Tekahionwake on Indigenous Representation in 19th C Fiction

Here is an excerpt from our appendices of the recently published Tekahionwake: E. Pauline Johnson’s Writings on Native North America.

A Strong Race Opinion: On the Indian Girl In Modern Fiction

[In this essay, Johnson attacks dominant stereotype of the “Indian maiden” and argues that writers should try to find out about real Indigenous people, rather than simply repeat the usual platitudes and phrases. Her references reveal her wide knowledge of Indigenous activism and of works about and by Native Americans published on both sides of the border. This essay was first published in the Toronto Sunday Globe on 22 May 1892.]

Every race in the world enjoys its own peculiar characteristics, but it scarcely follows that every individual of a nation must possess these prescribed singularities, or otherwise forfeit in the eyes of the world their nationality. Individual personality is one of the most charming things to be met with, either in a flesh and blood existence, or upon the pages of fiction, and it matters little to what race an author’s heroine belongs, if he makes her character distinct, unique and natural.

The American book heroine of today is vari-coloured as to personality and action. The author does not consider it necessary to the development of her character, and the plot of the story to insist upon her having American-coloured eyes, an American carriage, an American voice, American motives, and an American mode of dying; he allows her to evolve an individuality ungoverned by nationalisms — but the outcome of impulse and nature and a general womanishness.

Not so the Indian girl in modern fiction, the author permits her character no such spontaneity, she must not be one of womankind at large, neither must she have an originality, a singularity that is not definitely ‘Indian.’ I quote ‘Indian’ as there seems to be an impression amongst authors that such a thing as tribal distinction does not exist among the North American aborigines.

The term ‘Indian’ signifies about as much as the term ‘European,’ but I cannot recall ever having read a story where the heroine was described as ‘a European.’ The Indian girl we meet in cold type, however, is rarely distressed by having to belong to any tribe, or to reflect any tribal characteristics. She is merely a wholesome sort of mixture of any band existing between the Mic Macs of Gaspe and the Kwaw-Kewlths[1] of British Columbia, yet strange to say, that notwithstanding the numerous tribes, with their aggregate numbers reaching more than 122,000 souls in Canada alone, our Canadian authors can cull from this huge revenue of character, but one Indian girl, and stranger still that this lonely little heroine never had a prototype in breathing flesh-and-blood existence!

It is a deplorable fact, but there is only one of her. The story-writer who can create a new kind of Indian girl, or better still portray a ‘real live’ Indian girl who will do something in Canadian literature that has never been done, but once. The general author gives the reader the impression that he has concocted the plot, created his characters, arranged his action, and at the last moment has been seized with the idea that the regulation Indian maiden will make a very harmonious background whereon to paint his pen picture, that, he, never having met this interesting individual, stretches forth his hand to his library shelves, grasps the first Canadian novelist he sees, reads up his subject, and duplicates it in his own work.

After a half dozen writers have done this, the reader might as well leave the tale unread as far as the interest touches upon the Indian character, for an unvarying experience tells him that this convenient personage will repeat herself with monotonous accuracy. He knows what she did and how she died in other romances by other romancers, and she will do and die likewise in his (she always does die, and one feels relieved that it is so, for she is too unhealthy and too unnatural to live).

The rendition of herself and her doings gains no variety in the pens of manifold authors, and the last thing that they will ever think of will be to study The Indian Girl’ from life, for the being we read of is the offspring of the writer’s imagination and never existed outside the book covers that her name decorates. Yes, there is only one of her, and her name is ‘Winona.’[2] Once or twice she has borne another appellation, but it always has a ‘Winona’ sound about it. Even Charles Mair, in that masterpiece of Canadian-Indian romances, ‘Tecumseh,’ could not resist ‘Winona.’[3] We meet her as a Shawnee, as a Sioux, as a Huron, and then, her tribe unnamed, in the vicinity of Brockville.

She is never dignified by being permitted to own a surname, although, extraordinary to note, her father is always a chief, and had he ever existed, would doubtless have been as conservative as his contemporaries about the usual significance that his people attach to family name and lineage.

In addition to this most glaring error this surnameless creation is possessed with a suicidal mania. Her unhappy, self-sacrificing life becomes such a burden to both herself and the author that this is the only means by which they can extricate themselves from a lamentable tangle, though, as a matter of fact suicide is an evil positively unknown among Indians. To-day there may be rare instances where a man crazed by liquor might destroy his own life, but in the periods from whence ‘Winona’s’ character is sketched self-destruction was unheard of. This seems to be a fallacy which the best American writers have fallen a prey to. Even Helen Hunt Jackson, in her powerful and beautiful romance of ‘Ramona,’[4] has weakened her work deplorably by having no less than three Indians suicide while maddened by their national wrongs and personal grief. […]

[1] Mic Macs, from eastern Canada now refer to themselves as Mi’kmaq; often the west coast nations that form the Kwakwaka’wakw were referred to by the name of one of them, the Kwakiutl or Kwagulth, which Johnson does here.

[2] Winona is the name the Lakota (Sioux) traditionally gave to their first-born daughters; the name was popularized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, where Hiawatha’s mother is named Winona.

[3] Charles Mair (1838-1927). Tecumseh: A Drama (Toronto: Hunter, Rose, 1886).

[4] Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885) was inspired by the Ponca activist, Standing Bear (c. 1829-1908) to take on the Native American cause. Ramona (1884), which described the mistreatment of the Native Americans of Southern California by the federal government, became a bestseller.

Posted on June 21, 2016