Sunday, 15 June 2014

Catch-22s in First Nations Depictions: The "Noble Savage" in History

This coming Saturday, June 21, 2014, is not just the Summer Solstice here in Canada. It is also called National Aboriginal Day, and is a time set aside to honour and acknowledge Canada's various indigenous peoples: the First Nations, the Inuit, and the Métis. So in this week leading up to National Aboriginal Day, I will be writing up a series of blog posts pertaining to the First Nations peoples in Canada: I've got four posts planned so far, but may do more if circumstances and inspiration permit.

There are a lot of things I can choose to focus on for this series, but I have settled on one broader theme: "Catch-22s in First Nations Depictions" refers to the times and contexts in which simplistic means of interacting with the First Nations peoples and their cultures simply fall apart. They are about the stereotypes and common images that have become predominant in how Canadians have come to perceive our First Nations - some more successfully and appropriately so than others.

Before I begin, a quick disclaimer: I, Kita Inoru, am NOT a person of First Nations descent. What this means is that the perspective and the opinions that I express here are solely my own. If there is anyone here who is of First Nations descent and/or is directly affected by the issues discussed in this series, please feel free to shed further light on them in the Comments, and please be patient with me in regards to any errors I might make. Thanks!

My discussion, then, begins with what is probably among the oldest and most iconic images that we have of the First Nations peoples in Canada: the Noble Savage.

"Eeh-tow-wées-ka-zeet, He Who Has Eyes Behind Him (also known as Broken Arm), a Foremost Brave" by George Catlin (1832)
The concept of the Noble Savage goes back hundreds of years. Arguably going back even to the Roman historian Tacitus and his description of the Germanic tribes the Romans encountered in battle, the first known use of the actual phrase in English dates from 1672 in John Dryden's The Conquest of Granada. However, the concept - if not the phrasing - is most commonly associated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau; in his A Discourse on Inequality, he argues that mankind began in a primitive State of Nature that, while lacking government and technology, was far happier than the class system that evolved out of "civilization". For Rousseau, one of the main objects of his focus was the First Nations in North America, who he saw as having persisted in the State of Nature that he saw as the ideal for humankind.

For the most part, the Noble Savage is simply that: a "Savage" who exhibits "Noble" characteristics. However, I find that that does not show the sheer complexity in terms of how the First Nations have been perceived either historically or in the present day. The way, then, that I would like to examine this concept is to break it down into two main groups of characteristics: those that are "Noble", and those that are "Savage".

Detail showing an Iroquoian warrior in "The Death of General Wolfe" by Benjamin West (1770). This is now one of the most iconic representations of the Noble Savage in 18th century artwork.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, in artwork depicting the First Nations peoples, there is a certain nobility infused into the image. The Native is shown in a calm, almost stoic, pose: quietly contemplating either the surrounding events in the painting (as seen in Benjamin West's "The Death of General Wolfe") or the viewer (as seen in George Catlin's many portraits of First Nations people). He or she is usually shown wearing some sort of traditional dress or regalia: feathers, buckskins, paint, etc. Sometimes, the image is one of the Natives taking part in a traditional, pre-European-contact, way of life: hunting or fishing are common depictions. All in all, the image is one that shows the First Nations as people at one with the wilderness: content to stay that way for all eternity, but now having to face the encroaching European settlers that spell their inevitable downfall. The First Nations as "Noble" become romanticized tragic heroes for Europeans to contemplate, but not to help.

Conversely, and concurrently, there is the image of the "Savage". This is the concept of the First Nations as hardened warriors who raid European settlements, scalping, enslaving, and killing the inhabitants. It is the image that looms large in the French Jesuits missionaries' descriptions of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) in their wars with the neighbouring Wendat (Huron) and Algonquian peoples; in the many stories of "Indian captives" that sprung up during the Seven Years War (aka the French and Indian War, for those in the States); in the whispered tales of dread at the discovery that the British were enlisting the Iroquois on their side during the American Revolutionary War.

"Incident in Cherry Valley - Fate of Jane Wells" by Alonzo Chappel (1828-1887), engraved by Thomas Phillibrown (1856). Jane Wells is pleading for her life, and a man attempts to protect her from an Indian who is about to kill her. House behind them is being burned by Loyalists and Indians led by Major Walter Butler and Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant, Cherry Valley, New York.
For all that the First Nations were romanticized in history, the underlying fear and dread that European settlers in North America had of them never vanished entirely. Not only was there a conception that the First Nations were dangerously violent and unreceptive to "proper" rules of warfare, but the fact that many had societies structured entirely differently from the familiar Judeo-Christian model convinced many settlers that they were simply not to be trusted. In the case of Canada in particular, the Algonquian peoples were seen as lazy for their hunter-gatherer, semi-nomadic lifestyle (i.e. they were lazy because they did not farm the land and make full use of it as per God's command); inversely the Iroquoian peoples, who did til the land, were seen as barbaric in their torture of war captives, and backward in their matriarchal approach to leadership (i.e. the fact that women were often in charge meant both that they were insubordinate and that the men were weak).

It is the intersecting of the two sides of the coin - the "Noble" and the "Savage" - that reveals the unstable ground upon which European settlers in North America found themselves in trying to define the First Nations around and among them. However, regardless of whether the "Noble" or the "Savage" predominated in popular perception, the conclusion was the same. The settlers believed that the First Nations could not run the show for themselves anymore, but must be guided into a "better" way of life: either more "advanced" (in the case of the "Noble"), or more "civilized/moral" (in the case of the "Savage").

That may be the history, but the story itself does not end here. Stay tuned for the next installment of "Catch-22s in First Nations Depictions" to see how the duality of the "Noble Savage" has become manifest in today's societal views of the First Nations in Canada.


Bickham, Troy. Savages within the Empire: Representations of American Indians in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.

Godesky, John. "'The Savages are Truly Noble'". The Anthropik Network, 10 May 2007. Web. 15 June 2014.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. A Discourse on Inequality. Trans. Maurice Cranston. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1984. Print.

Image Credits

All historical artworks (c) Their original creators as indicated in the captions, found via Wikimedia Commons

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