The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture


258 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-88978-251-2
DDC 305.897'071





Reviewed by James S. Frideres

James S. Frideres is Associate Dean (Research) of the Faculty of Social
Sciences at the University of Calgary and co-author of Prairie Builders.


The goal of the book is to describe the image of the Indian as seen by
the non-Indian in Canada since the middle of the 19th century. Using a
historical analysis of published and archival materials, the author
assesses the genesis and evolution of the image of the Indian. The
central theme is that non-Natives have presented an imaginary image of
Indians that has continued to this day. The text comprises 10 chapters,
divided into four sections. Part 1 deals with how non-Indians “created
the image” of Indians. Part 2 focuses on the presentation of the image
to Canadians, while Part 3 deals with the appropriation of the image.
The final section examines how the image of the Indian is implemented.

The initial images of Natives originated from the efforts of a handful
of artists, writers, and photographers who (sometimes) made the arduous
journey into “Indian country” and returned to exhibit their images.
The author contends that these image-makers created a fictitious image
of Natives that Canadians still accept. Presenting the imaginary Indian
to the public took many forms. Events like the Buffalo Bill show toured
throughout North America and Europe. Locally, fairs such as the Calgary
Stampede integrated the imaginary image of the Indian in their
activities. The dime novel and movies were alternative outlets. Later,
“pseudo” Natives such as Buffalo Child Long Lance and Grey Owl would
emerge on the scene to perpetuate the myth of the traditional “noble

By the 1920s, marketing the imaginary Indian became the major activity
of non-Indians. Whether it was cars, running shoes, or the name of an
athletic team, Indians became part of the marketing process. The CPR
unabashedly used photographs of imaginary Indians to promote travel.

Canadian Native policy emerged out of, and continues to reflect, a
monolithic and distorted image of Native people. This image perpetuated
the myth of “inferiority,” as well as Natives’ inability to
integrate or control their own destiny. The creation of reserves, the
Indian Act, and other such policies all reflect the belief in the
imaginary image of the Native. Canadians continue to accept the image of
Natives as the “exotic others” whose cultures are magical, strange,
and never modern. If Natives act modern, then they must not be
“authentic Indians.” Daniel teaches an important history
lesson—one that has important implications. This well-written book
presents its case clearly and without moralizing. Highly recommended.


Francis, Daniel, “The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed December 4, 2023,