CM April 12, 
1996. Vol. II, Number 26

image Paul Kane's Great Nor-West.

Diane Eaton and Sheila Urbanek.
Vancouver: UBC Press, 1995. 176pp, cloth, $39.95.
ISBN: 0-7748-0538-2.

Subject Headings:
Kane, Paul, 1810-1871-Journeys-Canada, Western.
Northwest, Canadian-History-To 1870.
Indians of North America-Northwest, Pacific.

Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.
Review by T.S. Casaubon.



On his return to Fort Vancouver two months later, Kane stopped at Cowlitz and went straight to the lodge of his old friend Kiscox. To his surprise, he found the chief and family that had once welcomed him so hospitably cool and peculiarly distant, the children even running away as he approached. After some time, Kiscox asked him if he had made a portrait of a woman on his last visit. `I said that I had,' Kane writes, `and mentioned her name, Caw-wacham . . . A dead silence ensued, nor could I get the slightest answer to my enquiries.' On leaving the lodge Kane met a mixed-blood Indian who told him that Caw-wacham had taken sick and died and that he, Kane, was believed to have caused her death. Fearing reprisal, Kane `immediately procured a canoe, and started for Fort Vancouver, down the river, paddling all night, well knowing the danger that would result from [his] meeting with any of her relations.'

Paul Kane (1810-1871) was a Toronto-born, and largely self-taught, artist who resolved early to make a lasting record of North American Indians and their traditional way of life. The central event of his career was a journey of two-and-half years through the wilderness, from the Great Lakes, through the Red River settlement (where he saw and painted one of the last great buffalo hunts), the Rockies, and into the Pacific Northwest.

Nice Kane Painting

But to gain the cooperation of the Hudson's Bay Company, which essentially governed what is now Canada west of the Great Lakes, he had to first establish himself as a fit traveller. That meant Kane had to show Hudson's Bay governor George Simpson that he could keep up with the company voyageurs on the first legs of the fur route into the northwest. Kane did better than pass the test -- he not only gained the protection of the company, but by the end of his adventures was leading one of its daunting winter expeditions.

All along Kane's great trip he made sketches and watercolours whenever he could: landscapes, pictures of forts and towns, and most importantly, portraits of the natives he met -- portraits that gained him a reputation as a medicine man. Most of his later career was to consist of working up striking paintings based on those field sketches and on the native artifacts he gathered on the trip. In this later work Kane was unable to resist bending the images he had captured on his travels to fit the classical tastes of the time, but his field work had unusual freshness and accuracy.

Kane also kept a journal of his travels, and later wrote them up (with some help and embellishment) as Wanderings of an Artist among the Indians of North America . . . , a classic of Canadian travel writing (and a best-seller in its time). In both the sketches and journal, Kane fulfilled his goal of making an important historical and anthropological record of ways of life that were already starting to disappear.

Nice Kane Painting

Diane Eaton is a Vancouver freelance writer and the author of Canada: A Nation Unfolding (1994); Sheila Urbanek is an art historian "with a long-standing interest in the art and culture of the pacific Northwest." Together, in Paul Kane's Nor-West, they have brought Kane's great trip to life for the modern reader, providing a meticulous and clearly written account that relies heavily on Kane's own words (or those of his ghost-writers) but also gives the background and context of the journey and of almost everyone Kane encountered. Only occasionally is a term that might confuse a reader without a good grounding in history -- like `manifest destiny' -- left unexplained.

There is a slight whiff of political correctness in Eaton and Urbanek's introduction, in which the authors apologize for sins in their subject that only a late-twentieth century academic would be likely to detect, but this is the obligatory defensive incantation of our time -- as forgivable as Kane's later `classical' interpretations of the subjects of his trip.

So Paul Kane's Nor-West is a fascinating and important work of travel and adventure that will be especially well suited to senior students in art, anthropology, or history. Only the stiff price might deter a purchase, but the book is not a budget production and is well worth it. The large format allows for an excellent and clear design, many excerpts from Kane's book and diary in the margins, and plenty of full-page, often full-colour reproductions of Kane's paintings. Importantly, Kane's field work is also heavily represented.

In their introduction, Eaton and Urbanek write:

Unfortunately, Kane's works, like the nineteenth-century world he strove to preserve in pictures and words, have faded from public attention. . . . his art and prose deserve more attention from a wider audience.
This book is essentially a rescue mission.

Mission accomplished.

Highly recommended.

T.S. Causabon is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer.

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Copyright © 1996 the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

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The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364