Amelia Paget’s The People of the Plains: Imperialist and ethnocritical nostalgia
“The task of all Canadians,” argues Gerald Friesen in his recent work Citizens and Nation, is to understand what it means to have “an element in Canadian life that is Aboriginal in character” (13). Friesen’s suggestion evokes Arnold Krupat’s definition of “multiculturalism” as “that particular organization of cultural studies which engages otherness and difference in such a way as to provoke an interrogation of and a challenge to what we ordinarily take as familiar and our own” (Ethnocriticism 3). The revaluation of once-dominant imperial ideas that multiculturalism promotes should, Krupat suggests, be named “ethnocriticism,” or “a particular perspective” that involves the acceptance “of heterogeneity (rather than homogeneity) as the social and cultural norm” (3). He adds, however, that even the concept of multiculturalism that informs his argument is shaped by Western assumptions about who “interrogates” the “familiar.” It presumes that the subjects who examine “difference” from a multicultural perspective belong to a cultural centre, and that they challenge their own values by looking out from this central position at various marginalized “Others.” Might ethnocriticism, he wonders, be “just another form of imperialism, this time of a discursive and epistemological kind,” that “cannot help but falsify the lived experience and worldview of any nonwestern people” (5-6) by subordinating such “worldviews” to the presumptive dominance of a still-imperial gaze? While Krupat notes these potential problems with his model of criticism, he concludes that they are justifiable risks, for as perilously close to Western ethnocentrism as ethnocriticism may be, it also “consciously and intentionally courts the questioning of any premises from which it initially proceeds” (7). In other words, subjects who adopt an ethnocritical perspective adopt a mode of criticism that urges them to become more aware of the cultural and political positions from which they try to understand the Other.
From this ethnocritical perspective, a dramatic opportunity to interrogate the idea of Canadian identity and the “Aboriginal character” within it lies in the moments when “‘colonial attitudes of cultural superiority,'” which Friesen believes remain widespread in Canada,1 collide with contradictory views of the colonial story in texts that describe the interactions between settler and Aboriginal cultures. Amelia M. Paget’s The People of the Plains, an account of the Plains Cree, Saulteaux, Assiniboine and Sioux published in 1909, provides such an opportunity. Written as an ethnographic study, The People of the Plains reports on the day-to-day living arrangements, means of subsistence, hunting practices, social customs and religion of the Plains Native peoples in Saskatchewan. Paget was familiar with her subject. Fluent in Cree and Saulteaux, she spent much of her pre-adult life on the Prairies. She was born in 1867, the eldest daughter of Helen and William J. McLean. She had some Aboriginal ancestry on her mother’s side, while her father was an employee in the Hudson’s Bay Company from 1865 to 1890.2 In October 1884, William McLean moved the family from ile a la Crosse to Fort Pitt, Saskatchewan, the site of several key events in the Northwest Rebellion of 1885, to take up the post of Chief Factor. After the Rebellion broke out, and a mere 12 days after band members of Cree resistance leader Big Bear (Mistahimaskwa) murdered nine white male settlers at Frog Lake, McLean met with Big Bear outside Fort Pitt and made the controversial decision to take his family into the Native leader’s camp. On 14 April 1885, the McLeans, as well as all the Hudson’s Bay employees at Fort Pitt, went into the Cree camp. The McLeans were released nearly two months later on 5 June 1885, and returned to the fort. Amelia later married Frederick H. Paget, a civil servant with the Department of Indian Affairs who was eventually transferred to Ottawa. She may have accompanied her husband on his 1908 tour of Native Reserves in the West.3 In Ottawa, the Pagets came into contact with Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs and Canadian writer. Scott edited the manuscript of The People of the Plains and found funding for its publication through Indian Affairs. He was well-known as the author of many poems on Native subjects, several of which remain widely anthologized.4
In his introduction to Paget’s text, Scott makes much of the author’s early life on the Plains. Arguing that Paget’s familiarity with her subject leads her falsely to idealize Native peoples, he presents Paget as a translator of Native culture whose objectivity is compromised by her nostalgia for it. It is possible, however, to make a more persuasive case that the nostalgia that punctuates the text is “ethnocritical” in Krupat’s sense, for it impels its readers to question the assumptions on which it is founded. These assumptions include the idea that all aspects of Native culture are available to non-Native perusal, that European ethnographers are able to extract all useful knowledge from the culture under investigation and, most prominently, that a “dying” race possesses a culture the dominant group can easily translate into its own idiom. Paget’s text performs this “questioning” function, effectively underlining both the impossibility of gaining command of other cultures by writing about them and the reality that important information held by Plains Native peoples in the post-settler West has been lost forever.
To take Scott’s word for it, The People of the Plains is imbued with futile longings – unsurprisingly, since nostalgia’s brand of melancholy idealization is often held to result from the same perceived loss of a past ideal Scott believes defines Paget’s perspective. But longing for the past has other possibilities – possibilities, in fact, to which Scott draws attention in his attempt to discredit the accuracy of Paget’s depictions of Native life on the Plains. Paget’s account makes use of two varieties of nostalgia. On one hand, the narrative conventions found in her study fully express an imperialist nostalgia that establishes the progressivist path of a past, present and (inevitably bright) nationalist future in which Native peoples are, in fact, only a vanishing race. On the other, there are instances in the text of a contrarian nostalgia that protests that the loss of Native culture after the European settlement of the West was unnecessary. Against imperialist nostalgia’s implied view that the lamented lost past is a past the disappearance of which was inevitable (and quite possibly for a greater good), Paget’s “ethnocritical” nostalgia invites readers’ contemplation of the lost past as something that involved the loss of a valuable difference, the disappearance of which is not compensated for by a better future. Moreover, it is possible to infer that the choice presented in Paget’s text between an imperialist and a more critical nostalgia was visible to its first readers, and that they might have confronted their own “colonial attitudes of cultural superiority” as they read a study that repeatedly asserts the validity of Native traditions and organization.
Ethnocritical Discourse: Text and Critic, Discourse and Narrative
Critical discussions of imperial attitudes have to contend with a certain imprecision when it comes to examining a settler group’s understanding of the Others in the land that it is colonizing – the peoples who are inside the colonial territory’s geographical boundaries but outside its cultural ones. It is impossible to identify an exact moment when the settler group’s representations of Native peoples move away from portraying them as essentially invisible, assimilable or abject and begin taking up a more self-reflexive position on its relationship with them. For this reason, changes in settler views of the Other are often depicted as the result of a long and gradual process. While the effort to learn about this process rightly focuses on the ambivalence of colonial writing about these Others, it rarely looks at the readers of colonial-era texts.
Since Paget had some Native ancestry, and apparently spoke Cree and Saulteaux as well as she did English, arguments such as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s analysis of the discourse of writers in English whose first language is oral rather than written provides one approach to such readers. As she asserts in “How to Read a ‘Culturally Different’ Book” (that is, a book that is connected to at least two distinct cultures), written English still defines the “high register” of “public culture.” Against it, predominantly oral Native languages are established as declining, or primitive, or both. The inevitable conclusion is that such languages, and the cultures they represent, contain no knowledge that cannot be translated into written English. Even the insertion of Native speech into the English narrative cannot, she argues, “be employed for the epistemic ruses of the colonial subject [wherever] literary production is in the same cultural inscription as is the implied reader” (131). Put another way, the implied English reader registers the dominant discourse of the text, but not the subordinate discourses that are interpolated through the other languages in the text. The inscription of the Native language and culture in an English text written for English speakers invites no cultural critique because it cannot successfully challenge any of the audience’s assumptions – including the assumption that the culture embodied in that language is fully accessible to the colonizing people. One can reasonably extend Spivak’s scepticism to include non-fictional texts in which the Native languages are alluded to but not directly reproduced, for her point is that, whether the Native language is transcribed or only mentioned, it is part of an oral culture that is erased by the written one.
As is well known, nineteenth-century ethnography did assume that to translate Native cultures into texts was to possess them; the assumption complemented the “dying race” theory that defined the period’s approaches to Native life. As Vine Deloria has pointed out, anthropology, ethnography’s mother discipline, was founded “in the days when it was doctrine … that the tribal peoples would vanish from the planet” (211), a time when anthropologists saw themselves as extractors of whatever knowledge Native peoples possessed before they disappeared forever and settler societies took over their land. Ethnographers could preserve in print the essential data of these disappearing cultures, thereby asserting the settler group’s epistemological values (gaining more knowledge is important) and epistemological assumptions (extracting that knowledge from vanishing races is possible). But the mistaken assumption that the European professional is capable of divining the “dying” culture down to its very essence, and all the problems of erasure to which it led in the ethnographer’s treatment of his or her material, may not obtain for the amateur ethnographer’s work. Krupat, for example, has called for a new approach to late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century ethnographic contributions by comparatively unknown writers like Paget, whose lack of formal training did not prevent them from producing work “that is quite remarkable for… its detailed ethnographic acquaintance with the cultures in question” (“Translation” 7).5 Rereading these accounts, he suggests, might reveal a wealth of information omitted by the putatively more “scientific” publications of the era’s trained anthropologists. So that present-day readers may begin to re-evaluate these amateur efforts, Krupat suggests a dialectical reading approach that negotiates between the recognition of the non-Native writer’s attempt to remain faithful to his or her original source, on the one hand, and his or her simultaneous importing of European-influenced “artistic qualities” to the translation (so as to make it more appealing to non-Native readers) on the other (“Translation” 11). The possibility Krupat’s model raises for the present discussion is this: It may be that, as the “artistic” element of The People of the Plains deploys familiar literary devices that would have appealed to the English-speaking readers of the settler culture, it also establishes that the “original source” remains inaccessible to those readers in vital ways.
While Spivak dissects the subordination of the oral to the written word in imperial societies, she does not regard the narrative that organize the text as conveying values. But narrative was, and is, a textual vehicle for the establishment of imperial power that was, and is, just as important as written language itself. In a “culturally different” book, it is useful to examine how the narrative machinery that helps construct the text also conveys ideas. It is possible that the narrative frameworks found in the ethnographic text make such ideas available to the interrogation of colonial culture that Spivak believes is impossible, for the subversion of any part of the “plot” may expose the whole to the readers’ critique.
Nostalgia in Victorian Canada: Colonial and Idealist
But what part of the plot might the nostalgia in a text lead readers to subvert? In the twentieth century, the idea of nostalgia has been successfully attached to a longing – a futile one – for the forever-lost home. In a post-colonial context, it has also been aligned, with good reason, to the most self-serving Western interpretations of the indigenous histories of the Americas. As Renato Rosaldo has argued in Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis, colonizers’ nostalgic laments embody a mourning for what they have demolished (68). This pseudo-regret enables settlers to evade their responsibility for colonial destruction.
The idea that nostalgia exhibits an anti-critical bias is nothing new. Indeed, it is practically an article of faith with mid-twentieth-century writers, from Raymond Williams to the early Fredric Jameson and Emmanuel Levinas, that the critical mind, or the mind that is aware of the ironic, paradoxical and complex historical relations among things, cannot also be a nostalgic mind/’ Indicating a unity of view with these critics on the subject, Linda Hutcheon has declared more recently that the post-modern, too, “has little to do with nostalgia and much to do with irony.”7 In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries the longing for the impossible return seems merely another sign of the hopelessly misguided wish to find transcendent meaning. As Ned Lukacher explains in his preface to Primal Scenes: Literature, Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, “the dilemma of the postmodern world [is] to be unable to remember the transcendental ground that would once again give meaning to human language and experience, but also unable to stop mourning the putative loss of an originary memory and presence that doubtless never existed” (U).8 Yet particular histories of the idea of nostalgia belie such broad claims of its uncritical character. Some post-colonial critics have been swift to point out the dangers of viewing nostalgia as a mourning for a lost past that is inevitable but pointless. In their view, treating this kind of mourning as merely pathological leads back to the forgettings of imperialist nostalgia. As Benita Parry declares in her discussion of the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission: “If we stand before the past in an attitude of melancholia for wrongs committed and injuries endured, [in an attitude] of a mourning that cannot be completed, this [attitude] will issue as quietism or passivity towards contemporary circumstances” (93). In other words, it will produce a resignation that seems a good deal like imperialist nostalgia, when nostalgia need not be understood in this narrow way.
Parry’s implied point is that the more desirable alternative to a too-general identification of nostalgia with sentimental memory involves looking at the contexts of longing and memory at specific times and in specific places. Concerning ideas of nostalgia in Canada before the First World War, when The People of the Plains was published, one could consider the work of late-nineteenth-century philosophers such as John Watson (Queen’s), John Clark Murray (McGill) and George Blewett (Toronto) as a useful starting point. Generally describable as philosophers in the Idealist tradition, these intellectuals spent considerable time scrutinizing the relationship between memory, reason, and the emotions, sometimes by looking at literary works. ” Watson in particular regarded the longing for a lost idyllic past as part of a redemptive narrative pattern. The desire of nostalgic subjects to return to such a past anticipated their inner turn to critical reassessments of their actions, actions that may have led to the loss of that better world in the first place.10 This rethinking process causes nostalgic subjects to realize that a return to the lost past is impossible, but it simultaneously supports the idea that those subjects may reconstitute the “ideal” past in a future Utopia by confronting the social, cultural and interpersonal differences that define their present. In this construction, nostalgia may both inscribe the hope of the absolute and invite an analysis of the social and historical contexts that may have produced mistakes – both individual and collective – in the past. Binding the lost Golden Age and the future Promised Land together, it demands that the nostalgic subject be a critical subject, able to see some of the flaws in his or her own behaviour and also able to comprehend not only the desirability of attaining a future ideal, but the uncertainty of ever doing so.”
The connection the Idealists made between emotion and reason, the epiphanic character of this version of nostalgic experience, and the faith expressed in it that the individual subject can and will blaze a path towards a better, if as-yet-unknown, future all align this idea of nostalgia somewhat with Western progressivism. Yet, in their considerations of such phenomena as nostalgia, Idealists in Canada introduced a new ambiguity to the concepts of transcendence and the absolute. It is possible, as Jonathan Hart asserts in “Translating and Resisting Empire: Cultural Appropriation and Postcolonial Studies,” to examine ideas in colonial history “as a means of seeing where the rapture might happen in the colonial moment that allows ways of thinking toward a postcolonial state, even in the midst of empire” (146). By revealing that colonial subjects might have recognized nostalgia’s critical dimension, Idealist thought in Canada offers one such means; there may be others.12
Ethnographic Discourse and Paget’s Narrative
As I have suggested, ethnographic studies such as The People of the Plains can easily become part of a colonial narrative that enacts a specific symbolic violence on Native subjects by assuming that a full translation of the colonized culture into that of the settler is possible. Since Paget writes her account in the third-person voice of the detached observer, readers today might well ask why a woman of partly Native descent speaks as a member of a discipline that was defined so thoroughly by the colonizer’s self-promoting rhetoric. Her father’s and sister Elizabeth’s accounts of the family’s experiences at Fort Pitt during the 1885 uprisings, which appeared later in the twentieth century, are related in the first person.13 Although Scott observes in his introduction that Paget’s firsthand experiences in Big Bear’s camp, her familiarity with her subject matter and her fluency in Native languages give her text a rare authenticity (11), Paget never alludes to her personal experiences on the Plains or to her own history, which intertwines with those of her subjects. By implication, she preferred a distanced and impersonal voice to the more individuated one of the autobiographical subject.
This possibility seems more likely when one considers her reticence on the dramatic events of the Rebellion to which she was a witness. Reports of Paget’s independence and courage, which Sarah Carter documents in Capturing Women:
The Manipulation of Cultural Imagery in Canada’s Prairie West (84), provide a partial but insufficient explanation of her silence on these events in her text. Taken into the Cree camp less than two weeks after members of that camp had killed the male settlers at Frog Lake, in frequent need of protection from the more hostile Cree (not to mention ardent young men), Paget never alludes to her memories of the Rebellion even though, as will become clear presently, the Rebellion functions as a ghostly underpinning to at least one part of the text. Plausibly, Paget chose to avoid the memoir format because, had she written in it, these historic events would perforce have become the centrepiece of her work, just as they are in her sister’s and father’s accounts. Two of the other white women held in the camp at the same time, Theresa Delaney and Theresa Gowanlock, published their memoirs of the experience within the year.14 As Carter notes, both women’s versions of events contradicted the earlier statements about their experiences they made to newspaper correspondents, particularly in the way they stressed the apparent brutality and unpredictability of their captors (104). Delaney may have been pressured to do so (102). Adopting an ethnographer’s voice allows Paget to focus on the Native peoples among whom she once lived without having to acquiesce to any demand that she depict those peoples through the lens of colonial sympathy with the Canadian government rather than the rebel side.
The few clues Paget provides to her decision in this matter indicate that she also wished to emphasize the narrative elements in her text without drawing attention to her life story. Parts of Paget’s account, for example, are supplemented with material taken from George Bird Grinnell’s The Story of the Indian (1895), a study of the Plains Native peoples south of the Canadian border. A story of Ka-mina-kus, a legendary warrior, seems to be taken directly from Grinnell’s account (Grinnell 107-08; Paget 151-52), as does a description of the travois, a type of dogpulled or horse-drawn vehicle. Such interpolations put some distance between the text and Scott’s representation of it as something of a memoir.
That Paget should choose to include other anthropological studies in her account of the Plains Native peoples, and that she may thereby indicate her interest in presenting information about her subject in the form of a narrative, is a significant point: Scott’s letters to E.S. Caswell between January and May, 1909, show that the book moved from manuscript to edited page proofs in less than five months, during all of which time Scott worked at his full-time job as Deputy Superintendent at Indian Affairs.15 It seems unlikely that Scott performed more than a cursory editing job on the text, and less likely still that he made substantial additions to it. What readers see in the text is a prose account of the Native peoples of Western Canada that is not a memoir. Based on the archival evidence that remains of the book’s journey from manuscript into print, the case can be made that the print component of it, at least, is as much the work that Paget put together as it is the one that Scott prepared for the printing press.
Nostalgia in The People of the Plains: New World Narrative
While Paget’s account avoids autobiographical references, it does employ several narrative conventions to shape the material. Her opening locates an idyllic, pastoral world in the prairie past and offers her readers a narrative of progress that signals, however briefly, that her text may be readable in literary as well as in ethnographic terms. At the same time, by structuring her opening with the aid of the archetypal Christian story of the loss of Paradise, she also offers her Euro-Canadian readers a colonial nostalgia that they would have found familiar. She begins with an extended quotation from George Catlin’s North American Indians:
The Indians of North America, as I have before said … are less than two millions in number-were originally the undisputed owners of the soil, and got their title to the land from the Great Spirit, who created them on it – were once a happy and flourishing people, enjoying all the comforts and luxuries of life which they knew of, and consequently cared for – were sixteen millions in number, and sent that number of daily prayers to the Almighty, and thanks for His goodness and protection. (Catlin 6, qtd. in Paget 21)
Catlin’s discursive sentence encapsulates an entire tale of origins, and Paget immediately combines it with a historical progressivism that consigns Natives to the position of a disappearing race. In quoting from Catlin, she hints that she, like him, is involved in an act of translation that, as Edward Said puts it in Orientalism, brings the subject matter “forward from its reticence” for an audience of European students of culture (145). The juxtaposition of present and past tenses in the quotation indicates that the idyllic lost world of the “Indians of North America” has given way to a clearly diminished Native present. Paget’s opening chapter ends with an ominous observation that hints to readers who the snake in this Garden of Eden was: “In all their doings [the Cree] never lost sight of the fact that for everything they must look to His [God’s] help and love. And when the Indians were first met by intelligent white men, they certainly were examples of the blessings which come from faith in a higher beneficent power” (27). Corrupt whites, it is implied, ruined the life Native peoples enjoyed before their contact with Europeans. Yet the arche-typal story that organizes the chapter is so closely associated with the view that the present is always better than the past that it shifts responsibility for Native decline away from white people. The adjective “intelligent” in this particular quotation makes possible a general absolution of white men by intimating that the hardships Native peoples endured after contact may be laid at the door of those few whites who were not “intelligent”; in other accounts of the contact between the two races, the white liquor vendor bears the blame for Native degeneration. Even as the voice of the ethnographer confesses to the crime in the regretful, self-chastening tone not uncommon in turn-of-the-century writings on Native peoples, this beginning suggests that the settler culture’s movement westward is ultimately a cause for celebration.16 By mourning what some of them have destroyed, members of the settler population can paradoxically think of colonized peoples as primitives who need to be “brought into” (Christian) history, even as they regret some of the results their westward movement had for the culture already there.
At first glance, then, The People of the Plains displays the complex implications of the possibility that there is “an element in Canadian life that is Aboriginal in character” only through its manipulation of the familiar Western narrative framework of fall and redemption worked out most recognizably in the archetypal stories of Genesis and of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Paget allows for a kind of longing that might be called a “nostalgia of the beginnings.” Emerging through the prelapsarian narrative that shapes the text’s material, its lament for the vanishing Plains Cree makes references to the innocence of the race and to the fact that the wiser settler group has failed in its duty to protect these New World children of the Empire from the pernicious influence of European culture. A story of Native people’s (fortunate) fall from grace after white people enter their garden, it consigns the First Nations to a past without a present. As Paget writes near the beginning of Chapter Five, “One can sympathize with the older Indians, types of a dying race, in their lament for the days gone by when they were the sole inhabitants of the vast prairies of the West” (71), for to this people, “who believed so firmly in the goodness and protection of the Great Spirit,… came the white man, and, alas, with his coming came their destruction” (71-2).
Paget’s treatment of her subject matter resembles that of articles sometimes found in popular contemporary magazines between 1888 and 1895, when imperialist nostalgia over the events of the Northwest Rebellion and the defeat of the Cree was at its height.17 Some of the unattributed photographs Scott interspersed with the text initially appeared in The Dominion Illustrated and are artifacts of vanishing race theory.18 The photographs selected for inclusion feature what Ellen Easton McLeod, in In Good Hands: The Women of the Canadian Handicrafts Guild, calls obviously posed “western frontier Plains Indians” (209). Many of them wear the “feathered headdresses and fringed costumes” that, as McLeod observes, reinforced settler ideas of Natives as warriors and noble savages (209).
But Paget’s particular adaptation of Catlin’s opening remarks does more than establish the trajectory of imperialist nostalgia in the text. While borrowing Catlin’s name and authority, she also exposes the strategic role of his narrative in relegating Native peoples to a “primitive” status. Certainly, not all the nostalgia in the narrative can be explained as references to the loss of a pre-colonial Eden. At the ends of certain chapters, and in other places where readers might expect a confidently asserted turn towards the modernized Prairie and the assimilated (or dead) Native, there is another kind of nostalgia. This is best illustrated through an example, and Paget’s combined discussion of Cree medicine men and women and Cree methods of sanitation provides one.
For its many supporters in Canada, hygiene and sanitation, with its infrastructure of hospitals, doctors and public works, symbolized the progressive society. Yet while medicine, representing itself as science, turned to the task of materially improving living conditions, it also provided another justification for government intervention in Native lives. As Maureen Lux demonstrates in Medicine that Walks, the doctors who were finally hired to visit the Prairie reserves in the early twentieth century had to enforce hospitalization for illness on a distrustful population, whom they described as unable to care for their own health (114-15). Ironically, as long as doctors had remained scarce in Prairie settlements, the Department of Indian Affairs encouraged Native people to visit Native healers and resisted establishing the same medical services to Native communities as they did to settler ones; Superintendent Edgar Dewdney refused to appoint Euro-Canadian doctors to the Reserves, preferring to accept the two-pronged argument that, first, Native people’s own “vicious habits” and unhygienic dwellings had led to the spread of illness among them, and, second, that the expense of buildings, staff and equipment for Reserve hospitals would be prohibitive (Lux 143-46).
Paget represents medicine men and women as holders of an orally transmitted knowledge gone because it was thoroughly discredited. White scepticism about the value of the medicine man’s knowledge was one reason “it is very doubtful if the medicine man ever revealed to any white man all the secrets of his healing art” (63); not only did medicine men and women limit what they chose to show to whites (raising to readers the possibility that knowledge could be deliberately concealed from the scientific gaze), but theirs may be a knowledge lost to everyone: “A great many of their methods of treating the sick will remain unknown to us, as they are, with many other practices, a thing of the past” (63). This observation may invite imperialist nostalgia for a vanished oral culture, but if so, it is a nostalgia that admits that the written culture failed to absorb the information contained in the oral one. Significantly, Paget emphasizes that the loss of orally conveyed skills constitutes a net loss not only to the Native groups she describes but to medicine, to botany and to the sum of knowledge. Paget disrupts the ethnographic text’s rhetoric of gain by indicating that such a gain of knowledge is not in her power to bestow. In a historical-progressivist narrative, the idea that settlement represents a real regression from the march of progress into an ameliorated future is unthinkable. Paget’s insertion of this idea in a narrative characterized by imperialist nostalgia challenges settler mourning for what has been destroyed by suggesting that an irreplaceable knowledge has been destroyed, and not for the better. Her language in this segment suggests another kind of nostalgia, as it does again when she writes about the tepee:
Years ago there was comparatively little sickness among the Indians. The outdoor life they led, the food they ate, everything made for a healthful existence. One never heard of epidemics breaking out among the Indians then. They … never stayed for any length of time in one camping-place. They moved their tepees on an average two to three times a week in the summer season, and in winter would have a plentiful supply of clean spruce boughs or hay and moss, with which they would cover the ground in their tepees…. In this way, it was easy to keep up their standard of health. (65-66)
The representation of the Cree’s health as the product of their deliberate efforts is vital here. Paget may be responding to the mistaken idea that Native dwellings incubated diseases; there is a significant resonance between this passage and comments made in an 1886 speech in the House of Commons by the Conservative M.P. from Leeds, Dr. C.F. Ferguson, who alleged that Plains Natives had “specially filthy habits,” moving their tepees “only when it becomes difficult from the filthy accumulation to get in and out” (739).” Paget, by contrast, suggests the Cree had a system of hygiene that depended on their mobility and their freedom to relocate at will.
Regret for the loss of knowledge and for the manner in which that knowledge was once reproduced and communicated, not regret for the Cree’s lost innocence, emerges in Paget’s arrangement of her material. Unlike the “nostalgia of the beginnings,” this “nostalgia of the ends” is not the prelude to a celebration of progress and to a foreseeably bigger and better prairie future. Instead, it presents an earlier and alternative world that cannot now be incorporated into things as they are. Paget’s registry of loss places in the foreground the real absence of the material that usually establishes the authority of ethnographic texts. Often, such texts arrange their fragments of knowledge to conceal rather than disclose the gaps in the information they present. In The People of the Plains, such arrangement is shunned in favour of emphasizing the loss of valuable material. When Paget observes at the end of a chapter on Native poetry and music that “it is a matter of regret that the Indians had no way of writing down or recording words or music” (164), she uses her observation not to suggest that the oral culture is primitive, but rather to point out that it is gone, to singer and student alike: “To many [Native people] these [songs] are but a memory of happier times when upon every possible occasion they broke into song. For them these times have gone, like the passing of the buffalo, never to return” (164). Moreover, these sentences conclude a chapter that has touched on the immense variety of Native songs, as well as the link between the songs and collective memory. In its invitation to readers to reflect on the distance between things as they are and things as they once were, the nostalgia in these sentences takes on the role of a counter-memory that undermines the assumptions behind imperialist nostalgia. Implying that “progress” might really be “regress,” this “nostalgia of the ends” of several chapters makes possible a critique of the “nostalgia of the beginnings.” Paget represents the narrative of national expansion and a narrative of the destruction of knowledge as two sides of the same coin.
The “nostalgia of the ends” often plays on readers’ possible knowledge of historical context, specifically the events of the Northwest Rebellion. Paget refers directly to these events in the instance of nostalgia at the close of her chapter about the Sun Dance. The chapter concentrates on establishing the place of the Sun Dance as a ceremony of many purposes, such as the reaffirmation of old alliances and the remembrance of the dead. Big Bear used the dance to organize the Cree in the months leading up to the Rebellion, and the end of Paget’s chapter on the Dance makes a sharp turn from ethnography to recent Prairie history:20
Sometimes these… ceremonies were disturbed by the approach of enemies…. They [the celebrants] looked upon such surprises as an omen of misfortune and loss. The last instance of such an unwelcome visit happened early in June, 1885, during the North-West Rebellion. The Indians had only just begun the ceremonies when they were surprised by General Strange’s column. (40-41)
The astute reader might realize that T. Bland Strange’s troops “surprised” the Cree just outside Frenchman’s Butte after the McLeans and other settlers had been taken captive; the teenage Paget may have viewed the interruption from within the Cree camp. To refer to Strange’s force is to refer to the final assault on Big Bear’s camp, the assault that eventually led to the break-up of the Cree forces and later to Big Bear’s arrest and imprisonment. This chain of events resulted in the acquiescence of the Plains Cree to the Canadian government’s defeat of efforts, led by Big Bear, to negotiate a better treaty (Friesen, “The End of Autonomy” 16-17). After a chapter spent unfolding the rituals of the dance and their religious significance for this society, the action of Strange’s troops represents an incursion not only on the dance but also on the traditions, organization and way of life of the people invaded. Given Paget’s focus on the multiple values of the Sun Dance, this moment of history is more likely intended to stimulate reflection on the loss of Native cultural practices than it is to assert the inevitable assimilation of the “primitive” into the “historical,” the oral into the written.21
More evidence that an alternative nostalgia operates in The People of the Plains presents itself in Scott’s introduction to the text, where he attempts to divert readers’ attention from this more critical nostalgia. Carter describes Scott’s introduction as an “apology” to Euro-Canadian readers for Paget’s “positive portrait of plains life” (122). An equally good case can be made that Scott is really trying to control readers’ engagement with it. As Paget does, he approaches the Cree by setting up a pastoral, pre-settler Prairie world that corresponds to the idea that Native peoples are now in decline. Paget’s use of the Eden myth of the once-innocent-but-now-corrupted Native draws some attention to its status as an imposed narrative that legitimates imperial expansion. Scott, however, invokes the same myth to suggest that the Plains Native peoples need a better interpreter than Paget. In his opinion, the key feature of the competent narrator is an objective distance. Paget’s objectivity, he writes, is threatened by her girlhood experiences on the Plains – experiences of which he, not Paget, apprises readers. “The following pages,” Scott tells his audience,
must be read by the light of [the facts of Paget’s youth]; they account for the tone of championship for all Indians, and for the idealistic tendency which places everything in a high and favourable aspect.
If there were hardship and squalor, starvation, inhumanity and superstition in this Aboriginal life, judged by European standards, here it is not evident. All things are judged by the Indian idea of happiness…. The real felicities of the situation are heightened by the glow which might be spread over the reminiscences of some ancient chief whose lines had been cast in pleasant places, and to whom everything in the old days had become transfigured. (14)
Paget has failed to “judge” her subject by sufficiently “European standards.” Scott decided to write his introduction only after he had finished editing Paget’s manuscript.22 His prefatory piece offers an indication that while he did not substantially revise the text, he found its contents unsettling enough to try to preempt readers’ possible attention to them. Although he concedes that Paget’s approach to the subject makes for enjoyable reading, he warns readers to be wary of it because her personal experience on the Plains disqualifies her as a professional researcher who can represent the Native past accurately. His introduction subtly advises them to dismiss invitations to see the text’s nostalgia as suggesting that the “lost” past is genuinely to be regretted because it is a genuine loss.23
It is impossible to know for certain how readers responded to this text, and whether Paget’s subtle manipulations of nostalgia stimulated readers’ reconsideration of their recent history. They may, of course, have accepted the imperialist nostalgia that is also available in the study. Certainly, the reviews of the book that appeared in the Civilian, the Ottawa Free Press and the Manitoba Free Press all quoted Scott’s introductory dismissal of Paget’s “idealizing” view of Native peoples. Yet it is possible that the interpretations of Plains history made available in the narrative arrangement of the phenomena Paget describes stimulated curiosity and scrutiny. What might readers have made, for instance, of the fact that the book ends not with a tribute to the glorious present, but rather with two Native tales, tales that displace the creation myth of the Judeo-Christian tradition deployed earlier in the text by presenting a world that has no specific moment of creation, and a divinity who is “volatile and delusive, who has as many characteristics and attributes as vapour may have shapes and movements” (165)? Two answers are available. Paget’s decision might reflect the colonial anthropological attitude. She might be gathering something she perceives to be disappearing, and she might believe these stories are fully transcribable from an oral into a written culture. Although the stories do appear to be ones that really circulated among the peoples whom she studies (one echoes forward to a story found in the Legends of Wes akecha, which Anne Anderson transcribed from her grandparents in 1976(24)), the identity of those who provided Paget with these stones remains unknown. There is an invitation to literary imperialism in any transcription of this kind – that is, as George Cornell explains in “The Imposition of Western Definitions of Literature on Indian Oral Traditions,” an invitation to readers to interpret the story “outside the cultural parameters which constitute the… specific indigenous” community from which it came (176). But “cultural parameters” are exactly what may be evoked by the stories as they are situated in Paget’s text. By placing them near the end of her book, Paget again challenges the liberal march of progress in the ethnographic text that, through the Judeo-Christian pastoral myth that underpins it, asserts the inevitable assimilation of Native peoples into settler culture. Stories transcribed without the ethnographer’s commentary, as these stories appear to be, are not easily incorporated into the discourse of early twentieth-century ethnography, which often moves to the foreground its own evaluation of the material as much as the material itself. The “end” of Paget’s account is another beginning – it does not finish with the present and the bright future but with a call to further reflection. While readers may have consumed these stories as examples of something “exotic,” they may also have viewed them as offering another treatment of the past.
Ethnocritical Nostalgia: Readers’ Choice
Paget’s nostalgia is no merely sentimental “transfiguration,” as Scott would have it, of the events she describes. She uses nostalgia not only to mourn the lost past, but to emphasize the ongoing inclusions and exclusions of Canadian history and the complex role of readers’ acts of interpretation in it. Whenever she combines her ethnographic study with references to recent history, she affirms the non-pastness of the “people of the Plains,” challenging the devaluation of their oral culture and trying to activate a more self-reflexive, interpretive activity in relation to her text. In the arrangement she gives her material, “history” belongs to certain nostalgic moments in the narrative that suggest to readers the importance of rethinking the past, rather than consigning it to a single official version.
This reading of Paget’s text as a text that exploits the potential of the myths associated with imperialist nostalgia to outline a more critical nostalgia searches for textual instances of longing for the past that provide openings to difference, and to a perhaps-unrecuperable history. As one means of performing the task Friesen sets for Canadians, it echoes the Idealist belief that the Golden Age and a Promised Land are joined, as well as the belief that the individual reader on whom both “ideal” places rely for their articulation might be newly aware of the past, on one hand, and unsure about the chances of attaining the ideal, on the other. The Aboriginal element in Canadian identity may rely on readers’ willing recognition of an alterity that has already endured unrecoverable losses, and on their realization that mourning this lost past should be made to serve a critical purpose. In The People of the Plains, imperialist nostalgia establishes the trajectory of the past, present, and future that gives the text its structure, but it also functions as the reference point against which an alternative nostalgia is strategically placed as a counter-memory.
To suggest that turn-of-the-century readers in Canada may have interpreted nostalgia in a way that presented them with two contradictory views of settler and | Native cultures in the West is to raise the issue of “ethical” reading practices, and questions of ethical reading raise a new difficulty. As Lawrence Buell writes in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Ethics,” it is much easier for readers to declare their allegiance to “ethical reading” methods than to describe precisely what those methods are. Many attempts at “ethical reading,” he argues, really amount to “earnest noise” (3), or to affirmations that the reader is a good person rather than a definition of the “ethics” of a given text. But to determine on a single reading of the nostalgias in The People of the Plains would be to miss the text’s ethical point, and to overlook the hints contained in the narrative elements that help make that point. By combining contradictory representations of the lost past, The People of the Plains invites an analysis of the “premises,” to borrow Krupat’s language, from which both varieties of nostalgia in the text “proceed.” And as Scott’s reaction to Paget’s text shows, the mere possibility that readers may undertake such an analysis is threatening enough. In this sense, Paget’s study may have offered Canadian readers in 1909 the opportunity to embrace ethnocritical nostalgia as a means of recognizing both an Aboriginal element in Canadian culture and the difficulties of their historical relationship with it.
Copyright Trent University Summer 2002
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