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The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture (2nd Edition)

By Daniel Francis

Review By Chelsea Horton

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 177 Spring 2013  | p. 172-73

Twenty years after its initial publication, The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture remains a relevant read. Featuring a new preface and afterword, this second edition of Daniel Francis’s important popular history deserves the attention of audiences both fresh and familiar.

The argument is clear: “The Indian is the invention of the European” (20); “there is no such thing as a real Indian” (21). The Imaginary Indian tracks the stereotypes, noble and not, that White society has projected and imposed onto “Indians” from the mid-nineteenth-century through today (the new afterword opens with a discussion of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics). Whether in writing, painting, film, advertising, performance, or policy, Francis posits, “the Imaginary Indian” has said much more about White aims, assumptions, and anxieties than it has about actual Indigenous people. When it first appeared in 1992, The Imaginary Indian was especially notable for its application of this argument to the Canadian context and for reaching a wide nonacademic audience.

The book is organized thematically with a strong focus on English Canada and the West, including British Columbia. As Francis illustrates, this province has offered up some of Canada’s most resilient “Imaginary Indian” fodder, including the work of Emily Carr and Edward Curtis and that most supernatural symbol, the totem pole. With the exception of its new preface and afterword, this edition does not incorporate new sources. Readers, then, could effectively complement it with more recent literature like Paige Raibmon’s 2005 Authentic Indians: Episodes of Encounter from the Late-Nineteenth-Century Northwest Coast, a study that simultaneously stresses Indigenous agency in contexts including the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, discussed briefly by Francis (110), and puts a sharper point on the material and political implications of “Imaginary Indianness.” Francis is well aware that, in his words, “Images have consequences in the real world: ideas have results” (207). He is especially eloquent in articulating how a persistent settler search for belonging in North America has contributed to land dispossession and ongoing cultural appropriation (203, 236). His discussion of “the official Indian,” however, comes late in the text, with the result that readers unfamiliar with Canadian colonial history could miss the close imbrication between, say, missionaries, Indian Affairs officials, and anthropologists (who receive fairly short shift here) in the “museum scramble” on the Northwest Coast (117).

The Imaginary Indian is well written and Francis’s choice to engage the first person is effective in stimulating a sense of personal implication in this history, all the more critical in a current climate of what Francis calls “New Assimilationism” in Canada (245). Francis concludes this edition, as he did the first, on an optimistic note: “The Imaginary Indian survives, but he/she is becoming increasingly unrecognizable as Canadians are being educated by their Aboriginal fellow citizens to a new understanding of White-Aboriginal relations and therefore to a new understanding of the history of the country” (250). Though I share his generally hopeful outlook, I believe we also need to ask whether it is really the responsibility of Indigenous people to do this educating? And just what will it take for settler society to really listen? Francis himself describes being regularly approached by readers who have not grasped his argument and still want to know what he thinks “the real Indian” is (6). As Paulette Regan has recently argued (Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada, 2010), decolonization demands a conscious process of “unsettling the settler within.” Considered in this spirit, this new edition of The Imaginary Indian can contribute to this pressing project.

The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture
By Daniel Francis
Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011. Second Edition. 272 pp. Illus. $23.95 paper