“You know that these two nations are at war over a few acres of snow near Canada, and that they are spending on this little war more than all of Canada is worth.” ( Voltaire,Candide)
“A few acres of snow” (in the original French, “Quelques arpents de neige”) is a quotation from Voltaire popularly understood to be a sneering evaluation of New France’s — and, by extension, Canada’s — lack of mercantile value and strategic importance to France. It is regularly quoted by Canadians and particularly Quebecers who want to prove that Canada is worth much more than Voltaire’s dismissive perception.
“For example, buoyed by the perverse principle of collective guilt for posterity, native readers informed me that my ancestors were land thieves, as was I. Who cares that my people have an alibi? At the time of the crimes against natives they were being persecuted in Europe for being Jews. No matter: according to orthodoxy, all Eurocentric folk stand in the dock accused (falsely) of stealing the land from natives, who, of course, had only ever lived in harmony with it.
Natives are nature’s custodians; there’s another fallacy popularized by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s panegyric on the Noble Savage. Voltaire was in the know when he said that Rousseau is to philosophers as the ape is to man. Rousseau certainly was uninformed by facts when he described natives as living in unity with nature. Less forgivable are the many present-day authors and researchers who, despite the corpus of research attesting to the lack of conservation among natives, persist in describing pre-Columbian America as “a pristine natural kingdom”. ( Ilana Mercer )
One is also reminded of Thomas Keefer’s lament that “from Canada there is no escape; blockaded and imprisoned by ice and apathy.” A partial explanation for the varying opinions may be that Canadian winters meant different things to different people. According to Judith Fingard, “to the successful merchant and his family, winter represented a time of entertainment, sport, cultural activity, or a worst, boredom. ” While to the laborer winter was ” synonymous with hardship, cold, hunger, and gloomy unemployment or underemployment. Too many, there was great disappointment that the high expectations of a promise of a better life was illusionary…
“The Four Indian Kings” was a series of paintings by Verelst, considered to be profoundly important artifacts of Canadian history and art, are orphan paintings; though owned by Canada through the National Portrait Gallery. With no physical home of its own, they sit in mothballs, dusted off from time to time for temporary showings. They were painted in 1710 by a Dutch painter named John Verelst and are highly European representations that reflected the popular myths of the time. How did this myth arise, and was it basically the same ideology as its outright racist version that developed later?
Unlike early explorers who had limited contact with North America and its inhabitants, French missionaries, soldiers and administrators spent long periods observing and commenting upon the culture of local native groups and recording the words spoken by indian natives. But, can two wildly different cultures accurately perceive and interpret one another? Early French records portrayed native North Americans as “Noble Savages” from whom Europeans could learn much, but who could learn even more from Europeans; particularly about Catholicism and civilization.
Some adherents of this interpretation even stressed the noble pre-fix and elevated native culture above French. By the early eighteenth-century writer like Baron Lahontan, for example, transformed the Huron from a people who tortured and sometime ate their captives to “children of nature” and “noble savages” who lived in a blissful state of natural grace and harmony, unencumbered by the stultifying trappings of French culture. The romanticized, even utopic view held by, and promoted through Rousseau and later Chateaubriand, was as equally illogical and unrealistic as the changing historical description evolved over the course of the Indian Wars: The “noble savage” imagery slowly transformed into pejorative depictiof a people who were ruthless heathens, blood thirsty pagans, and not noble in the least.
However, truth be said, Rousseau’s summary of the contrast between natural and social existence eloquently attests to the underlying, Eurocentric valorization of European civilization in the critical version of the noble savage myth: “Although, in this state [civil society], he deprives himself of some advantages which he got from nature, he gains in return others so great, his faculties are so stimulated and developed, his ideas so extended, his feelings so ennobled, and his whole soul so uplifted, that, did not the abuses of this new condition often degrade him below that which he left, he would be bound to bless continually the happy moment which took him from it for ever, and, instead of a stupid and unimaginative animal, made him an intelligent being and a man” (The Social Contract)
Verelst’s portraits reflected and ignited the British imagination on the sense of empire; the huge opportunity that colonialism presented and its far reaching consequences particularly with people who had political power in far reaches of the world, and who wanted to have alliances with Britain. The “four Indian kings of Canada,” as they’re popularly known, were not kings, and were not really Canadian. They were delegates sent to London by chiefs of the Iroquois Confederacy, and were from lands along the current Canada-U.S. border in what is now New York.
The men were sent by their Mohawk and Mohican chiefs to the court of Queen Anne, where the royal personage was sufficiently taken with her guests to have them immortalized by Verelst. The Dutchmen did something with his four subjects that both made history and recorded it, from a European perspective.
From the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries, the concept of the Noble Savage became a popular element in literature. Columbus wrote of a people who were generous, gentle, had physical beauty, and had minds open to being trained. Voyagers and travel writers for over two centuries proclaimed the “natural goodness of the savages of America and the islands of the south seas.” Many of these travel writers commented on the natural virtues possessed by these Noble Savages, and based on what they observed, raised doubts as to the value of civilization. Many scholars credit Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the primary figure in the history of the Noble Savage concept. According to Rousseau, “the noble savage is an individual living in a ‘pure state of nature’—gentle, wise, uncorrupted by the vices of civilization.” Although the idea of the Noble Savage existed long before Rousseau, he is generally credited with formalizing the concept, or at least romanticizing it into a broader cultural acceptance, almost as a fetish object.
Commentary on the idea of the Noble Savage in literature has covered a wide range of topics and perspectives, but each one appears contrived and deeply flawed. As to the origin of the concept, Ter Ellingson claims that there are still unanswered questions, and concluded, “that Rousseau’s invention of the Noble Savage myth is itself a myth.” Stelio Cro argued that Rosseau loved the idea of the Noble Savage because he saw him as a figure of freedom: “physical freedom as opposed to slavery and tyranny, moral freedom as opposed to religious discrimination or superstition.” According to critic Hoxie N. Fairchild, the Noble Savage is really a creation of philosophers who read into explorers’ narratives a concept that would support their disillusionment with civilized society.
In examining travel writers, Lewis Saum argues that fur-trade literature shows a concern on the part of the fur traders that the Noble Savage was being corrupted by the encroaching civilization. Terry Jay Ellingson disagrees, claiming that many travel writings depict natives in a very negative light and that these works should be “taken into account if only for the sake of balance, to counteract the tendency built up over a century and a half of unquestioning acceptance of the myth of the Noble Savage.” Roy Pearce argues that the Noble Savage was a literary invention used for the purpose of creating a history and a culture in America, but one “in which the idea of savagism … compromised the idea of the noble savage and then absorbed and reconstituted it.” Hence, he argues, in the ideology and belief reflected in the literature of the time, natives transformed and became what Americans needed as the country grew. Ironically, the depiction in literature of the Amerindians as Noble Savages was indeed a myth, according to critic Olive Patricia Dickason, who claims that they were “far from being uninformed savages in the ‘infancy of nature,’ [but] were the products of cultures that had evolved over many centuries.”
…Verelst painted the “four kings” in oils, and portrayed them in proud, full-body stance, their favoured weapons in hand and set against a romantic, largely fictional background. All of this was typical in portraiture of the time — if you were in the upper classes of society. This is the first time that natives were painted this way, displayed in the stance, and the pose of the British aristocracy or landed gentry. From a portraiture point of view, they are quite unique. ….
Before the decimation of the native population, largely via the white man’s diseases, the Americas had a sizable population of natives that exerted a considerable ecological footprint. For one, native tribes engaged in bi-annual forest burning. According to an article in “Environment” by B.L. Turner and Karl Butzer “the forests of the Americas, from Canada to Argentina were so highly disturbed or modified by Amerindian use by 1492 that it is surprising that even the popular literature missed this point.” “The species which the Indians most wanted to hunt…were found most easily in areas of recently burnt forest, which is why they burnt the forest over and over again.”
Then there was the stampeding during a hunt of herds of animals over a cliff. Used repeatedly, some buffalo jumps hold the remains of hundreds of thousands of animals, with patterns of local extinction being documented. Where agriculture was practiced in the central and southern parts of America, evidence from sediment points to severe soil erosion, which was already widespread before the arrival of the white man.
And who penned the famous words “the flowers are our sisters…the eagle our brother…Whatever we do to the earth, we do to ourselves…”? Chief Seattle’s famous 1854 New Age speech, deployed by environmentalists to buttress native conservationism, was written in 1972 by a Hollywood scriptwriter by the name of Ted Perry.
In light of archeological findings, the myth of the purity of primitive life juxtaposed to the savagery of Western Culture is even less justified. The Americas are scattered with archeological evidence of routine massacres, cannibalism, dismemberment, slavery, abuse of women and human sacrifice among native tribes. Why, the Northwest Territories Yellowknife tribe eventually disappeared as a direct result of a massacre carried out as late as 1823. By the same shift of logic, should remaining native “nations” perhaps not be made to pay reparations among themselves?
In no way do these facts mitigate or excuse the cruel treatment natives have endured. All they do is cut through the “rhetoric of moral superiority” and challenge the cultural script. ( Ilana Mercer )
“We are a spirit, we are a natural part of the earth, and all of our ancestors, all of our relations who have gone to the spirit world, they are here with us. That’s power. They will help us. They will help us to see if we are willing to look. We are not separated from them because there’s no place to go — we stay here. This is our place: the earth. This is our mother: we will not go away from our mother.
“And no matter what they ever do to us, no matter how they ever strike at us, we must never become reactionary. The one thing that has always bothered me about revolution, every time I have seen the revolutionary, is they have reacted out of hatred for the oppressor. We must do this for the love of our people.
No matter what they ever do to us, we must always act for the love of our people and the earth. We must not react out of hatred against those who have no sense.” – Trudell
Black Hills Survival gathering, 1980