White Aboriginality: Indian Time and Middlebrow Ethnography in Canada

Dean Irvine, Professor
Department of English
Dalhousie University

With the rise of newspapers in the 1940s and 1950s such as the Native Brotherhood of British Columbia’s the Native Voice (1946-97) and Squamish leader Andrew Paull’s the Thunderbird (1949-55) and the Totem Speaks (1953), the publication of Indian Time marked a pivotal moment in aboriginal print culture with the appearance of Canada’s earliest First Nations magazine. Published by a native man, Doug Wilkinson, and edited by a non-native woman, Eloise Street, Indian Time was a mimeographed magazine issued at irregular intervals from 1950 to 1959 out of Vancouver. Wilkinson, a Sioux who appears on the masthead and signs his editorials Sohany, describes the program of the magazine as one devoted to “land rights, health, general welfare, agriculture, fishing, equal education for all Canadians, preservation and revival of native arts and culture.” Among the preservation efforts initiated by the magazine was the publication of English translations of native orature. Beginning with the January 1951 issue, Indian Time published selections from a cycle of poems by the Chilliwack Chief William K’HHalserten Sepass, which he recited between 1911 and 1915 to Sophia White Street, who translated them aloud into English from the Halq’eméylem language of the Coast Salish; these oral translations were transcribed and edited by her daughter Eloise, who assembled a manuscript and printed excerpts in the magazine under the title “The Songs of Y-Ail-Mihth.” I will frame my discussion of the poem cycle in relation to early to mid-century practices of amateur salvage ethnography, primitivist appropriations and adaptations of aboriginal cultural heritage by non-natives, and the emergence and popularity of the phenomenon of “white aboriginality” in Canada’s early to mid-century middlebrow literary cultures.

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