Not Your Noble Savage: On Literary Colonialism and Native Writers by Alicia Elliott

I have a confession to make: I’ve never danced in a pow-wow. Not unless you count awkward shuffle steps self-consciously made during intertribal dances, which no one should. “Intertribals” are when the MC invites all onlookers — regardless of experience — out of the bleachers and into the arena to dance. They’re basically the pow-wow equivalent of having a karaoke break during a concert. Why would anyone want to see the rhythmically challenged when they can watch professionals? They don’t. It’s a nice gesture, but ultimately an embarrassing affair all around.

Despite my lineage and fervent passion for long braids, I am most definitely not a professional dancer. This is distressing news, I know. After all, what kind of Indian woman can’t dance to drums to please the colonial eye? Believe me when I say this was not the way I wanted it. My cousins were entered in the Grand River Champion of Champions Pow-Wow every year. I’d watch them sweating in their regalia, so painstakingly beaded by my aunt, a dull envy swirling in my gut. The moment they left their outfits unattended, I’d appear as if summoned by dark magic to surreptitiously run my fingers over the raised, precise beadwork and velvet inlays, the feathers and bells. This was being Indian, I’d thought. It had a certain amount of pageantry to it; it was showy and fun. And judging by the number of newly-bought dreamcatchers proudly hanging from their rearview mirrors, non-native Canadians seemed to agree.

So imagine my surprise when, in 2006, the same Canadians who came to see my family members dance every year started screaming obscenities at us from their minivans, their dreamcatchers gently blowing in the wind as they passed our occupation at Kahnestaton (formerly Douglas Creek Estates). They couldn’t hurl empty coffee cups or racial slurs fast enough. Our treaties didn’t matter, nor did our concerns. Apparently, we were only to be tolerated in a very specific context. We could entertain them every summer and pose in photos with their children, sure, but attempting to assert sovereignty over our lands elicited moral outrage on par with drowning kittens. Maybe if we’d worn pow-wow dresses and brought a drumming group, they’d have been more receptive.

This seems to be Canada’s preferred image of indigenous peoples. Not the modern native girl in a sweatshirt and jeans trying to figure out how she fits in “Reconciliation© Canada.” No. They want the “genuine artifact”: the stoic Indian man decked out in beads and leather, who has not one ounce of white blood because that would obviously taint his authenticity. He’s managed to dodge assimilationist policies like superheroes dodge bullets. Preferably, he’s just stepped out of a Delorean into 2017 immediately after learning that charming stilted English so clearly realized by Johnny Depp’s Tonto. (Although, as recent events have shown, should the genuine artifact be unavailable, Canada will happily accept a handsome, agreeable white dude with tenuous indigenous “roots” as a substitute.)

Settlers like this stereotypical, impossible image because it means they can outsource their guilt. Instead of actually dealing with the consequences of historical genocidal policies — policies that are still in place, by the way — they can pretend that assimilation settled over our people like a gentle fog. It was entirely natural; no one is to blame. Certainly not them. They like Indians. They named a few sports teams after them, after all. They also read The Orenda and it, like, changed their lives. Of course, these same settlers will not listen to the voices of actual indigenous people in their everyday lives, and further, seem unable to realize that by expecting us to be their Ideal Indian Caricatures, they’re adding another layer of colonial trauma to our already overburdened peoples.

Within the past few decades, there’s been a surge of indigenous voices in the literary community writing against these harmful histories and images: Lee Maracle, Eden Robinson, Thomas King, Richard Wagamese, Tracey Lindberg, Katherena Vermette and Tomson Highway. Yet, even those successful writers have been subject to what I’ll call “literary colonialism”: insidious criticisms — almost always from non-Indigenous people — that not only reflect, but reinforce troubling attitudes of colonial ownership over Indigenous people within the literary community. These include policing what native writers can write about, and even whether they count as native at all. Like those pow-wow spectators throwing garbage out of their minivans, those enforcing literary colonialism want us to stick to our script.

This kind of criticism is nothing new, of course. When Margaret Atwood wrote her foundational work on Canadian literature, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, she happened to leave a considerable hole in her literary account of the country: she didn’t reference a single native author. Considering her book posited that Canadian literature consisted of different types of “victims” surviving their circumstances, this omission is particularly ironic. It should be noted, however, there was a chapter that examined non-native writers’ fictive portrayals of indigenous peoples rather tellingly entitled, “First Peoples: Indians and Eskimos as Symbols.” In “A Double-Bladed Knife: Subversive Laughter in Two Stories by Thomas King,” Atwood excuses her exclusion, saying she simply couldn’t find any native writing. Of course, one questions her due diligence when she follows up her semi-apology with this rather ridiculous contradiction: “Why did I overlook [Mohawk writer, performer and poetess] Pauline Johnson? Perhaps because, being half-white, she somehow didn’t rate as the real thing, even among Natives; although she is undergoing reclamation today” (234).

There’s a lot going on in this one sentence that I want to unpack, chief among them the seemingly arbitrary declaration that Tekahionwake, or Pauline Johnson, is not “the real thing” because she’s half-white. Putting aside for a moment that she wrote this statement in an essay praising native author Thomas King — the son of a Cherokee father and a Swiss, German and Greek mother — let’s consider Canada’s history of dictating native identity. I know history isn’t always fun, particularly this specific history, but it’s key to figuring out why non-native people feel they’re so damn good at determining “the real thing.”

Part of building a nation is dismantling all that undermines it. In Canada’s case, the dubious honour of undermining the nation falls to indigenous peoples. While Britain — and by extension Canada — didn’t take the absurd route of Australia and declare a clearly populated land mass to be terra nullius, or vacant land, they didn’t exactly shake hands and promise to leave us alone, either. Since the passing of the Indian Act in 1876, Canada has been in the business of doing exactly what those Caledonia citizens felt so entitled to do: determine our lives — and lands — for us. Where we could go, what we could do, how our lineage could pass down to new generations; what we could name ourselves, what we could teach our children, what ceremonies of ours we could legally engage in. All of it was dictated to us in this racist document.

In a stroke of colonial genius, the Indian Act also defined who could actually be Indian. You may have thought you were an Indian, seeing as that’s what white Canadians called you, sometimes preceded by an expletive or two, but you could be wrong. There were “status Indians” and “non-status Indians.” There were Inuit and Metis, and later, the catch-all term that’s recently gone out of vogue: “Aboriginal.” Despite clearly wanting all Indians to assimilate (the residential schools were a pretty big statement on that front), there was also punishment for those who dared to reproduce with non-native people. Until 1985, depending on an increasingly convoluted set of circumstances bound up in imperial sexism, marrying a non-native person could mean you and your children were stripped of your status. If you were a native man who married a non-native woman, congratulations! You, your wife and children were legally entitled to a laminated card affirming their Indian status. However, if you were a native woman who married a non-native man, tough luck. Not only were your kids unable to claim their inherent treaty rights, yours were officially forfeit. That’s right: native women were put into the position of having to choose between their nation, home and identity — and their husband. Pretty good way to further degrade traditional matrilineality, no?

Meanwhile, politicians trumpeted “multiculturalism” as a defining Canadian value with totally straight faces. If you’re starting to feel like you’re in an episode of The Twilight Zone as narrated by the Mad Hatter, welcome to the wild world of Indian politics.

Into this toxic, traumatizing history of colonial dominion over indigenous identity, comes Atwood’s at worst insensitive, at best ignorant, comments about Pauline Johnson. What, one wonders, would make Johnson “the real thing”? Odds are, considering the legislation at the time of her birth, both she and her mother were technically “status” Indians. Her father was a well-known chief in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. She lived on the Six Nations reserve, had a Mohawk name, only narrowly avoided attending the Mohawk Institute (an Indian residential school known to its adolescent inmates as “The Mush Hole”). Would Atwood have deemed Johnson worthy of “real thing” status if Johnson had attended a residential school? What about if she danced in the pow-wow? Didn’t she see that picture of Johnson in leather, fringe and feathers? What more did she want?

To paraphrase the title of one of Thomas King’s own short films, Johnson was simply not the Indian Atwood had in mind. King, meanwhile — who has been quite open about his non-native mother, regardless of whether Atwood chooses to acknowledge her existence — doesn’t have the same problem. It’s like a literary continuation of the Indian Act: favouring men and repressing women who, apart from their gender, are otherwise in the exact same circumstances.

For those lucky enough to escape the authenticity test, there are other ways their writing gets policed. In a review of Eden Robinson’s book Blood Sports, a book that features non-native characters, Canadian Literature reviewer Laurie Kruk writes: “Robinson proudly identifies herself as a Haisla woman, raised on a [reserve] 500 miles north of Vancouver. She has been celebrated as an up-and-coming Native Canadian writer, yet it is interesting that two of her three works have no obvious Native characters or themes” (“Fear Factor”; italics added). Kruk starts by identifying Robinson’s heritage and connection with a specific reserve — perhaps to firmly place her in the category of “the real thing,” perhaps not. Then, directly after mentioning that Robinson’s been “celebrated as an up-and-coming Native Canadian writer,” she innocently drops the word “yet,” implying what she’s about to say is a contradiction of all that came before. It’s not, of course. Being a celebrated native writer in no way conflicts with her writing about non-native characters and themes. Unless, of course, you’re a non-native reviewer who wants native people to exist within the cozy little confines of your colonial imagination. That might, indeed, call for a nicely cloaked objection, a “yet.” Kruk never explains why, exactly, it’s “interesting” that all of Robinson’s writing isn’t based on native peoples, or why, exactly, that negates her status as a “Native Canadian writer,” but one can guess. If only Robinson had written more about pow-wows.

But what do “real” native people know about non-native life, anyway? That seems to be a genuine point of contention for reviewers of indigenous work. While reviewing a staging of Tomson Highway’s Rez Sisters, the first thing Globe and Mail reviewer Ray Conlogue writes is a comforting assessment of Highway’s “real” Indian status: “Tomson Highway has long black hair, worn straight and loose. There is no mistaking that he is a native person.” So far, so ridiculous. Once his indigeneity is established (to the collective delight of settler Canadians everywhere), Conlogue goes on to write that native actress Gloria Miguel’s “stolid and monumental face lends a comic aspect to [her character] Pelajia’s longing for Toronto: as if a pre-Columbian stone carving longed to land on Yonge Street.” The actress’ performance is comic not because of her timing or talent, but because of her “monumental” face. In case you were naively hoping Conlogue meant “monumental” as in “great in importance, extent or size,” he immediately clarifies: Miguel doesn’t remind him of anyone great; she doesn’t even remind him of a person. She reminds him of a pre-Columbian stone carving. Her face is “monumental” like an actual monument. Further, isn’t it hilarious to think a native person would want to go to Toronto? What would they do there? There’s no buffalo or sweat lodges! Let’s forget that “Toronto” itself comes from a Mohawk word and the city was built on stolen Mississauga land. Let’s also forget that indigenous people are not historic artifacts that rumble to life whenever a non-native person wants a good chuckle.

But wait, there’s more. Just because a native writer is deemed “the real thing,” writes the appropriate ratio of native characters to non-native characters and endures belittling “profiles” in national newspapers, doesn’t mean they’re left alone. Success and canonization are only afforded to those who truly deserve it, after all, and what native author is worthy of that? That’s exactly what Jennifer Lee Covert’s McMaster University thesis tried to figure out in 79 pages worth of research and inquiry. I wish I were making this up. The thesis, entitled “A Balancing Act: The Canonization of Tomson Highway,” posits that the plays Highway has written have been canonized not because of their quality, but because they came along at a time when settlers were feeling particularly guilty about their history with indigenous people — and because Ojibway playwright Drew Hayden Taylor “has not found as attractive a balance between Western and native… instead of blending two cultural perspectives, [he] supplants white characters and their problems with native characters and their problems” (Covert 77). There’s another item to add to the list: native writers must be careful to strike the right balance between Western and native culture. No one wants to see native people’s problems being explored the same way white people’s problems are. That would mean native peoples’ lives are equally worthy of artistic inquiry, which they clearly are not.

The implied message in Covert’s work is that native success is always suspect. If non-native audiences graciously grant acclaim for indigenous work, it’s not because the work itself deserves acclaim — it’s because critics feel bad about that whole genocide business. According to this warped rationale, native success becomes pity success, easily explained away as a fluke instead of recognized as a genuine, deserved achievement. Curiously, you don’t see Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro or Timothy Findley’s success and canonization being dissected and dismissed the same way.

Essentially, there’s no way for native writers to really win. If the criticisms I’ve looked at here are any indication, as long as indigenous writers are “the real thing,” their work features mostly native characters, they prey on colonial guilt and blend Western and native cultures appropriately, they should be allowed to be successful. But these unfair, ridiculous standards are literary colonialism in action. These people aren’t simply casting a critical eye on native writers’ work; after all, no one is asking Margaret Atwood to prove her lineage (which, as far as my research can tell, is simply “Canadian”) or accusing Alice Munro of not striking the right balance between Canadian and Scottish cultures. (Did you even know Munro was Scottish? I certainly didn’t — until writing this essay, that is.) The criticisms lobbied at native authors are not about style or form or literary merit or symbolism; they specifically replicate damaging colonial attitudes that native people have faced since contact. There is an insidious undercurrent driving critics to question native author’s identity, content and success, directly calling to mind the Indian Act and the continual dehumanization of living, breathing people into historic artifacts.

Of course, these types of reactions aren’t actually about native authors or their work. They’re about keeping narratives consistent. When these critics look at native writers — at native people — they want to see antiquated stereotypes staring back at them because that is the fairy tale upon which Canada’s existence depends. It’s the fairy tale that keeps Canada’s conscience clear; it’s the fairy tale that allowed former Prime Minister Harper to apologize for residential schools one year, then claim it has no history of colonialism the next, then pull all support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) the next, then say our missing and murdered women weren’t a priority the next, then weeks later threaten to pull already threadbare funding from band councils who don’t abide by strident, unfair financial practices… All of this injustice can coexist with non-native Canadians proudly declaring Canada the best country in the world precisely because of the existence and continued maintenance of national fairy tales such as these. Without them, the narrative of “Canada the good” crumbles, and with it, the identities of so many Canadians.

With the rise of Reconciliation© Canada, however, a newer, more insidious twist on this fairy tale has emerged. During the last election Prime Minister Justin Trudeau actually attempted to court indigenous support, promising to implement all of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s 94 Calls to Action, including full implementation of UNDRIP. Indeed, once elected Trudeau announced that his government would be launching an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women. They would lift the two per cent cap on funding First Nations education programs. All that, and Trudeau actually used the words “nation-to-nation relationship” when discussing his government’s approach to dealing with indigenous peoples. Be still every hot-blooded indigenous heart! That’s basically the Native equivalent of finally hearing the commitment-phobic dude-bro you totally agreed to “keep it casual” with for twenty years while he messed around with other girls, even after you bore three of his children and raised them without a penny of child support from him, finally refer to you as his “girlfriend” in public! Gold stars all around!

Except according to a segment the CBC’s “The Current” ran as recently as January, “an internal report card from the Privy Council Office has given the Trudeau government a failing grade for delivering on its promises to Indigenous Canadians.” Say it isn’t so! Apparently, even though he’s been flipping his luscious locks and making meaningful eye contact with indigenous leaders all across Canada, Trudeau has not implemented UNDRIP. In fact, much like Harper before him, Trudeau has not required consent from indigenous nations before approving resource development on native lands. In December, he approved two contentious pipelines, Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Line and Enbridge’s Line 3, saying, “We have not been, and will not be swayed by political arguments, be they local, regional or national.” Prior and informed consent? What prior and informed consent?

Additionally, Trudeau has not forced his government to stop racially discriminating against 163,000 First Nations children, despite being mandated to by the Supreme Court of Canada. When Saskatoon Tribal Council Chief Felix Thomas asked Trudeau why so little of promised federal funds have actually made it to indigenous communities, Trudeau used some classic misdirection to turn the question around on the chiefs, saying he could tell none of these chiefs actually talked to their own youth to get their opinions. Luckily, Trudeau was there to give precious insight into what indigenous youth really want: “a place to store their canoes and paddles so they can connect back out on the land.” Not fair and equal funding, clean drinking water, investment in mental health services, the right to live with their families without fear of being targeted for abduction by social services, or gaining their languages back. They just want a few sheds! Naturally, Indian-Youth-Whisperer Trudeau didn’t explain why his government wasn’t meeting such a modest, but important request. I’m sure our young peoples’ rightful canoe storage is just caught up in a bit of bureaucratic red tape, just like all our other rights.

Is Trudeau critically interrogating Canada’s national ideas of indigenous people? Is he honestly examining Canada’s historic relationship with indigenous nations so he can forge a different, respectful path forward? Though his crafty pro-indigenous PR makes his policies appear different than those of his predecessor, if the effects are ultimately the same, how different are they? Throwing glitter on the same old fairy tale doesn’t suddenly make it new. The problem with continuing these national fairy tales is they’re flimsy and false, furthering the chasm between those who hold an idealized vision of Canada and those who see and acknowledge the hidden, darker side. It’s only by putting away such childish fairy tales and looking at our less-than-magical reality that Canada can really mature as a nation, and engage in open, honest discussion about its ongoing treatment of native peoples. Apologizing for residential schools is not enough; an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women is not enough. True reconciliation with native peoples requires Canada to stop its paternalistic, discriminatory policies and, most importantly, stop interfering with our sovereignty over our identities, communities and lands. These are by no means easy or comfortable tasks, but they must be undertaken regardless. Anything else is simply not “the real thing.”

So where does that leave an indigenous writer like me right now: a half-white, half-Tuscarora woman who writes about whatever she pleases and has, mournfully, never danced in a pow-wow? There are already three strikes against me, yet there’s still this persistent belief that I’m somehow at an advantage because of my lineage. Once a dear friend from my creative writing program drunkenly introduced me to another writer: “This is Alicia. She’s going to be published one day.” I was, of course, flattered, until this friend finished with, “because she’s an Indian.” Perhaps Richard Wagamese summed up my feelings on it best: “I’m not a native writer. I’m a fucking writer… I don’t want to be compared, I don’t want to be ghettoized, I don’t want to be marginalized… I just want [people] to read my work and go, ‘Wow.’”

Don’t misunderstand me. My hesitation to be labelled a “native writer” isn’t a hesitation to be labelled such by other native peoples. That is a point of pride, a sign of kinship and solidarity. Being labelled a “native writer” by non-native peoples, however, is more often than not an act of literary colonialism, showing paternalism, ownership, and a desire to keep us inside a neatly labelled box where they deem us a non-threat. A continuation of the fairy tale.

While certain non-native readers, writers and critics continue to bemoan our refusal to be the Indian they’re looking for, there are others willing to see us as ourselves. To acknowledge not only our talents, but also the historical landmines we’ve had to sidestep on our way toward each milestone. To appreciate our successes instead of regard them with suspicion. To refuse literary colonialism and the way it desensitizes them, as well.

In the meantime, I’m proud to say I’m no one’s Noble Savage and I’ll continue to write what I please. Though maybe I will learn how to pow-wow dance — alone, in the privacy of my living room. It looks like good cardio.


Alicia Elliott is a Tuscarora writer living in Brantford, Ontario with her husband and daughter. Her literary writing has been published by The Malahat Review, Room, Grain and The New Quarterly, and her current events editorials have been published by CBC, The Globe and Mail, Maclean’s and Maisonneuve. She’s currently Associate Nonfiction Editor at Little Fiction | Big Truths, and a consulting editor with The New Quarterly. Her essay, “A Mind Spread Out on the Ground” won a National Magazine Award.

 

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2 Responses to Not Your Noble Savage: On Literary Colonialism and Native Writers by Alicia Elliott

  1. Martin Goldstein says:

    Wow! Absolutely brilliant essay.

  2. Ronald Freeman says:

    more than just a great article…. spot on and comes at precisely the right time…. provides us with power and direction…. very grateful…. niawenko:wa…. skennenko:wa

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