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Anthropology, Dick Pound, and the Savagery Issue

Anthropology, the ‘Indian industry’, white man’s guilt and Jared Diamond have been implicated as justification for Vancouver Olympic Committee Dick Pound’s comment that 400 years ago Canada was full of savages. In a Globe and Mail column, Margaret Wente writes:

… 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. Until about 30 years ago, the anthropological term for this developmental stage was “savagery.”

The fact that North American cultures never evolved further can be explained, as American evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond showed, by geography, climate and a host of other material factors. But today, it’s not acceptable to argue that some cultures are more highly developed than others, or that cultural development is a force for good. Instead, our policies are based on the belief that aboriginal culture is equal but separate, and that the answer to aboriginal social problems is to revive and preserve indigenous culture on a “separate but equal” parallel track.

Much of Wente’s thinking is coming from a forthcoming book by Frances Widdowson called Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry. According to Wente, Widdowson promotes the position that government policies which embrace aboriginal traditions — including the inclusion of traditional knowledge in scientific research — simply serve to assuage guilt. They do not benefit aboriginal people. Aboriginals would be better off if they modernized like everyone else.

Is Wente right? Are the criticisms of Pound simply political correctness gone too far? Are anthropologists too rigid, too accepting of cultural relativity? The Dominion says Wente is as racist as Pound for making these claims.

My feeling: Using the term savage doesn’t further any agenda, whether it be aboriginal self-determination, cross-cultural comparisons of the kind Pound attempted, or non-aboriginal critique of native lives and the ‘Indian industry’.

More than this, we have have a legal tradition in Canada which supports the pursuit of aboriginal rights on the basis of prior occupancy. It is a recent tradition which is slowly overturning more than a century of policies meant to ‘modernize Indians’ for them. Legislation like the Indian Act failed to assimilate native people or make their lives better. Shouldn’t Aboriginal people themselves be making and choosing their own goals and their own routes towards them?


Natives decry remark as racist (Globe and Mail)
History reveals real ‘savages’ (Vancouver Province)
Pound regrets causing offence, denies comments racist (Canwest)
B.C. Premier slams Pound’s ‘savages’ remark (Globe and Mail)

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  1. fishsticks wrote:

    The word “savage” has been out of fashion with anthropologists since the late 19th century, hasn’t it? (Levi-Strauss’ use of this term was essentially ironic.) Maybe Wente is thinking of the term “primitive”, which was more common as late as the 1970s.

    Beyond this, what I find interesting about Wente’s article–and indeed most of what she writes–is a strong sense of white victimhood. There’s an insinuation that wealthy whites like Wente are being duped by cunning Native hucksters who use white guilt to line their own pockets. From this point of view, it’s whites–not Native people who were stripped of their lands and left destitute–who are the true victims. What’s more, by framing the issue in the terms of Social Darwinism, whatever suffering First Nations now face is effectively their own fault–they’ve resisted the opportunity and “cling” to their “savage” culture.

    Sunday, October 26, 2008 at 8:55 pm | Permalink
  2. Thanks very much for writing this Tad. I had only heard something vague and in passing until this, so I really appreciated seeing the story here and the way that you framed it and put it into context, the way few if any journalists would know how to do. The very last time I heard the name Dick Pound was back in Australia, during the Sydney Olympics — some Australian comedians were really taking him to town with ceaseless jokes about comments he made, which I have since forgotten. I can now see how he likes to venture into the ridiculous, to his discredit and hopefully not all of ours.

    Monday, October 27, 2008 at 8:11 am | Permalink
  3. fishsticks … very interesting thoughts. I’d tend to agree that she is mixing up primitive with savagery. Savagery is a 19th century term in my mind too. I’m intrigued by your observation that victimhood is inverted here. The idea that whites feel violated by the land claims process is worth further investigation to be sure.

    And thanks, Max, for your comment too. I am anxious to see how my students engage and respond to this. I’ll see if they worry that his discredit becomes that of the rest of us.

    Monday, October 27, 2008 at 6:08 pm | Permalink
  4. dirk wrote:

    A couple of points should be made.First the term “Aboriginal” is a legal construct.Under Canadian law it implies indigenous peoples are just another ethnic minority that have (second point)”Aboriginal rights or title” as defined under,”section 35 doctrine of aboriginal rights and title”.
    These terms must be understood for what they are,legal construct aimed at reducing indigenous peoples,to just another ethnic minority,which they are not.

    Read Janice Switlo’s:”Who let the dogs out” for the full explanation and implications of these terms “Aboriginals”,”Aborginal rights” and “Aboriginal title”.

    Thursday, November 6, 2008 at 1:54 am | Permalink
  5. Thanks for the link, dirk. –Tad

    Thursday, November 6, 2008 at 2:12 pm | Permalink
  6. Pineshi Gustin wrote:

    First Peoples of the country had a history prior to contact. Our territories had names and our timelines had oral histories. First Peoples resided in the territory without destroying the environment and lived with the laws of Nature. By the time of 1800 to 1860s in the eastern Canada, the people were being placed in reserves that restricted them from movement within their territories. They required a pass to visit their relatives in another community. There were many restrictions up to the year 1960 when Pierre Trudeau abolished its racist government laws and froze the archives from the First Peoples and destroyed them. Government and church archives got destroyed and left many First Peoples without a history of its blight from the new takers of the lands. Give a history that is genuine for the new students of this day. Do not focus on just what you have learned, but get the real information from the real inhabitants of the country.

    Tuesday, November 11, 2008 at 7:22 am | Permalink

3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Too Much Madness for a Monday Morning « OPEN ANTHROPOLOGY on Monday, October 27, 2008 at 3:30 am

    […] Thus for the first time I am borrowing my MMM post from a colleague, Tad McIlwraith at Fieldnotes: for the Anthropology of British Columbia, and his post titled: “Anthropology, Dick Pound, and the Savagery Issue.” […]

  2. […] The recent flap over Dick Pound’s comments about Canada being a land of savages prior to colonialism still has legs. Iain Hunter writes in the Victoria Times Colonist of the awkwardness of Pound’s comments in the current contexts of aboriginal reconciliation and apologies for residential schooling. He continues, citing at length Charles C. Mann’s well-known Atlantic Monthly article 1491. In that article, Mann offers lots of evidence that aboriginal peoples had sophisticated cultures. […]

  3. […] Frances Widdowson and co-author Albert Howard distanced themselves today from Margaret Wente’s column about aboriginal savagery. Wente had cited Widdowson and Howard at length her her article supporting Dick Pound’s ‘pay du sauvage’ remark. […]