Three Day Road English Essay

Joseph Boyden’s novel Three Day Road follows the compelling tale of Native Canadians and their
struggles with their Native identities during World War I. While the war in Europe ravages the lives
thousands, there is another war in Canada, the clash between cultures. It is a powerful story of the Cree
and their fight to keep their culture alive against the growing influence of European settlers. The
attempts of these settlers, the wemistikoshiw, to assert their dominance over the Cree peoples due to
cultural insensitivity, ultimately results in a culture clash which threatens the unique identity of Native
peoples. This is exhibited by the hostile attitudes towards Native peoples, differences of the Cree in
interpreting the world through language, and the assimilation of the Cree people.
What is seen as an integral part of the Cree way of life is met with hostile attitudes from the
wemistikoshiw, resulting in conflict between the cultures. These hostile attitudes stem from the lack of
knowledge into the Cree way of life. The first example of this is when the Niska tells Xavier of when the
wemistikoshiw church tried to suppress the Native peoples from having their celebrations of the
summer season: “Your own people gathering in summer to celebrate an easy season, a tradition they
carried on despite the stern words of the wemistikoshiw church” (Boyden 360). The insensitivity of the
wemistikoshiw to Cree tradition is displayed, as they develop a hostile attitude towards a harmless,
joyful celebration. The Cree put a great emphasis on the importance of seasons because of their way of
life. However, the wemistikoshiw provoke a culture clash through their ignorance of the Cree culture
which leads them to overlook the reasoning behind their celebration. These hostile attitudes can
escalate into hateful acts, shown in a scene when Niska is betrayed by the Frenchman after making love
with him: “I fucked the heathen Indian out of you in this church,” he said […] I fucked your ahcahk, your
spirit. […] You are nothing special, just another squaw whore. I took your power away in this place and
sent it to burn in hell where it belongs” (Boyden 174). The harsh tone and use of profanities by the
Frenchman creates a livid and powerful mood which further intensifies the message being portrayed. It
illustrates the culture clash on a micro-sociological level between Niska and the Frenchman, as the spite
and turpitude in attempting to strip Niska of her spirituality demonstrates the enormity of hostile
attitudes directed towards unassimilated Natives. An important term used in the passage is ‘heathen
Indian’, which is a derogatory term referring to unconverted, uncivilized Native peoples and presents
the motive of the Frenchman for his actions. The significance of the church setting is that it symbolizes
the overarching idea of religious dominance and the resulting consequences. Negative attitudes towards
bush Indians are reinforced in Elijah’s dialogue with Xavier prior to enlisting in the war: “’Now say, ‘I am
a Cree Indian from Moose Factory, and I have come to kill Germans.’ They will like that.’ ‘Will they really
ask questions like that?’ […] ‘Maybe,’ Elijah answers. ‘Better to let them know you’re an angry warrior
than some fucking bush Indian’” (Boyden 59). It is immediately made clear that the prospect of being
compared to a bush Indian is unfavourable, shown by Elijah’s rare use of profanity. Even though Elijah
and Xavier have lived as bush Indians, the fear of being stereotyped as one presents the idea of culture
clash between civilized Natives and Natives who live off the wilderness.
Language plays a large role in the novel, and is vital in the communication and understanding of
the world and other cultures. The differences in the Cree and English languages create a different
framework in which the world is interpreted, and these differing perspectives of the world precipitate
the culture clash. The protagonist Xavier is unable to grasp the magnitude of the number of casualties in
the Battle of Vimy Ridge: “The French lost 150,000 men in the fighting here, and the British 60,000.
Those numbers are impossible to keep secret. They are impossible for me to understand. I ask Elijah,
‘How many does that mean?’ He smiles. ‘A very difficult question to answer,’ he says” (Boyden 205).
Due to the differences in language, Xavier is unable to understand the large numbers that are presented
to him. There is a stark contrast between his and Elijah’s understandings of the world, as Elijah’s
upbringing in a residential school allows him to understand the wemistikoshiw culture. The
wemistikoshiw are accustomed to dealing with large numbers, such as in material goods and casualties,
while they are not found in the Cree culture. This rift between their understandings of the world is the
basis of the culture clash, and the influence of the wemistikoshiw culture forces the Cree to adapt and
understand these concepts. Niska’s descriptions of her surroundings while in the wemistikoshiw town
provide insight into how she interprets the world through her culture and language: “More frightening
than the crowd of people around me is the one bright eye shining in the sunlight and the iron nose that
sniffs the track” (Boyden 4). In this quote, Niska’s limited understanding of the wemistikoshiw
technology and culture is evident, and her lack of social experience further characterizes her as a
societal outcast. Niska uses personification to describe the steam engine, as that is the method that
allows her to understand her unfamiliar surroundings, displaying the differences between the
wemistikoshiw and Cree cultures. Similar revelations are shown when she observes spruce trees on the
railway: “I look out at the spruce across the tracks. Blackened by soot, they bend in defeat” (Boyden 4).
In this situation, Niska focuses on describing the natural aspects of her surroundings through language,
while these aspects may not be of particular importance to the wemistikoshiw settlers. This is a
powerful image intertwined with the culture clash, of how nature is submitted to the dominance of the
wemistikoshiw lifestyle, and contaminated by their machines. It reflects the submission of Native
peoples who must unwillingly accept defeat in order to survive by the wemistikoshiw ways, and their
resulting loss of unique identity in doing so.
The European settlers are also forceful in asserting their dominance by assimilating the Cree
people and pressuring them to adopt the wemistikoshiw culture. Niska describes the relationship
between the Cree and the wemistikoshiw: “Like forest ticks the wemistikoshiw grabbed onto us, growing
fatter by the season, until the day came when suddenly it was we who answered to them” (Boyden 48).
In this simile, wemistikoshiw are compared to forest ticks, as instead of repaying the Natives for their
help they try to gain control over the Cree. The wemistikoshiw feed off of the Cree much like parasitic
forest ticks, which incites a clash between cultures instead of peacefully coexistence. The
wemistikoshiw also attempt to impose their laws on the Cree, such as when Niska’s father is arrested by
armed North-West Mounted Police for murdering a cannibalistic being, known as a wendigo. (Boyden
47). This action was caused by cultural insensitivity in that they arrested him without taking into account
their customs and the importance of significance of killing wendigos in Cree culture. The many rifles
that the police carry are a symbol of dominance over the Cree and an indication of the force they are
willing to use to ensure that the Cree stay subordinate. The Cree are then left without a leader after the
removal of Niska’s father; many of them are forced to move into wemistikoshiw reserves where they are
further assimilated. On the reserves, the Cree also have materialistic values introduced to them by the
fur traders: “The Hudson’s Bay Company had instilled in the Cree a greed for furs that nearly wiped out
the animals, and because of this the time finally came when even the most experienced of the bush men
and women were faced with the decision to move to the reserve or die of hunger” (Boyden 90). The
assimilation of Cree culture into wemistikoshiw culture occurs in every aspect of their lives, depriving
them of their distinctive identities and forcing them to depend on the wemistikoshiw for survival.
There are Cree who are too proud to give up their identity, and there are Cree who realize that
the land on which they live no longer belongs to them. Both groups are inevitably affected by the ways
of the wemistikoshiw. The cultural insensitivity of the European settlers, in their insatiable hunger for
dominance, feed off the very livelihoods of the Cree. Their unique culture is threatened through hateful
attitudes. The wemistikoshiw fail to understand the differences in the Cree interpretation of the world
through language, who at the pinnacle of their vice, forcefully assimilate the Cree. No Cree nature is left
untouched. Their cultural identity is irrevocably absorbed into the dominant one, lost with the passage
of time.
Works Cited
Boyden, Joseph. Three Day Road. New York: Viking, 2005. Print.