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)