Does Printing Free?

Does printing free? It’s a loaded question, and there’s no way I could sum up my answer in one blog post. That said, I wrote a paper in my second year that I’d like to share with y’all to get you thinking. The paper talks exclusively about Aboriginal Canadians when the printing press was first brought to them in the nineteenth century. The general attitude among Canadian scholars seems to be that the printing press “freed” the Aboriginals (although I’m not entirely sure what it was they were freed from), but I feel like there’s more to it than that.

Note that, like all the papers I post here, this work has been hyper-edited, and a lot has been added to/removed from the original.To say that the printing press culturally emancipated Aboriginal Canadians doesn’t acknowledge the gradual loss of their oral culture as a result. Although the printing press provided Aboriginals with the ability to have a voice in mainstream culture, it ultimately worked as a vehicle of Western assimilation. Aboriginals were pressured to adopt Western modes of communication because their colonizers judged their modes as primitive and unsophisticated. However, this imposition offered Aboriginals a certain degree of power by acknowledging their culture within the mainstream. I will first provide a brief definition of cultural emancipation and examine its implications. It’s complicated.

In this post, I’m going to refer to Indigenous peoples solely as Aboriginals, although literature also calls them Inuits, Eskimos, Indians, First Nations, First Peoples, and Natives. I’m going to examine Aboriginal peoples collectively because a lot of the available literature doesn’t bother distinguishing between groups (which is really quite problematic). But this distinction wasn’t required at the time of colonialism, as Aboriginals were typically not seen as having a role in the future; it was assumed that they’d either vanish or be assimilated. Furthermore, a lot of the available literature is based on an implied assumption that the printing press did, unconditionally, culturally emancipate the Aboriginals and it is difficult to find resources arguing the contrary. I suppose this is due to scholarship being dominated by Western thinkers who, themselves, are culturally conditioned to privilege the written over the oral word. This Eurocentricity, then, is explicable, albeit inadequate.

While dictionaries generally define emancipation as being set free from legal, social, or political restrictions, one scholar suggests that emancipation is associated with progress – moving towards freedom and equality. He suggests that this progress refers to the process of the disadvantaged entering the mainstream. This definition kind of infers cultural emancipation – a collective shift of the disadvantaged into mainstream culture – and it’s the definition that I’ll yield to in this post.

In order to understand emancipation in this context, we first have to look at power. In her examination of the concept, sociologist Mary F. Rogers describes power as “the holding of some number and some quantity of attributes, circumstances, and possessions that increase the ability of the holder to influence a person or group… the ability, which derives from the requisite resources, to influence.” Roger that, Rogers. Adding to Rogers’ description, philosopher Andrew Kernohan says that the existence of power is a social, not a material, fact, and that power is relative. That is, power isn’t an intrinsic property of self but is a consequence of one’s position in a social structure. It may then be inferred that power, in social contexts, is largely about social control derived from mainstream culture. I believe that mainstream culture – “the set of attitudes, values, beliefs and behaviours” that ultimately govern social life – isn’t necessarily dominant as a result of a majority; it is dominant through strategic use of its requisite resources. Thus, it’s reasonable to deem cultural emancipation as gaining access to socially beneficial resources and security within the dominant culture. Although the emancipated culture may lose some aspects of its previous attributes, it gains freedom from some previous literal or figurative bondage.

James Evans’ Cree Syllabic Hymn Book.

Missionaries generally considered Aboriginals to be uncivilized, even in a state of savagery, but still considered them to be susceptible to conversion and limited assimilation. For example, Methodist missionary James Evans described them in the Christian Guardian as “drunkards of the most degraded kind,” writing that “the payments and presents received by them from the British Government were almost invariably lost or sold for whiskey within a few days after their distribution. During the remainder of the year they wandered in rags or nearly naked.” Nevertheless, after meeting a band of Cree living as nomadic hunters and fur trappers, Evans believed that a writing system was needed and printed his syllabarium, or “Cree Alphabet,” at the Methodist Rossville Mission in 1840. In creating this written language, Evans was, intentionally or not, supporting the assimilation of the Cree into European culture by shifting the primary mode of communication from oral to written. While Haworth describes the “Indians” as having “no written language to convey their thoughts and feelings other than the primitive signs-and-pictures they carved on totem poles and printed on wigwams” (ugh), Aboriginals proved to be just as able as Europeans to recollect past experiences and cultural history, albeit through oral means. Furthermore, although Aboriginals lacked a roman alphabet, they still had established methods of recording.  They had a form of “publication” – symbolic representations on rock, bark, or hides – that portrayed themes of hunting, warfare, and common mythology. They also had another established archival practice called Wampum – the use of white beads from whelks and purple beads from quahog clams to document important rituals and treaties. Hence, while Europeans appreciated written communication for artistic purposes (Edgar Allan Poe published The Raven, Charlotte Bronte published Jane Eyre, and Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol and David Copperfield, to list a few stylistic literary works from the 1840s), Aboriginals appreciated its practicality, but used oral means for more artistic purposes instead. Broadly speaking, this demonstrates that the same medium can be used to satisfy different cultural needs.

In attempts to convert Aboriginals to Christianity, throughout the 1840s Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries translated religious texts into the Abenaki, Montagnai, Huron, Mi’kmaq, Six Nation, Ojibwa, Cree, and Inuit of Labrador languages. After all, evangelism was most successful when pursued in the language of those to be converted. Aboriginals, however, weren’t the ones writing or printing the texts. These texts were created for them, not by them. This distinction illustrates an unequal division of power between the Europeans and the Aboriginals, with the Europeans determining what the Aboriginals read.

James Evans worked mostly with Aboriginal groups in what is now Manitoba. Regardless, I love this 1884 image of a Hudson’s Bay Company post in what is now Saskatchewan, and I thought you’d love it too.

While some say that Evans’ first “birch-bark” printing was an overnight success among the “excited” Aboriginals and that Evans was unable to produce enough printed religious texts to satisfy them, others suggest that Aboriginal peoples were hesitant to adopt the printed word as a means to preserve their culture. Nevertheless, literacy spread quickly among the Cree in the late nineteenth century as a result of Evans’ first religious translations into Cree syllabics. However, when Evans requested that the Hudson’s Bay Company provide Cree with a printing press, the Company refused for fear that the new technology would alter its two-hundred-year-old trade relations with them. The Company believed that the printing press and the avenues of knowledge explored through reading “would inevitably change the simple savages into better bargainers.” Eventually, though, the Company provided a small printing press, type, and paper to Evans under the condition that it be used for missionary purposes only. This restriction demonstrates a realization of the power of the printing press through the spread of ideas. Once literacy has been learned, it cannot be unlearned and thus the ancillary option is to restrict reading material. Because media don’t necessarily tell people what to think – they tell people what to think about. In restricting the use of the printing press, the Company was regulating the thoughts of Aboriginals. This regulation not only served as a subtle method of conversion but, ultimately, assimilation by limiting the works accessible to Aboriginal readers to those instilled with Western values.

Formal treaties and legislation, which greatly impacted Aboriginal communities, sharpened their interest in print culture. Around 1880, Chief Payipwat in the Northwest Territories commented on the frequency of written promises being broken, emphasizing that a signed treaty meant it would last as long “as the rivers ran, and men walked on two legs,” adding that “now they have sent us an Agent who has only one leg!” If Aboriginals had not acquired written literacy, they would have been dominated by written laws they had not contributed to making, and would have been unable to assure adherence to these laws . This is why some assert that literacy (and, by association, the printing press) democratizes culture through dissemination of enlightened ideas of equal individual rights. Thus, the democratizing effects of print enabled Aboriginals to maintain some control over their land. However, there is an inherent contradiction in the notion of imposed democracy; if democracy hails individual rights, the social imposition of ideas, no matter how enlightened, cannot be considered democratic, and consequently cannot be considered emancipating.

It’s widely accepted that Aboriginals wanted to learn to read and write, although there’s less evidence that literacy was widespread. Although missionary and government reports frequently cited reading and writing as proof of the success of their colonial educational policies, in reality, the schools provided very limited literacy education in comparison to practical education. However, while literacy may enhance an oral culture by acting as a building block for education, literacy is arguably not necessary for one to be considered educated. Oral Aboriginal cultures had other means of education. It’s more appropriate, then, to distinguish Western and Aboriginal cultures in terms of worldviews rather than a literate/non-literate dichotomy. One scholar suggest that literacy isn’t necessarily connected with just writing, but may also be connected with an “orality consciousness.” Being considered literate in a Western sense (written literacy) and literate in an Aboriginal sense (oral literacy) are significantly different; Western education is more directionally focused and Aboriginal education is more focused on revealing the world in terms of ‘”action, process, and becoming.” Despite the Eurocentric view that written literacy is synonymous with education, Aboriginals already had an established method of education that encouraged an awareness of the external world and fostered independent thought.

By adopting Western written communication, however, Aboriginal peoples came to be recognized as equals by the colonialists, as written records of Aboriginal experiences would incorporate their histories and knowledge into the “larger Canadian fabric.” However, like their previous symbol-based recording systems, Aboriginal writing was initially more focused on practicality than aesthetics, and was regarded as unsophisticated by non-Aboriginal critics. Further, media representations of Aboriginals tended to support dominant Eurocentric interests, although some mainstream journalists expressed sympathy towards Aboriginals. But the voices of Aboriginal people, which were formerly excluded, have recently been incorporated, albeit selectively. This incorporation gives Aboriginals some power over published material, encouraging them to create their own media in which they define their own identities and values.

In accordance with the above definition of emancipation, the printing press did, in fact, emancipate the Aboriginals (perceived by Europeans as uncivilized, and thereby disadvantaged) by including them in mainstream culture. In addition, in introducing the literacy necessary to participate in Western culture, Evans “civilized” the Aboriginals, which increased consideration of Aboriginals as participants in society rather than as uncivilized outsiders. However, rather than freeing them to express their culture and values, print imposed Western values upon Aboriginals that gradually surmounted their traditional oral culture: it is arguable as to whether or not this change of expression constitutes cultural emancipation. In this circumstance, one culture’s mode of communication was imposed upon another, with advantages and disadvantages; Europeans gave Aboriginals some power and took some away. While the printing press initially appears to provide Aboriginals with a beneficial tool, it is virtually useless to give a printing press to an oral culture. Herein lies the inherent contradiction. A printing press privileges the written word while oral cultures do not. The press gave Aboriginals an opportunity to take part in mainstream culture during the inevitable domination by Europeans. However, as reading material was restricted, Western values were imposed upon them. Thus, while the Aboriginals may have been “emancipated,” they were certainly not free to maintain their own culture.


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