As many of us know now, it started a couple of months ago with Dick Pound, a member of the Vancouver Olympics organizing committee and McGill University chancellor, stating that four hundred years ago what we today know as Canada was a land of savages “with scarcely 10,000 inhabitants of European descent.” He was making a comparison to China and later, after criticism by First Nations organizations, argued that his words were taken out of context. The AFN demanded an apology, others called for his resignation. British Columbia’s Premier Gordon Campbell called his remarks ‘disgraceful.’ Then on Saturday October 25, the Globe published Margaret Wente’s inflammatory column in which she argues that while stupid, Pound’s remark was correct. She backs her argument up with sweeping statements picked up from a single book that sounds like sloppiest scholarship on Aboriginal people in recent years. The problem is that this kind of haphazard, ignorant and arrogant writing (and scholarship) seems to be gaining ground.

Tom Flanagan’s rather poorly argued book First Nations? Second Thoughts (2000) was reprinted this year with a new afterword and National Post and its readers are enthusing about another, forthcoming book belonging to the same genre (F. Widdowson and A. Howard: Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry). This fall I’m teaching Aboriginal Law and Politics in Canada (at UofT), a third-year introductory course to trace the development of Aboriginal/Canadian relations from a legal and political standpoint and outline the evolution of Aboriginal issues and rights.

Just our readings for the class make a very different case on issues Wente, Flanagan and Widdowson seem to be on a warpath about. And although the class is an Aboriginal Studies course, we are not reading just some articles by Aboriginal or Indigenous scholars who are deemed biased and lacking scientific rigour by certain circles. For the most part, we are reading well-recognized white legal and other scholars whose arguments are carefully constructed and backed up with historical and legal facts – facts that I’m absolutely certain that most Canadians have never heard of, and if they would’ve, they might have a bit better appreciation of the issues and events that evolve in front of their eyes today.

According to Wente, Widdowson and Howard’s forthcoming book ‘knocks the stuffing out of the prevailing mythology that surrounds the history of first peoples. That mythology holds that aboriginal culture was equal or superior to European culture. At the time of contact, North America was occupied by a race of gentle pastoralists with their own science, their own medicine and their own oral history that was every bit as rich as Europe’s. The truth is different. North American native peoples had a neolithic culture based on subsistence living and small kinship groups. They had not developed broader laws or institutions, a written language, evidence-based science, mathematics or advanced technologies. The kinship groups in which they lived were very small, simply organized and not very productive. Other kinship groups were regarded as enemies, and the homicide rate was probably rather high.’ Wente then quotes Widdowson saying, ‘Never in history has the cultural gap between two peoples coming into contact with each other been wider.’

Reading this stuff almost blew my socks off. In one paragraph, Wente dismisses several decades of evidence-based research from disciplines ranging from gene and other biology, archaeology to linguistics, literature, history and anthropology to make sweep statements about Aboriginal histories, practices and philosophies by relying her sole authority Widdowson and her forthcoming book. I wanted to leave this stuff alone – it’s just too much to take it very seriously (though I do realize the impact of such a backlash on general public who like Wente, hasn’t bothered to do their homework and familiarized themselves with even a fraction of the scholarship that has been published in the past twenty years). And as I learn from my colleagues, responding doesn’t make one bit difference in these writers.

But in its outrageousness, it doesn’t leave me alone and I have to at least point out the factual errors if not engage in their racist, eurocentric rhetoric that eerily resonates with social Darwinism, a theory according to which human societies are characterized by social evolution, ‘survival of the fittest’ and competition among all individuals, groups, nations or ideas. Many historians, philosophers and social scientists have argued that Nazi ideology was strongly influenced by social Darwinist ideas. Hannah Arendt, for example, has examined how scientific Darwinism developed, via social Darwinist ethics, to a racist ideology serving certain political and economic interests. In the U.S. and also elsewhere, social Darwinism helped to create a legion of doctrines and ideologies such as Manifest Destiny to justify conquest and expropriation of land.

But let’s check the facts:
1.    ‘At the time of contact, North America was occupied by a race of gentle pastoralists.’
This is the first part of what Wente and Widdowson call the prevailing mythology they want to dismantle. I’d be interested in knowing where they picked this up, as the story (or the ‘mythology’) is at this day and age much more complex, elaborate and specific than that. ‘A race of gentle pastoralists’? Did anybody ever actually say this in their research? Because Widdowson is talking about scholarship and evidence-based research, not just what people might say on the street. I’d like to see her references for this one. Which scholar suggests that the different peoples who were living in North America prior to European settlement were a race? The various peoples living in what is today Canada were racialized for the purposes of colonial administration, that is, lumped under misnomers – first ‘Indians’ and then ‘Aboriginals.’ As long as First Peoples were defining themselves, ‘Indian’ or ‘Aboriginal’ was not a racial category. Not to mention that all those peoples certainly didn’t get their livelihoods from a single livelihood, gentle pastoralism (whatever that means).

2.    They had ‘their own science, their own medicine and their own oral history that was every bit as rich as Europe’s.’
On science: Do I need to cite all the scholarly books and refereed articles that have been published on these topics in the past fourty years? That would make a boring reading so I cite a website instead: “Fiction: Europeans “discovered” scientific knowledge, but American Indians “stumbled upon” it – they didn’t know what they were doing. Fact: All scientific knowledge comes from a process of trial and error – a messy guessing game that involves many false starts and much stumbling. Scientists first make an educated guess based on their observations. Then they test it and carefully observe the results to see if the guess was correct. If it wasn’t, they guess again. The haphazardness of this process led Albert Einstein to say, “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”’ []

On medicine: Upon contact, how advanced was European medicine? What is their evidence? Are Wente and Widdowson suggesting that people in North America just left their sick people dying? Or that contemporary scholars and scientists in fields such as ethnomedicine, etnhopharmacy and medical anthropology are all misguided and that their research and work is just a load of hogwash? Maybe they should read a couple of issues of Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, for example; it’s an open access, peer-reviewed online journal that covers topics such as: ethnobotany, ethnomycology, ethnopharmacy, ethnomedicine, ethnoveterinary, traditional medicines and traditional healthcare. (Or perhaps Wente and Widdowson are suggesting that traditional medicine existed in other parts of the world but not in North America, the land of savages?)

On oral history: What makes oral history ‘rich’? The contents, style, structure, mode of narration and who decides? It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that all peoples have oral histories of various kinds. One of first readings for this fall’s class was Wendy Wickwire’s “To See Ourselves as the Other’s Other: Nlka’pamux Contact Narratives” (1994). Wickwire, a historian at University of Victoria, BC, has done a careful comparative analysis of the accounts of the first meetings between Nlaka’pamux and European explorers in the Fraser River canyon in June 1808. Simon Fraser, the leader of the North West Company crew, was the first non-Native to explore the area. Anthropologist James Teit recorded Nlaka’pamux oral stories of these encounters in the late 1800s. These accounts of the Nlaka’pamux initial encounters with whites are an important and reliable historical record and according to Wickwire, there is a remarkable consistency with Fraser’s account. In effect, there is at times more detail in oral accounts than in Fraser’s written account. Wickwire concludes that Nlaka’pamux historiography is also qualitatively different from the written history. It draws on vastly larger tapestry of people that spans several generations (i.e., collective memory) rather than being limited to observations of a single male explorer. If Fraser’s account is ‘factual,’ Nlaka’pamux account ‘contextual,’ resulting in a wider, deeper history.

To be continued…


3 thoughts on “Savage backlash

  1. Thanks for doing this critique. The prominent and positive treatment of the Widdowson and Howard book in both the Globe and Mail (Wente’s column) and the National Post suggests that Canada’s newspapers of record are re-entering the discursive struggle to denigrate Aboriginal peoples, and thus Aboriginal rights, in the context of a colonial state with constitutional recognition of aboriginal and treaty rights. Because these newspapers are read by Canada’s political, capitalist and academic elites, these views are influential. I regret your critique will not also appear in the newspapers.

  2. Neo-liberalism has been brought to us by a relentless dissemination of “facts”, rhetoric and ideology. This latest onslaught suggests that First Nations peoples are making headway with the non-native Canadian public. Otherwise, the corporate elite wouldn’t bother with this kind of backlash writing. The Pound and Wente comments are a reminder that it’s not just ignorance that is in the way. Land and resources are at stake and in order to keep overriding native claims, the ruling elite has to produce native people as “less than”. The campaign we are seeing now is a deliberate strategy, once again, to dehumanize native people for the sake of corporate profit – and – not incidentally – white supremacy. Thanks for the excellent critique.

  3. I found your site and excellent critique through a link posted at Media Buzzard’s blog:

    Here is what I wrote there:

    Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry is a poorly written racist screed. I suspected that it would be bad when Wente praised it but when I actually looked through the book, I was shocked. An excerpt from their chapter on the failings of Aboriginal Education, entitled Honouring the Ignorance of our Ancestors:

    Of all the initiatives of the Aboriginal Industry, the research that is intent on justifying self-government over education is the most disturbing, as education is the area where solutions to the aboriginal question lie. Lack of education is at the heart of aboriginal peoples’ cultural underdevelopment and their inability to participate in the Canadian workforce…

    The authors go on to criticize non-aboriginal supporters of Aboriginal Education as being condescending, while in practically the same breath referring to Aboriginals as “blissfully ignorant”, “shielded from reality” and basically naive. How is that not condescending? How is claiming eurocentric culture superior not condescending?

    Sheesh, I’ve read Aboriginal people described in the same terms by racist Indian Agents in archived government correspondence dating through the 1930s, 40s and 50s. They are flogging a retrograde position and their work is being hailed as an important read by the likes of such extreme right wing racists as Tom Flanagan.

    Seriously, they have the nerve to use the term, “the aboriginal question”? This is the same language used by Hitler when devising his doctrine of Final Solution. For these right wing racists, the solution is to eradicate Aboriginal culture and identity through assimilation.

    Their first line of attack that is getting lots of media attention is the issue of Aboriginal self-governance over education. All right wing think tanks are publishing reports on this issue as of late. The government is proposing to cut grants for post-secondary education and conservatives are chiming in with rants of equality for all Canadians. (IOW, no special status or recognition of constitutional rights.)

    As Grand Chief Ron Evans recently wrote to the Winnipeg Free Press, the problem isn’t Aboriginal control over education but lack of federal funding.

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