Gladue Rights Research Database

The Vanishing Indian

The Vanishing Indian is a self-perpetuating cultural myth that has existed since early contact and persists to the present day.  It has especially strong currency among Canadian and American government officials and the general populace in the mid-to late-nineteenth century.  The myth both describes the decline of Indigenous populations and justifies government policies and state violence directed against them.  The fact that Indigenous populations in North America have been rebounding since the 1930s and that indigenous people continue to retain a strong sense of their identity and commitment to their culture has, of yet, not fully defused this erroneous belief among the Canadian public. 

The myth was reproduced in many different ways in settler culture ranging from visual art, to literature, to cinema to government policy.  It is connected to similar myths such as the Ecological Indian and the Noble Savage.   For example, the encounter of indigenous people with western civilization was assumed to lead to their destruction through the destruction of the environment.  Another example is the assumption that alcohol, gambling and other social vices that western civilization introduced to indigenous cultures inevitably overwhelmed their socieities and led to collapse.  The myth further relies on the assumption that there is something incompatible between indigenous and modern culture.  For example, it has been posited (and entrenched in Canadian policy under Hayder Reed) that Indigenous people are incapable of adapting to an economy based on European-style farming, despite historical evidence to the contrary.  These beliefs were also perpetuated in academia, the notable example being studies in anthropology and ethnography that reinforced the notion that Indigenous cultures could only survive intact if they remained isolated from modern cultures (because they would be economically marginalized) nor could they survive if then engaged with modern cultures (because they would be overwhelmed and inevitably assimilated). 

Artists also recreated this narrative in their works, such as Emily Carr’s depictions of idyllic but dwindling Indigenous settlements. In Canada there was an expectation that if Indigenous people themselves would not disappear at least their culture would.  The perceived weakness of Indigenous culture and the assumption that it was incapable of adapting continues to lead Canadians to believe distinct Indigenous communities will vanish.  These beliefs, however, do not correspond with documented reality and are contested by Indigenous people themselves. Some analysts have noted that these assumption about indigenous people on the part of North American settlers have roots more complicated than racism, but are fundamentally connect to a sense of insecurity vis a vis their place on Indigenous lands. 


Suggested Readings:

  • Brian W.Dippie, The Vanishing American: White Attitudes & U.S. Indian Policy, (Lawrence: The University Press of Kansas, 1982) 
  • Daniel Francis,The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture, (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2012)