Contrasting Ideas of Indigenous Identity in “The Onondaga Madonna” and “A Cry From an Indian Wife”: Savage vs. Human

December 11, 2020 by Essay Writer

The Northwest Rebellion of 1885 brought to the forefront issues of Indigenous identity in Canadian literary dialogue. The Northwest Rebellion, a five month rebellion against the Canadian government, was fought by the Metis and their Aboriginal allies in what is currently Saskatchewan and Alberta (Beal and Macleod). The Indigenous peoples fought this rebellion largely out of fear of assimilation and frustration with the Canadian government Beal and Macleod). Two Canadian Confederation poets wrote poems on this issue of Indigenous identity in the context of the Northwest Rebellion, however, their racial positions place them on opposite sides of the table. Duncan Campbell Scott wrote “The Onondaga Madonna” in 1898 in which his view of Indigenous identity contrasts sharply with Pauline Johnson’s view of Indigenous identity in her poem written in 1885, “A Cry From an Indian Wife”. In “A Cry From an Indian Wife,” Johnson’s position as an insider prompts her to invoke empathy for the Indigenous woman she describes, while in “The Onondaga Madonna”, Scott’s position as an outsider motivates him to characterize the Indigenous woman in his poem as savage and inhuman.

Duncan Campbell Scott wrote “The Onondaga Madonna” from a place of mistrust and misconceptions about the Indigenous people as Deputy Superintendent of Indian affairs, and this led to his representation of the Indigenous subject of the poem as inhuman. Scott believed strongly in Indigenous assimilation through intermarriage and education, as he thought that Indigenous nations had primitive cultures that needed to be replaced with the superior white civilization and culture (Fee 54). In his writings, Scott expressed the belief that an individual’s’ character was determined by his or her blood heritage, and thus an Indigenous person would likely exhibit savage behaviour (Salem). This belief is exemplified in one of Scott’s poems, “The Half-Breed Girl”, where Scott writes of a ‘half breed’ girl, who despite her white blood, continues to lead a savage life because she is half Indigenous (Salem). Thus, in his role as Deputy Superintendent of Indian affairs from 1913 – 1932, Scott pushed for assimilation and was “convinced that intermarriage was in the Native peoples’ best interests” because he believed that the Indigenous people had a tendency towards savagery (Salem).

As a result, in his poem “The Onondaga Madonna”, Scott characterizes the Indigenous woman as savage and inhuman, based on his belief that Indigenous blood determines a savage character. Scott achieves this characterization by primarily describing the Indigenous woman through her outward appearance, and neglecting to mention her inward feelings and emotions as a human being. For instance, he describes her as a “woman of a weird and waning race, / The tragic savage lurking in her face” (Scott 2-3). He describes her even in a sexual way, talking about her “pagan passion” and “rebel lips”, but there is still no indication of her emotional side (Scott 4-7). The only references he makes to any feelings this woman has are characterized as primitive, pagan feelings: “The tragic savage lurking in her face, / Where all her pagan passion burns and glows” (Scott 3-4). In addition, Scott’s characterization of the Indigenous woman is further enhanced through the use of sonnet form, as the sonnet is a more impersonal poetic form that simply describes and does not probe inside the mind of the subject.Furthermore, Scott emphasizes the inevitability of assimilation for the Indigenous nations through the declining of their race in “The Onondaga Madonna”, while continuing to represent both the Indigenous woman and her baby as inhuman so that the reader does not feel any empathy for them. In the sestet, the Indigenous woman’s baby is introduced as “the latest promise of her nation’s doom” because he is “paler than she” and thus represents the diluting of the Indigenous race through racial intermarriage (Scott 10-11).

However, Scott describes the baby as inhuman just like his mother, describing him as fierce, savage, and warlike even though he is only a child: “the primal warrior gleaming from his eyes” (12). Thus, he refuses to show or invoke any empathy for the Indigenous “nation’s doom” as he continues to represent both the mother and her child as inhuman and savage (10). Additionally, the Indigenous woman’s race is described as “weird and waning”, thus indicating that while the Indigenous race is declining, it is a “weird” and “savage” race and therefore the reader doesn’t need to feel empathy for these people as it is beneficial that this uncivilized race is dying out (Scott 2). This accurately reflects Scott’s beliefs as Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs, as he believed Indigenous nations had primitive cultures that needed to be replaced with the superior white civilization and culture and as a result, Indigenous assimilation needed to happen through intermarriage and education (Fee 54). Thus, by refusing to show the Indigenous woman as a person with human emotions and feelings, Scott is purposely shutting down any opportunities for the reader to empathize with this Indigenous woman because of his own role in the assimilation of her and her people. If he acknowledges that this Indigenous woman is a human being with emotions and feelings just like himself and his people, then he also has to acknowledge that it is wrong to force the assimilation of the Indigenous peoples without any thoughts for them as human beings. But if he can continue to think of them and represent them as a separate class of people who are without feelings and emotions and almost inhuman, then he can characterize them as “the other” and thus not feel or invoke any empathy for them or their plight.

On the other hand, Pauline Johnson in “A Cry From an Indian Wife” does just the opposite – she invokes empathy for the plight of the Indigenous woman in her poem because of her position as an Indigenous woman herself. Pauline Johnson was born on the Six Nations Reserve in Canada West in 1861, the daughter of a white woman, Emily Susannah Howells, and Mohawk chief George Henry Johnson (Jones and Ferris). She was educated in both English social customs and literary traditions by her mother and Mohawk cultural and oral traditions by her father and grandfather (Jones and Ferris). She became a writer and poetic performer, and represented both her Mohawk and British identities on stage (Jones and Ferris). Johnson “held that Indigenous people were the intellectual, social, and political equals of other Canadians” (Fee 53), which contrasts sharply with Scott’s view of the Indigenous nations as savage, uncivilized people inferior to white people (). As part of the Indigenous community herself, Johnson knew what is was like to be a part of the oppressed, colonized community and could provide important insight. Thus, she strove to evoke empathy for the Indigenous people in her poems and stage performances concerning Indigenous identity, including in her poem “A Cry From an Indian Wife”. In “A Cry From an Indian Wife”, Johnson barely mentions the woman’s outward appearance but rather focuses on her inward feelings and emotions, unlike Scott who focuses almost completely on the woman’s outward appearance in his poem.

Johnson achieves this effect through the poetic form of a dramatic monologue which allows the reader to eavesdrop on a private conversation between the Indigenous woman and her husband. The reader is made to empathize with a woman who has to say goodbye to her beloved husband going off to war: “My Forest Brave, my Red-skin love, farewell” (Johnson 1). Johnson goes to describe the Indigenous women’s inward struggle over whether her husband should go to fight in the Northwest Rebellion. Continually, the speaker commands her husband to go and win the war, for they cannot “bend to greed of white men’s hands”, as “by right, by birth, we Indians own these lands” (Johnson 57-58). Thus, she invokes empathy for this woman and her people who have a rightful claim to their land which is being stolen from them by the greed of white men. Her use of dramatic monologue here makes the woman feel more real and allows the audience to put themselves in her shoes. However, just as many times, the woman falters in her resolve and begs her husband to stay, because she does not want to lose him, and she doesn’t want the war to take young lives from both sides of the battle. Johnson brings the woman’s deepest emotions to light: “Yet stay. Revolt not at the Union Jack, / Nor raise Thy hand against this stripling pack / Of white-faced warriors, marching West to quell / Our fallen tribe that rises to rebel. / They all are young and beautiful and good:/ Curse to the war that drinks their harmless blood” (Johnson 11-16). Here, Johnson reveals the deepest feelings in the heart of this woman; this woman doesn’t blame the young white men coming to fight her people, but blames war and laments the lives that will surely be lost. The speaker also relates that she will lose her husband and her heart will break if he goes off to war: “Endangered by a thousand rifle balls, / My heart the target if my warrior falls” (Johnson 53-54). Thus, Johnson makes this woman relatable to any person who has experienced or fears heartbreak.

Furthermore, the woman does not only consider herself in this inward struggle, but also considers the feeling of others: “Yet stay, my heart is not the only one / That grieves the loss of husband and of son; / Think of the mothers o’er the inland seas; / Think of the pale-faced maiden on her knees” (Johnson 41-44). Through showing the parallels between the Indigenous woman and the white women, Johnson shows that their deepest emotions and fears are really no different from each other, and thus shows that the Indigenous woman is just as human as white women. But then the woman says, “She never thinks of my wild aching breast, / Nor prays for your dark face and eagle crest” (Johnson 51-52). Here, “she” refers to the white mothers and wives of the soldiers; while the Indigenous woman herself considers the feelings of white women whose sons and husbands could be killed, those same white women do not consider her feelings and fears over her husband going off to war. Thus, in this poem, Johnson succeeds in addressing the mistreatment of Indigenous people’s primarily through the description of the woman’s emotions and inward struggle over her husband leaving for war. The reader is made to feel empathy for the Indigenous woman and her inward struggle – a struggle that most people would have if they were in her position. This is in great contrast from Duncan Campbell Scott’s approach in “The Onondaga Madonna”, where he refuses to discuss the Indigenous woman’s emotions and human nature but rather characterizes her as savage, and in the process makes the reader feel as though assimilation would be beneficial for the Indigenous nations.

It is evident that the racial positions of Duncan Campbell Scott and Pauline Johnson informed their respective techniques in their poems. Their representations of Indigenous identity during this time period differ drastically; Duncan Campbell Scott portrayed the Indigenous nations as savages, while Pauline Johnson portrayed the Indigenous nations as human beings very similar to white people in their feelings and emotions. However, despite their contrasting racial positions and views on Indigenous identity, both Scott and Johnson were “members of the same small, elite group” and “worked in the same field of cultural production, producing similar symbolic goods for the same market” (Fee 52). Johnson excelled as a writer and performer in the same field as Scott. Therefore, Johnson herself was living proof against Scott’s belief that Indigenous people were savage and uncivilized by blood, since as an Indigenous woman, she was neither savage nor uncivilized.

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