Duncan Campbell Scott

Addresses‚ Essays‚ and Reviews




Introduction, Mildred Valley Thornton, Indian Lives and Legends

 

Sometime ago when I was in Vancouver I noticed Mildred Valley Thornton’s contributions to the Press that seemed to me unusual and in certain respects unique; original portraits accompanied by prose and verse.  To find an artist able to use this trifold method in the presentation of her subject-matter was in my experience new.  Then I was attracted inevitable by the subject-matter itself for it was devoted altogether to the Canadian Indians.  My life-long association with them and their affairs, ranging from the custody of their Funds and the protection of their material interest to the amelioration of their social conditions and the promotion of their education was the source of my interest in the sympathetic outlook of the artist-author.  Perhaps the best approach to a contact with aborigines anywhere in the world is through the artistic temperament; there one should be assured of a sensitive discernment of basic native qualities and also of their modification as they were gradually being overcome by an alien culture.  I therefore thought I might be able to write a short introduction to this material assembled in book-form that would not be out of place and that might bespeak for the reader a lively interest in the contents.
     Once I wrote that the policy of the Canadian Government is to protect the Indian, to guard his identity as a race and at the same time apply methods which will destroy that identity and lead eventually to his disappearance as a separate division of the population.  The Indian has proved that he can withstand the shock of contact with out civilization, that he can survive the manifold evils of that contact, and transfer his native energy into the channels of modern life.  Mrs. Thornton’s book might be regarded as a discursive and detailed treatment of that statement.  This sensitive and [page 485] sympathetic artist, roving from the Pacific coast to the prairies and meeting Indians everywhere without ceremony or official guidance found them in varying degree approaching this manifest destiny.  There are here and there in these pages memories of the vanished aboriginal life, but they are few and indistinct.  Manners, costume and even physical distinctions have changed under the constant pressure of imposed conditions; and I find records now and then of the popular fallacies regarding Indians which are inescapable and which will be hard to eradicate.  The painted did not observe a different outlook on life by the Coast and the Prairie Indians; so far as I can gather from her pages there is acceptance of social conditions and an effort to make the best of the present without any hankering after the past.  As for myself that past, often so highly colored by our writers, seems by comparison less happy.  Then there was the opportunity to fight and starve, the extremes of that liberty which is always held up to us as ever-present in an ideal existence.  Now there is no reason for tribal warfare or for scalping white men and a better chance for most Indians of a stable maintenance, and moreover, not infrequently, opportunity for the individual Indian to get the best of a bargain with the white man.
     On Mrs. Thornton’s visits to the prairies she met representatives of the Blackfoot, Stony and Sarcee people, and farther East with the Cree and the Saulteaux.  If she had come yet farther East she would have found types of more civilized tribes and would have discovered in Ontario Indians whose mental endowment, education and experience had fitted them to hold their own in the stern competition amid a denser population, and, both there and in the West, that Indian soldiers were fighting, far from their homes, for our common laws and institutions.  But she has produced enough evidence that the Indian is gradually coming to enjoy any progress our complex life may be making and she has given proof, as I have before said, that he has been able to survive the contact with our so-called civilization and even to increase in numbers and prosperity.
     I can promise the reader of these pages acquaintance with a number of Indian types and with glimpses of their present manner of life, more often by implication than by definite description.  He can also look into Indian faces delineated in the open air in a friendly environment, with the constant design of a portrait-painter to put individual character into the picture.  This I surmise was Mrs. Thornton’s purpose.  She has unintentionally put another portrait in [page 486] her book.  It would not have been possible to accomplish so much of the general, essential purpose if it had not been for her special endowments for the allotted task; a sincere and generous sympathy with the Indian points of view and ambition.  If it had not been for patience with their idiosyncrasies and vanities she could not have succeeded; and in the end we find revealed, quite unconsciously, a portrait of the artist herself. [page 487]

 

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