This continues my previous post of checking Wente’s facts, followed by some considerations with little more detail to nuances and specificity:
3. ‘North American native peoples had a neolithic culture based on subsistence living and small kinship groups.’
‘Borrowing technology and ideas from the Midwest, the nomadic peoples of New England transformed their societies. By the end of the first millennium A.D., agricultural revolution was spreading rapidly and the region was becoming an unusual patchwork of communities… Each village had its own distinct mix of farming and foraging.’ (Charles C. Mann, author and correspondent for Science and Atlantic Monthly)
And BTW: ‘The Neolithic Revolution is the invention of farming, an event whose significance can hardly be overstated. ‘The human career,’ wrote the historian Ronald Wright, ‘divides in two: everything before the Neolithic Revolution and everything after it.’ It began in the Middle East about eleven thousand years ago. … Researchers have long known that a second, independent Neolithic Revolution occurred in Mesoamerica. The exact timing is uncertain – archaeologists keep pushing back the date – but it is now thought to have occurred about ten thousand years ago, not long after the Middle East’s Neolithic Revolution.’ (Ibid.)
4. ‘They had not developed broader laws or institutions, a written language, evidence-based science, mathematics or advanced technologies.’
‘It is not easy to trace the history of the political organization of pre-Columbian societies. Generally, the first European observers either took John Locke’s approach, and therefore doubted that there was any genuine political organization in pre-colonial Aboriginal societies, or described Indigenous customs in an ethnocentric manner that was more suited to their ‘civilizing’ goals than an accurate assessment of reality’ (Ghislain Otis, Professor of Law, Laval University).
Professor of History J. R. Miller suggests that a major reason for the Europeans’ initial ignorance of the state of Aboriginal political organization was that both the mechanics and the spirit of indigenous government were dramatically different from their counterpart in European societies. A widespread custom of governance that Europeans didn’t understand and certainly didn’t practise was the use of consensus in decision-making. A striking example of the desire for consultation and compromise was found in Iroquois Confederacy: decisions had to be unanimous. Another example, the Mi’kmaq governance, however, looked strikingly like federalism: they had local systems of government in the villages and women held prominent political roles. The Potlatch system in the West Coast didn’t some ways look like governance at all yet it effectively regulated status relationships between families or villages.
Has anything changed for some folks since the first European observers? For some, it sounds like Locke’s approach combined with their ‘civilizing’ mission is alive and kicking. So much for progress, eh?
5. ‘The kinship groups in which they lived were very small, simply organized and not very productive.’
‘Anyone who traveled up the Mississippi in 1100 A.D. would have seen it looking in the distance: a four-level earthen mound bigger than the Great Pyramid of Giza. Around it like echoes were as may as 120 smaller mounds, some topped by tall wooden palisades, which were in turn ringed by a network of irrigation and transportation canals; carefully located fields of maize, and hundreds of red-and-white-plastered wood homes with high-peaked, deeply thatched roofs like those on traditional Japanese farms. Located near the confluence of the Missouri, Illinois, and Mississippi Rivers, the Indian city of Cahokia was a busy port.’ (Charles Mann)
6. ‘Other kinship groups were regarded as enemies, and the homicide rate was probably rather high.’
Have these folks (are they scholars or what?) done any reading and research at all? Everybody knows at least the Great Law of Peace if they haven’t heard about other Confederacies in pre-colonial North America (such as the Blackfoot and Mi’kmaq to name few). And ‘the homicide rate was probably rather high’? Probably? Is this kind of guessing game acceptable or appropriate for scholars (or even for journalists)?
7. ‘Never in history has the cultural gap between two peoples coming into contact with each other been wider.’
This is a great little story: ‘British fishing vessels may have reached Newfoundland as early as the 1480s and areas to the south soon after. In 1501, just nine years after Columbus’s first voyage, the Portuguese adventurer Gaspar Corte-Real abducted fifty-odd Indians from Maine. Examining the captives, Corte-Real found to his astonishment that two were wearing items from Venice: a broken sword and two silver rings. … The earliest written description of the People of the First Light was by Giovanni da Verrazzano, an Italian mariner-for-hire commissioned by the king of France in 1523 to discover whether one could reach Asia by rounding the Americas to the north. Sailing north from the Carolines, he observed that the coastline everywhere was ‘densely populated,’ smoky with Indian bonfires; he could sometimes smell the burning hundreds of miles away.
The ship anchored in wide Narragansett Bay, near what is now Providence, Rhode Island. Verrazzano was one of the first Europeans the natives had seen, perhaps even the first, but the Narragansett were not intimidated. Almost instantly, twenty long canoes surrounded the visitors. Cocksure and graceful, the Narragansett sachem leapt aboard: a tall, long-haired man of about forty with multicolored jewelry dangling about his neck and ears, ‘as beautiful of stature and build as I can possibly describe,’ Verrazzano wrote. His reaction was common. Time and time again Europeans described the People of the First Light as strikingly healthy specimens. Eating an incredibly nutritious diet, working hard but not broken by toil, the people of New England were taller and more robust than those who wanted to move in – ‘as proper men and women for feature and limbes as can be founde,’ in the words of the rebellious Pilgrim Thomas Morton.’ (Charles Mann). There are so many other stories like that, and there are not too difficult to find. Many of them account the awe of European travellers and settlers of what they saw when they landed in the Americas (of course there are stories of negative reactions too).
Wente’s stupendous analysis allows her to conclude: ‘Today, however, it is simply not permissible to say that aboriginal culture was less evolved than European culture or Chinese culture – even though it’s true.’ Based on all the burgeoning research that is available today (and I’ve referred to a very minuscule fraction of it, based on the readings I’ve done for the class I’m teaching), it seems that a much more accurate reason not to say that Aboriginal cultures were less evolved than European culture or Chinese culture is simple: it’s not true! Wente doesn’t provide any evidence or refer to any research to back her arguments (besides Widdowson’s words). Nobody is telling you it’s not permissible to say such stupid things – you are free to say whatever you like, but say it on your own risk and by doing it, shout your ignorance to the world.
I mean, can scholarship get any more simplistic than this: ‘Ms. Widdowson argues that the most important explanation for aboriginal problems today is not Western colonialism but the vast gulf between a relatively simple neolithic kinship-based culture and a vastly complex late-industrial capitalist culture.’ I really don’t know what she’s referring to with ‘a relatively simple neolithic kinship-based culture’? Which Aboriginal culture is she talking about? Arguments this vague based on such gross stereotypes and generalizations would get a failing mark at any university level, including my third year undergrad class.
Some of the things we have read in my class this fall include some historical facts from J. R. Miller: By the end of the 19th century, Canada had fashioned an extended system of regulations to interfere with Aboriginal management of their own political affairs. The Indian Act was passed in 1876, but even before that, there were laws passed to interfere with Aboriginal societies. The Gradual Civilization Act was passed in 1857 and it dictated how an ‘Indian’ could cease to be an ‘Indian’ or to become enfranchised. The Gradual Enfranchisement Act was passed in 1869. This act added a blood quantum to the definition of ‘Indian’ and marked one of first steps to interfere with Aboriginal governance.
In 1885, the recently established Department of Indian Affairs implemented pass system the Prairies which required Indians who wished to leave their reserve to obtain prior approval from the agent. ‘The 1927 Indian Act forbade First Nations people from forming political organizations. Hence, it was common for a First Nation leaders to be jailed by the RCMP for trying to organize any form of political group. This apartheid law prohibited traditional First Nation government systems from existing in the native communities and in its place established the present day “band council” system’ (Miller). These are just a few examples. Not surprisingly, Professor of Law John Borrows suggests that Canada doesn’t have an ‘even experience of justice’ and that Canada is ‘built on a foundation of sand so long as the rule of law not applied to Aboriginal peoples.’
With her conclusion and reference to Widdowson’s words, I am not quite sure what, at the end, Wente is suggesting. More assimilation policies (with a new euphemism)? If anything, there is a widespread general agreement that Canadian Indian policy of assimilation and integration has been a monumental failure, as pointed out for example by Tim Schouls, John Olthuis, et al. in 1992. It doesn’t work and it has been extremely expensive, resulting only in welfare dependency, increasing tensions, worsening statistics and deadlock in politics, policy, justice system and so on.
The basic dilemma, as Schouls and Olthuis argue is not about ‘equal opportunity’ but a right to live by a different set of values. To effectively do this, Aboriginal peoples need to be in charge of their own affairs. The Canadian courts have recognized the pre-existing sovereignty of Aboriginal peoples and the Supreme Court of Canada has stated that the reconciliation has to take place in the context of the pre-existing Aboriginal sovereignty and the assumed sovereignty of the Crown (Haida Nation v. British Columbia, 2004).
Besides reading books and articles, we were honoured to have a guest in our class in late September. Satsan or Herb George, the President of the National Centre for First Nations Governance was visiting the University of Toronto with his team and exploring the possibility to start a partnership between the two institutions. In one his public talks, he referred to Justice Ian Binnie’s response to another Globe and Mail redneck journalist Gordon Gibson, who was complaining that the courts have given already too much to the Indians. Justice Binnie’s response was that the courts have only given Aboriginal people what has already been theirs, adding that Canada has entered into a new era of reconciliation and folks like Gibson should realize that. Now it’s time for Wente and Widdowson – and their acolytes – get with the program.
Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.
Otis, Ghislain. “Elections, Traditional Aboriginal Governance and the Charter.” Aboriginality and Governance. A Multidisciplinary Perspective. Ed. Gordon Christie. Penticton, B.C.: Theytus, 2006. 217-38.
Miller, J. R. Lethal Legacy: Current Native Controversies in Canada. 2004.
Schouls, Tim, and John Olthuis. “The Basic Dilemma: Sovereignty or Assimilation.” Nation to Nation. Aboriginal Sovereignty and the Future of Canada. Ed. John Bird. Concord, ON: Anansi Press, 1992. 12-27.
Borrows, John. Recovering Canada. The Resurgence of Indigenous Law. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.