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Many aboriginal poems highlight their indigenous cultures and discuss experiences,
challenges, or occurrences that indicate significant issues with colonialism. Two examples are
"Tyee-big chief" by Mary Augusta Tappage and "Poem for Duncan Campbell Scott" by Armand
Garnet Ruffo. “Tyee-Big Chief” is a 15-line, three-stanza descriptive poem that highlights the
language endangerment of aboriginal people caused by imperialism. On the other hand, “Poem for
Duncan Campbell Scott” is a 35-line, three-stanza narrative poem that discusses the narrator’s
encounter with an aboriginal man representing the British government. While the former seems
more indigenous, the latter indicates an influence of western culture. This paper will compare the
two poems, arguing that they have strong similarities in themes and content but differ in frequency
and type of literary devices used.
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As mentioned earlier, the two poems examined in this paper are aboriginal. As a result,
similar themes are explored in both poems, albeit different in their use of literary devices to
accentuate concepts and convey their messages. A core theme common to both poems is
colonization. We see from Ruffo's poem: "Beware! Without title to the land / under the Crown you
have no legal right / to be here" (Ruffo 18-20). "Crown" here refers to British rule, thus indicating
the strong influence of colonialism on the poem's message. Colonialism is also a central theme in
Tappage's poetry when placed in context with history. Tappage (10) mentions, "When I got out of
Mission school," a reference to the Christian schools that were institutionalized and mandated for
Indian children during British rule. Colonialism as a central theme in both poems seems to be
underlined by religion: Ruffo (2-3) describes Duncan Campbell Scott; "Christian severity etched
in the lines / he draws from his mouth," indicating he was educated by the British and transformed
into the "noble man." Religion and colonialization play essential roles in the progression and
meaning of the poems, as the narrations and descriptions are centred on these ideas.
There are evident uses of poetic and literary devices in both poems. Perhaps the most
common in "Poem for Duncan Campbell Scott" are enjambments and caesura: "Christian severity
etched in the lines / he draws from his mouth, Clearly a noble man / who believes in work and
mission. See / how he rises from the red velvet chair, / rises out of the boat with the two Union
Jacks / uttering like birds of prey / and makes his way towards our tents" (Ruffo 2-8). Ruffo
alternates caesuras and enjambments here, using them together to combine a theatrical effect with
distortion, highlighting the contradiction that is the man he is describing. These devices draw
readers' attention to these lines, intentionally informing them about the aboriginal man wholly
assimilated into the European culture to accentuate his themes.
Tappage also uses caesura and enjambments but does not alternate them: "Pashish'kwa--that means
lake in my language" (Tappage 5), "When I got out of Mission school / I had to ask what the
Indians were saying" (Tappage 10-11). Throughout the poem, we see Tappage using caesuras to
create a pause after a native American language, e.g., "Shuswap--," "Chinook," Shadad'kwa --"etc. This may be done to create a dramatic pause for readers, accentuating her indigenous
language, or create a relaxing break for those that read it out. On the other hand, the enjambment
was only used once, probably to create a sense of urgency about the matter Tappage discusses in
the final stanza. The enjambment draws attention to the stanza, highlighting the colonial presence
through "Mission school" and foreshadowing the effect: "I almost forgot my own language. / It's
Shuswap, my language. Though both poets use caesura and enjambments in their poems, they
differ slightly in frequency and functions.
However, the two poems differ in using many literary devices, with Ruffo's using more. We see a
metaphor, where Ruffo calls the man "this black coat and tie," and similes and personification,
"the two Union Jacks / uttering like birds of prey" (Ruffo 1, 6-7). These are used to create strong
imagery for the audience to visualize his narration. He also uses an allusion: "This man looks as if
he could walk on water" (Ruffo 9). These literary devices are significantly associated with western
culture literature and poetry.
On the other hand, Tappage's poem does not use a metaphor, similes, or allusions. Interestingly, it
seems Tappage does not play at invoking imagery for the audience. Instead, it seems she intends
to make her poems oral. She uses repetition to emphasize in the poem: "big chief," "language,"
"hard," and "Shuswap" are some of the repeated words in the poem, purposely reiterated to
emphasize their importance to the central theme of the poem. She introduces the native tongue in
the poems "Pashish'kwa" and "Shadad'kwa," inviting readers to attempt to say the lines aloud,
mirroring the native influence of oral communication in poems. Thus, both poets harness various
literary devices for different functions in their poems, heavily influenced by western or aboriginal
"Poem for Duncan Campbell Scott" and "Tyee—Big Chief" are two poems composed by
aboriginal poets and have similar themes but differ in the presence of literary and poetic devices.
While the former primarily uses enjambments and caesuras in quick succession to influence the
readers' attention, the latter uses repetition for the same function. The presence of native terms in
Tappage's poem indicates that it is significantly influenced by aboriginal tradition and invites
readers to read the lines aloud like they would their folklores. On the other hand, Ruffo uses
similes, metaphors, personification, and allusions to invoke strong images for readers, capturing
their attention. Thus, though both poems are significantly influenced by colonialism and its effect
on their culture and language, the poets employ different poetic devices to invoke a style of reading
suitable to them.
Works Cited
Ruffo, Armand Garnet. “Opening in The Sky: Poem for Duncan Campbell Scott.” (1994).
Tappage, Mary Augusta. “Tyee—Big Chief.” (n.d)