Texts by and about Natives: Commentary

3. Jarold Ramsey, Four Accounts of Simon Fraser's Canoe

One way to appreciate the differences between native and non-native ways of understanding is to compare and contrast how the different groups perceived and narrated the same event. In Reading the Fire, Jarold Ramsey compiles four different accounts of the same occurrence—the capsizing of a canoe from the 1808 expedition of Simon Fraser down the river that came to bear his name. Fraser was traveling down the river on behalf of the North West Company, which wanted him to explore the territory to see if it could be turned to the company’s advantage in the fur trade. Natives upstream had warned Fraser against trying to take his canoes down the dangerous river canyon, but Fraser ignored their advice and set out on his extremely dangerous voyage. Not surprisingly, canoes overturned with some regularity along the trip. And the capsizing of one canoe on June 21 became a story that both whites and natives told. The first account is that of Fraser himself.

Salish-speaking Indians observed the events that Fraser had recorded, and in the early twentieth century James Teit, working for Franz Boas, recorded three different versions of the story of the capsizing from among the Nlaka’pamux (or Thompson River Indians). Teit had emigrated from Scotland to Canada in 1883, bringing little with him in the way of formal schooling. He settled among the Nlaka’pamux and married one, Lucy Artko, which increased his access to surrounding native groups. He learned about nearby tribes and mastered interior Salish languages. Thus when Franz Boas arrived at Spences Bridge, British Columbia, in 1894, he quickly latched on to Teit as a valuable informant and translator. In conveying native stories to Boas and gathering materials for him, Teit proved thorough and accurate.  In the early twentieth century, Teit became an advocate for natives’ rights in B.C. (Jonaitis 1988:186-88).

According to Ramsey, the Nlaka’pamux narratives show how myths serve a conservative role in a native culture by “imaginatively transform[ing] ‘real events,’ no matter how strange, according to its system, so that the people can assimilate such events, and ‘believe’ in them” (Ramsey 1999:164). Ramsey’s three native tales demonstrate how the Nlaka’pamux converted a rather factual depiction of the canoe mishap into an increasingly mythic account linked to more timeless themes in the culture. In the end, the natives’ oral understanding of the occurrence diverged quite sharply from what Fraser and his men had reported.

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