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IntroductionBanner: Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill

Native People

Return to Emigration and Bush Life

A description of the "Indians," or Native people, of the New World was a requisite section in nearly every European-written account of North American emigration and settlement. Often these descriptions responded to one of two (equally inaccurate) stereotypes: the North American Native as an example of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's nature-tutored and innocent "noble savage," or the American frontier depiction of the fierce, bloodthirsty warrior and enemy of white settlers. But neither Susanna nor Catharine accepted the usual stereotypes, preferring to base their accounts on their own experiences with their new neighbours. The Backwoods of Canada and Roughing It in the Bush both contain lengthy descriptions of the Chippewa people who lived in the area of Stony Lake, the Otonabee and Trent Rivers and the Rice Lake Plains.

In letters 10 and 13 of The Backwoods of Canada, Traill admires the practical skills (hunting, fishing, building shelters and caring for small children) possessed by Native people at a time when she herself lacks these abilities which are so necessary in the bush. Today's readers can be embarassed by Traill's use of outdated terms such as "squaw" and "pappoose" and by her enthusiasm for the local Chippewas' conversion to Christianity, but she is responding to the expectations of a 19th-century British reader. We may also be surprised by Traill's genuine concern, expressed many times throughout her work, for the dangers to the Native way of life posed by assimilation: "The race is slowly passing away from the face of the earth, or mingling by degrees with the colonists, till, a few centuries hence, even the names of their tribes will scarcely remain to tell that they once existed" (The Backwoods of Canada, letter 13).

Canadian Crusoes, Traill's historical novel for children, offers a more fanciful rendering of Native people. A romance-adventure story set on the Rice Lake Plains in the very early settlement period of the 1760s, it casts Indiana, a young Mohawk, as one of its heroines, and the Ojibwa of the region as dangerous villains. Traill is, however, always didactic in her writing for children and so takes pains to remind her young readers that such conditions no longer prevail. Furthermore, she strives for accuracy in describing the life of the Ojibwa by quoting and paraphrasing from Recollections of a Forest Life; or, The Life and Travels of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh or George Copway, Chief of the Ojibway Nation (London, 1850).

Susanna Moodie chooses a different approach to explain Native life to her British readers in "The Wilderness, and Our Indian Friends" in Roughing It in the Bush. Perhaps because she is writing her account of emigration late in the pioneer settlement period, she overtly rejects the "noble savage" idea because it has been false and lent to Native people "a poetical interest which they scarcely deserve." Instead, she chooses to relate a series of "stories" of her personal dealings and experiences with her Native neighbours. There follows a string of anecdotes about the reactions of the Native people to the Moodies' European possessions, their generosity towards the struggling white family in their midst, their capability and honesty (in contrast with that of the "Yankees") in barter and borrowing, and their strength, skill and courage in the wilderness. Moodie justifies the inclusion of so many anecdotes by reminding the reader that, "the real character of a people can be more truly gathered from such seemingly trifling incidents than from any ideas we may form of them from the great facts in their history."

Moodie's portrayal of the Native people she knows is sympathetic. She exposes the greed and cruelty of those settlers who deal unfairly with Native people: "The Indians are often made a prey of and cheated by the unprincipled settlers, who think it no crime to overreach a red-skin." She recognizes and marvels at their generosity and sensitivity to the Moodies' pride when the latter are close to starving. She even attempts to understand and appreciate Native customs, rituals and spirituality at a time when most European observers took these simply as examples of paganism.

Like her sister, Moodie is not free from a sense of European, Christian difference from her Native friends. Still, she is much less assured of the superiority of her ways over theirs -- especially in her recognition that the self-sufficiency and generosity of her Native neighbours contributes to her own adaptation and survival in the backwoods. Near the end of "The Wilderness, and Our Indian Friends," Susanna seems to sense the painful irony of her own position in relation to the inevitable disappearance of the Native way of life: "Often I have grieved that people with such generous impulses should be degraded and corrupted by civilised men; that a mysterious destiny involves and hangs over them, pressing them back into the wilderness, and slowly and surely sweeping them from the earth."

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