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“When the Indians were there”: memory and forgetfulness in Alice Munro’s «Dance of the Happy Shades»

Par Lorie-Anne Rainville : Maître de conférences - Université de Caen-Normandie
Publié par Marion Coste le 01/03/2016

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The title of the opening story, “Walker Brothers Cowboy”, clearly indicates that the “Indian” has been forgotten. With its American western ring, the title foregrounds the figure of the cowboy and elides that of the Indian. This is a story in which cowboys can be imagined without their legendary counterparts, the Indians.


The word “Indian” is here used as it is the word that appears in Dance of the Happy Shades. It is to be noted that First Nations prefer to be identified by the name of their nation and that all generic appellations, whether they be the outdated “Indian” or the more modern ones such as First Nations, Aboriginal, Indigenous or Native are inadequate. As Thomas King explains: “the fact of the matter is that there has never been a good collective noun because there never was a collective to begin with.” (2012, xiii)

1. The region of the unspeakable

The title of the opening story, “Walker Brothers Cowboy”, clearly indicates that the “Indian” has been forgotten. With its American western ring, the title foregrounds the figure of the cowboy and elides that of the Indian. This is a story in which cowboys can be imagined without their legendary counterparts, the Indians. While the father, a salesman for the Walker Brothers company, can jokingly picture himself as a “cowboy” (7) in the song that he composes about himself, his daughter is “not able even to imagine the shore of the Lake when the Indians were there” (3). Situated on the shores of Lake Huron, Goderich – or the imaginary town of “Tuppertown” – was part of traditional Ojibway territory. The successive land surrenders that occurred in the 19th century progressively reduced the territory of the Ojibway, forcing them out of it.

Saugeen Ojibway Nation, Claims update Newsletter Mnookmi 2011
Source: Saugeen Ojibway Nation Environment Office
(Télécharger la carte)

First Nations were confined onto nearby reserves, out of sight. Where exactly “the Indians” have gone to is one of the many forgotten, untold narratives in Munro’s first collection. It is one of those stories that is dismissed “into the region of painful subjects which it is crude and unmannerly to discuss”, as the narrator in the closing story says on the subject of Miss Marsalles’ financial situation (216). It is discarded into the region of the unspeakable.

This article proposes to explore how Dance of the Happy Shades interacts with the historical background of Southwestern Ontario by looking into the first three stories – “Walker Brothers Cowboy”, “The Shining Houses” and “Images” – from a contrapuntal perspective, that is, the perspectives of both the colonizer (in this case the Empire and the Euro Anglo settlers) and the colonized (First Nations people). As Edward Said explains in Culture & Imperialism, reading contrapuntally is reading “with a simultaneous awareness both of the metropolitan history that is narrated and of those other histories against which (and together with which) the dominating discourse acts.” (Said, 1993, 59). Alice Munro’s stories keep reminding us that familiar things, like the bush in “Images” – “the same bush” as notes the young girl (37) – can appear unfamiliar when perceived from a different angle. On the surface level, Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades is representative of the collective memory of Anglo white hegemonic culture obscuring Indigenous identity. But, below the surface layer of her stories, Munro slightly undermines the hegemonic discourse of the invisible Indian thanks to details buried like seeds beneath the surface, carrying with them the potential to grow into other stories if one looks closely enough.

2. Collective amnesia

In the fifties and sixties when Alice Munro began her writing career, the dark chapters of Canadian history regarding the government’s dealings with First Nations through treaty-making processes and broken promises, dispossession of land, relocation onto reserves, cultural assimilation policies, and disputed land claims, were largely omitted from official history. Dance of the Happy Shades reflects the state of the collective memory of the country at that time. It was only in 1960 that First Nations had acquired the right to vote without losing their status, a decisive step that would contribute to their voices gaining momentum as of the 1960s. It is interesting to note the evolution in the treatment of First Nations in Munro’s stories that appeared ten years after the publication of her debut collection, when Native voices had emerged more strongly, disturbing Canada’s collective memory with certain truths. In the story “Mischief” (in Who Do You Think You Are? 1978), Munro makes fun of her character Patrick as he engages in “a conversation about Indians” in which he upholds past assimilation policies that were, by the seventies, being revealed:

“Take them away,” said Patrick. “Take them away from their parents as soon as they’re born and put them in a civilized environment and educate them and they will turn out just as good as whites any day.” […]
Some girl said mildly, “Well, you know, there is their own culture.”
“Their culture is done for,” said Patrick. “Kaput.” (132-3)

No such radical views are exposed in Dance of the Happy Shades, published ten years earlier, although one could argue that the intimation of the absence of “Indians” is just as extreme. As a descendant of Scottish pioneers, Munro comes from a settler colony culture, a culture that did not encourage the expression of Indigenous culture. Being from a settler colony culture, Munro is in an “ambivalent” situation, for settler cultures are, in Ashcroft’s words, poised “between the centre from which they seek to differentiate themselves and the indigenous people who serve to remind them of their own problematic occupation of the country.” (Ashcroft, 1995, 152). Whether the apparent absence of Indigenous presence in Dance of the Happy Shades be deliberate omission or convenient forgetfulness, it is a reflection of the mainstream cultural amnesia that prevailed in Canada until recently. In The Inconvenient Indian, Thomas King classes Indians into three provocative categories: “1. Dead Indians, 2. Live Indians, 3. Legal Indians” (King, 2012, 73), and, in his distinctive down-to-earth manner, explains that “Live Indians were neither needed nor wanted. They were irrelevant, and as the nineteenth-century rolled into the twentieth century, Live Indians were forgotten, safely stored away on reservations and reserves or scattered in the rural backwaters and cityscapes of Canada and the United States. Out of sight, out of mind. Out of mind, out of sight.” (ibid., 61).

3. Selective remembering

Memory, an abiding theme in Munro’s oeuvre, plays a significant role throughout her first collection. From the outset, Munro draws attention to the ways the personal memories of her characters are subjected to selective remembering or to memory failure. To the mother’s insistence for her daughter to “remember” episodes of her regretted past, the young girl’s response is to “pretend to remember far less than I do” (5-6). In a similar fashion, Mary, in the next story, “pretend(s) to know less than she did” (19) while the neighbour, Mr Fullerton, who has mysteriously disappeared, “might of suffered a loss of memory” (21) according to his wife. As for “Images”, the story begins with: “Now that Mary McQuade had come, I pretended not to remember her.” (31). The young narrator is, once again, feigning forgetfulness, not confessing to memory failure as the young Helen does at the beginning of “Day of the Butterfly”: “I do not remember when Myra Sayla came to town” (100). And, of course, memory lies at the heart of “The Peace of Utrecht” where Maddy, too, simulates forgetfulness, when she says she “can’t” remember “what [their mother] was like before” (202). Munro is playing with the ability of her characters to remember and to forget certain personal episodes in their lives. The question that is raised here is to what extent does Munro herself, as a writer, apply this same strategy to the original inhabitants of Southwestern Ontario? Is she, like her characters, engaged in pretending to forget or pretending “to know far less than she did” (19)? Or, is memory of colonization simply being repressed in her stories?

4. Macro and microhistories

The very fact that Munro’s part of Huron County (that is, roughly, the inland environs of Wingham to those of Goderich on the coast of Lake Huron), has come to be identified as “Alice Munro Country” testifies to her sustained engagement with the region and its history. Coral Ann Howells notes that Munro’s interest lies within “microhistories rather than national history”, and more specifically in “the Anglo-Canadian pioneer history of Sowesto as she seeks to chronicle (sometimes to reconstruct or even invent) the untold stories that lie hidden within the body of official history.”(Howells, 2004, 6) Thus, notable attention has often been given to the signs of imperial history that mark the region through, for example, the names of places, streets and characters, all of which are predominantly of Scottish–Irish background. But, the local history of Sowesto was, from the beginning, inscribed within the national project of settlement. Alice Munro’s “microhistories” are at times suggestive of much greater macrohistorical concerns. For example, in “Walker Brothers Cowboy”, the term “country” (3,12,17) is used to identify both the nation and the countryside, just as the “national calamity” (4) – the Great Depression – reverberates and resonates with family calamity: “my mother has no time for the national calamity, only ours” (4), and, it is one that the father turns into “a comic calamity” (7), a striking oxymoron, like his “mournful-jolly” (7) voice, that yokes together his dark despair that he attempts to cover up with his antics. In “The Shining Houses”, how can Mary’s resistance towards the neighbours of her generation, those who want to evict Mrs Fullerton from her house, not resonate with the past imperial project of possession through Indigenous dispossession? Especially when Mary urges her neighbours to “remember” that Mrs Fullerton has “been here a long time”, adding: “She was here before most of us were born” (27). Any exploration of Alice Munro Country would, to my mind, need to address the First Nations who occupied the territory before colonial invasion and settlement. This is a point also made by Shelley Hulan who, commenting on a later story by Munro, “Meneseteung” (in Friend of My Youth, 1990), a story that sports the title of the Ojibway name of the Maitland River, rightly remarks that “one lone word”, like the Indian place name, does not suffice for critics to conclude that Munro acknowledges First Nations (Hulan, 2014, 262).

5. Indigenous references or historical artifacts on the surface layer

In Dance of the Happy Shades, conspicuous Indigenous traces are indeed scant. There is mention of “the Indians” and of “Lake Huron” (3) in “Walker Brother’s Cowboy”, of “savagery” (24) in “The Shining Houses”, while in “Images”, there is the river – the “Wawanash River” –, named after an Ojibway Chief; in “Boys and Girls”, there is mention of the fur trading companies and their calendars featuring “plumed adventurers” next to “magnificent savages” (111) and mention of the girl’s plans on making “a teepee” (124). In “Sunday Afternoon”, there is “the Ojibway”, a likely reference to the real Ojibway Hotel in Pointe au Baril in Georgian Bay, built at the turn of the 20th century, and, to close the list, in the last short story, there is the book by Canada’s white Indian, Grey Owl, “More Tales by Grey-Owl” (216), thrown in with the other unwanted “vintage” books distributed by Miss Marsalles to the children as annual gifts.

In “Walker Brothers Cowboy”, the young girl mentions “the Indians” only to underline their absence: “when the Indians were there”. Munro is not evoking the myth of the romanticized Indian as she does in “Boys & Girls” with the calendar picture of the oxymoronic “magnificent savages” (111), but the myth of the vanished Indian, a convenient myth for settlers for whom the erasure of Indigenous presence allowed them to feel more at home, a myth that was popularized in poems such as Duncan Campbell Scott’s “Indian Place Names” (1905), which begins with the telling lines: “The race has waned and left but tales of ghosts.” If a culture declares its presence through the act of naming places, this poem intimates that “the race has waned” when the only thing that remains is precisely a place name. In the young girl’s mind, “the Indians” are as extinct as “dinosaurs”: “I try to see that plain before me, dinosaurs walking on it, but I am not able even to imagine the shore of the Lake when the Indians were there, before Tuppertown.” (3). Ironically then, in not being able “to imagine” “the Indians”, the young girl ends up conjuring up an image, that is, the popular mainstream image of the vanished Indian. The Indians had not vanished though; they were simply invisible and had disappeared out of sight, having been placed on Indian reserves and in residential schools. The Indians were still there, and are still there, just as surely as Lake Huron is still there. In 1967, two years before the publication of the collection, the Department of Indian Affairs estimated that there were, at the least, around 33,000 Ojibway in Ontario (Schmalz, 1991, 286). Consequently, what seems to have vanished is not necessarily dead, and may reappear. Consider, for example, Mrs Fullerton’s belief that her husband’s “disappearing down the road on a summer day” (19) is not synonymous with his being dead: “He’s no more dead than I am” … May of gone up north, may of gone to the States, I don’t know. But he’s not dead. I would have felt it.” (20). My argument, which I will develop later, is that the Indian that the young girl is unable to imagine in this first childhood story resurfaces in the next childhood story, aptly named “Images”, under the guise of Joe Phippen, a threatening Indian Joe-like figure who appears along the Wawanash River.

To come back to Lake Huron, when the father invites his daughter out for a walk with the question “Want to go down and see if the Lake’s still there?” (1), he draws immediate attention to the central theme of the possibility of things disappearing and changing, a theme that permeates several stories. The naming of Lake Huron attests as much to former French presence in the region as to Indigenous presence. “Huron” is a hegemonically created misnomer, much as the word “Indian” is, seeing that the Indigenous nation that the French called “Hurons” were in fact “Wendats”. George Sioui, the leading French Canadian Wendat scholar, recounts that “the word is derived from the French hure (boar’s head), an image evoked by their frequent habit of leaving a central band of hair from front to back of their shaven heads, reminiscent of a boar’s mane” and that “’Huron’ was also used in the French of the day to designate an individual who was boorish, unmannerly and ‘savage.’” (Sioui 1999, 207). The name of Lake Huron is thus another case of a European word imposed on a place that was known by the local Ojibway as “Odauwau-gummauh” (Johnston, 2003, 6). Finally, in “Images”, the Maitland River is turned into the Wawanash River, spelt with an “a” instead of the usual “o” – “Wawanosh” – as in the Ojibway Chief’s name. Despite the slightly anglicised form, which allows Wawanash to better rhyme with “wash”, the name still “sounds Indian”.

This brief overview sheds light on the surface level of Munro’s stories where the remnant Native traces support the colonial assumptions that the Indians belong to a doomed race, for they seem to have either “vanished” as in “Walker Brothers Cowboy”, or have been objectified into a picture on a calendar, or made into a place name, or into a book, or even into a hotel so as to capture the imaginations of tourists. At “the Ojibway” hotel, in “Sunday Afternoon”, we soon discover that the back-to-nature experience is replaced by socializing, dancing, sailing, boating, and will potentially involve teenage “necking”: “Do you think I ought to start necking this summer?” (169) asks the young Margaret. Munro does not give into the myth of the romanticized Indian. At the Ojibway, the romanticizing the young girl has in mind is far less mystical than it is physical. The only object that comes close to expressing the Indigenous lifestyle is one of the books that Miss Marsalles hands out as a gift, and that nobody wants: More Tales by Grey Owl. Its authenticity is however undermined by the irony that Grey Owl never published a book by this name. The irony is further heightened by the fact that Grey Owl, Archibald Belaney by his British birth name, was not in fact an Indian.

owl_1456906271644-pngTales of an Empty Cabin by Wa-Sha-Quon-Asin (Grey Owl)
Source: Historical Perspectives on Canadian Publishing (McMaster University)

These surface level references are what Terrie Goldie would call “historical artifacts” which have “little connection to anything akin to contemporary life” (Goldie, 1995, 232), or, to what Thomas King would call “Dead Indian culture” (King, 2012, 58). The “Dead Indians” that King is talking about are not, as he indicates, “of the deceased sort”, but “the stereotypes and clichés that North America has conjured up out of experience and out of its collective imaginings and fears.” (ibid, 53).

6. Indigenous resonances in the underlying layers

Yet Dance of the Happy Shades dissimulates complexity beneath its realistic surface of apparent simplicity. Details proliferate and resonate, and sometimes, the intricate networks of meaning that lay buried below show through the surface layers of the stories. After positing the myth of the doomed Indian on the surface level, the underlying layers of the stories sometimes challenge this very same myth. Some of the stories attest to an underlying awareness of Indigenous issues. Other stories resonate with past (and present) Indigenous issues, such as land, expropriation, boundaries, and even social class and racial divisions as in “The Day of the Butterfly”. The issues are displaced on a smaller, local scale.

Some stories collide with the Native perspective of seeing things, like the question of land, for example. The word “territory” that keeps cropping up in the book, especially in “Walker Brothers Cowboy”, cannot but resonate with historical echoes in Canada, a country of treaty-making. After enumerating the different towns that compose her father’s sales route, the narrator reflects: “that is all his territory” (3, emphasis mine) and later, she asks her father: “Are we still in your territory?”, and she insists a second time: “I thought we were out of your territory.” (10, emphasis mine) Heavy emphasis is cast on the repeated word “territory”, thereby acknowledging the importance of the issue of land division, but this is undermined by the use of the singular possessive adjectives, “his” and “your”, attached to the term “territory”, which reinforces the concept of individual landownership, a concept that is foreign to First Nations. In the story “Sunday Afternoon”, the issue of individual landownership is rendered even more explicit with the Gannetts’ privately owned island in Georgian Bay and Alva’s belief that there is “nothing in sight that was not theirs. The rocks, the sun, the pine trees, and the deep, cold water of the Bay.” (169). On the subject of the importance of land, Thomas King explains that “Land has always been a defining element of Aboriginal culture”, and that it is “the question that really matters” (King, 2012, 218).

7. “The Shining Houses”: history being repeated

The story “The Shining Houses” is a case in point. First of all, the poetic sounding title is reminiscent of the Native way of expressing place names, as in the place names of Shining Tree, or The Shining Sea, or even The Lake of the Shining Waters as Lake Ontario is nicknamed according to the belief in the Iroquois origin of the name. The title “The Shining Houses” is misleading for there is nothing poetic about these houses, for they are not even “poetically ugly” (213), as Miss Marsalles’ former Toronto home is described in “Dance of the Happy Shades”. Nor is there anything Native about them in their very linear pattern, and their owners’ disregard for the land, or “mother-earth” as First Nations refer to it. When the title first appears in the description of the houses, the houses are further described as being “new”, and, significantly, “white”: “The new, white and shining houses, set side by side in long rows in the wound of the earth.” (23, emphasis mine) It’s the old houses, the “surviving houses” in “the old wilderness city” (24) that “express something like savagery in their disorder” (24) that are suffused with an Indigenous sense of place. These are the houses, – the houses that have “survived”–, that pose a problem to the new generation of settlers, seen by Mary, as “people who win” (29). “For non-Natives, land is primarily a commodity, something that has value for what you can take from it or what you can get for it”, writes Thomas King (2012, 218). Carl, the real estate agent-neighbour, illustrates this perfectly:

“She’s been here forty years, now we’re here,” Carl said. “So it goes. And whether you realize it or not, just standing there that house is bringing down the resale value of every house on this street. I’m in the business, I know.” (27)

“The Shining Houses” provides a striking example of history repeating the colonial process of land dispossession. This is a story about the former colonized, represented by Mrs Fullerton, in turn, undergoing the process of colonization by the new inhabitants with the help of “the law” (29). “It’s the law”, states the real estate expert. Although the story is set in Vancouver, Munro gives Mrs Fullerton the name of one of the directors of the Canada Company that was engaged in selling land from the Huron Tract to settlers at the beginning of the 19th century. As with the name “Wawanosh”, she modifies her character’s name, here by changing the vowel “a” to an “e”: Fullarton becomes Fullerton. John Fullarton’s name was given to the township of Fullarton in Southwestern Ontario (Lee, 2004, 230). Setting the story in modern-day Vancouver serves to distance the colonial practices of dispossession in Ontario by displacing them in time and in space. Moreover, the hens that walk around freely in Mrs Fullerton’s garden happen to be “Plymouth Rock” hens: “A bold Plymouth Rock walked across the bottom step” (20), bringing back to memory the Mayflower Pilgrim settlers at Plymouth.

This is a story of history being repeated, and thus, repetitiveness is the abiding stylistic feature at the beginning of the story, with the repetition of Mrs Fullerton’s name and of her “eggs”:

Mary sat on the back steps of Mrs Fullerton’s house, talking – or really listening – to Mrs Fullerton, who sold her eggs. She had come in to pay the egg money, on her way to Edith’s Debbie’s birthday party. (19, emphasis mine)

Ambivalence, a feature that characterizes settler colony culture, is also prevalent, for “her eggs” can be read as a possessive adjective or a possessive pronoun. This ambivalence draws attention to these “eggs”, hatched by Mrs Fullerton’s Plymouth Rock hens. The eggs symbolize new beginnings in this postcolonial context, new beginnings with the new subdivision being built. But, at the same time, these new beginnings are a continuity of colonial ways of dealing with the purchase of land. Finally, while the strange double possessive case at the end of the sentence (“Edith’s Debbie’s birthday party”) draws attention to the idea that the party is just as much Edith’s as it is Debbie’s, it also confirms the concept of repetition at work in the story.

“The Shining Houses” testifies to awareness of some of the unfair and deceitful colonial treaty-making terms, such as those of the Bruce Peninsula Treaty (1854), obtained through intimidation, and against which the Saugeen Ojibway filed land claims in 1994. Significantly, part of the basis of these still unresolved claims concern road allowances ((For a recent update concerning the land claims, read Jeff Gray. “Divisive conflict in Sauble Beach is older than Canada Itself”. The Globe and Mail, 30 August, 2015. Web. 5 January 2016.)), which happens to be the very argument advanced by Carl in his strategy to dislodge Mrs Fullerton from her home:

“There’s an allowance for a lane, there always has been, the idea being if the area ever got built up they would put a lane through. But they never thought that would happen, people just built where they liked. She’s got part of her house and half a dozen shacks sitting right where the lane has to go through. So what we do now, we get the municipality to put through a lane. We need a lane anyway. Then she has to get out. It’s the law.” (26-7)

History shows that “the law” is not so simple. In the story, the idea of signing a treaty has been replaced by a “petition” (28) that the members of the new generation try to talk Mary into signing.

8. De-indigenizing the indigenous in “Walker Brothers Cowboy’ and “Images”

From white Canadian perspective, which is that of the young narrator’s in the childhood stories, the Indian is the unknown, the Indian is Other. The Indian is as indigenous to the land as are the trees and the animals. In the eyes of the young girl, what is perfectly local and indigenous to the land is perceived by the young girl as being foreign, mysterious or exotic, namely, the maple trees and the muskrats. In “Walker Brothers Cowboy”, the homesick mother seeks solace from her “headaches” by lying down in the porch, “shaded by heavy branches”, and says: “I look up at that tree and I think I am at home” (6). In her new house in Tuppertown, the mother is not quite at home. It is meaningful that the familiar maple tree, the leaf of which symbolizes the country, should remind her of home. On the first page of the story, the daughter walks by the trees that shade the streets:

The street is shaded, in some places, by maple trees whose roots have cracked and heaved the sidewalk and spread out like crocodiles in bare yards. (1)

The maple tree is local and indigenous to the region, yet its roots appear to be “like crocodiles”, that is, something exotic, alien, something from far away. In “Images”, the child’s imagination operates in a similar manner when she sees the local muskrat caught in the father’s trap, for she associates it to something foreign. Floating on the water, the dead muskrat is perceived to be “like something tropical, a dark fern” (36). Curiously enough, the indigenous trees and the muskrat are exoticized. Munro’s character de-indigenizes the indigenous. In the case of the muskrat, this is all the more ironical when one is aware of the Ojibway creation story that celebrates the muskrat as a life giver – Muskrat being the only animal that was able to dive deep enough to bring up a handful of earth that eventually would grow into the continent. By contrast, the muskrat is here associated with death; its “stiff, soaked body” is “a fact of death” (36).

As for the maple tree roots, they are tenacious, and strong enough to crack and heave the sidewalk. As the roots spread out onto the surface of the earth, they seem to be writing out a complex story that is suggestive of origins, of survival and of resilience. The visible roots offer an intimation, a mere glimpse of the story, the greater part of which lies buried underneath with the deeper roots in the earth. The twisted and interwoven surface roots “spread out like crocodiles”, that is, like prehistoric animals that have survived, unlike their cousins the dinosaurs that appear in the next important image of the story, that of the formation of the lakes. The two images are connected. The image of the father’s five fingers trying to recreate a miniature map of the five great lakes echoes back to the previous maple tree image with the mention of the dinosaurs and of the ice, “creeping” in crocodile fashion (3) while the father’s fingers are said to be “spread” out, like the maple roots, although they lack the force to imprint the “rock-hard ground” (3). The father admits that he cannot leave his trace on the land: “Well, the old ice cap had a lot more power behind it than this hand has” (3). In the manner of the tree roots which leave their mark on the land, it is nature’s “fingers of ice” that have written the geological story of Lake Huron.

The image of the maple roots pushing up the sidewalk is one of the rare upward movements in the story which has an otherwise general downward movement. The downward movement is marked thematically with the father’s social downfall and the run-down neighbourhood with its “falling-down sheds” (9), but spatially as well, beginning with the first line where the father asks his daughter to go “down” to the lake with him, and this downward movement is reiterated in the following paragraph as father and daughter walk “down” the street on their way to the lake, where the father provides another “movement into the layers of time” (Blodgett, 1988, 18) with his geological lesson on how the great lakes were created. His lesson offers images that echo the opening image of the roots. Like the roots that evoke origins, the father’s geology lesson is what First Nations would call a “creation story” that tells about the origins of the land, although it is not an Indigenous version that appears here.

9. Imperialist nostalgia

“Walker Brothers Cowboy” is set during the Great Depression. The year 1931, Alice Munro’s birth year, was a pivotal year in Canadian politics, being the year that the Dominion of Canada gained full independence from Britain (apart from Constitutional matters) with the passing of the Statute of Westminster. The year marks Canada’s transition from being colonial to post-colonial.

Mrs Jordan’s personal depression, an echo of the Great Depression, is not due to economical reasons: the family has always been poor, but “that was a different sort of poverty” (4). What Mrs Jordan regrets is her husband’s former work in the fur trade as a fox farmer, which harks back to colonial times. The former fox farmer turned door-to-door salesman is caught between the waning British influence and the rising American influence. He has become an Americanized Canadian travelling salesman. These new postcolonial times bring changes, and it is the recent encroachment of American businesses, the “new wave of economic imperialism” (Rae, 2004, 57) that depresses the mother. It is significant that she should only acknowledge Mrs Oliphant, “the only neighbour she talks to”, even though she, too, “has come down in the world” (4). The Oliphant name, resounds in distinct British colonial allusions to Laurence Oliphant, who served, on his arrival in Canada, as Superintendent General of Indian Affairs to dispossess the Ojibway of the Bruce Peninsula in 1854 with Treaty N° 72 ((For further reading, visit the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation site : http://www.nawash.ca/origins/)).

The mother, like the majority of Munro’s characters, gives no thought to First Nations. Oblivious, the mother holds on staunchly to the British colonial era, befriending only Mrs Oliphant, and walking down the street in her “navy blue” dress like “a lady” (5), preferring to see her husband as a “gentleman” (10) rather than as a “pedlar” (4). The mother is struck with nostalgia, nostalgia for colonial times. Nostalgia was originally a medical condition, a severe form of homesickness, that is inscribed in the etymology of the word: algia (Greek for “pain”) + nostos (Greek for “return home”). Nostalgia is wanting to be back home because of the severe pain endured by being away. Like his wife, Ben Jordan, who would have liked to have been a fur trapper, that is the first type of a “travelling salesman” that existed in Canada, also regrets the days of British colonialism. These days are not quite a golden age, but a “silver” age, when he “raised silver foxes” (4). Silver punctuates this story in which “grey” prevails, and is attached to the wistful past: the silver foxes (4), the Ontario-made Silverwoods Ice Cream (1), the maple trees that provide shade (which are usually silver maples), Nora’s farm house, “dried to silver” (10), and her old mother with the “drop of silver” that comes from her eye (12). The father’s joviality and banter belie the undercurrent of nostalgia that he tries to dissimulate.

His cowboy song is most certainly one of the most subversive narrative fragments that reveals his sense of nostalgia. It is something like a conundrum, a riddle. Behind the American sounding words hide local nuances that recall the days of colonial loyalty to Great Britain. The song goes:

“Old Ned Fields, he now is dead,
So I am ridin’ the route instead….”
And continues:
“Wisht I was back on the Rio Grande, plungin’ through the dusky sand.” (7)

The curious phrase “dusky sand” may sound poetic but in fact the adjective “dusky”, here meaning darkish in colour, is also used in “euphemistic or poetic reference to black or other dark-skinned people” (OED). It is, as Terrie Goldie indicates, an adjective that belongs to the discourse of British imperialism: “Terms such as ‘a war-dance,’ ‘war-whoop,’ ‘tomahawk,’ and ‘dusky’ are immediately suggestive everywhere of the indigene” (Goldie, 1995, 232). Furthermore, Southern Ontario has its own “Rio Grande”, the Grand River, which is historically tied up with British Loyalists. Land on each side of the Grand River was given by decree (the Halidmand Proclamation of 1784) to the Iroquois, led by the Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant, for their loyalty to the British during the American Revolution. Joseph Brant led the Iroquois from New York to resettle in southern Ontario, near Brantford, which is thus named after the Mohawk Chief, and to this day, The Six Nations of the Grand River Territory remains the largest First Nations reserve in Ontario.

joseph-brant-painting-by-george-romney-1776-2-_1456906376338-jpgJoseph Brant by George Romney, 1776

The Mohawk Chief (whose real name is Tha-yen-da-ne-gea) was also known for his opposition to American expansion. Brantford is where Nora’s sister Isabel now lives (13), another person from Ben Jordan’s past. The Grand River and Brantford are historically bound to British loyalism. In other words, then, behind the song that sounds American lies a submerged, subversive narrative telling about the father’s nostalgia for British empire.

By submerging this Canadian-British layer of presence behind the words of the American song, Munro subversively suggests that the travelling salesman, the cowboy on the “route”, yearns to return to the country’s past British “roots”, but to a place, like the Grand River, where the Indians were British allies against the Americans.

10. The spirit of the Wawanash River

In the childhood stories, acknowledgement of Indigenous presence has receded deep below the surface level, where, as Coral Ann Howells writes, “the secrets of history” “remain hidden with the landscape” (Howells, 2004, 13). In “Walker Brothers Cowboy”, it is buried below the earth, in the roots of the maple trees and buried too in the allusion to the Grand River in Brantford. In “Images”, it comes from “away down in the middle of [the river], some hidden place where the water issued with a roar from underground.” (37). In this case, it is the noise that comes from “away down”:

The noise the river made was not loud but deep, and seemed to come from away down in the middle of it, some hidden place where the water issued with a roar from underground. (37)

The “roar” made by the river recalls the biblical image of the Holy Spirit that comes from above: “And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind.” (Acts 2:1) Munro distorts the biblical image to bestow a spiritual note to the animistic “roar” that comes from down below.

The description of the river, which bears the name of the Ojibway Chief, Chief Wawanosh, foreshadows the emergence of Joe Phippen in the landscape, the same Joe Phippen who lives “down in the ground”, “in a hole in the ground” (39). It is as though Joe were the embodiment of the spirit of the Wawanash River, of Chief Wawanosh, which would account for Munro‘s not choosing to call the Maitland River by its real Ojibway name: the Meneseteung. The two descriptions, - the river and Joe - need to be read in conjunction with each other for their resonances. In the description of the river, the girl distinguishes the water from the current and compares it to the wind:

Then we went along the river, the Wawanash River, which was high, running full, silver in the middle where the sun hit it and where it arrowed in to its swiftest motion. That is the current, I thought, and I pictured the current as something separate from the water, just as the wind was separate from the air and had its own invading shape. (36-7)

This distinction is one between matter and spirit, body as opposed to soul. The current, like the wind, is a mysterious unseen force, it is the anima that animates the river, that allows it to be “running full, silver in the middle where the sun hit it and where it arrowed in to its swiftest motion.” (emphasis mine) The “silver” water that “arrow(s)” is the key image here conjuring up the image of an Indian arrow, that will, in Joe Phippen’s hand, take the shape of “a little axe, or hatchet”, not to say a tomahawk. The “little axe, or hatchet” that Joe carries is “gleaming where the sun caught it” (37) just as the river is “silver” “where the sun hit it” (36). The audible becomes visible with the sight of the silent arrival of Joe, “a man making his way down” (37): “He made no noise coming through the bushes and moved easily, as if he followed a path I could not see.” (37). Joe Phippen instils a contradictory combination of “fear” and “recognition” (38) within the girl.

The strange man encountered in the bush represents the pervasive cultural fears of the outsider, of the Other, of the dark shadowy Indian, “the thing you have always known was there” (38). With his axe, his whiskey drinking habits, and his cave-like home, old Joe is characterized as being degenerate, recalling “that murdering half-breed” (53) Injun Joe in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, the epitome of evil, whose corrupt life comes to an end in a cave. Moreover, the description of Joe’s face reveals certain distinctive Native features: “He was dark, with a high bald forehead, hair long behind the ears, deep vertical creases in his cheeks.” (37); his body, clad in “camouflaging clothes” blends in with the bush and is at ease in the bush thanks to “his long clever legs” (37). Once back home, the father says that Joe “lives up in no man’s land beyond the bush.” (43) By “No man’s land”, the father means out in the middle of nowhere, yet “no man’s land” is also the prosaic way of referring to the imperialist doctrine of terra nullius, that is to say, the colonizers’ belief that the land could be claimed and settled on because it was empty of inhabitants: to them, it was nobody’s land.

Joe Phippen appears as a threatening character, but so too do “them Silases” (39) whom he blames for having burned down his house. The story of the mysterious and intimidating “Silases” who try to force Joe out of his place can be read as violent past colonial measures of Indigenous displacement. Joe not only lives like an animal in a burrow, he is hunted down by “them Silases” as if he were an animal. He explains to Ben: “It’s them Silases botherin me, Ben. They come by day and by night. People won’t ever quit botherin me. I can hear them on the roof at night.” (41). Who are these men who try to dislodge Joe from his underground home? When the young girl asks her father “Who is the Silases?”, the father discards Joe’s story by saying that the Silases are “Nobody”, adding as if annoyed by the question: “Just nobody” (43). But, instead of denying the existence of the Silases, his answer, like Ulysses’ to the Cyclops, serves to conceal the nature of the identity of the Silases. Although Joe’s story is not believed and his sense of persecution is passed off as craziness, the father later admits that he hopes “they don’t get him for a while yet. Old Joe.” (43). Significantly, the father here refers to Joe as “Old Joe”, an appellation tinged with affection and condescension that likens Joe to the dead muskrat caught earlier in the day: “a good old rat”, “a big old king rat” (36). In its death, the wild muskrat becomes a simple “rat”, losing its “musk” that marks its territory. Joe, like the dead muskrat, has become inoffensive. It seems that “Old Joe” is doomed to disappear too, for “they” will eventually “get him”.


Whether intentionally or unintentionally, Alice Munro’s writing causes Indigenous presence to recede out of sight. The few remnant Indigenous traces that appear on the surface layer of the stories testify to the myth of the vanished Indian Invisibility, however, is not synonymous with nonexistence. The collection of stories in Dance of the Happy Shades acknowledges An Indigenous spirit emerging from beneath deep layers, as with the tree roots, or the river, Munro so frequently refers to. The “Indians” themselves are absent, reduced to ghosts, ghosts dwelling in the land – invisible, yet ineradicable. Like the pine trees in “A Trip to the Coast”, they are “like a company of ghosts” “retreating into the distance” (172).

Ce texte est issu d'une communication donnée lors d'une journée d'étude sur le programme de l'agrégation, organisée à l'Université de Caen Normandie le 8 janvier 2016 (organisation : Lorie-Anne Rainville & Penny Starfield, Laboratoire ERIBIA)


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Pour citer cette ressource :

Lorie-Anne Rainville, "“When the Indians were there”: memory and forgetfulness in Alice Munro’s «Dance of the Happy Shades»", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), mars 2016. Consulté le 14/04/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-americaine/litterature-contemporaine/when-the-indians-were-there-memory-and-forgetfulness-in-alice-munro-s-dance-of-the-happy-shades