Writing Back - Negative Imagery within the Canadian Literary Canon

By Sandy Dengler

"Few, if any, non-indigenous writers and scholars have had first-hand knowledge of our ways and thus were, and are, unable to correctly represent our distinct social, political, and economic ways of life..[this misrepresentation] has contributed to the formulation of social, political, and economic ideals upon which non-indigenous peoples modelled very racist and sexist attitudes and behaviours." (Janice Acoose Looking at the Words of Our People139)

Native writers are struggling to deconstruct these misrepresenatations and find a voice within the dominant institution of English literature. Historically, Native peoples have been silenced: politically, economically, and culturally. Writing by Native writers represents the struggle to tell the truth; to tell of the realities of Native life and culture. Many Native writers find themselves "writing back" and for some, this equals empowerment.

"Native people's voices were absent from written literature until the 1960's...these early attempts by Native writers were heavily edited by non-Native missionaries, anthropologists, and hobbyists...who tended to represent Native "tales" from the igloo, the smokehouse, or the campfire as 'quaint' or 'exotic', fit for ethnological inquiry, but not for serious literary study."(Words 30)


"Accomplishments by Native writers in the early 1970's were dismissed as "protest literature" and not really considered part of Canadian 'literature' as defined by English departments and literary schloars of the mainstream."(Words 30)

Native writers must struggle as individuals to deconstruct the negative stereotypes surrounding their collective cultures, but more importantly, they must struggle for literary recognitin from the oppresive, white, dominant Canadian literary canon.

"Indigenous women were generally represented in Canadian Literature somewhere between the stereotypical images of the Indian Princess, an extension of the noble savage, and the Easy Squaw, a more contemporary distortion of the squaw drudge...

..."such representations create powerful images that perpetuate stereotypes, and perhaps more importantly, foster dangerous cultural attitudes that affect human relations and inform institutional ideology."(Janice Acoose Iskwewak 39)

***Canadian literature, as an expression of the nation's prevailing ideological structures, continues to erode the ethos of Indigenous women. (Iskwewak 39) Non-Native writers, like Margaret Laurence and Gabrielle Roy, have monopolized Canadian literature and consequently help to promote negative images of Native women. Non-native, or dominant, white, writers are the foundation of Canadian literature. It can be argued that collectively, these writers can be held responsible for some of the racist and sexist attitudes towards Native women.***

"Through the power of words we can counteract the negative images of Indigenous Peoples...By freeing ourselves of the constricting bounds of stereotypes and imposed labels of identity, we empower ourselves and our communities and break free of the yoke of colonial power that has not only controlled what we do and where we live but who we are." (Katri Damm Words 24)

Contemporary Indigenous writers write from culturally distinct positions that challenge non-Indigenous writers' stereotypical images of Native women. Native writers, like Marilyn Dumont, represent part of a new literary trend that encourages Indigenous writers to create more realistic images of Native women and ultimately break down the established misrepresentations portrayed in non-Native literature. It is through the power of words that Native women have found a voice.

"Writing for many aboriginal women is empowering. It is a means of recognizing and acknowledging the strength, the beauty, the value, and the contributuions of Native Peoples. It is a means of affirming the cultures, of clarifying lies, of speaking truth, of resisting oppression, of asserting identity, of self-empowerment, of survival, of moving beyond survival." (Katri Damm Words 113)

Marilyn Dumont writes to survive. She writes back against the stereotypes associaited with Native women. She writes to empower herself, and other Native women. She writes to to give Native women a voice. The poem "Helen Betty Osborne" in A Really Good Brown Girl illustrates the need Native women have to write. Janice Acoose insists:

"...it is gross and deadly violations like Osborne's that makes the issue of Indigenous women being misrepresented in non-Indigenous writer's texts of such vital importance."(Iskwewak 70)
The Easy Squaw stereotype, "generally born out ignorance, encourages cultural attitudes that justify violence against Indigenous Women."(Iskwewak 86). Helen Betty Osborne is but one example. The image of the sexually loose squaw renders all Native girls and women vulnerable to gross sexual, physical, and verbal violence...ultimately fostering "cultural attitudes that legitmize rape and other kinds of violence." (Iskwewak 71)

Native writers must continue to write in order to shed light on the realities of Native life and ultimately to survive. Survive the historical oppression, the Canadian literary canon, and racist Canadian attitudes. The almighty Canadian literary canon needs to be deconstructed. Native writers need to be heard. Misrepresentations, such as the Indian Princess or Easy Squaw, are encoded within dominant, white, Euro-Canadian society and continue to damage Native politics, economics and culture.

Squaw Poems.

By Marilyn Dumont


'hey squaw!'

Her ears stung and she shook, fearful of the other words like fists that would follow. For a moment, her spirit drained like water from a basin. But she breathed and drew inside her fierce face and screamed till his image disappeared like vapour.


Indian women know all too well the power of the word squaw. I first heard it from my mother, who used it in anger against another Indian woman.'That black squaw,' she rasped. As a young girl, I held the image of that woman in my mind and she became the measure of what I should never be.


I learned I should never be seen drunk in public, nor should I dress provocatively, because these would be irrefutable signs. So as a teenager I avoided red lipstick, never wore my skirts too short or too tight, never chose shoes that looked the least 'hooker-like.' I never moved in ways that might be interpreted as loose. Instead, I became what Jean Rhys phrased, 'aggressively respectable.' I'd be so god-damned respectable that white people would feel slovenly in my presence.


squaw is to whore


Indian maiden is to virgin

squaw is to whore


Indian Princess is to lady


I would become the Indian princess, not the squaw dragging her soul after laundry, meals, needy kids and abusive husbands. These were my choices. I could react naturally, spontaneuosly to my puberty, my newly discovered sexuality or I could be mindful of the squaw whose presence hounded my every choice.



a man who is seen with lives and laughs with a squaw.


a man is a man is whiteman until

he is a squaw he is a squaw he is a squawman.

Works Cited

Acoose, Janice. Iskwewak-Kah'ki Yaw Ni Wahkomakanak: Neither Indian Princess Nor Easy Squaws. Toronto: Women's Press, 1995.

Armstrong, Jeanette, ed. Looking at the Words of our People: First Nations Analysis of Literature. Penticton: Theytus Books Ltd., 1993.

Dumont, Marilyn. A Really Good Brown Girl. London: Brick Books, 1996.

| main page | white writers: stereotypes | film representations | work of beth brant | work of ernest seton | writing back |

Email: tkobayas@ucalgary.ca