desired images of the warrior dressed in extravagant battle regalia than with accurate representations, evident in the work for example of celebrated painter Paul Kane, they did discern a power of speech and eloquence which they found surprising in what they deemed to be a 'heathen' race without knowledge of basic 'civilising' tools such as the wheel and writing. Indeed rhetoric was a symbol of great power and command since, as Penny Petrone states "chiefs were leaders only insofar as they were able to persuade their kinsmen to follow them," (Native Literature in Canada, 25). In addition to such social structuring, oratory had a didactic function as tribal history, incorporating story telling, would be recited at length, while stories were passed from generation to generation describing the world,...