The stereotype of the "vanishing Indian" is a common one in Canadian and American pop culture. According to the stereotype, the vanishing Indian is good-hearted and in tune with nature, but ultimately doomed to disappear and be replaced by European settlers and civilization. The work of Canadian poet Duncan Campbell Scott contains some of the most infamous examples. Many of Scott’s poems centre around the collapse and death both of Indigenous cultures and of the peoples themselves, who suffer everything from mutilation to murder under Scott’s pen.
Scott was also the deputy superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs in the early 20th century. On his watch, the federal government ruthlessly repressed Indigenous cultural activities such as sun dances and potlatches, even as it tightened the legal restrictions on First Nations people living on reserves, preventing them from leaving the reserves without government permission. Scott was also relentless in pushing the residential school system, leading to the catastrophes described by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools. Writing about Scott’s poetry, literary critics such as Northrop Frye pointed out the irony of Scott lamenting the declines and deaths of Indigenous people when his own bureaucratic work was actively contributing to it.
I was reminded of all this when I attended one of the tea and talking circle sessions set up at St. Albert Place by Leo Jacobs and Shelly Markowski, who are participating in St. Albert’s efforts at promoting reconciliation with Indigenous people. One of the other participants at the session was a woman named Hazel, an Anishinaabe woman from the lands of Treaty One, which covers part of southern Manitoba. Hazel recounted how many Indigenous people have called St. Albert home and how they supported each other. I was reminded of my own research for the Musée Héritage Museum into St. Albert’s origins, namely how St. Albert was originally founded as a Metis farming colony where they could learn to farm and adjust to the decline of the buffalo herds.
Thinking about Hazel’s stories, and the stories shared by Leo and Shelly, I’ve noticed how St. Albert shows how the myth of the vanishing Indian is just that, a myth. Indigenous people and their cultures are just assumed to be relics of the past, and once they disappear we don’t need to think about them anymore. How many residents know about our community’s Indigenous roots, or how many Indigenous people call the city home?
It’s the same thing across Canada — people believe that Indigenous issues don’t matter anymore and they should just assimilate. Never mind that it does directly affect us — the Canadian Crown is a signatory to the treaties that set out our legal rights to live here, and are enshrined in the Constitution. More generally, Indigenous people are our neighbours, coworkers and fellow citizens, and they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.The sooner we dump the myth of the ‘vanishing Indian’ and actually try to understand the Indigenous point of view, the better off we’ll be.
Jared Milne is a St. Albert resident with a passion for Canadian history and politics.