Known for her great talent and eccentric behavior, Emily Carr is one of the great Canadian artists. From the beginning of her career, she took interest in Aboriginal culture and artwork. Published in 1941, her book Klee Wyck recalls her experiences with Native populations. Her fascination led her to embark on a six-week trip to document the traditional art forms of Native communities near the Queen Charlotte Islands. Looking more precisely at her chapter "Kitwancool", the reader gets a better understanding of Native Non-Native relations as experienced by Carr on her trip.
The chapter recounts Carr's journey to Kitwancool, a remote village known for its totem poles. Throughout the text, the narrator's tone is marked by a profound sense of respect, attraction and genuine interest for Native culture. While White men advise her to "keep out" (97) of Kitwancool, for the village is said not to tolerate strangers, she still insists upon going. Her fascination forces her to go see these totem poles at whatever cost. Upon arrival, she seems instantly mesmerized by these works of art "carved elaborately and with great sincerity" and displaying a "strange, wild beauty" (102). Her choice of diction underlines her deep respect for Native culture. The strong feeling she has towards the totems is similarly present in the interest she takes in the nearby population. During her stay, she gets to live in the chief's house where they develop a certain proximity. Cultural differences are bridged together by other forms of communication. When Carr's little dog stood up to other dogs in the village, the Douses and her watched the scene and "laughed together so hard that the strain, which before had been between [them], broke" (102). Through universal ways of sharing, they are able to develop a relationship based on respect and mutual interest.
Moreover, what will eventually facilitate Carr's stay in this community is the fact that she is a woman. Indeed, she quickly realizes how "Womanhood was strong in Kitwancool'' (102). Contrary to what she first assumed, the person in charge of the village is not the chief Mr. Douse, but his wife who is "a chieftainess in her own right" (101). The subtle yet meaningful female bond that will develop between Mrs. Douse and Carr is responsible for her being welcomed by the villagers and given the right to capture the totem poles in her drawings. The mutual respect between them gives to the painter a feeling of inclusion which touches her greatly as she says: "When the Indians accepted me as one of themselves, I was very grateful" (104).
Even if Carr seems sympathetic to Indians and eager to learn about them, the excerpt still illustrates tensions and misunderstandings present in Native Non-Native relations. Differences in worldview and customs give the narrator the impression of being an outcast when she arrives in the village. When she expected to be welcomed as an honorable guest, Carr is disappointed by the villager's lack of interest in her. "They paid no more attention to me than to the oat sack," she remarks (99). This reception, or lack thereof, differs from the decorum Carr is used to coming from a prominent Victorian family. The social expectations thus vary between both communities. These differences have Carr feeling uneasy for a short while as she asks herself "Why did I come?" (101). If it would not have been for her desire to paint the totems, her first impression might have driven her away.
Furthermore, Carr also adopts a somewhat colonial discourse while describing Native beliefs. When she is painting the totems, she stumbles upon a "shaman's, a medicine-man's grave" (103). Taking back the Western stereotype of the "medicine-man" illustrates a certain limitation in Carr's understanding of Native culture especially with her comment that "Shamen worked black magic" (103). While her overall depiction of aboriginals is favorable, the author still shows a hint of Western superiority which prevents her from getting fully engaged with the community and, at times, leaves her standing on the outside looking in.
Some critics might argue that our society must now let Native people in Canada speak for themselves to counter years of misrepresentation and appropriation in literature. While this is a valid argument, Emily Carr's "Kitwancool" nevertheless depicts an interesting portrait of aboriginals coming from someone who deeply respected their culture. Besides the few fallacies mentioned earlier, the author does a great job of writing as "the other". As someone who went as far as "going Indian", as adopting their simpler lifestyle and values, Carr voices in her stories her appreciation of aboriginal culture. Instead of writing from a distance about a culture she did not understand, she goes further than most White citizens when it comes to taking interest in Native populations.
Being herself a marginal character, as an artist and as a woman at that time, allowed Carr to get closer to Indian communities. After her return from Kitwancool, the Mounted Police is surprised to learn that she was accepted by the villagers since authorities "had no end of trouble with those people [who just] won't have whites in their village" (107). To this comment Carr replies: "Perhaps it is because I am a woman that they were so good to me" (Ibid). As suggested in this passage, the association between Carr and Native communities partly came from the fact that she was also seen as an outsider. Had she been a man and figure of authority she would not have received the same welcome. The example of Klee Wyck goes to show that Carr's position at the margin of society places her closer to aboriginals who, for too long, were set aside. Native Non-Native relations seen from the point of view of an outcast offer a second dimension to this text and display an understanding that other White writers might not share.