Canada, Features, Religion

How Canada’s Cult of the Noble Savage Harms Its Indigenous Peoples

A few months ago, I spoke at a small academic conference in Toronto about the future of Canada. As with many events of this type in my country, it began with sacred rituals. An Ojibway elder, described to us as a “keeper of sacred pipes,” took to the podium and showed us a jar of medicine water. In her private rituals, the elder explained, she would pray with this water, and talk to it as she smoked her pipes. After this, she instructed us to join her in “paying respect to the four directions”—which required that we stand up and face the indicated compass point, moving clockwise from north to west as she performed her rituals. “With this sacred water, we smudge this space,” she said. “Let us live the lesson of being in harmony with all creatures.”

Then the elder instructed us to bend down, touch the floor, and say migwetch—thank you, in her Ojibway language—to signal our gratitude. The room was full of middle-aged former politicians who, like me, did not want to seem impolite. But after turning in place on command, this floor-touching business seemed a little much. Nevertheless, the men and women around me began hunching downward, extending palms toward the floorboards, until the whole room resembled a congregation at prayer. There were only perhaps a half-dozen of us who hesitated slightly, and were now anxiously casting eyes about the room for co-conspirators.

I tried to look nonchalant as I remained upright. But I wondered whether some conference official would call me out for this act of defiance. Or perhaps someone would snap a picture and put it on Twitter. I felt like Cosmo Kramer from Seinfeld, when confronted by a pair of strangers after refusing to wear a ribbon during an AIDS walk.

But there also was something more serious at play—for the whole scene was a microcosm of a larger cultural phenomenon that’s been playing out in Canadian society for generations. How did it come to be, I wondered, that this room full of intellectuals and policy-makers, plucked from among one of the most secular nations on earth, should be called upon to genuflect en masse to animist spirits?

Ask this question on social media, and culture warriors on both sides will provide plenty of snappy answers. But to answer properly, and constructively, requires at least some understanding of the distorted way in which white Canadians—and Westerners, more generally—have come to conceive of Indigenous peoples. And these distortions are producing disastrous effects on the very Indigenous societies that we’re all trying to help.

*   *   *

Racism has taken many forms throughout Western history. But typically, it originates broadly with the idea that one race ranks as inferior to another on some imaginary index of human worth. White assertions of supremacy over blacks is the most obvious and enduring example: Even after it was no longer legal to buy and sell black people as property in North America, this hierarchy remained encoded in law. As recently as the 1960s, miscegenation was still a crime in some parts of the United States; and a black man risked being lynched if he was seen with a white woman.

In the case of white supremacist attitudes toward Indigenous peoples, however, the history is more complicated. In both Canada and the United States, there has been a long history of intermarriage between white and Indigenous peoples—so much so that a legally recognized category (Métis) was created in Canada to describe the descendants of First Nations people who joined with French voyageurs.

Jean-Baptiste de La Vérendrye and his cousin.

While slaveholders appealed to pseudo-science to denigrate blacks as lazy and simple-minded, the attitudes of white explorers and traders encountering Indigenous peoples were more mixed. Written accounts, such as those left by eighteenth century explorer Pierre de La Vérendrye, express admiration for the toughness, survival skills, and ingenuity of the Indigenous groups they encountered. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, France’s Minister of Marine during the reign of Louis XIV century, went so far as to urge a “fusion” between French explorers and the Aboriginal population, as an instrument to expand France’s influence.

In the frozen expanses of northern Canada, the impulse toward racism was blunted the hard way, because whites who dismissed the knowledge and guidance of local Indigenous communities often would pay the ultimate price for their arrogance. As New Yorker writer Kathryn Schulz noted in a recent essay about the Arctic:

John Franklin’s entire crew died of starvation and exposure in an area where, for generations, the Inuit had raised their children and tended their elderly. It was possible to live and even thrive in the Arctic—but, steeped in the racial prejudices of colonial England, almost all of Britain’s polar explorers declined to imitate indigenous ways of travelling, hunting, eating, and staying warm. Everywhere else in the former British Empire, English chauvinism led to the death of untold numbers of native people. In the Arctic, English chauvinism led to the death of untold numbers of Englishmen.

Both Canada and the United States eventually imposed policies aimed at annihilating Indigenous cultural practices and languages. Yet, paradoxically, these same white-dominated societies would also lionize individual Indigenous chiefs, warriors, spiritual leaders, artists and writers. In Canada, none would become more famous than the self-proclaimed “Wa-Sha-Quon-Asin, Grey Owl, North American Indian, champion of the Little People of the Forests.” During the 1930s, in fact, Grey Owl would become the most famous Indigenous writer in the world—despite the fact that (as the world learned after his death) he was actually a British immigrant from Hastings, England named Archibald Stanfield Belaney.

Grey Owl was a gifted, if somewhat didactic, middlebrow writer who produced sentimental narratives about the Canadian wilderness he roamed throughout his adult life. Even if he’d been honest about his identity as a white man, he might well have made a successful living from his books. But the ingredient that made him a true literary star—both in Canada and internationally—was his allegedly Indigenous bloodline, which editors and readers alike believed gave him special insight into the secrets of nature and the animal kingdom. Having grown up as an English schoolboy fascinated by First Nations and their habitats, Grey Owl knew exactly what his readers wanted: gauzy sketches of a simpler, more noble, more sacred world than the smog-choked cities they inhabited. Sadly, the simplistic and infantilizing stereotypes he peddled persist to this day.

Canadians now take for granted the portrayal of Indigenous peoples as conscientious, pacifistic stewards of the earth. But as University of Alberta literature professor Albert Braz has noted, this conception of Indigenous life didn’t become popularized until the early twentieth century. Prior to that, it was just as common to hear tales of Indigenous hunters (and fighters) performing wanton slaughter, annihilating other tribes, or whole species of animals. It was Grey Owl, a white man, who led the campaign to rebrand Indigenous peoples as innocent children of the forest. He even went so far as to suggest that it would be preferable for Indigenous peoples to disappear from the planet rather than be “thrown into the grinding wheels of the mill of modernity, to be spewed out a nondescript, undistinguishable from the mediocrity that surrounds him, a reproach to the memory of a noble race.”

Grey Owl feeding a beaver a jelly roll (1931)

In the Canadian magazine Forest and Outdoors, through which Grey Owl first attained a wide readership, editors called the man a “philosopher of the wild.” The language used to describe him in these interwar-era publications was borrowed from Christianity—identifying the emerging author as an ambassador from a real-world Eden. “Aboriginal races uncontaminated by the influence and excessive demands of the white man, or his civilized coloured cousins, take wildlife as did their remote progenitors,” wrote the editors. “Pagan people have yet to be discovered who hunt for the pleasure of killing.” At a time when many of Grey Owl’s readers were still very much alive to the utopian promises of Marxism, he also presented aboriginal societies as communities in which bounty was freely shared and no one fretted much about personal property.

More than half a century after his death, Grey Owl’s influence would reassert itself as a powerful undercurrent in Canadian intellectual life. But as the twentieth century wore on, readers lost their fascination with his stories. Most of the immigrants who came to Canada after World War II were chasing jobs, not wilderness adventure. And they congregated in cities, not farms or logging camps. The dominant media of the postwar age were TV and film, much of it pumped out by American studios peddling their own racist stereotypes of Indigenous peoples as sadistic militia.

In the United States, the rise of the interstate highway system is credited with bringing blacks and whites into closer contact, indirectly paving the way for the civil rights era. But the development of modern Canadian transportation networks arguably had the opposite effect—because many rural Indigenous communities instantly became flyover country. Meanwhile, these communities were being transformed into permanent lumber-framed settlements that lacked the romantic appeal of the quasi-nomadic First Nations world mythologized by Grey Owl. Then, as now, alcohol, processed foods, and welfare dependency took their toll on Indigenous life.

Even many of the Indigenous groups that sought to continue their traditions were prevented from doing so—because they found themselves moved to reserves remote from their ancestral lands. And generations of Indigenous children were forcibly sent to church- and government-run residential schools, which systematically stripped away their culture and language. Even when these residential schools were shut down in the latter half of the twentieth century, the damage continued—for this policy of coerced assimilation left an Indigenous population that had greatly diminished first-hand knowledge of how to exist as mothers and fathers—which in turn has contributed to all manner of domestic tragedies in Indigenous communities.

White Canada responded, for the most part, by averting its eyes. A standard middle-school textbook published in 1957, We Live in Ontario, for instance, contained only a handful of scattered, en passant mentions of Indigenous peoples. (By way of comparison, sections on Mexico and Iceland each got about a dozen pages.) This was decades before the modern rise of today’s Internet-fueled Canadian Indigenous political renaissance. And many white Canadians simply assumed that First Nations communities eventually would melt into an increasingly prosperous, overwhelmingly white Canadian society.

When white Canadians did get the opportunity to educate themselves about the Indigenous world, it often was through journalism that treated these communities as exotic. A 1971 National Geographic cover story on the Inuit of Baffin Island, for instance, had the tone of an article written about Africa or Polynesia. Even so, the tone was sympathetic. The author, a French priest named Guy Mary-Rousselierre (1913-1994) who had lived in the area for a quarter century, related the good and the bad, without seeming hampered in any way by notions of political correctness.

In one memorable passage, for instance, a sled-trip companion confesses that he finds his igunak—summer-cured walrus meat prone to rot—to be utterly disgusting. Such a fact would be hard to include in a 2018-era magazine article, since the approved narrative now frowns on negative descriptions of traditional ways. While Canadian media outlets are encouraged to print and broadcast abundant material about Indigenous issues, editors are looking for retellings of the same approved bad-news/good-news story—according to which Indigenous communities apply courage and resilience to thwart the forces of white cultural genocide.

Another reason why such an article would be difficult to publish today is that Indigenous Canadian writers and broadcasters have been demanding the right to tell their own stories in their own voices. On university campuses, Indigenous experts have ensured that their history, culture and political demands be installed as part of the liberal arts curriculum. In Ottawa and provincial capitals, Indigenous groups such as the Assembly of First Nations have used modern lobbying and communications methods to get their message out—a phenomenon that received a signal-boost in the 2000s, when grass-roots activists started using Twitter and Facebook to mobilize. While the conditions on many reserves remain abysmal, these activists have at least succeeded in putting the demands of Indigenous communities front and centre on the Canadian political agenda. The age when callous whites could simply avert their eyes is thankfully over.

For Indigenous Canadians, this political awakening has been a welcome development. But it also has had a destabilizing effect on the self-conception of non-Indigenous Canadian society, which already was deep into the process of shedding its old-fashioned identity as a white, Christian nation. The introduction of Indigenous animist ritualism into Canadian public life over the last decade or so isn’t just an expression of “white guilt,” as many claim. It’s also part of a revival of Grey Owl-era reveries that, in turn, tap into romantic Canadian ideas about the frozen north.

All Western nations have witnessed a general casting about for something to replace religion as an organizing principle in the lives of ordinary people. But Canadians have experienced this phenomenon in an especially acute manner, because two other organizing principles of our national intellectual life—anti-Americanism and regionalism (especially the Quebec separatist movement)—also have fallen away during the same period. While many recent immigrants to Canada still enjoy a vibrant civic culture within their communities, old-stock WASPs inhabit an increasingly denuded spiritual milieu. Indigenous land acknowledgments and other secularized expressions of white original sin now provide the only thin tissue of public ritual they regularly experience.

I am not speaking figuratively here, for it has become genuinely fashionable for educated Canadians to speak of First Nations people as embodying quasi-mystical, even magical, properties. This helps explain why even avowed secularists, who would be disgusted to see a priest or minister preside at a public event, will adopt a solemn mien if a First Nations elder holds forth on the four sacred directions. When I read social-media accounts from my friends who have had encounters with Indigenous elders, they often reflect what Victor Watts called the sacred dialogue, “in which the author describes how some divine spirit or power, at first unknown to him, appears and reveals to him some portion of hidden wisdom.”

A best-selling collection of essays published in 2016—In This Together: Fifteen Stories Of Truth and Reconciliation—illustrates the trend well. In a piece titles Dropped, Not Thrown, non-Indigenous artist Joanna Streetly describes moving to Tofino, BC, at age 19, and falling in love with a Tla-o-qui-aht canoe carver: “Night after night I lay awake, examining the slant of my partner’s cheekbones and the heaviness of his long black hair…I wondered who I was and how we had come to be together. I dreamed vividly about whales and water and other worlds. I became untethered from my own self, immersed in a new universe.” Later on, Streetly describes reading a book about Australian aborigines, “for whom the world is not alive until they have walked through time—along dream tracks dating back to creation … I identified with the aborigines. I, too, was awakening to a new world, its features coming alive for me as I did so.” She represents her experience among Indigenous people as a process of salvation and “baptism.”

In other words, a full-bore spiritual awakening. As I wrote in a 2017 review of In This Together (from which I borrow liberally in the paragraphs that follow), traditional Indigenous lands exist in the imagination of these authors as places of magic and wonder—a sort of Narnia to which white people can escape when they tire of their own drab existence.

In an essay entitled Two-Step, non-Indigenous author Katherin Edwards appreciatively profiles Carol, an angelic First Nations restaurant owner in Kamloops, B.C. who serves up food with “love, affection, and good will”—even if white people are too callous to appreciate her labours. “I can always tell when [a food] order comes back,” Carol says. “If it’s First Nations [customers], then they take what they are given knowing we give our best. A Caucasian tends to say, ‘I want it done this way, with that’ ” Edwards assents to Carol’s surprisingly crude racial categorization. Indeed, she presents it as a microcosm of a broader, race-based moral hierarchy:

‘Then we’re still demanding,’ I say…. We have claimed the land and her resources. Foisted our culture on others. Bulldozed with our ideas to create our ideal and even here, even in this restaurant owned by First Nations, the insistence on having it our way hasn’t stopped. As Carol and her mother-in-law have held out their hands in an offer of sharing, I feel grateful but inadequate to give back.

By the end of the story, Edwards surrenders to the idea that no effort to expunge her race’s shame and guilt could ever feel sufficient—a frame of mind that Medieval monks once described as the living “bath of hell.” Author Donna Kane, similarly, reminded me of Lady Macbeth, pleading “Out, damn’d spot!” as she promises readers to “work on my reconciliation for the rest of my life.”

In describing the stock “Magical Negro” who often appears in popular books and movies, Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu once noted that this type of character typically is shown to be “wise, patient, and spiritually in touch, [c]loser to the earth.” (Think of Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding in The Shawshank Redemption.) In This Together contains a menagerie of similarly magical-seeming Aboriginals who are “soft-spoken” and “insightful.” A typical supporting character is the hard-luck Aboriginal child whose “entire face seemed to radiate a quiet knowing.” Older characters speak in Yoda-like snippets such as “There is much loss—but all is not lost.”

*   *   *

The Europeans who arrived in what is now called the Americas often treated the Indigenous population with brutality and contempt. It wasn’t until the last third of the twentieth century that anything resembling an enlightened attitude began to prevail in Canada. And it wasn’t until 1996 that the last residential school finally closed its doors. There can never be any excuse for the practice of forcibly removing children from their parents. The psychic wounds have reverberated through the generations, and the need for greater efforts to help Indigenous communities is real. No humane or reasonable person would deny this. As In This Together contributing author Steven Cooper aptly put it:

Most of the residential school attendees has their internal ‘Indian’ or ‘Inuk’ killed. The problem is that … the policy ended there. No one asked what would replace the parts killed, or who those children were to become as adults…. They grew up as hollow shells that turned to alcoholism, drug abuse and criminal activity. They repeated the abuses they endured.

But to read books such as In This Together is to understand that Canada’s intellectual class has overshot the mark in its bid to make amends. It is entirely true that the Indigenous societies of North America were rooted in economic and cultural traditions vastly different from those of the European explorers and settlers who invaded this continent. But it is absurd, and even regressive, to present whole swathes of humanity as inherently benign, or to turn pre-contact North America into a secular Eden. People are people. They come in good and bad flavours, no matter where in the world you go.

In large part, our historical double-standard arises from the fact that Indigenous societies typically had oral cultures, so there are few written sources to document the true fabric of their ancient life. The history of European and Middle-Eastern peoples, on the other hand, is recorded in written histories that clearly show the past to be a long series of wars, slaughters, famines, and epidemics. We can choose to believe Grey Owl-style fables about the one, but not about the other.

The construct of Indigenous people as sacred creatures is now being embedded into official government documents. An Interim Report published in 2017 by a Canadian Inquiry mandated to investigate the scandalously high rates of violent death among Indigenous women and girls, for instance, was titled Our Women And Girls Are Sacred. The authors tell Canadians that “Indigenous women and girls bring many gifts to the conversation on resilience, resurgence, and reconciliation. Some women are Grandmothers and Elders who carry sacred stories, laws, and ceremonies for future generations. Others are warriors who continue to speak for the silenced. Some are healers who draw on their own spiritual traditions, knowledge, and medicines to help those who are hurting.” Beautiful, soaring words—but also tinged with a spiritualism that is alien to the project of neutral fact-finding one expects from a government-mandated inquiry into serious crimes.

Many of the broad patterns of thought that I describe here apply as much to the United States as to Canada. But the particular geography of Canada makes our situation special. In the continental 48 states, all major Indigenous communities can be accessed by road, and tend to be at least somewhat integrated into local economies. In the Canadian north, by contrast, many reserves are isolated fly-in hamlets that still preserve their air of tragic exoticism. And so the racist legacy of Grey Owl becomes that much harder to extirpate.

Moreover, the commanding heights of Canadian arts and letters is still controlled by old-school white Torontonians who cling to the idea of the Arctic (and the north in general) as somehow comprising the frozen soul of a mythical, “true” Canadian identity. To this day, this is the part of the country where wealthy Canadians of a certain vintage go for expensive fishing and hunting expeditions. Or to attend high-end writers’ retreats or detox. While this cult of the north is of little interest to modern immigrants (as a second-generation Jew, I find it utterly baffling), it remains stubbornly influential. And it helps explain the lingering appeal of artists such as Lawren Harris, whose paintings portrayed northern mountainous sunscapes in much the same way as a small child would imagine God staring down at her from the clouds. In this conception, the north is Canada’s Holy Place. And Indigenous peoples are its racially defined priestly class.

And since white Canadians are now encouraged to imagine Indigenous biology as a DNA-encoded marker of exalted consciousness, many of the most bitterly contested debates in arts and letters now centre on allegations that this sacred way of knowing is being despoiled through the heresy of cultural appropriation. In one notorious case that I recently described for Quillette readers, for instance, a white novelist was attacked by Indigenous groups—with the support of the white literary press—for including a First Nations character in her novel; despite the fact that the author had hired an Indigenous consultant to examine her manuscript, and had even appeared before a council of Indigenous elders to answer questions about her artistic choices.

To call this “reverse racism” is misleading—as the word “racism” more commonly is used to describe the denigration of disadvantaged groups within society. And the novelist in question certainly would never claim to be a member of such a group. Moreover, hard-core racists typically appeal to pseudoscience to justify their bigotry, while the cult of Indigeneity being promoted by white Canadians is effectively a spiritual phenomenon. Nevertheless, the whole apparatus of Canadian culture, academia, and activism now operates according to an explicitly race-conscious moral hierarchy that draws heavily on the idea of white skin as a badge of guilt and shame. And much of the Canadian Left now organizes its cadres according to the logic of separate-but-unequal. One “Bill of Responsibilities” for white people who seek to help Indigenous causes, for instance, instructs non-Indigenous people to constantly “reflect on and embrace their ignorance of the group’s oppression and always hold this ignorance in the forefront of their minds.”

*   *   *

I will admit that there is a personal dimension to all this. I grew up in a Jewish household. But early in life, I turned my back on the ritual and theological aspects of Judaism, and began worshipping at the altar of science and free inquiry. And I always was happy and proud to live in a secular country where this sort of godless outlook was permitted, and even encouraged.

But scenes like the one I described at the beginning of this essay suggest that this is changing: religious attitudes are now creeping back into public life through a back door. And it is spreading fast. At some Canadian universities, professors now are required to print Indigenous land acknowledgments on their course syllabi. These acknowledgments also are recited every day at my children’s school—the equivalent of the Lord’s Prayer that I was required to recite before eating lunch at an old-fashioned Montreal boy’s academy in the 1980s.

“So what?” some may say. Great historical crimes have been visited upon this continent’s Indigenous peoples. And so the least that can be expected of a cranky middle-aged white culture critic and his family is to acknowledge the settler sins of the past and the enduring suffering of surviving Indigenous peoples. This, in so many words, is the answer one gets on social media, or in Canadian academic circles, when any of these points get discussed.

My answer to this is that Indigenous people themselves are being made to suffer for white spiritual conceits, because the miasma of guilt and self-censorship that now afflicts politicians and intellectuals is choking off important discussions that Indigenous peoples recognize as necessary to improve their communities.

I will not dwell too much in this space on the cruel, cynical, and utterly disastrous government decisions that have led to the current state of affairs in Indigenous communities. But perhaps the single largest enduring difficulty originates in the fact that land on Indigenous reserves is not owned by residents in their capacity as individuals. Rather, it is controlled collectively, so that no person or family can buy, sell, lease, or mortgage their property in the normal manner that the rest of us take for granted.

This has had a crushing effect on business formation and land improvement. And it is one of the reasons why the housing stock on reserves degrades so quickly: Since no one owns their house in the normal way, there is little financial incentive to invest in any even basic upkeep activities such as mould eradication. And since residents can’t mortgage their homes, no one has any basis for secured lending. Indigenous people are no less industrious and ambitious than anyone else in Canada, but they often must leave their reserve communities to find their fortune. To remain on reserve is, in many ways, to exist as a serf within a welfare state.

The question of how to resolve this difficulty obviously does not fall to me: It is something that Indigenous communities must determine themselves. And it’s a wrenching issue—because a capitalist-style land-ownership system would allow non-Indigenous outsiders to buy these communities out, thus undermining the goal of preserving and rekindling an authentic Indigenous culture. In some cases, both economic and cultural goals can be achieved through economic development in neighbouring areas and the devolution of more powers to band councils. But in other communities—especially those in remote areas, far from urban job centres—there will be wrenching choices to be made, pitting jobs against culture.

To repeat: the people who should be making these decisions are the members of Indigenous communities. But the process is skewed—because the modern white fetish for noble-savage mythology means that my country’s leaders now are effectively putting their thumbs down on the side of cultural preservation over economic development—since it is the spiritual side of Indigenous life that is the real subject of their fascination.

Indeed, in public discussions, questions of policy often get swept away under the utopian conceit that all will be remedied once Indigenous societies have the power to reinstate their ancient values within their respective communities—much as Christian, Jewish, and Islamic theocrats imagine that mundane matters of policy will be easily resolved once governance is given over to those who obey the tenets of their faith.

Surviving historical records show Indigenous peoples to be skilled negotiators, courageous warriors, and tireless hunters. Yet in the white imagination, these societies are imagined to have been proto-socialists, forever composing wise adages about the cycles of nature. Indeed, in British Columbia, the efforts of white environmentalists to cynically co-opt the mantle of Indigenous protector has been so brazen that some business-focused Indigenous groups now are rebuking them publicly.

Or consider the uproar that followed a 2017 Supreme Court of Canada decision, in which the Justices unanimously ruled against a First Nations band—the Ktunaxa—which opposed the creation of a ski resort on a mountain in British Columbia that, they claimed, was inhabited by a sacred Grizzly Spirit Bear. “Freedom of religion is supposed to provide equal protection for all religions,” wrote a pair of op-ed writers in The Toronto Star, Canada’s largest-circulation newspaper. “The Supreme Court’s judgment disadvantages Indigenous spiritual traditions, whose objects of reverence are connected to pieces of land vulnerable to physical destruction. The judgment shows how Eurocentric ideas about religion enable the continuing appropriation of Indigenous lands.”

And yet, amid such outrage, virtually none of these writers took note of the fact that a separate Indigenous group—the Shuswap, whose lands lie closer to the proposed ski resort than those of the Ktunaxa—actually supported the ski-resort project because of the jobs and economic benefits it would bring to the region. This is because the Shuswap took what non-Indigenous Canadians regard as an incorrect Indigenous position. In Toronto’s Globe & Mail, for instance, an article that notes that “the Shuswap accepted the [ski resort] proposal, saying the resort would benefit their community” was entitled “Top court deals blow to Indigenous peoples.” By “Indigenous peoples,” this headline writer meant “real Indigenous peoples”—as imagined from the downtown offices of Toronto’s (largely white) press corps.

One of the most brilliant Indigenous artists that Canada has produced is Tomson Highway, an award-winning Cree playwright and novelist who spent nine years at a residential school in Ontario. In early 2015, I commissioned a piece from Highway for a magazine I then edited, in anticipation of the release of a major report on the residential-school legacy. Highway’s submission was brilliantly crafted. It was heretical, too: While acknowledging the terrible effects of residential schools on many Indigenous children, he also credited this education for some of the skills that allowed him to become a renowned artist.

And that’s why the piece was never published. One of my colleagues—a man whiter than me (if such a thing were possible) informed me that the piece would be “problematic” because it would hurt the “relationships” our magazine had created. When I probed further, it was made clear to me that the sensitive constituencies in question included not only Indigenous groups, but also non-Indigenous groups (and donors) that had come to see our magazine as a reliable voice for the approved position on this issue. Which meant we couldn’t just champion the voices of Indigenous peoples—we have to champion the right kind of Indigenous peoples. This sort of surreal and cynical conversation goes on, in hushed tones, all across the Canadian journalistic and academic landscape.

It was one of those moments when I realized that what I had entered was not a journalistic enterprise, but a sort of congregation. And it was only after I left it that I was free to think and pray as I wished. This included the freedom to not pray at all—as is my preference—even when instructed to do so by a kindly old lady.

The ground is not sacred to me. It is a spinning orb of rock that was created by physical forces well understood by scientists. When Indigenous people ask my government to share the Canadian portion of that rock on fair terms, and to make good on old promises, I very much applaud. But let us keep our white spiritual appetites out of the conversation. Indigenous peoples should not suffer another lost generation so that white Canadians can touch the face of someone else’s god.

Featured Pic: ‘The Sea of Ice’ aka ‘Polar Sea’ aka ‘The Wreck of Hope’ (1823-4), in reference to an early North Pole Expedition, painted by Caspar David Friedrich.

 

Jonathan Kay is a Toronto-based author, columnist and reporter whose articles have appeared recently in The AtlanticForeign AffairsNational Post and theWashington Post. Follow him on Twitter @jonkay

If you liked this article please consider becoming a patron of Quillette

70 Comments

  1. dirk says

    What I missed in this expose, was the difference between the French and the Anglo Saxon lifestyle in the contacts with the indigenous tribes. The French were the coureurs de bois (beaverhunters etc), often married for some time with an Indian, less for romantic feelings, more for very practical reasons. Who could better cook for him (no shops in the neighbourhood, different types of food, gathering firewood, problem of poisonous plants etc), clean his boots, socks and the house, feed the chickens, keep him warm in bed), children of these short time marriages were not taken back home when these adventurers went home, but were a class apart,very often useful for the real immigrants, the farmers, discoverers and citizens. The Anglo Saxons (and others) were the ones behind the Indian Removal Programs, first the administrators, pacifiers, adversaries and removers, later the romantic and spiritual (filling the gap) type as described above. Not to say that, as of now, only one category remains, the romantic/spiritual one, I fear.

    • Charles White says

      Dirk,

      Point well taken.

      However you also miss out two important facts. First, the Scots, prime members of the British diaspora, also inter-married with the Amerindian. Hence the good traditional Cree names like McKenzie, Campbell, Flett, Potts, etc.; and the great Metis leader of the Red River, Cuthbert Grant. Second point missed is the French Canadian government under the French Canadian, Laurier, was the time the schools went into full assimilation mode; not to mention forced removal of Amerindians off their reserves to the profit of government, such as occurred to the Assiniboine-Sioux of Moose Mountain.

      In short, both European groups both used and abused the Amerindian, not just the British.

      Amusingly, it was the Liberal Governments that drafted and imposed the great treaties 6, 7, 8 that have caused so much grief, and established the Indian Department which epitomizes the saying, “A bureaucracy works hardest to preserve the problem it was formed to solve.” Amusing because Liberal P/M Jr. likes to to virtue signal his concern for Amerindian nations while chastising Conservatives who gave the Indian the vote and legislated Indian women to have equal rights to Indian men, and legislated accountability for the Indian leadership to its people, since removed by a French Canadian Liberal PM.

      Unrelated, note that Amerindians were also aggressive colonizers. The Iroquois genocide of the Huron. The Cree genocide of the Beaver. The Cree enslavement of the Dene, hence the names, Slave River, Great and Lesser Slave Lakes. The Blackfoot Confederacy.

      • dirk says

        Of course, Charles, there is a book (or maybe a whole library) to write about these encounters, and also, it is not the French against Anglos, as good vs bad, as in cowboy moovies. But, what certainly played a part, not mentioned, the fact that the French were catholic (a lot of pomb, ceremony, smoke, incense,liturgy, rozenkranz) may have helped that the French were much more popular among the Indians than the WASP’s of the time (what is more boring than a deacon, preaching in a church without anything ??).

        • Charles White says

          Dirk

          Thoughtful response and good point.

          I do not think Catholicism had any impact. The Jesuits made as good fuel for the stake as did the English. Champlain created the war with the Iroquois. Generally, those nations sided with which ever White nation they found strongest, sometimes in the middle of battle; and which ever White traders had the best goods. On the prairies Father Lacombe and the McDougalls were both held in high regard by the various nations.

          Where you hit the nail square and fair was that the Courier and voyagers held a deep respect for the Indian. So did the Scots traders, and Fr Lacombe and McDougall. Like any human, this is what was responded to by the nations. You are also correct about the complexity of the issue.

          • Melvin Backstrom says

            Champlain also had a deep respect for Native Americans. He did not, however, create the war with the Iroquois. He fought alongside his Native allies, who had suffered repeated attacks by the Iroquois Confederation, in order to try to convince them to stop their incursions. See Fischer’s biography: Champlain’s Dream.

          • dirk says

            I wonder whether Richard White (author of The Middle Ground, about coureurs de bois, Iroquois, Algonquin, explorers, administrators and battlegrounds) is maybe your family (and thus the interest), he wrote a splendid book about this whole history (that I did not read)

      • The focus on the differences between various European migrant groups better contextualizes Canadian history but this process must also be applied to the natives themselves. The extremely vast differences in dress, language, culture and life-style practiced by the hundreds of tribes (and various non-tribal groupings) around North America should give pause to anyone who wishes to discuss native culture or native issues without fully contextualizing those discussions based on the specific tribe in question.

  2. Emmanuel says

    In the 19th and early 20th century, Native People were often described in popular culture as the polar opposite of what western civilization embodied : they represented Savagery and Chaos while the modern West was Order and Civilization.
    In the the 21th century those Native People are still seen as the polar opposite of Western Civilization, however the values associated with it have radically changed : the West is seen the root of everything wrong in the world, the source of human evil, which makes the Natives the embodiment of everything good (from the point of view of a modern leftist). Everything has changed in the perception of Native People and yet nothing has changed.

    In the same time, if you study those societies from a scientific point of view, that is from the point of view of archeology or empirical social anthropology, you realize that neither those visions are supported by facts. Those were complex societies, with rich traditions and quite often fairly strict law codes. While their organization was often very different with the organization of same time western societies, it was neither a peaceful Eden or a dog-eats-the-dog world.

    Perhaps a real display of respect toward those societies would be to tell the truth about them, the nice things (from a modern point of view, once again) and the not so nice things, rather than treating them as the embodiment of the current popular fantasies.

    • dirk says

      In ethnography, I fear, truth does not exist Emmanuel, it’s all values and feelings, also where indians judge about us, you cannot expect a truthful or objective picture. But, you are right, there are tremendous shifts in appreciation.

      • Emmanuel says

        I do not agree with you. While it is true that knowledge produced by ethnography will never be as “objective” or “definitive” that knowledge produced by an experimental physicist in his laboratory, it can be much more serious than mere feelings or judgement of values. The fact than different people writing ethnographic texts about the same people at roughly the same time end up describing very similar things (even if their interpretation wildly differ) is the proof of the replicability of weel-conducted ethnographic works. Furthermore, archeological findings and other remains of a society’s material culture can also support (or cast doubt on) ethnographic literature.
        Interpretations may vary but descriptions are often fairly similar (which is why I believe a good scholar should always make a clear distinction between the data he has collected and his personal conclusions regarding said data.

        However, “high-quality” ethnographic works require a lot of efforts from anthropologists and sociologists (and other observers), especially being able to stay a long time in an often uncomfortable place (French anthropologist Maurice Godelier spent 7 years of his life in the Papua New Guinea Highlands with the newly contacted Baruya tribe and when he describes his time among them). Furthermore, it implies to be able to put aside your own worldview in order to understand how other people might see the world. From an intellectual point of view that’s not easy.

        When it comes to Natives from Canada, I am thinking about Jacques Cartier’s descriptions of life among societies contacted by Europeans for the first time. When you read them you realize how ludicrous all those stories about peaceful Natives living in harmony with nature and one another are.

        • dirk says

          I think I can agree with that Emmanuel, it can be much more serious than feelings alone, yes, especially where it comes to a description of what they eat , how they are dressed and what they grow in their fields, but as soon as it comes to harmony and purity and nature and peace and the like, it always goes wrong. Even in the famous field studies of Margareth Mead (for whom I feel much sympathy).

          • Emmanuel says

            I agree with the idea that as soon as anthropologists (and other people doing ethnographic work) stop describing extensively what they witness and hear from the people they study and start giving their personal opinion about harmony with nature and that kind of cliché, their work loses its scientific value. However, in my experience as a former anthropology student, anthropologists who have spent a lot of time living alongside “exotic people” are far less likely to idealize them that people without any first-hand experience. Exposure to reality quickly destroys fantasies. I have spent a summer in a native community of French Guiana, and I laugh out loud every time I read texts about their life in harmony with nature and remember how trigger-happy those guys were : they literally shot any wild animal they saw, almost without exception.

            As for Margaret Mead, I would say that the problem with her was that she was simply not good at doing fieldwork and collecting data herself. She trusted blindly a small group of informant without checking what they told her. I cannot blame her for that given how difficult it is to do a fieldwork investigation (the innocent anthropologist by Nigel Barley is by far the most accurate description of fieldwork I have read) but students and scholar should not idealize her the way many still do.

    • TarsTarkas says

      Unfortunately too many people don’t want to hear the truth, or can’t handle the truth. Hence the continued belief in the ‘noble savage’ and the wholly evil White Man. Whenever I see or read that sort of blather I always think of the ‘What did the Romans ever do for us’ scene in Life of Brian.

  3. Michael says

    The Noble Savage myth is basically a retelling of Genesis.

    • dirk says

      Reply to Emmanuel & Michael: read Nigel Barley’s The innocent anthropologist, notes from a mud hut. Very funny, the horrible, disenchanting truth,I fear!!

      • dirk says

        Sorry Emmanuel, you mentioned him already, I saw.

        • Emmanuel says

          Countless anthropologists have made books describing their fieldwork experience. Only Nigel Barley wrote the truth about it. I realized that when I came back from my own master’s degree fieldwork and then read Barley for the first time (In France where I live and studied he is not very well-known). All the other books I had read about that kind of experience were bull**** : their authors reinvented a posteriori their own experience, focused on exceptional events, were silent about the many aspects of indigenous life that did not fit their narratives (mostly how boring it is) and gave very little details about the way they actually lived during fieldwork. Only Barley is honest about all of that.

          The Natives I stayed with spent most of their time brewing their disgusting manioc beer (cachiri) then drinking massive amount of it until they puked. I feel lucky because the tribes I knew, the Wayampi and the Teko, went to puke in the bush while another local tribe, the Wayana, vomits right where they are drinking. Since their beer is very light they can keep doing that for a whole day before being too drunk to continue. They were mostly nice guys, but after witnessing that, I will never be able to take seriously stories about the pure and healthy life of the noble savage.

          • dirk says

            Then you did fieldwork in French Guyana? I took cachiri (called cassiri there, among the Arowak) in Surinam, went for 1 day to Guyana, the place were Papillon was encarceled, and read in the streets : Pour le General de Gaulle, votez Pompidou! Nice time! I just read here in a book of a friend (who never visited tropical areas) that the French had a much better understanding with local indians (in 19th century Canada) than the puritan British, and that also the lure of the Noble Savage was more alive among them. Not so with you, I understand! Vive le difference, the diversity!

  4. skeptical says

    “And generations of Indigenous children were forcibly sent to church- and government-run residential schools, which systematically stripped away their culture and language.”

    In truth, Indigenous children were very seldom sent to residential schools ‘forcibly’, unless it was their parents doing the forcing. As a researcher who has worked in the area for many years, I have seen literally hundreds of documents indicating that Indigenous parents were often eager to send their children to residential schools, many of which had waiting lists. They were generally more reluctant to send their children to day schools, which meant that they (the parents) would have to abandon their winter traplines and remain on the reserve to be at home for their children. Residential schools, expensive and difficult to run, came into existence because reserve-based day schools, cheap but difficult to staff, failed to attract more than a handful of eligible children.

    None of this is part of the Official Narrative, but it is true, nevertheless.

    • As your view is so at odds with the widely-accepted one, I’d very much like to look at your evidence. Can you provide links, please?

    • Skeptical says

      I cannot provide you with evidence because although what I said here is not in itself ‘protected’, most of the sources from which it derives are, for the good reason that much of it includes people’s personal information and names.

      However, you can find information in the DIAND Annual Reports that tends to contradict much of the accepted version of the story, especially the early ones from between the 1870s until the 1930s.

      You’ll see there that there were day and residential schools running at the same time; that there were day schools on most reserves; that many parents did not insist that their children attend them; that there were often Indigenous teachers at day schools; and that Indigenous languages were spoken by the teachers, whether Indigenous or not, at several residential schools. This information is available in tables and in inspection reports found in the Department’s Annual Reports. Use the word ‘school’ as a search term, if you like: http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/aboriginal-heritage/first-nations/indian-affairs-annual-reports/Pages/introduction.aspx

    • TarsTarkas says

      Then the United States Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, PA did not exist, and Jim Thorpe et al did not attend it?

      • skeptical says

        I’m not quite sure what this means. I know very little about American residential schools.

    • Theresa Verver says

      Sceptical: Exactly my experience …. When I was working in a day school the parents fought to get their children to a residential school. You are so right and the treatment in residential schools is so exaggerated. I can’t deny what I saw over a ten year period.

      • sceptical says

        Thank you, Theresa. Whether “the treatment in residential schools is exaggerated” is arguable. Some “Indian” residential schools were truly horrible some of the time for some pupils. Occasionally some of these IRS were horrible for all the pupils who attended, usually for short periods of time that might still be really damaging for the children in the community. The trouble is that the official IRS narrative from both government and indigenous groups is that the whole system was intended only to eradicate indigenous culture, etc.

        Many Canadians are not aware, either, that the government is now facing multiple lawsuits from “survivors” of Indian day schools on the same grounds as the residential schools.

        p.s. Am switching to ‘sceptical’ as it seems to be the older spelling of the word…

  5. Charles White says

    Very thoughtful and enjoyable comments on this site.

    I want to add one more point about the exaltation of Amerindian spirituality, which Mr. Kaye touched. Resource development now has to account Indian traditional knowledge (of the correct type) as equal to scientific knowledge when studying the environmental impact. The Quebec deputy minister of the environment got in hot water for asking the obvious question about what happens if traditional knowledge is counter to scientific. The added question is which body of traditional knowledge takes precedence, as per the ski hill mentioned in the article. My bet it is the traditional activist knowledge of Torontonian, Pam Palmateer, and not the traditional economic knowledge of inner BC, Chief Louis.

    • dirk says

      As a botanist, Charles, I was very much taken aback reading in a scientific journal about indian knowledge ( taxonomic and systemising) being equal to the Linnean system (this was in Peru). I think, equality is always meant for individual, personal cases, not for cultural and religious ones, an animist way of looking at the world is not mine, I am sorry. Although, I can see the therapeutic value of it for some of us in the modern world.

      • Charles White says

        Agreed Dirk. My science training is biochemistry. I was totally gob-smacked with the traditional knowledge inclusion into environmental impact studies as equal to science. There is no difference between traditional knowledge and any other theology, but theology has little place in environmental science…but, unfortunately, it is given precedence in environmental politics.

        • dirk says

          I think I am somewhat older than you Charles, in my time, the real, hard science came always first and foremost, and even organic hypes were not taken seriously. There was no place for it at our Holy University (in Wageningen, NL). And even sociology was at the service of that hard, natural outlook. The times, they are a…changing!

  6. ga gamba says

    Highway’s submission was brilliantly crafted. It was heretical, too: While acknowledging the terrible effects of residential schools on many Indigenous children, he also credited this education for some of the skills that allowed him to become a renowned artist.

    And that’s why the piece was never published. One of my colleagues—a man whiter than me (if such a thing were possible) informed me that the piece would be “problematic” because it would hurt the “relationships” our magazine had created. When I probed further, it was made clear to me that the sensitive constituencies in question included not only Indigenous groups, but also non-Indigenous groups (and donors) that had come to see our magazine as a reliable voice for the approved position on this sensitive issue. Which meant we couldn’t just champion the voices of Indigenous peoples—we have to champion the right kind of Indigenous peoples.

    Aboriginal people are today’s leftists’ “little brown brothers” to be used in their war with capitalism and all they associate with it. Those who don’t comply to progressive biases must be erased.

    So, when you read and hear progressives shrieking about being ‘erased’ you have to understand that from their perspective this is a legitimate fear because it’s what they themselves do to those who fail to comply to their dogma and diktats.

  7. Anon says

    As the author says, this is also a US thing. I am on the faculty of a public university in California. The university-wide meeting that begins our fall term has for the past couple years included a prayer by a Native American. Most professors would revolt if a Christian prayer were offered. They’d be on the phone to the ACLU because it violates separation of church and state. But everyone is quiet and respectful for the Native American prayer. When I talk to people about it, they admit it’s a bit unusual for a state school but it doesn’t really bother them. Some have even admitted that they’d be more bothered by a Christian prayer.

    Not sure where a Muslim prayer would fit in. Or a Christian prayer offered in Spanish, if presented as being about Latino Heritage or something like that.

    • Lup Lup Lup says

      That’s so fascinating. I would say, Native American prayers get a pass because they represent that which pre-exists the colonial West. To tell a Native American that he/she can’t say a prayer in America in any context, I mean, that’s absurd. That would shine a light on the whole Original Sin of the American project.

      Colonizers can squabble about their own Christian prayers among themselves, but to show up and prohibit Native prayer, at least today, is too overt.

      • Anon says

        Christians can pray, of course, but an official running a public institution cannot use their authority to promote Christian prayer. That’s separation of church and state. However, apparently a non-Native authority in a public institution can use their authority to promote Native prayer.

        I don’t care if a Native American goes to the campus quad and prays. People go to the campus quad and offer all sorts of opinions and ideas and play music and promote their organizations and whatever else. I don’t care if the local Baptists pray in the quad either. I care if campus officials declare that we will have Native American prayers at campus meetings.

        • Lup Lup Lup says

          Yeah it’s interesting. I’m not advocating for or against prayer. I’m just speculating as to why Native prayer doesn’t rile liberals up (and why conservatives so-readily identify it as hypocrisy).

          I assume colonial people recognize, to some degree, the past and present odiousness of colonialism. I mean, just the concept of ‘separation of church and state’ is a foreign, colonial idea not native to America. So, when allowances are made for Native prayer, it acknowledges that some colonial concepts and rules do not always apply to the Native. Why? Probably because Natives were here first.

    • yandoodan says

      I was wondering about Muslim reactions, too. I imagine that a Muslim would go off like a skyrocket. Not violently, mind you, but noisy and spectacular. So would an Evangelical Christian, a Mormon, or an Orthodox Jew. But the Muslim would be the one who would form the challenge to Identitarian orthodoxists. I suppose they get around this mental conflict by ignoring it.

  8. Opubo says

    Loved the article. I’m of Nigerian origin and have always been uneasy with unnecessary reverence of supposed rites & traditions of Indigenous cultures (in Canada & Nigeria). I always found it curious that the most ardent “preservationists” have been white. However, getting into a (calm, collected) conversation that shows how such undue reverence is indeed racial, exposes some people to new thinking.

    Keep up the good work.

  9. Lup Lup Lup says

    “The ground is not sacred to me. It is a spinning orb of rock that was created by physical forces well understood by scientists.”

    That’s definitely a perspective. I would ask, what do you think about that ‘rock’? Is it something to cherish? Human beings are moral creatures, after all. Is it weird that we should desire sacred things, cherishing a local lake like we cherish a family member?

    Indigenous claims are often about self-determination. Beyond cultural ownership, people want to live responsibly–in stable ways that don’t destroy the planet. Capitalism and the modern, Enlightenment project is about growth and expansion in every imaginable way. Nothing is sacred. At the very least, all must be studied and added to the body of Western knowledge. At its most successful, capitalism commercializes the sacred with little sympathy for those who believe in the sacred.

    The ‘Indian problem’ makes this tension pretty clear. The native believes in things that do not cohere with the capitalist, Enlightenment project. And yet, the capitalist, Enlightenment project will not leave the native alone. By its own growth and expansionist logic, it must intrude. This dynamic, which takes place on lands stolen from the natives, has become so obvious that the colonizers feel guilty about it. Makes sense.

    • augustine says

      Nice comment, Lup Lup Lup. If I understand you correctly you are saying that if we hold nothing to be sacred, on a some shared basis, there is really no basis for civilization.

      “Capitalism and the modern, Enlightenment project is about growth and expansion in every imaginable way. Nothing is sacred.”

      While this may be true of the *mechanisms* of capitalism it is not true of all the people involved in its systems. The grand scheme of nihilistic globalism seems to be eradicating sacredness from our lives, with empiricism and materialism, taken as our highest “goods”, being well suited to this end.

  10. David says

    “my country’s leaders now are effectively putting their thumbs down on the side of cultural preservation over economic development”.

    A parallel here can be made with the Chinese-Tibetan case. Before my visit to Tibet, I was in the “Free Tibet” camp (like most people I know). Once there, I was made aware of the Chinese position. For them, the Tibetans were a superstitious people (still practicing slavery when the Chinese came) that were entitled to economic development like any other group. I saw first hand that superstitious side, especially through their exploitation by monks that took the pennies in short supply of the illiterate people, making them believe that they could gain the knowledge of the sacred books by manually turning cylinders, or safely crossing rackety bridges by decorating them with colorful tissues. Economic development was only going to be possible by linking Tibet by train, which the West called “culturally genocidal”. The Chinese believed in economic development, the West in cultural preservation. We can debate on the implementation of this (I’m sure people would have loads to say on the Chinese misdeeds), but I thought the parallel was interesting.

  11. Great essay, I really enjoy the fact that this was not another piece about how bad I should feel about what has happened to First Nations over the years. I for one am getting tired of being called a “settler” and everyone diminishing the long and painful history of what most every family from any background has endured over the centuries. Excellent work!

  12. yandoodan says

    The story of the First Nations restaurant wonderfully shows how problematic it is to try to preserve First Nations cultural heritages from absorption by European cultures.

    So how do you run a restaurant without immersing yourself in European culture? What’s the source of the kitchen equipment? The electricity? The water? The assurance that the water is safe to drink? The sanitary inspections? The building inspections on the original construction? The taxes used to pay for the inspectors? The currency used to pay for everything? And how do you get all of this without European cultural norms about science, rationalism, and determinism?

    I loved the bit about using the Internet to defend Indigenous culture from those who would subsume it into European world views. Doesn’t anyone see the irony here?

  13. Shannon says

    ^ Irony noted, Yandoodan. It’s pretty crazy.

    Tightrope successfully walked, Jon. You were sensitive and brave in proportional ways where the situation dictated the lay.

    There are many unanswered questions regarding Indigenous issues in Canada (some detailed in comments above):

    – Indigenous oral history, and its apparent equality in the courts with written history – (see Delgamuukw v B.C.) and where that leads… AND how much power is in the courts’ hands and where that leads …

    – Reserves and land use – and whether the private property mentality gets enough support from indigenous peoples (not their activists) in the coming years (decades)… (because it might solve some housing issues – but presents new problems about whether indigenous people can sell to non-indigenous…)…

    – Government spending – where the recent unchecked billions go – precisely – & whether we’ll ever reach a point where self-sustaining indigenous communities are the norm (see Fort Mckay for an Indigenous community that’s doing great.. sadly not the norm) and how to get there…

    – Language use – Libs new bill adding more indigenous interpretors in the commons- and whether the govt plays a role in saving languages…

    – Government $ spent propping up a certain culture where we have past ‘sins’.
    No money for Japanese/Chinese (re: internment camps & head tax ‘sins’) Why? Because they are successful and can afford to live with others from their culture and pay for cultural events to their liking…

    Anyways to sum up: who knows?

  14. dirk says

    There is one big cause in all these encounters and misunderstandings: the tribe or culture with the guns and the better soldiers, is in power, and determines the morals and laws to be obeyed, but will never admit this. I also see similar situations and challenges on the Westbank, Israel has the power there, and locals with 2 donkeys, 10 olivetrees and a waterwell are in big trouble, of being overrun, and of not even having the right to pick wild thyme or other herbs on the “statelands”, the land of their ancestors. Exactly as with the indian tribes, no longer being able to cut the trees, kill the beavers in the forestst of their ancestors, statelands now! The forced retreat into reservations (small and infertile territoria) is all that rested the natives. But, at least, they are allowed to do a prayer in a skyscraper, now. And books about their early harmonious, natural lifestyles sell like hamburgers.

    • Steve says

      dirk:

      “… challenges on the Westbank” … “the land of their ancestors”

      The Jewish ethnic lineage has existed on those lands for at least 5,000 years. Europeans by comparison colonized this continent very recently.

      • dirk says

        Yes, that’s maybe a difference, indians were always there (10.000 yrs), but Jewish people (Kanaanites??) were there intermittently , as were the bedouin Palestines too. Palestine, from 628 a.D. onwards, was conquered by the Arabs on the Byzantines, became Turkish (Ottoman territory until quite recently) , British, and now the situation is not clear anymore, because of international interference (and power). But the situation of oppressor and oppressed (occupied) lives in the mind of millions now and even in UN declarations. As in Canada and the US, I fear, mutatis mutandis. Strangely enough, the real problem (the dehumanizing situation) in the Americas started only around 1825 ,after the settlers and the stronger administration no longer saw the indians as adversaries and/or equal parties, but as pain in the ass, victim, objects of benevolence to be protected, a basket of deplorables (see the book of Richard White, above, in a reaction to Charles White)

    • The lands provided to natives in Canada are not particularly infertile and natives have many hunting rights which other native born Canadians do not have. They can and do hunt at night on ATVs with spotlights so don’t talk to me about the poor native deprived of his land, they not only have as many rights as other Canadians, they in fact have more. The notion that their lifestyles were harmonious with nature is problematic for 2 reasons. 1st native people are not a cultural group, they are a collection of diverse cultural groups, some grew corn, some drove thousands of buffalo off cliffs and collected the meat of about a dozen among the hundreds of dead. The idea that all native cultures were harmonious with nature is a-historical and utter bullshit. While European demand decimated north American wildlife, it was native hands that for the most part did the killing.

  15. I can report that the situation is the same in Australia, perhaps even more so due to the extreme antiquity of Aboriginal societies here – people have inhabited these shores at least 30 000 years prior to the first nations in Canada. Aboriginal elders are asked to perform tokenistic “welcome to country” ceremonies, some modest repatriations of land have been made – but always on the expectation that Aboriginal people would remain morally pristine and never sully their hands with commercial activities.

    Australia contains much of the most geologically inert country in the world, where there has been no serious seismic activity for upwards of 250 million years – with barely any rain or groundwater, there is probably no better place on Earth to store nuclear waste. In 2007 a tribe in a remote community in the Northern Territory, eager for revenue sources that they could use to provide their children with a future, agreed to allow nuclear waste storage on their traditional lands. They were immediately piled on by the environmental activists, as well as by the “right” Aboriginal groups, many of whom suddenly announced that they had spiritual connections to the land in question. Woe betide an Aborigine who doesn’t act in the way expected of them.

    • dirk says

      The whole idea of land that belongs to individuals , ranchers or corporates, of course, is completely alien to original dwellers, whether they are Aboriginals, or Amerindians, or whereever!!. Once, in Kenya, somebody walked into my garden (I had hired as belonging to the house for 2 yrs) and picked the bananas from the tree. Hehehe!!, I said, what the hell are you doing here?? But my garden boy resolved the problem! The man had planted the tree there 1 yr ago, and came back to pick the fruits. That was his right, traditionally !!(but not of the Official, Colonial, and not even Kenyan rights now, of the capital, Nairobi, applied some years ago, by some new government, of course). Yes, who owns the resources, the land, the grazing rights, the fish, the oil. Look only at the rights on the subsoil oil of the Arabs! Or the rights on coltrane of Kabila in Congo! Or the oil in Texas! I wouldn’t know!

  16. David J says

    Excellent article, one of the best I’ve read on Quillette.

  17. marms says

    This is a great, much-needed essay Jon. But having grown up on the Shield I must tell you that land tears at you when you have grown there, and then been misplaced. Whether you are indigenous or not. It’s a pain we carry we who eak half-lives elsewhere. The rock and the bush and the huge icy lakes. Too bad you’ve not got that. I have understood some feel that way about Israel.

  18. The problem with the Noble Savage image, or the Drunken Indian, is that these caricatures make no room for Indigenous people in contemporary society. They put them out of place in the existing world and suggest that they cannot contribute meaningfully to it because their ideas and views have no currency. This is a loss to us all.

    In contrast to this, I see young voices like those of Tanya Tagaq or Shawn Hunt (see http://transformationmask.com) that are as clearly contemporary as they are indigenous. They speak of historic and cultural rootedness in nomadic, modern North American society (who has lived in the same city for 20 years?). They speaks of connection to the Earth, in a society that feels disconnected, or connection with kin in a society suffering from loneliness. They speak of mindful exploitation of resources, a notion we desperately need to understand and adopt.

    They are my neighbours and we can learn from each other, without having to become one like the other. I can teach them Environmental Management and they can teach me the values that underpin long-term stewardship. In this exchange, we each end up as better people, and the world ends up a better place.

  19. dirk says

    I feel with you Andre, maybe, in a near future, the stewardship vision from indigenous people has taken over the optimistic technological view of Pinker, who knows, because nobody knows the future (which is changing all the time). About that drunkenness: I remember a deep thought from the Chief, the indian giant from Nicholson’s One flew over the Cuckoo: “It was not that my father drunk from the bottle, but the bottle drunk my father empty”.

  20. dirk says

    I just see that -drunk- is archaic, so it is: my father, or the bottle -drank-! I really am learning english here, with help of Google.

    • marms says

      It is not archaic. It’s perfectly correct and spectacularly descriptive. The bottle drunk your father empty and your father was a drunk. (As was mine).

      • dirk says

        I hope for him that he enjoyed it, at least (the chief suffered because of it).

  21. I am surprised Farley Mowat wasn’t mentioned in this piece. From my (limited) reading in orbit of the subject, he was writing about these very same issues starting with People of the Deer in 1952.

  22. dirk says

    We are creeping more and more northwards, if we follow Sean,s direction, at least.

  23. In my opinion, this business of championing “the right kind of Indigenous peoples” is at the heart of the problem. There are quite a few Aboriginals who do not fit into the “right kind” category, but their point of view is often given short shrift.

    Over the years, I have spoken with a number of Aboriginals who have told me how difficult it has been for them to challenge the standard narrative. These truth-tellers are frequently dismissed as sell-outs, assimilated, colonized or worse. However, they continue to get their views out there, despite these difficulties. I am confident that, as time goes on, there will be more and more of these truth-tellers speaking out.

    Non-Aboriginals like Toronto, Ontario writer, Robert MacBain, and I continue to get our alternative viewpoints out there. This is because we have had a connection with the Indigenous community for many years. (Note: I have MacBain’s permission to mention his name in my comment.)

  24. Mark Matis says

    This could have all been prevented if we had merely treated the “native” population the same way they treated those they found here when THEY arrived.

    Kill every one of them, and do our best to wipe any trace of their existence from the earth.

  25. Alex says

    Great article. A bit too many words, more concise and its depth would have been more apparent. But great article nonetheless.

    I take back all the nasty words I said about you, and hereby remove all the needles in your voodoo dolls.

  26. I think it would be great if Quillette could find someone to “fisk” this article. A point-by-point refutation using both facts where facts are in question and logic or interpretation where alternatives appear to be both possible and better.

    It isn’t going too far to point out that Jon Kay is hated in Canada and there are any number of TwitterJusticeSquaws who would happily label this article a form of violence on the scale of genocide.

    And because that is usually the quality and tenor of responses to his work on Twitter and in Canadian media, a landscape “blanketed” by an unbelievably correct fog of inanity, it would be instructive to see an exchange on a “foreign” site like Quillette.

  27. dirk says

    And choose more adequate, fitting photographs, instead of those of hippie Grey Owl, and where is the promised Caspar David Friedrich? I love great wild landscapes with tiny humans in it.

  28. Stephen Stewart says

    It’s quite amusing that Jon Kay, of appropriation prize infamy, continues to find traction as the white man to go to for the low down on Indigenous peoples. Of course, he’s been masquerading as a writer for so long he probably thinks his fantasies really are your truths. Don’t be fooled. He tearned prejudice at his mother’ knee.

    Wouldn’t Jon Kay’s time be better spent mounting a spirited defence of Rebel Media than it is with patronizing half baked rambles of the “I come not to praise Indigenous peoples, but to bury them” variety? He seems to think his glib misdirection will drown out the voices of the current crop of Indigenous writers many of whom, unlike Jon Kay, are deep thinkers who can actually write.

    Perhaps Jon Kay is right, at least where white audiences are concerned, but Indigenous literature is written for an Indigenous audience. That’s just the way cultures work. What Jon Kay’s white audience should ponder is that his writing is laying bare their pride and prejudice for all to see. It’s not a pretty sight.

    • nsriver@telus.net says

      Could we have a couple names, the indigenous “deep thinkers who can actually write”. I’d love to tuck into a good read this weekend.

  29. Richard says

    “If our grandfathers’ war canoes showed up at your village, anywhere along this coast, you were in for a really bad day.” (Followed by laughter). This was said to me during a conversation with two young Haida guys in Masset, on Haida Gwai, in BC, back in 1988. They were descendants of fearsome warriors, and raiders, and proud of that heritage. They also told me that “these professor types come up all the time from the South, and they think this place was some kind of a ‘fairyland’. Wrong!”. (More laughter).

  30. “There can never be any excuse for the practice of forcibly removing children from their parents.” – Except there is in fact an excuse for this exact behaviour, its called child abuse. The same child abuse which has landed more native children in foster care today than all the native children in residential schools 100 years ago. Granted this is easily explained away with the increased population but the point is that there were reasons why the residential school system was brought about and it was not merely contempt that fueled the system’s creation. There were and are persistent cultural issues with native communities which must be addressed and are being roundly ignored and swept under the carpet to maintain the victim hood narrative.

  31. “I will not dwell too much in this space on the cruel, cynical, and utterly disastrous government decisions that have led to the current state of affairs in Indigenous communities.” This is baffling nonsense! The earliest reports of native communities in Canada reported cannibalism (the Ottawa tribe), mutilation and chronic alcoholism. We have vivid accounts from the French Indian war and the war of 1812 of unreliable, alcoholic, blood hungry natives who were prostituting their spouses for whiskey and gun powder outside fort walls! And yet this myth that native cultural issues are all of the white man’s making persist to this day. Alcoholism was an issue long before the 1st residential school opened its doors and to listen to this author one would believe that the current state of affairs is entirely the making of the Canadian government and white settlers.

Comments are closed.