Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Summer 1983


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 3, No. 3, Summer 1983, pp. 146-156.


Copyright 1983 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


We have used up the mythological space of the West along with its native inhabitants, and there are no new places for which we can light out ahead of the rest. . . . [But 1 we have defined the "territory ahead" for too long in terms of mythologies created out of our meeting with and response to the Indians to abandon them without a struggle.


The Return of the Vanishing American

I want to fashion good words forever, stretch my body into a continuous sentence, humiliate the air with speech, break the chronology of my people's despair, sew them green stories, chronicles of hope, weave a new history from our twin beginnings.

Gutteridge, Tecumseh

During the past forty years, North American interest in the native peoples of this continent has increased and gone through some significant changes. Numerous white Canadian and American writers and film makers have attempted new portrayals of the Indian and of the relation between the white and red races, and many have tried to revise or reevaluate the history of this relationship, especially from the Indian point of view. Although the styles, purposes, and emphases vary widely, general distinctions can be made, not only between fiction and film and between American and Canadian approaches, but among the various types of novels and films. Comparisons between film and fiction and between different approaches to the Indian by contemporary white novelists are beyond the scope of this discussion. It is the so-called historical novel of the West that I am concerned with here, specifically, Thomas Berger's Little Big Man (1964) and Rudy Wiebe's The Temptations of Big Bear (1973). Because Indians and history have meant different things for Canadians and Americans, the question of national and cultural distinctions must also be explored.

In The Return of the Vanishing American Leslie Fiedler argues that the heart of the "Western" novel is not the land per se, but the Indian; "The Western story," he writes, "is a fiction dealing with the confrontation in the wilderness of a transplanted WASP and a radically alien other, an Indian." Thus far his point is a good one, but what he goes on to say exposes the need to refine some national distinctions. Fiedler continues with the assertion that the confrontation between white and red races results in the elimination of "one of the mythological partners" -either the Indian is annihilated or the WASP metamorphoses into something indeterminate. But while this either/or paradigm of right/wrong. Them/Us, illuminates American Westerns very well, it is less helpful with Canadian novels about Indians and the West. My argument is that Berger has written a Western and Wiebe a "Northern," and that indeed Canadians write Northerns especially when they are writing about Indians and the West.

Any viable literary comparison must be built upon a shared context and a common ground of significant similarity. Little Big Man and The Temptations of Big Bear are sufficiently close in date of composition and accepted literary stature to invite comparison. More important, they both use historical facts and dates to recreate a crucial period in the history of relations between whites and Indians (roughly, from 1864 to 1885) at the time when Canada and the United States were opening up the prairies and plains to settlement and railways. Moreover, these novels share a number of specifically literary features: both focus upon a wise, old Indian chief; both employ the figure of the Indian woman (Sunshine and Sits Green on the Earth) who teaches the white man how to be; both present the Indian way of lifeits hunts, visions, dreams, and values-sympathetically and accurately; and both end tragically in death. To a certain degree (though this is less the case with Little Big Man), both are novels of historical revisionism that choose the stereotypic bad Indians-fighting Cheyennes and stubborn Crees-as suitable subjects for rediscovery, and again to varying degrees, both novels speak to contemporary white readers about the moral and cultural identity of the "other." Both novels can be seen as captivity narratives, but a consideration of who holds whom captive and the literary treatment of the captivity involves the question of difference, and it is the striking differences in these two similar novels that bear witness to the individual concerns of Berger and Wiebe, to the assumptions and biases of their respective traditions, and to the different ideologies of their countries.