Peter Kulchyski’s novel, The Red Indians, discusses the history of colonial impact on Native culture through a critical lens of historical and governmental power dynamics. He addresses the language of colonial discourse, a tool used to control, civilize and assimilate. Kulchyski is careful with his own language, avoiding the traditional use of grammar to counteract these colonial impositions. He does not refer to Columbus as an explorer or discoverer, but rather a kidnapper (Kulchyski 19). He exposes the myth of white people doing “all the work to ‘improve’ Canada and produce all its wealth” remembering “that for the first 250-odd years of European history in North America, it was the Europeans who depended on native people” (Kulchyski 31). The Red Indians is an alternative history of Canada, using specific forms of discourse to focus on the oppressive and historical injustices to that Native peoples, land and culture have faced.
The Red Indians focused on a different kind of story, one that challenges the tradition history of Canada; our cultural memory has spared much of the trauma Native communities have experienced. The novel is sensitive to memories of Shawnandithit, who like thousands of other native people, watched “her loved ones, her people, her nation, die before her eye. She witnessed the end to history, the end of all endings, the final futility and failure” (Kulchyski 38). Kulchyski writes that the British were concerned about their own colonies taking over Native land, which would lead to a rebellion and a costly war (Kulchyski 24). It was the British who created the first proclamation to recognize and respect Native land (Kulchyski 24).
Despite the impeding disavowal of Native land, initially the British feared the difference between their histories and language. Initially, respect over Native land was given over fear: fear of the other, of the economic costs, of the unfamiliar land and the variances in population. Soon these fears of the unknown disappeared as settlers became more familiar with the land. Those who formed the thirteen colonies challenged this proclamation and became greedy for land under a privileged pretense. The fight against the British was rooted in anger against land ownership, “a revolution against aboriginal rights” (Kulchyski 24). This marked the beginning of many treaty and political processes that oppressed the Native voice and culture. The less threatening Native people were to the military, the less leeway the military gave to the Native people (Kulchyski 46).
Out of these political policies came the need to “protect” Native populations from themselves. While democracy viewed the Native community as one that needed to be helped, the white population took a paternalistic approach to solving the crisis of difference that existed between the “kidnappers” and the Indigenous people of North America. White colonizers approached Native peoples as needing to be civilized; civilization transformed into assimilation by government policy. Elections were imposed on Natives, where specific processes by the government undermined traditional political values and ideas (Kulchyski 76). Governments weakened the power of traditional leaders through imposing democracy (Kulchyski 78). Kulchyski comments on the transformation between Native repressions to widespread ideology. Governmental influence supplemented this assimilation through “soft power”: education and social intermingling (Kulchyski 116). These paternal frameworks claimed concern for aboriginal welfare and sovereignty despite the devastating effects of Indigenous genocide and cultural assimilation.
The Red Indians raised many of the concerns addressed in Elazar Barkan’s article The Guilt of the Nations “Amending Historical Injustices in International Morality”. The article addresses the painful histories through cultural memory, and how governmental restitution aims to aid in amending past injustices. It questions how histories shape identity and race relations through political and social organization. This mechanism of recognition, recognizing the guilt of the nation, is an attempt to change the relationship between the oppressed minority and the government.
This idea of governmental apology raises questions of privileged rhetoric and who has power now that there has been an apology. Is governmental recognition and apology enough? I bring this article into my reading of The Red Indians to comment on the governmental apology by Stephen Harper to the Aboriginal community regarding the mistreatment of Native children in residential schools. It is important to recognize what kind of discourse is used and how the Canadian identity, or the identity of the perpetrators, remains unexplored. The interaction between the perpetrators and the victims is a form of political negotiation, which allows us to rewrite cultural memory and create a discourse of restitution. This apology reinforces a power divide, where those in a privileged position can decide the dynamics of the apology. The apology itself holds power over the victim.
Kulchyski presents a discourse about nationalism and questions whose story and which version of history is being told. It is the dominant narratives that shape the identity of perpetrators and victims. His accounts of the Native experience frame this historical injustice and forms a discourse of Native histories that were stolen.