Differences between Settlers and Indigenous Nations

Contact in Canadian Literature: The Use of Gothic Elements in the Negotiation of Cultural Differences between Settlers and Indigenous Nations


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Common elements of gothic literature include mystery, fear, omens, curses, preternatural settings, gloomy atmospheres with a hint of being haunted, some dimension of the supernatural, romance, an arch-villain, nightmare situations, anti-heroes and ladies in distress (Mulvey-Roberts; Smith). Popular examples on both sides of the Atlantic include works by the Bronte sisters, works by Poe, and Shelley’s Frankenstein. The gothic was a popular genre form in the 19th century. It was romantic, vibrant, dark, brooding, frightening, exciting, and visceral. It resonated with readers because after a century of Enlightenment (hyper-emphasis on reason and naturalism), the romantic era had ushered in something desperately needed: feeling. Thus, authors of the 19th century, like Duncan Campbell Scott and Pauline Johnson, found elements of the gothic genre to be a useful way to explore and express their feelings and sentiments on the topic of cultural interaction between the indigenous nations and the settlers of Canada. This paper will show how Scott with his “The Onondaga Madonna” (1898) and Johnson with her “Pagan in St. Paul’s Cathedral” use the same gothic elements to shape two completely different perspectives and to create a unique, otherworldly effect that they want their words to have on the reader.

The Onondaga Madonna

The term “Madonna” was one used and reserved for the Mother of God. The great sculptors and artists of the Christian era created numerous depictions of the Madonna, most famous among them perhaps Michelangelo’s, which shows the Virgin holding her dead Son in her lap following His removal from the cross. As missionaries from Europe spread throughout the world, other ethnicities had their own Madonnas. There is the Virgin of Guadalupe, whose image is distinctly Spanish, for example. Thus, at first glance, the “Onondaga Madonna” appears to be a poem about a Madonna done in the likeness of the Onondaga people of Canada. Indeed, it may even be so—but the depiction is far from flattering. Most Madonna depictions emphasize beauty and grace; Scott’s Madonna is depicted like the mother of a doomed race, violent and stubborn. The integration of images and contexts causes the poem to have a bizarre quality that is perfectly gothic in tone.

The gothic genre is about creating an air of mystery, suspense, dread, and fear. It is about tapping into the undercurrent of nature that is primal, dark, savage, fallen from grace, and baring it for the reader in a slow burn kind of way. This is what Scott does in his poem about the Onondaga woman holding her infant child. It is not quite a parody of the Christian Madonna, but it does compare the Onondaga woman and child with the Virgin and Child image associated with the Christian Madonna. In doing so, Scott creates a kind of monster Madonna, just as Victor Frankenstein created a monster man. The difference is that Frankenstein’s monster was an accident that the creator went on to reject: he was aiming for something beautiful and the output disgusted him. Scott’s creation is deliberate and he uses irony to contrast the savage appearance of the Onondaga woman with the graceful image of the Virgin Mary that most people will automatically think of when they hear the word Madonna.

The Scott uses mystery and fear to set up the poem in the first two lines: “She stands full-throated and with careless pose, / This woman of a weird and waning race” (Scott 1-2). The first question to ask is this: Is Scott describing an actual Madonna made for the Onondaga? Or is he describing an Onondaga woman and child? The actual subject is unclear and context does not provide any hints. All that can be discerned is that the woman is not “European” and therefore she is “weird” and of a “waning race”—and this phrase suggests implicitly that the European settlers are going to drive the race of the Onondaga out of existence. Underlying these words is a dark, menacing threat of violence and death. Yet it does not come from the woman but from the author of the text, who sees her race as doomed.

Scott gives more words to help the reader see what he sees: “The tragic savage lurking in her face, / Where all her pagan passion burns and glows” (3-4). From these lines one can surmise that the author is in fact describing an Onondaga woman because he refers to her passion as “pagan”—i.e., not Christian. She is thus to be taken as a pagan Madonna, a representation of her people and her race, which is seen as “tragic” and “savage,” words that carry gothic weight along with “passion,” and the emphasis on feeling and visceral experience. Her passion “burns and glows” Scott explains, and she is like an ember dying on the fire but not yet extinguished. She is a tragic creature and therefore in the mold of Frankenstein’s monster—another weird, savage, passionate creation scorned and marginalized and pushed to violence. These words of Scott are strange and unusual for one writing about a Madonna, but Scott seems to think it is okay because he is describing a pagan, an indigenous member of the Onondaga. She is something altogether different from, say, the Sistine Madonna. The Sistine Madonna has nothing hideous in her. The Onondaga Madonna on the hand could seemingly pass for the bride of Frankenstein’s monster, if one is able to read into what Scott is saying.

She is described as one who has no decent breeding, no class, no culture, no refinement: “Her blood is mingled with her ancient foes, / And thrills with war and wildness in her veins” (5-6). Scott indicates that there is no purity of race in her, since her ancestors were likely enslaved or mixed with the slaves of other tribes taken in combat. He sees her as a type of mongrel, a mix of races; moreover, there is nothing genteel or gentle in her. She likes war the way only a male warrior would be expected to like it back in Europe or in a civilized world. She is wild and this wild spirit courses through her blood. She is untamed and untutored and uncivilized. These are her defects, one gathers from Scott’s point of view. He does not highlight these qualities and attributes as admirable. They are viewed with horror, which is the essence of the gothic genre. The gothic brings the horror forward so as to shock, and the reader is surely shocked by this Onondaga Madonna, whose title and characteristics seem to mock the title and characteristics of the Christian Madonna.

Why does Scott do this? As Salem-Wiseman points out, Scott was of the opinion that “the white man’s ways were the best” (121). He saw the indigenous people as something shocking and terrifying: they were primitive and without grace. They were like the monsters of the gothic literature that had been about since Shelley’s Frankenstein—only they were real. Who knew the horrors, the phantoms, the killings and grizzly demeanor of their people? That is what Scott seems to suggest in his words as he paints this Onondaga Madonna like a mad, primitive, wild woman of the indigenous Canadian population. He looks at her in this manner because in his mind, the civilized European, Christian ways make sense and everything that fails to conform to that standard is shocking, pitiful and in need of help.

Yet here is a woman who has not integrated with the civilized society: “Her rebel lips are dabbled with the stains / Of feuds and forays and her father’s woes” (7-8). She is still the rebel—like the monster rejected by his creator in Shelley’s gothic novel. Only here it appears that Scott is the creator openly rejecting his creation, casting her as a rebel, like Milton’s Satan. Her mouth and face are blood-stained like a wild animal, a vicious creature that is not to be trusted. Scott shifts his focus from her face to that which she clutches at her bosom: a child, which Scott calls “the latest promise of her nation’s doom” (10). Children are usually associated with hope and promise—but not for the Onondaga. Scott is essentially consigning the entire race to perdition. They are doomed and the child instead of being a promise of new beginnings is a promise of defeat, for he is nothing but another warrior—“the primal warrior gleaming in his eyes” (12). The child will grow to be rebellious like his mother, to fight against the civilizing influences of the settlers. Thus, Scott places a kind of omen or curse—a gothic element—upon the woman and her child. He does not hope for their inclusion into his world and society but rather asserts that their future is doom. The woman and her child are cast like villains or anti-heroes in the poem. She an anti-Madonna and the child an anti-Christ: those are the images that the author evokes with his words.

Scott uses these gothic elements to create fear in the mind of the reader. The reader is meant to conjure up the image of an indigenous woman who lives to undermine the civilized world, who lives to snarl at it because that is how she has been bred and brought up—to snarl at a world she is not part of. Her offspring, Scott warns the reader, will be just like her: vicious, uncouth, gloomy in manner, and primitive in aspect. They are to be avoided, like ghosts or monsters in a castle, if one knows what is best for one’s self.

The Other Perspective

Johnson provides the other perspective. As the daughter of a Mohawk chief and an English woman, Johnson grew up between two cultures and worlds (Gray, Thomas). She identified with the Mohawk and saw herself as a pagan in a world that wanted her to conform to its Christian worldview. Thus, in her essay “Pagan in St. Paul’s Cathedral,” the reader is given the perspective that one might have heard from the Onondaga Madonna had she been given a voice to talk.

The essay begins by identifying the strangeness of the setting, just as Scott emphasizes the weirdness of his subject. The gothic element is there from the start, only it is used differently because Johnson is not describing an indigenous setting in Canada but rather a cathedral in London. To her, the daughter of a Mohawk, this setting is alien. She states of the cathedral: “So this is the place where dwells the Great White Father, ruler of many lands, lodges, and tribes, in the hollow of whose hands is the peace that rests between the once hostile red man and white” (Johnson). This identification of the supernatural is another gothic element that Johnson uses to embellish the characteristics of the subject and to heighten its significance. Johnson wants the reader to see the cathedral as an indigenous person might see it—not as a white settler would see it. Johnson is challenging the reader to put himself into the shoes of the indigenous person, to think outside the box. There is no condemnation in her voice—just a touch of otherworldliness that gives the essay its supernatural character.

She describes the King of England as the Great White Father, which is how he is known by the Iroquois of Canada. There is, however, no scorn like that felt in the poem by Scott. There is irony and mirth, like Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey. It is not a devilish gothic nature that pervades the essay. Thus, Johnson can make statements about the Great White Father like: “For once he came to us in our far-off Canadian reserves, and with his own hand fastened decorations and medals on the buckskin coats of our oldest chiefs, just because they and their fathers used their tomahawks in battle in the cause of England.” It is a humorous anecdote that explains the relation between the Great White Father and the redskins.

She stands in London and sees with the eyes of her people and looks beyond the great tall buildings of the city to see her own people back in her land, living in their teepees and riding horses. Her heart is there, not in London. Nonetheless, she is called to the church, to St. Paul’s cathedral, “where the paleface worships the Great Spirit, and through whose portals he hopes to reach the happy hunting grounds” (Johnson). The essay emphasizes the supernatural because the essayist is a fish out of water: she is outside her own element in a far away land, and in such a case it is difficult to identify villains and anti-heroes. She is not quite a damsel in distress, but is a damsel, and what distress she feels is supernatural: she is facing a church unfamiliar to her, where the Great Spirit is worshipped by people whose ways are not her own.

Johnson enters the church and turns her attention to the atmosphere therein, and here the gothic elements of mood and atmosphere are felt strongest. She describes the place as brooding—“the music brooded everywhere”—as though the Great Spirit were entombed inside and not only to leave. The brooding music is like a drum that beats in the ears, the pent-up frustration of the Great Spirit walled up inside the church, separated from the world He made, entombed by the people He created as though their prisoner. It is a gothic sense and gothic illustration that inverts the relationship between man and God and makes a slave or prisoner of the Great Spirit and a cruel master of man. But that is the mood set by Johnson’s description of the interior of the church.

Yet instead of seeing the worship of the palefaces inside the church, her mind turns once more to her brethren across the sea and she seems them, warriors of the land, out in the prairie where they conduct their worship of the Great Spirit. Instead of being transported to heaven by the sights and sounds of the church, she is transported away from them as their the Great Spirit were lifting her and flying her back to her own land: “The deep-throated organ and the boy’s voices were gone; I heard instead the melancholy incantations of our own pagan religionists. The beautiful dignity of our great sacrificial rites seemed to settle about me, to enwrap me in its garment of solemnity and primitive stateliness” (Johnson). The effect is more mysterious and more supernatural than what Scott achieves in his cynical, satirical and ironic poem on the Indigenous Madonna. Johnson is writing as one of the Indigenous people and giving free reign to the Great Spirit that inspires. Scott gives free reign to a biting cynicism that dwells within one after centuries of reform and revolution have cut the heart out of a nation, a culture and a people.

Johnson seems to be aware of that. She sees the paleface worship with lip and tongue whereas her people worship with movement of the feet and dance. She is bewildered by the lack of euphoric demonstration by the paleface in worship. It is as though there is no joy in Protestant England, in the services of the Church of England, in the worship at St. Paul’s. It is as though the life has been sucked out of the people, starting centuries back when their king was excommunicated and started his own church after his own fashion, full of excommunicated souls floundering without life in a great walled-up cathedral where they thought to keep the Great Spirit that had escaped them. Johnson seems to know better. The Great Spirit can sooner be seen and understood in the plains of Canada than here in dead London, in the stoned vault that is St. Paul’s where the drowning thump and wail and groan of the organ stomps on one’s spirit as though it were a hammer attacking a nail. There is no joy in the faces of the palefaces, as though there were coming to witness a ghost they thought to chain but that was not there and in their stubbornness they refused to admit as much and went on miming their prayers as though they were being given to the imprisoned spirit, their God.

Johnson has none of it. She is transported home: “The altar-lights of St. Paul’s glowed for me no more. In their place flared the camp fires of the Onondaga “long-house,” and the resinous scent of the burning pine drifted across the fetid London air.” The gothic, gloomy mood of the place is supplanted by the rich, hearty, romantic spirit of her own experiences and reveries back home. The reader is transported along with her, and the gloom and darkness is spirited away by the mysterious force that is the worship of the Great Spirit of the Indigenous people. It is this mysterious force that Scott misses entirely in his mockery of the Onondaga woman. It is not missed by Johnson who understands and appreciates it. To her it is romantic. To Scott it is dark and sinister, violent and evil. To her, the culture of the paleface is dead as a corpse, the spirit sunk out of it centuries ago. The majesty of the English bishops is nothing compared to regalia of her own “tall, copper-skinned fire-keeper of the Iroquois council” (Johnson). Her people back home know how to worship, know how to decorate themselves, know all this because they have a better sense of life, of the Great Spirit, of the romantic whirlwind that breathes and shuttles through all things in union with it. The cathedral at St. Paul’s is not one of these places, but is rather a tomb where the living dead go to gather and mumble their dead utterances.

Johnson describes the sacrifice of a pure white dog and relays the words of the Indian priest, in essence similar to those words of the English, but in matter and form slightly different. The essence is the same: there is no need for human sacrifice—but some sacrifice is required so as to show to the Great Spirit that the humans there wish to be ever closer to Him. It is Johnson uniting her heart to God—and when she finally lifts her head and opens her eyes she is back in St. Paul’s, where the service of the paleface continues on.


The gothic nature of the essay exists in the emotional distress that Johnson navigates and in the nightmarish world that she escapes so as to be back in her own. It is a world that Scott, conversely, describes as a nightmare, full of violence and rebellion, blood and wildness. For Johnson it is no such thing: it is alive, romantic, spirited, human, soulful, and honorable. For Johnson, the English way that Scott was enamored of was the dead way. Yet both use gothic elements to achieve an effect on their readers. Both appeal to the mysteriousness, to mood and atmosphere, to the supernatural. Scott appeals also to omens and curses; Johnson avoids them. She is too much in the romantic mood, in the worshipful vain to descend into the territory of curses. She uses the elements of mystery and fear as a launching pad from which she darts homeward bound to be with her own people in worship; but she never descends into the tar pits of curses leveled at the paleface for being different. Scott does, but perhaps that is another signal of his own spiritual death, hinted at by Johnson.

Works Cited

Gray, Charlotte, and Clara Thomas. “Flint and feather: the life and times of E Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake.” Canadian Woman Studies 23.1 (2003): 183.

Johnson, E. Pauline. “Pagan in St. Paul’s Cathedral.” http://fullonlinebook.com/essays/a-pagan-in-st-paul-s-cathedral/jhfy.html

Mulvey-Roberts, Marie, ed. The Handbook to Gothic literature. NYU Press, 1998.

Salem-Wiseman, Lisa. “”Verily, the White Man’s Ways Were the Best”: Duncan Campbell Scott, Native Culture, and Assimilation.” Studies in Canadian Literature/Études en littérature canadienne (1996): 121-144.

Scott, D. C. “The Onondaga Madonna.”

Smith, Andrew. Gothic Literature. Edinburgh University Press, 2007.



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