In retrospective, colonialism is not as far removed in time from the present day as the general public is accustomed to think it is. The best demonstration of this fact is that its influence can be traced back through recent culture since the literary traditions have always been the preservatives of any cultural phenomenon. This is why the case of Duncan Campbell Scott’s “The Onondanga Madonna” and Armand Garnet Ruffo’s poem addressed to Scott is such a mesmerizing subject to study. Both authors write of colonialism while being on the opposite sides of the spectrum. Scott and Ruffo come from different ethnic backgrounds, European and Native American respectively, and are the representatives of different eras.
The poems possess extremely contrasting characteristics in tone, structure, and figurative language. Ruffo exemplifies great use of irony and paradox of Scott’s character to invoke a macabre image of a pseudo-savior that Scott poses as to the Natives. By contrast, in Duncan Scott’s poem, with its heavy use of metaphors and symbolism, Indian race is romanticized as being tragically beautiful– only a white man’s eye.
Upon reading Duncan Campbell Scott’s “Onondaga Madonna”, one cannot ignore the abundance of symbolic imagery and figurative speech. At first, it is tempting to romanticize the “Madonna” along with the author, yet the words quickly become unambiguous and clear in their true nature. Unknowingly, the author exposes himself as being racist by exploiting derogatory terminology, which is however, exceptionally characteristic of his age. Stevens explains this, stating that “the white savior trope is a practice that can be traced to the British Imperial era when Indigenous peoples were depicted in literature as savage and helpless” (81).
Scott’s poem is strict in structure, yet multi-faceted in sense, creating dissonance between the sound of a poem and the way it can be interpreted. It is quite contradictory to call a woman “Madonna” if she is “of a weird race” (Scott 37). The expression implies the alienation of the subject –Scott degrades her people to the idea of “tragic savages” (37). He observes her from afar, speaking of her with words devoid of empathy, his tone is judgmental and regretful – because the First Peoples can never be “fixed”.
The notion of the white savior continues in Ruffo’s “Poem for Duncan Campbell Scott”. It was created specifically in response to Scott’s political deeds and literary and poetic stance. Armand Garnet Ruffo reminds the reader of the collective pain of indigenous peoples – the year is 1994, and the themes plaguing him and his people have not changed in the course of two hundred years.
However, Ruffo has an advance – he lives in an era where the indigenous voice can finally be heard. In this poem, he portrays Scott as a superhuman figure, who could “walk on water… and for our benefit probably would” (Ruffo). To a reader unaware of historical context portrayed here, it is not so clear that Ruffo is ridiculing Scott’s demeanor by exalting his capabilities to a god-like level. Bruchac elaborated brilliantly on this notion, mentioning that “if the person who retells the story, they may destroy it by leaving out things” (as cited in Ruffo, p. 74). Ruffo’s manner of speech sounds praising if taken literally, however, there is mockery of the colonist in nearly every line. His tone comes off as weary, he knows that he is helpless in the face of colonial rule — which is why the poem has a “doomed” feeling about it.
In “Onondaga Madonna”, the idea of doom persists – but here it is seen from the outside by a calm observer. Aside from the general tone of the text, there is a number of key symbols that make up its body. The most captivating symbol is the woman’s child, whom Scott calls “the latest promise of her nation’s doom” (56). One can gather out of the epithets assigned to the child that he is in a state of perpetual unrest. It is important to note that all the characteristics are given by the author to his subjects based on nothing but the author’s worldview and personal opinion. Thus, he thinks the child is restless because he is aware that his race is destined to die – and the poem suggests no other possible outcome. This is exemplary of colonist attitude – to project their own thoughts onto indigenous peoples and claim it as the undeniable truth.
The way Scott observes his subject with an implacable gaze ignites a wave of disgust in Ruffo. “The Poem for Duncan Campbell Scott” is permeated with the feelings of mistrust, lack of understanding, and ironical portrayal of the figure. In Ruffo’s work, Scott comes off as a stern, “noble man that believes in work and mission” (“Opening…” 23). However, as the poem unfolds, it becomes clear that the author ridicules his character. He also speaks of Scott’s hypocrisy, since he acts “as though he wasn’t carrying out his duty” but “sincerely felt” the First Peoples’ sorrow (Ruffo). Scott also says he will “make those who are doomed live forever” in his writing – which is a debatable way of atonement to the Natives (Ruffo). Ruffo alienates the colonial rule just like the colonial rule alienated his people.
After comparing the two poems in terms of subject, tone, and structure, one can say that they differ drastically from each other. The only unifying factor for the poems is the question they raise – a question of colonialism and its values. It is evident what enormous amount of work has been done in the past hundred years to promote understanding in the way colonial policies affect the world. Having studied both the perspectives of Scott and Ruffo, how they view the past/present depending on their ethnicity so it becomes clear that any cultural phenomenon should always be observed from a variety of angles. Scott’s derogatory fetishizing of Native Americans came from his unwillingness to understand their vision, while Ruffo’s opinion is derived from centuries of oppression of his nation.
Ruffo, Armand Garnet. “We Have Been Undressing Too Long: An Indigenous Ecology.” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, vol. 25, no. 2, 2018, pp. 292-305.
—. A Poem for Duncan Campbell Scott. Canadian Poetry Online. The University of Toronto Libraries, 2000. Web.
Scott, Duncan Campbell. Labor and The Angel. By Copeland and Day, 1898, pp. 37. Project Gutenberg E-Book. Web.
Stevens, Samantha. “Exporting the White Saviour: The Colonial Textual Influence on Canadian/Indigenous relationships.” Conference: Proceedings of the Thirteenth Native American Symposium 2019: Native Legacies in the 21st Century, Concordia University, 2019, pp. 81-90.