NOT LONG AGO, one of my relatives, our family’s unofficial historian, told me that she suspected another of our relations, long dead, of being at least part-Indian. Surprised, I asked why. She gave several reasons, but one of the most compelling clues was that she remembered our relative as being particularly dour and humourless.” As everyone knows,” she said, “Indians have no sense of humour.”
My relative is a good-hearted person who did not mean her comment to be taken as a slur. She was merely stating what she took to be a fact: Indians have no sense of humour.
I used to know this “fact” myself. One of the earliest cartoons I can remember depicts the Lone Ranger and Tonto surrounded by hostile Indians. The Lone Ranger turns to his faithful companion and says something like, “It looks like we’re done for, Tonto.” To which Tonto responds, “What do you mean we
, White Man?”
That cartoon was a shock to me, which is presumably why I recall it all these years later. First of all it was a shock because I had always assumed that Tonto was one of Us. Now I had to recognize the obvious, that in fact he was one of Them. The world was a less comfortable place than I had imagined.
But just as importantly, the cartoon is shocking because in it Tonto cracks a joke. It violates one of the most common stereo-types non-Natives have about Indians. They are considered stern, emotionless, stoical. We believe that they don’t have a sense of humour.
The cigar store wooden Indian is the prototype for this image. It has been around for hundreds of years, and refers to the association between Native North Americans and tobacco, a product which originated in the New World. But long since, the wooden Indian has come to represent certain ’truths’ about Indians. On the negative side, the wooden-Indian stereotype suggests a lack of emotional range, a failure of feeling. Indians are made of wood, this stereotype tells us; they do not experience emotions with the same sensitivity that a non-Native person does. On the positive side, this stereotype says that Indians do not wear their hearts on their sleeves; they do not reveal their emotions capriciously. They suffer injustice with a stoic resignation. They say little, but feel deeply. On the surface we might think they appear apathetic, even dull-witted, but inside we are convinced that they contain all the world’s wisdom. Once again the Imaginary Indian is almost anything Whites want it to be.
The wooden Indian is an artifact of the image-makers. Once the artists and writers who had been to Indian Country reported back with news of what they had seen, others began shaping and reshaping the images, presenting them to the public as authentic representations of what the Indian was really like. This is how non-Native Canadians came to know the Indian: in books, in public performance, at country fairs, in museums and schoolrooms, at summer camp and in the movies. There were very few places, in fact, that Canadians did not encounter someone who was ready to tell them exactly what an Indian was.