The Language

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The Language

Richardson’s novel was written in a time period in which the dominant view only valued the opinions and narratives of white people and in a period that did not recognize any other person with a different colour of skin as a full human being. For contemporary readers, the language that is used in this book is racist and offensive to many people. However, the language in Wacousta is what gives the contemporary readers an idea of what life was like during that time period and the social acceptances and behaviours that were exchanged. Language is the road map that shows us where we were, how far we have come, and what we need to do in order to improve. Furthermore, while Richardson's language begins vile, as the novel progresses there are important nuances to the language use that modify the racialized implications.

Unquestionably, though, throughout Richardson’s novel, the language that is used by both the narrator and the characters, as well as the literary devices implemented is an indicator that the societal normatives during this time favoured and privileged white individuals especially the British while oppressing the Indigenous people.


The narrator acknowledges the white individuals known as the “French” (7) by calling them by their background. However, later on in the story, the French get referred to as “Canadians” (9). Canadian identity is brought into question as to what traits of a person are defined as “Canadian”? French people settled 150 years before (dating to 1604) the British had come to the Canadas however the Indigenous people were the first people here. Despite which fact, the narrator only refers to the French as “Canadians” and refers to the Indigenous people as “those savage and warlike people” (7). This gives the message that not only is Canadian identity associated with whiteness but that the country is not validated or “discovered” until a white person acknowledges it. In doing this, the Indigenous voices are also silenced.

Also, the people of the Ottawas nation refers to the British people as “Saganaw” (10) and the term "sag" means to flow out referring to a river that flowed into another river or lake. This specific name is an indicator of the control that the British had over the Indigenous people because just like how a river flows into another river, the British got involved in all of the Indigenous people's affairs and lives.


When writing Wacousta in 1832 Paris, John Richardson had the advantage of his combined Odawa and British roots in which to approach the novel. However, the narrative perspective that Richardson uses to present Wacousta represents the divide between the two groups during the events of the novel.

With the use of inhumane description and characterization, Richardson presents the Indigenous characters in a negative and demeaning way in comparison to the British. Racist language is depicted in the descriptions of the main protagonist Wacousta, who is introduced to the novel as a “gigantic warrior” shouting “savage rage” (152). Further discrimination of Aboriginal peoples can be noted throughout the novel, through the recurrent addressing of their people as “the Indians” as well as “savages”. Richardson uses this discriminatory language successfully to make the members of the Ottawas appear animalistic, and furthermore inferior to the higher class British. The racial deceit of Wacousta, only revealed much later in the book, adds an important nuance and corrective to this vile, racist characterization.

On the other hand, mature terms such as “[the soldier’s] long habits of discipline,” (371) and “the fall of their brave leader” (372) are used to distinguish the British, while strengthening and professionalizing their image. The popular British family of Captain de Haldimar is made to be pitied many times throughout the novel; the emotional struggles in which children Clara and Frederick ensue along with the death of their mother Clara humanizes the family, as well as creates the possibility of emotionally affecting readers by causing them to feel a connection to these characters. Richardson's narration makes it more difficult for readers to connect with the “Indian” characters considering how strongly they lack emotional intelligence. These characters receive more aggressive descriptions such as “dark and ferocious warrior” (264), while British characters are found with much warmer descriptions, such as “all that is dear, tender, and affectionate” (108).

Overall, Richardson uses characterization to manipulate the portrayal of the Aboriginal peoples versus the British.

Literary Forms/Descriptions

Modern literary tastes tend to run towards the spunky and snarky, often graphic but tending to be more superficial and pulpy in their approach to the material than substantive and thought-provoking. Most works are romantic, comedic, or thrilling. Wacousta initially seems like it would fit in well within the adventure genre of today. The first image Richardson gives in Wacousta is of a ghostly group of “savages,” whose character and demeanor are exaggerated by the “ghastly, sickly hue” that the “faint light of the dawning day” provides (3). The reader is introduced to the concept of the Indigenous people as an inhuman or subhuman race as savage--like monsters, like what might be found in Goya’s imagination when reason sleeps.

However, Richardson instantly throws the reader a curve as he introduces Wacousta-—the strange “savage” who speaks perfectly pure English to the captive captain De Haldimar. The tone of the novel instantly changes from a kind of lurid pulpiness to one of a more elevated character, especially as Wacousta explains a bit of his own background and the reasons for his hatred for the man—revenge against the man’s father: “For this have I forsworn my race, and become—what you now behold me—a savage both in garb and character” (10). In other words, this is a complex character, and there is more going on in the novel in terms of social content and understanding than one might find in a pulpy thriller of today.

At the heart of Wacousta is a problematic approach to colonization, which is seen in the way Richardson represents this time in history. Wacousta is a representation of a clash between two “civilized” nations attempting to gain sway over what they perceive to be as “savages,” which is the language of the time that was accepted and which is why Richardson uses it.

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