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The Tragedy of Duncan Campbell Scott

In 1862, Isabella Campbell MacCallum, often better known as the wife of Reverend William Campbell Scott, gave birth to a baby boy. Since she was an Onondaga woman from Kahnawake, she gave him an Onondaga name: Dehawennontye 'Floating Voice' or 'Words Flying in Both Directions.' The new baby's father gave him a different name: Duncan Campbell Scott.

Outside of Canada, Duncan Campbell Scott is best known as a middling poet and short story writer (in Canada often as a 'Confederation poet'), whose strangely contradictory poetry still inspires papers and lengthy debates. On one hand, his poems are deeply evocative, praising Canada's untamed wilderness and the 'noble savage.' On the other, many poems in which an Indigenous character figures have a distinctly sinister tone, and in fact, so does untamed nature. Accordingly, some critics argue that Scott's depiction of Indigenous culture was sympathetic, even positive, while others strongly disagree. The disagreement is far from academic.

Reverend Scott was an influential Wesleyan Methodist missionary and good friends with Prime Minister John A. MacDonald. In due time, he used his political connections to land his son Duncan a job with good long term prospects and the potential to exert great influence over a heathen population whom he felt strongly needed to be saved. In 1879, Duncan Campbell Scott became a civil servant in the federal Department of Indian Affairs.

Ironically, the Department of Indian Affairs in all its many incarnations since 18th century has employed many Indigenous people, especially as interpreters. Unlike them, Scott apparently never considered himself Indigenous, and never associated himself with that identity. Throughout his career he garnered a reputation for his musical and literary abilities, as well as that of a dutiful and effective public servant — at least, that was the general view of his non-Indigenous contemporaries.

Scott entered the Department of Indian Affairs not long after an important change in the relationship between the federal government and Indigenous nations. Indigenous nations had ceased to be valued as military allies as soon as it became clear that the War of 1812 was not likely to be repeated in the near future. By the late nineteenth century, it was widely believed that Indigenous peoples and their cultures were doomed to extinction. Duncan Campbell Scott subscribed wholeheartedly to this belief.

Accordingly, when he became the deputy superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs in 1913, he set about the task of meeting two goals: "...to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada who has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question, and no Indian department" and to cut costs.

From 1913 to 1932, he oversaw the establishment of a more extensive residential school system, and the separation of children from their families to attend them. He saw to it that laws making Indigenous spiritual practices illegal were enforced, nearly destroying the Sun Dance on the Plains and completely disrupting the Potlatch system on the northwest coast. He supervised the confiscation and sale of regalia, adding to his personal household collection in the process. Scott made it illegal for First Nations members or First Nations as a whole to retain lawyers in order to pursue land claims, and ordered the destruction of the traditional Haudenosaunee long house government, including the burning of all of that body's papers and the destruction of its regalia. Among his budget cuts was the severe scaling back of medical workers, contributing directly to Indigenous death tolls from flu and tuberculosis.

What made these actions even more tragic is the fact that Scott truly believed that he was doing what was best for the people affected1. He believed that anything less would amount to criminal abandonment of those who could be successfully assimilated. A deeply religious man, he became convinced that all Indigenous practices amounted to devil worship, and nothing but the most strict and swift measures would save their hapless practitioners from eternal damnation. It isn't clear what he actually knew about the social and cultural effects of his policies. It is clear that his own heritage began to haunt him.

Two of Scott's poems are especially famous. One of them is 'Powassan's Drum,' written shortly after the police raid on the Haudenosaunee long house government, in which the steady drumbeats of an angry medicine man set the pace of the meter. Indigenous drumming made Scott deeply uncomfortable. Eventually this discomfort led him to stop playing the only percussion instrument he had ever used, his well-loved grand piano. The other poem was written nearly a quarter century earlier than 'Powassan's Drum.' It's name?

'The Onondaga Madonna.'

Copyright © C. Osborne 2017
Last Modified: Monday, August 26, 2013 23:43:36 MDT