The Aboriginal Peoples

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Canadian Culture And Ethnic Diversity/

Contemporary Canadian culture has been profoundly influenced by the many aboriginal cultures that had developed before Europeans arrived in North America. Generally, they were highly integrated and holistic; that is, in their world-views the mundane, political, artistic, and spiritual dimensions of life were seen as inseparable. The cultural artefacts that these peoples produced, including a rich body of oral literature, were part of a seamless fabric. As Penny Petrone points out in her study of aboriginal literature, storytelling was a didactic tool for transmitting cultural precepts and was not motivated by the modern Western idea of “art for art’s sake.”

The centuries-old government policies of stripping aboriginal peoples of their land, supposedly protecting them through the reserve system, and yet assimilating them into non-native culture through education have had a complex impact on aboriginal cultures. Native practices and world-views have been severely eroded – in some cases, extinguished – by these policies of delegitimation, marginalization, and assimilation. They have profoundly demoralized aboriginal peoples, both as individuals and as communities. Many native languages have become virtually extinct, and numerous cultural practices have been lost. The Beothuk of Newfoundland have disappeared entirely. Nevertheless, aboriginal culture, albeit influenced by a long period of contact with Euro-Canadian ways of life, has persisted.

In recent years, together with increasing political assertiveness and rising educational levels, there has been a marked revival of aboriginal pride and cultural renewal. Language instruction has become a priority for many natives, who understand that they must act quickly if they are to take advantage of the memory of their elders. Native ceremonies incorporating dancing and drumming are flourishing, and increasingly involve non-native participants. At the same time, many aboriginal people are working to synthesize these traditions with European-based systems and practices, which have inevitably shaped their contemporary situation. As well, many non-aboriginals are becoming sensitive to native cultural rights and practices, both as expressions of self-determination and as major strands in the broader Canadian cultural fabric.

The impact of native culture on Canadian society as a whole began as a localized process. Each of the main aboriginal cultural groups left a legacy, albeit distorted by white appropriation, that shaped the regional sensibility of the areas in which they lived. For example, the painted teepees of the Plains Cree, Blackfoot, and Stoney and the feathered headdress and buffalo robe have been adopted as symbols of the west, along with the home-steader’s cabin and the cowboy’s hat. In British Columbia, artefacts of various tribes, such as Haida totem poles, have come to symbolize west-coast regional identity. In northwestern Ontario, rock paintings and Ojibwa myths play a similar role. Across the country, words drawn from native languages have been incorporated into English and French, and are evident in the naming of geographical features, towns, and cities – Chicoutimi, Kaministiquia, and Winnipeg, to name only a few. Perhaps the most notable example is the word “Canada” itself, which is thought to derive from the Huron-Iroquois kanata, meaning a settlement or village.

From the moment of original contact, aboriginal presence and experience have also contributed to the mythology and cultural identity of the Canadian nation. The development of a tradition of Canadian literature, for example, depended in part on evoking native elements. A number of non-aboriginal authors have written about native characters and drawn on aboriginal symbols, at least in part to develop an “authentic” Canadian literature, one that reflects the country’s language, landscape, and sensibilities. For example, the “Confederation poets” – Charles G.D. Roberts, Archibald Lampman, Isabella Valancy Crawford, and Duncan Campbell Scott – drew on native tales and symbols and events from the history of Euro-aboriginal contact. Contemporary writers are also engaged in this enterprise, among them Rudy Wiebe, whose novels The Temptations of Big Bear (1973), The Scorched-Wood People (1977), and A Company of Strangers (1994) explore the interface between European and aboriginal cultures. Even in his novel about Mennonite life in western Canada, Peace Shall Destroy Many (1962), Wiebe highlights the relationship between the settlers and native peoples, suggesting the significance of this interaction to the Canadian experience. Indeed, it has been a common practice for non-aboriginal writers to “use” native images for their own cultural purposes, as Leslie Monkman has demonstrated in his Images of the Indian in Canadian Literature (1981).

Canadian visual arts traditions have also absorbed the indigenous peoples. The mid-nineteenth-century excursions of artist Paul Kane to the Canadian northwest to paint the native peoples and their way of life initiated a long-standing tradition of the native as subject. Once considered historically authoritative and still widely reproduced, Kane’s work skilfully romanticized his subjects as the “noble savage.” Emily Carr in the first half of the twentieth century painted a world of Haida villages and totems on the west coast. More recently, in Joan Murray’s The Best Contemporary Canadian Art (1987), a number of non-native artists demonstrate native influence and inspiration: Guardian by Jack Shadbolt is based on the images of native masks and totems, Don Proch’s Blue Canoe Mask is inspired by the funeral ceremony of Cree painter Jackson Beardy, and Cape Croker by John Boyle is a reconstruction of a Plains teepee, with such “Indian elements” as a full-length image of Carl Ray, the “Ontario Indian artist.”

Despite such “borrowing” from native culture by non-native Canadian artists, aboriginal painters themselves are excluded from Murray’s volume because, as she writes, “they do not influence, and are not influenced by, most of the artists this book features. Inuit and Indian artists need to be treated separately, as they often are, because of their different cultural background and objectives.” This long-established practice of fencing off natives, yet legitimating Canadian identity by invoking their cultural presence, was most apparent in the 1960s in the career of native painter Norval Morrisseau, who initiated the Woodland school of contemporary aboriginal painting and a pictographic style based on Ojibwa belief systems. He came to be seen as a key to the Canadian identity, and his work was displayed internationally as “Canadian” art.

Canadian music has also known native influence. Harry Somers’s opera Louis Riel (1967), for example, introduced a number of vocal techniques that evolved from the composer’s use of aboriginal materials. Clearly, the degree to which the incorporation of such elements into expressions of regional and national culture is inevitable – perhaps even laudable – can be debated. Is it an implicit recognition of aboriginals as “founding peoples,” or a much more insidious process whose ultimate effect is the continued marginalization of their voices? Indigenous peoples, too, have integrated elements of European culture into their own in what is a transformative process for both groups. The native cartoonist Everett Soop, for example, combines the Blackfoot tradition of satire and teasing rituals with the contemporary mass-media genre of the cartoon to ridicule and amuse natives and non-natives alike. One could argue that the process of cultural synthesis is a quintessential feature of the pluralistic societies that have developed in the Americas and Australia, that it is an inevitable and continuing process whose ultimate outcome is difficult to foresee.

Nevertheless, this process has reflected the unequal balance of power between aboriginals and settler cultures. As Daniel Francis points out, from the very beginning of contact “Europeans have tended to imagine the Indian rather than to know native people, thereby to project onto native people all the fears and hopes they have for the New World.” Out of these projections, they created the native as both noble and ignoble savage, often using such images to critique or to bolster their own cultural practices. For example, Jesuit missionaries, who began collecting the literature of aboriginal peoples as early as the late seventeenth century, censored native legend and myth according to their own points of view. In French Canada the image of the “Indian” as le sauvage was particularly tenacious. Early experience with the hostile Iroquois prepared the ground for FrançoisXavier Garneau’s extremely influential Histoire du Canada (1845–48), which was still being reprinted as late as 1971. While French-Canadian historians of the 1960s worked towards a more balanced view of native peoples, the effects of past interpretations continue to be felt in political crises such as the confrontation between Mohawks and the Quebec police at Oka in 1990.

Without question, the native peoples have played an integral role in both French- and English-Canadian national mythologies. The alternating penetration of the wilderness and return to civilization that historian W.L. Morton, among others, saw as a basic rhythm of Canadian life began with the equation of the native with the wilderness and the uncivilized. Out of this process have come a multitude of ethnocentric images of aboriginals that have distorted their cultures, making it difficult for those steeped in Western culture to see native peoples with any clarity.

Thus, the problem of getting an “authentic” picture of aboriginal cultures in Canada is complicated by images that the settler culture has created, by the impact of Europeans on aboriginal cultures, and by the inevitable imprint of Eurocentrism on even the most well meaning attempts to help preserve these cultures. In effect, the collecting of native cultural artefacts, which until very recently has been done primarily by non-aboriginals, often reveals as much or more about Euro-Canadian than about aboriginal culture. Terry Goldie and Daniel David Moses makes this point in their anthology of Canadian native literature in English. “If ‘authentic’ implies without change through white contact,” they point out, “there is no such account of traditional cultures from southern Canada.”

Through the collection of settler culture and the recent work of aboriginal scholars and storytellers who have been able to tap the oral traditions of their people, one can, however, acquire a sense of the nature of native oral literature. For example, Ojibwa historian and storyteller Basil Johnston in Ojibwa Heritage (1976) put together a collection of tales – creation myths, trickster stories, tales of heroes, and journeys to other worlds – ritual chants, and orations. He insists on the importance of understanding the cultural context in which this body of material is embedded and argues eloquently for the central role of aboriginal languages and literatures, both to scholarship on native peoples and to cultural preservation. Such attempts to recover traditional native culture are important elements of the current renaissance among aboriginal peoples in Canada.

Synthesis is nonetheless implicit in Johnston’s text-based study of orality, since he uses the language, literary genres, and mindset of Euro-Canadian culture. He is representative of a long line of native leaders who have been influenced by the dominant culture as they struggle to express aboriginal identity or regain cultural practices. Historically, many of these people have had dual cultures – I Walk in Two Worlds, as Eleanor Brass expresses it in the title of her book (1987). Particularly in the nineteenth century, a number of individuals, primarily educated in missionary schools and often the offspring of mixed marriages or intermarried themselves, became mediators between two cultures. George Copway, an Ojibwa educated by Methodist missionaries who become a missionary himself and married an English woman, wrote The Life, History, and Travels of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh (1847), the first book ever published by an aboriginal Canadian. This autobiography, together with his Traditional History (1850), established him as a sought-after lecturer, a key apologist for aboriginal culture, and a defender of native rights.

Although, like virtually every other nineteenth-century aboriginal writer, Copway was caught in often tragic ways between the two cultures and can be accused of pandering to non-native stereotypes, he, along with Peter Jones, Catherine Sutton, John Ojijatekha Brant-Sero, and others, developed a tradition of aboriginal protest literature, primarily in the form of letters, sermons, history, and autobiography. E. Pauline Johnson, the daughter of a Mohawk chief and an Englishwoman, extended the range of this tradition, achieving remarkable popularity in both Europe and North America as a performer who skilfully used European literary forms and the romanticism of the late Victorian era to demand respect for aboriginal peoples. Her many poems about nature and native life, such as the often anthologized “The Song My Paddle Sings,” became part of the English-Canadian literature of the post-Confederation period.

During the past twenty-five years in Canada the growing status of aboriginal cultural figures has been a remarkable phenomenon both within native communities and in the mainstream culture. The tradition of protest literature, stimulated by “liberation” politics and other social changes of the 1960s and 1970s, has generated an impressive body of work that includes political advocacy by such native leaders as Harold Cardinal and Georges Erasmus; autobiography, including Maria Campbell’s ground-breaking Halfbreed (1973) and Beatrice Culleton’s In Search of April Raintree (1983); and postmodernist poetry, fiction, and drama by such writers as Lee Maracle, Jeanette Armstrong, Thomas King, and Tomson Highway.

Even as native writers, dramatists, actors, and visual artists become prominent, partly in the interest of native causes, the work of many of them demonstrates the ongoing process of cross-cultural interaction. Actors, directors, and film-makers such as Tantoo Cardinal, Tom Jackson, and Graham Green, who enjoy celebrity status, seem to be the most integrated into mainstream culture. Alanis Oobamsawin has used the Canadian documentary film tradition to protest native treatment in outstanding work from the National Film Board. A number of visual artists also demonstrate cultural fusions of form and content as they seek to express aboriginal identity. Many contemporary painters are using Western techniques to convey aboriginal themes. The celebrated artist Daphne Odjig, daughter of a Potawatomi chief and an English war bride, employs such Western styles as cubism and surrealism to express female and native concerns. Allen Sapp, a Cree painter from Saskatchewan, is widely known for his richly emotive paintings, which combine Western techniques of oil or acrylic on canvas with native content.

A number of painters achieved public recognition during the 1960s and 1970s as a result of the federal government’s campaign to promote native arts and crafts. Artists such as Alex Janvier, Clemence Wescoupe, and Jackson Beardy saw their work distributed across the country as prints. The association of “native” art with crafts or an anthropologically derived category of ethnographic art has made some contemporary painters unhappy with critical evaluation of their work. Nonetheless, cultural cross-fertilization is a continuing phenomenon. It is also apparent in some native theatre productions, where the docudrama, a favoured Canadian genre, is used to showcase social problems and promote healing.

In some instances, native artists can be seen to be at the leading edge of artistic innovation. Aboriginal authors, for example, are entering the literary mainstream through the traditional literary genres, but they are also self-consciously challenging Western forms and techniques. Many draw on the rich legacy of native oral literature. Lee Maracle’s I Am Woman (1988) is a powerful fusion of poetry, polemic, narrative, and history written in English and delivered in native oratorical style. Writers such as Skyros Bruce and Ruby Slipper-jack seek to re-establish native philosophy through their challenges to form as well as content. Bruce revives the native concept of lineage memory, partly through the non-chronological structure of her poetry. Slipperjack shapes her “novel” Honor the Sun (1987) in a circular fashion according to seasonal change, and shortens the plot as the character matures to mimic the phenomenon of time seeming to quicken with ageing.

The cultural renaissance of the aboriginal peoples reflects a long, diverse, and sustained history of cross-cultural contact and exchange. Although often based on explicit aboriginal cultural traditions, the work of native artists is understandably eclectic, drawing on Euro-Canadian traditions and ethnic heritages while addressing a complex audience of multiple sensibilities. Trevor Boddy, commenting on the important Canadian architect Douglas Cardinal, whose designs are purportedly inspired by his native heritage, observes, “While he did not always admit this, Cardinal now recognizes that there is nothing implicitly ‘native’ in the curving brick of his sinuous public buildings, only in the sensibility which produced so unique a building.”

The fusion of cultures is perhaps most dramatically expressed by Inuit art, an area that has become an important feature of official Canadian culture. Largely focused on printmaking and sculpture, it is a non-native concept introduced by the federal government when cooperatives were established as a way of acquainting the Inuit with a money economy. Despite its paternalistic origins, Inuit art has retained an indigenous integrity. Life experiences, the natural and material environment, and mythological history are the traditional subjects of sculpture. As well, the art expresses the collectivity of Inuit culture in its symbolic or totemic forms, which generalize rather than individualize. There have, however, been signs of change. Sculptors, whose obligation has been the animistic one of letting the spirit loose from the stone, are increasingly demonstrating Western artistic influences and a desire for greater understanding of these traditions. The carver Bart Hannah of Igloolik, for example, has recently been to Italy and France both to demonstrate his work and to learn about Western art. In the piece Beautiful Woman (1993) by the contemporary sculptor Ovilu Tunnille from Cape Dorset, the female figure wears a Western-style dress. The pre-contact view of life inherent in Inuit sculpture may be giving way to what art critic Robert Kardosh calls “a new era of Inuit expression devoted to present realities.”

Although Inuit literature in the European sense has developed slowly, an emerging tradition is evident, thanks largely to the scholarly work of Robin McGrath. She nicely illustrates the impact of the Quallunaat (nonnatives) in a reworked tale of Sedna, the mythical fish-woman who is at the heart of Inuit mythology. While Sedna traditionally provided seals and whales as bounty for the Inuit, in a version of the myth told by Povungnituk carver Taivitialuk Alaasuaq, she bestows a gramophone, a sewing machine, and a gun, reflecting the technology introduced by traders.