- “The Coming of the White Man”Native American First Contact Stories in the Literature Classroom
Over the past dozen years, I have been studying extant Native American stories of first contacts with Europeans. For the most part my focus was the Eastern Algonquian-speaking peoples of the Canadian Maritime Provinces and northern New England.1 Even within this relatively restricted geographical area, and within related ethnic and linguistic groupings, I found that Native American first contact stories do not necessarily share any commonalities. Some simply report a first sighting of a strange vessel, without further consequences.2 Some offer details about the vessel or those aboard, but report no contact. Other stories tell of contact and the initial exchange of gifts. In some instances first contact is reported as benign and followed by friendly relations. In other instances contact quickly disintegrates into some form of treachery by the Europeans, followed by various expressions of hostility and resistance on the part of the Indians. Many of these stories are embedded within a prophecy frame. That is, the coming of the “white man” has been foretold, sometimes ambiguously, often with dire forebodings, and the contact story unfolds the fulfillment of that prophecy. As my research proceeded, I noticed that many of these stories have become the almost exclusive property of historians, anthropologists, and ethnologists, when, in addition, they offer a treasure trove for the Native American literature classroom.3 Whenever I assigned any of these stories in my own classes, for instance, my students always found them rich with nuance and [End Page 1] narrative ingenuity. For us, there was no question that these stories constitute a powerful literary archive.
This essay, therefore, is offered as an exercise in literary analysis that seeks to unravel the full narrative complexity of one particular first contact story.4 Needless to say, informing this analysis is the understanding that Native American texts emerge from and incorporate the uniqueness of their specific cultural traditions, and so any analytic practice must derive from and be appropriate to those same traditions. But as I hope to illustrate with the reading of a story from the Mi’kmaq of Canada, this understanding still forces upon us the kinds of questions that are always at the heart of our interrogation of any complex literary text: the “who” of the person doing the telling; the attitude of the teller to what is told; the perceived or implied purpose(s) of the telling; the implied or actual audience; the structural progression of the telling; and the relevant social, political, and economic contexts behind the telling. And because the story I have chosen for analysis is a prophecy tale, it also necessarily raises provocative questions about employing the authority of a traditional past for present purposes.
The 1880s saw what several scholars have called “an efflorescence” in the collection of stories told by Eastern Algonquian-speaking peoples in the Canadian Maritimes and northern New England (Day 75). For Euro-American folklorists in both Canada and the United States, these peoples were of special interest because, unlike so many of the tribes that had been relocated west of the Mississippi, the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, and Abenaki peoples still inhabited at least small portions of their former homelands, still told stories associated with those long-familiar landscapes, and still spoke their Native languages. Unquestionably the most important contributor to the collection of Mi’kmaq lore was Silas Tertius Rand (1810–1899), born in Cornwallis, Nova Scotia. Rand, ordained a Baptist minister in 1834, became a preacher in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, in the 1840s and thereafter devoted the remainder [End Page 2] of his life to mission activity among the Mi’kmaq. Largely self-taught, but with a gift for languages, Rand learned several Native dialects and began translating Protestant religious materials for the purpose of bringing the Indians into the Protestant fold. As he put it in 1850, he intended to save the Mi’kmaq from the “darkness, superstition, and bigotry of Romanism” (to which the Mi’kmaq had been converted by the Catholic French in the seventeenth century) and introduce them to Protestant enlightenment (Short 11...