Buffalo People: Portraits of a Vanishing Nation


207 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Index
ISBN 0-88839-479-9
DDC 971.2'00497'0922




Dave Hutchinson is assistant superintendent of the School District of
Mystery Lake in Thompson, Manitoba.


Mildred Valley Thornton began painting portraits of aboriginal peoples
(primarily in Western Canada) during the mid-1920s. Her autobiographical
narrative details her perspective on the Cree, Saulteaux, Stoney,
Sarcee, Sioux, Blackfoot, Blood, and Piegan Indians she hired as
subjects for her work. Unlike some of her predecessors, Thornton did not
actively seek out her subjects on the basis of their “Indianness”;
nor did she insist on posing her subjects in traditional garb. What also
made her project somewhat noble was her genuine interest in the lives
and cultures of the aboriginal peoples with whom she came into contact.

I’m of two minds about the merits of this work. On the one hand, as a
nonaboriginal person who has worked with aboriginal people for the bulk
of my career, I felt a certain kinship with the author and respected her
attempt to create an artistic record of a people undergoing phenomenal
social and cultural upheaval. On the other hand, I found the author’s
observations generally detached and condescending, and distinctly
reminiscent of the work of early Canadian poet (and, ironically, Indian
Affairs Minister) Duncan Campbell Scott, whose poems were rife with
allusions to the dying cultures of the noble savage. In fact, Native
cultures in Canada are not dying—they in fact are on the rebound.
However, this is not something Mildred Valley Thornton could have
predicted in her time; she was clearly a product of the Victorian era,
and her writing was heavily influenced by this.

Still, anything that helps us better understand the impact of
colonization can ultimately function to support the development of a
postcolonial consciousness. Buffalo People also includes a number of
full-color reproductions of Thornton’s work, which tends to add
general interest value. Aboriginal studies and Canadian history students
and teachers may be most interested in this work. However, it may also
be relevant to those who are simply curious to know more about those
rare, early attempts by nonaborginal artists/scholars to bridge a
significant sociopolitical and cultural divide.


Thornton, Mildred Valley., “Buffalo People: Portraits of a Vanishing Nation,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 27, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/8784.