The appropriation of aboriginal dress, history, and imagery, and the stereotypes associated with them.
To mark National Aboriginal History Month this June, Historicist will focus on aboriginal issues throughout Toronto’s history.
“The Indian of imagination and ideology has been as real, perhaps more real, than the Native American of actual existence and contact,” Robert F. Berkhofer Jr. wrote in his 1978 book The White Man’s Indian. This image was further elaborated upon a quarter-century by Thomas King, who refers to the clichés many of us grew up with as the “Dead Indian” in his book The Inconvenient Indian:
They are the stereotypes and clichés that North America has conjured up out of experience and out of its collective imaginings and fears. North America has had a long association with Native people, but despite the history that the two groups have shared, North America no longer sees Indians. What it sees are war bonnets, beaded shirts, fringed deerskin dresses, loincloths, headbands, feathered lances, tomahawks, moccasins, face paints, and bone chokers. These bits of cultural debris—authentic and constructed—are what literary theorists like to call “signifiers,” signs that create a “simulacrum,” which Jean Baudrillard, the French sociologist and postmodern theorist, succinctly explained as something that “is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none.”
Built into this image are elements of racism and excessive romanticism, all of which shaped how aboriginal culture was presented to generations of Torontonians, especially children.
Dressing up in stereotypical aboriginal costumes was done with little discomfort for much of the 20th century. Homemaker columns in Toronto’s daily newspapers periodically offered tips on how to make your own Indian maiden outfit of the type often worn while pretending to be a noble savage or reciting Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Song of Hiawatha.” For example, take this suggestion published by the Star in 1911:
You could make an Indian costume out of khaki, coloured drill, or duck. Have leggings and a loose affair something like a midi blouse fringed at the bottom. Any bands of beading or bead charms available should be worn. Have a gilt or coloured band for the head with feathers or quills standing up all round it. The hair should be braided.
Such an outfit might have been worn by public speakers while presenting travelogues of their adventures in aboriginal lands. Take the case of Martha Craig, who gave a slideshow at Massey Hall in March 1902 illustrating her canoe trips in both her homeland of Ireland and around Lakes Temagami and Timiskaming. “Miss Craig, who wore an Indian costume, has evidently given deep study to Indian lore,” observed the Globe, “and her lecture, though not as distinctly enunciated as one could wish, was a most interesting narrative.” We hope her diction problems didn’t include attempts to speak in pidgin dialect while discussing northern Ontario.
Similarly attired was Mabel Powers, who gave a three-day series of talks at an auditorium Eaton’s Queen Street complex in December 1921. “Dressed in Indian costume, and standing on a stage which represented a corner of an Indian encampment,” the Globe reported, “Miss Powers delighted her audience—particularly the children—with her quaint stories, so alluring in spirit, so suggestive of the great outdoors, and so indicative of the mind of the stalwart race that once possessed North America.” Powers, raised in suburban Buffalo, studied Iroquois culture and toured throughout the region, frequently lecturing at the Chautauqua Institute. Adopted into the Seneca nation as an adult, she was given the name Yehsennohwehs, which meant “storyteller.” Powers saw her talks, which stressed the spiritual aspects of aboriginal culture in ways foreshadowing the peddling of such beliefs to the counterculture decades later, as a means of building bridges between all races by offering “a better understanding of the hearts of the red brothers.”
Such understanding may not have been present when University of Toronto graduate students rang in 1929 with an Indian-themed ball at Hart House. The building was transformed to resemble a reservation in British Columbia, sans poverty. The décor, designed by Group of Seven artist Arthur Lismer, included spruce trees placed in alcoves and totem poles. These motifs carried over into Lismer’s cover for the ball program which, according to the Globe, depicted “a totem pole by the side of a lake, with Indian figures in the foreground.”
During this period, Lismer was the educational supervisor at the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the AGO). Among his initiatives there was an innovative series of Saturday morning children’s art classes which evolved, with the help of a Carnegie grant, into the Children’s Art Centre. Opened at 4 Grange Road in 1933, the centre ran annual exhibitions of children’s works, and an Easter pageant. For the pageants, students were given a topic to research, collected materials to illustrate their discoveries, and created performance elements ranging from dances to puppet shows.
One year, the pageant theme was “North American Indians.” Participant William Withrow described the process of creating his outfit, and how his imagination was stimulated:
I wore a headdress—we went out to Kensington Market and got feathers, and dyed them and then we seemed to make a real deal of the use of cardboard that had corrugations so that you could stick feathers in the tubular corrugations and make the headband. I think it was subtly suggested that we felt that we were inventing it, and I think that was the real genius in the way [Lismer] trained his teachers. The children always thought that they had thought all these things up, but I think there were little clues dropped, there must have been, because the results were glorious.
Dressing children up in Indian garb was a staple of educational activities at cultural institutions and schools around the city. Even teachers in training donned the stereotypical outfits, as shown in a May 1966 Star profile of graduating students at Toronto Teachers’ College. Under the headline “It seems the natives are restless tonight,” 43 women enrolled in the Primary Specialist Course at the training school at Carlaw and Mortimer (later used as a set for the Degrassi franchise, now part of Centennial College) were shown practicing how to teach Kindergarten pupils—by exposing them to every aboriginal stereotype under the sun. The student teachers read a story about “Little Burnt Face” (reputedly based on a Mi’kmaq legend), built a teepee, and created songs. The “idea of the exercise,” according to the Star, “was to show how a Kindergarten class should work together and learn while almost playing at singing, dancing, and doing art work.” A group of 25 kids were then brought in as guinea pigs to learn the songs, drink “firewater” (juice) and eat “wampum” (cookies).
When it came to aiding and educating actual aboriginal children, there are stories scattered throughout early 20th century Toronto newspapers depicting religious authorities urging their auxiliary organizations to support residential schools in remote areas. Those who came out to hear Methodist archdeacons make their pitch likely had little inkling of the unfolding tragedy they would aid. Efforts to assist the construction of these schools may have been aided by speeches by the likes of Reverend John Maclean, who addressed the Methodist Young People’s Bible and Mission School in July 1902. Discussing the work of Methodist missionaries out west, “it appeared,” according to the Globe, “that he does not entertain a high opinion of the inland Indians of British Columbia, some of whom, he said, were too lazy to stand up when fighting.”
The plight of some urban aboriginal children was exploited in the name of helping them. For years both the Star (Fresh Air and Santa Claus funds) and the Telegram (Hospital for Sick Children) published stories on the plight of poor, sick children which boosted fundraising efforts for worthy causes dedicated to improving their lives. From a modern perspective, many of these stories are jaw-dropping in their efforts to evoke pity, reaching depths which make Jerry Lewis’s most maudlin telethon moments look dignified.
Take the case of 11-year-old Louise and her two younger brothers, whose tale was published on the front page of the Star on December 3, 1932. The story opens with one of the most insulting descriptions of pre-contact Toronto we’ve ever encountered:
Years ago, just about where you’re standing now, the red man roamed. He loosed his deadly arrow at the fleeting deer, and sat over the campfire at night with his squaw and papoose. If the papoose got hungry, he let fly another arrow. And so on, season after season. And if the season was bad—they starved. Then came the “Great White Father,” or rather his representative, who fought and talked to the red man. The savage liked the fighting, but couldn’t stand the talking—so he finally gave in. What did it matter? The “Great White Father” said from now on things were going to be swell. There would be no more bad seasons.
Louise is described as “a little Indian girl—probably descended from coppery princesses, who followed he chase—proud, befeathered, fearless.” She wrote the paper to ask for help from the Santa Claus Fund as her mother was ill, her father had been unemployed for two years, and she felt pessimistic about her future.
How did the Star appeal to its readers to help Louise?
We know you’re not interested in whether the Indian shot deer on Yonge Street a couple of hundred years ago. You’ve got your own troubles. But what we wondered was, if we couldn’t just bring a little Yuletide cheer into Louise’s “teepee” and watch the two papooses laugh. It ought to be all kinds of fun.
Before getting too smug about rising above the insensitivity of many of these past appropriations of and reflections on aboriginal culture, it’s good to keep in mind the following perspective from Robert F. Berkhofer Jr.: “Although modern artists and writers assume their own imagery to be more in line with “reality” than that of their predecessors, they employ the imagery for much the same reasons and often with the same results as those persons of the past they so often scorn as uninformed, fanciful, or hypocritical.”
Additional material from The White Man’s Indian by Robert F. Berkhofer Jr. (New York: Vintage, 1978); The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King (Toronto: Doubleday, 2012); The Gallery School 1930-80: A Celebration by Shirley Yanover (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1980); the March 7, 1902, July 24, 1902, December 28, 1921, January 1, 1929, and May 3, 1933 editions of the Globe; and the June 29, 1911, December 3, 1932, and May 24, 1966 editions of the Toronto Star.