I was perusing the Globe and Mail the other day, and I came acrossc an article by Margaret Wente that I find EXTREMELY problematic. Basically it is an apology (and I use the word apology in the traditional sense: a defense of a particular position) of the statement made by Dick Pound. I'm not sure how many people are aware of this controversy, but in August, Dick Pound, a member of the International Olympic Committee (and a former vice president of the organization) made a terrible comment, saying "400 years ago Canada was 'un pays de sauvages', with scarcely 10 000 inhabitants of European origin." This comment was made after someone asked him if he felt embarassed for the Olympics to be associated with China and its political history of infringements and violations of basic human rights.
Now, to call pre-colonial Canada a "land of savages" is not only disrespectful, it is offensive. It is offensive not only to the "savages" he is designating, but to the collective body of Canada as well. Would an American official publicly call the world of the south, and the black communities that arose as a result of the abolition of slavery, a country of n*****s? No, of course not. That word is seen as offensive, as a derogatory slurr that was created in order to dehumanize an entire race of people. The term "savages" was used in the same way, invented for the same purpose, and the racism that follows the aboriginal as a result is no less severe than that which follows the negro. Why is it then, that the latter term is acceptable, while the former is not?
Wente goes on to talk about "demythifying" aboriginal culture. She says, "The kinship groups in which they [aboriginals] 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."
Erm... excuse me... "probably rather high"? What the hell?? This kind of statement is one that should be regarded not only with suspicion, but with rejection. What kind of objective statement is that? It is the most vague, insidious kind of statement, because it allows itself a certain credibility, a "believeablity" that the rational person can see right through. If you are going to make a statement like that, you MUST be sure to have some kind of empirical evidence that backs it up. No one has the right to make such a judgement call without proper documentation. And furthermore, is not this allusion to criminality the same argument American racists made for their aversion to men of "colour"? You really want to go there, Wente? Really?? And another thing... why is it that when "civilized" countries openly murder one another it is called "warfare", but when indigenous peoples run into conflict it is called "homicide??
Now, while I obviously disagree with Wente on... almost everything... I do see the danger behind romanticizing pre-colonial culture. That is another form of dehumanization, I think. In elevating a group of people in such a way, in talking about the free native running around, happy and connected to nature in a way the modern man is incapable of, you are certainly presenting a distorted image of what life may have been like. I am not saying that those elements did not exist, but in presenting a people as an ideal, you are inprisoning them within a set of unreachable expectations. An example of what can happen to a group of people when they are idealized this way can be seen in the case of Woman, an issue I can certainly relate to. For the longest time women were elevated in order to be discriminated against. In the nineteenth century especially, they were thought to be the moral core of society, and as such it was the duty of men to protect them. They were discouraged from engaging in politics, as they were too pure. Surely such a perfect being would not want to taint themselves with the vote! The same thing is true, I think, for native peoples.
Wente concludes her article with the claim that the mythification of aboriginal culture arose out of post-colonial guilt, which I agree certainly exists. She says it is equally hazardous to the colonialist and the colonized to allow such a myth to emerge, as it serves only to separate. She says we must look at history realistically in order to stop alienating. But... don't you think calling the culture and customs of a particular group inferior... don't you think that by calling colonialists 'civilized' and native peoples as 'savage'... don't you think that by enforcing this HUGE dichotomous relationship... you are creating the ULTIMATE effect of alienation