Ethnographies of Empire and Resistance: “Wilderness” and the “Vanishing Indian” in Alexis de Tocqueville’s “A Fortnight in the Wilderness” and John Tanner’s “Narrative of Captivity”

By Joseph Galbo.

Published by The Social Sciences Collection

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Article: Electronic $US5.00

Alexis de Tocqueville was critical of the destructive implications of American expansion and this sentiment is articulated most forcefully in his essay “A Fortnight in the Wilderness” written in 1831 during his American travels to Saginaw, Michigan. “Fortnight” is a biographical adventure story and an ethnography of the western-moving American frontier. Because “Fortnight” deals with the themes of the “wilderness” and the “vanishing Indian” of the American and Canadian frontiers, an instructive comparison can be made between “Fortnight” and a text narrated by John Tanner, someone Tocqueville met and interviewed during his travels in 1831 and who became a key source of Tocqueville’s knowledge about the North American Indians. Tanner’s “A Narrative of the Captivity and Adventures of John Tanner (US Interpreter at Saut de Ste. Marie) during thirty years of residence among the Indians in the Interior of North America” (1830) is both adventure literature and an ethnography of native life. Tocqueville used Tanner’s “Narrative,” in his work “Democracy in America,” to illustrate what white Indian experts of the time called the “miseries” of “savage” life, or what later commentators would patronizingly call the “pathologies” - alcoholism, internal warfare, disease, loss of territory - that would eventually doom Indians in North America to extinction. Yet there is more to Tanner’s text than this dispiriting message. One of the appeals of Tanner’s narrative today, and one of the reasons why there has been a reassessment of his text, is that it details the survival of native people as they move further westward and adapt to new geographies. Tocqueville is now a canonical figure in the American political imagination, a “prophet” of American democracy. Tanner, if we bother to think of him at all, is remembered as a lost soul, a marginal figure who no longer belongs either to the native or the white culture he sought to rejoin. But when we read their texts together we can, as I have tried to do in my research, see them as documents that belong both to their time and to ours. They make statements, albeit in strikingly different ways, about geographic landscapes and colonial identities, about European imperial fantasies and native struggles for survival, about Canadian and American nation building, and they tell us much about the uses of ethnography, language, and interpretation.

Keywords: Ethnography, Native Studies, Captivity Narratives, Geography and Identity, American, Canadian, Ojibwa People

International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, Volume 4, Issue 5, pp.197-214. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.446MB).

Dr. Joseph Galbo

Associate Professor of Sociology, University of New Brunswick, Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada

I teach Sociology and Information and Communication Studies at the University of New Brunswick, Saint John. My work is in the area of historical and cultural analysis as well as in film and communication studies. I have written on intellectuals and politics, culture and geography, and representation in the media. Recently my research focus has been on ethnography and native studies and the work I plan to present in the conference reflects my interdisciplinary interest in ethnography, representation, culture and history.


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