North American’s native peoples don’t appear to be short of self-confidence these days, but they may be losing their cultural cachet. In the July 2003 Scientific American, their view of their own history was backhanded by Michael Shermer, who pointed out that evidence to back up native people’s self-image as socially wise, peaceful and ecologically responsible is either wobbly or dead wrong. He argues that science seems to back a diametrically opposite view. Most students of pre-Columbian Mayan culture and Aztec culture are aware that as agricultural practitioners go, those high cultures of Central America were blunderers who ruined their land resources by over-cropping maize, but a 1999 book by Shepard Krech III, titled The Ecological Indian argues that the stumblebum agricultural practices of the Mayans and Aztecs were the rule across the Americas, not an exception. Other studies have indicated that the native American “spiritual” practice of believing that common game animals like the elk, deer, bear and buffalo would be reincarnated was little more than an excuse for hunting them into local extinction. “The evidence” Shermer writes, “is now overwhelmingly that many large mammals went extinct at the same time that the first Americans began to populate the continent.”
Shermer’s points won’t quite be revelatory to paleontologists and non-devotional cultural anthropologists, but they have been slipping under the cultural radar of everyone else. One suspects that this is because Europeans have been so busy feeling guilty about the real and substantial abuses their distant and rather recent ancestors perpetrated against North America’s native peoples that they’ve remained as oblivious to grainy details of the cultures they trampled as they were while they were putting the boots to them. In short, they haven’t the slightest idea what the Indians were doing to one another and the continent’s flora and fauna before the Euros arrived to up the tempo of the onslaught. The true picture looks something like this: North America’s first Neolithic invaders were, per capita, the worst exterminators of species on the planet, having wiped out an entire tier of spectacular predators and large herbivores, including a number of species—lions and elephants come to mind—that continued to thrive in other parts of the world despite far larger human populations. And native peoples didn’t do much better after that.
North America’s native peoples don’t seem to have been any wiser and peaceful when it came to one another, either. Slavery and genocide were common inter-tribal practices, and the archaeological record demonstrates that warfare was frequent and that casualties, in relative terms, were high. The most famous example of inter-tribal co-operation was among the Iroquois, who banded together, with some technological aid from the British, to exterminate the Hurons and the Algonquians shortly after the Europeans arrived. But that isn’t the only example of things going the wrong way.
Then there’s the music. I’ve recently had several people point out to me that North America’s native peoples are the most dreadful musicians on the planet—not something to be overlooked in a global culture in which music is the most prestigious form of communication. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, ask yourself when you last heard of groups of North American native peoples touring the hotspots of Europe (or even North America) as ethnic street musicians the way South Americans and Africans regularly do.
It ain’t a pretty picture is it? North America’s First Nations treated North America like an Idaho hunting lodge, they were indifferent ecologists, bad musicians, lousy farmers, and they were nastier than Serbs and Croats when it came to getting along with one another. Again, none of this will surprise anyone who’s looked beyond Levi-Strauss and the sentimental view of primitive cultures that was current 25 years ago among anthropologists and is still current in today’s Cultural Studies. Tribal societies, unless they’re very isolated and are blessed with physical resources, are arguably the worst model for human interaction ever invented, and much of their cachet derives from the silliest optimisms of the Global Village, which imagined that we’d all waltz into the 21st century feeding caviar to our ethnic differences and other xenophobic fantasies while somehow holding hands within an electronic grid. It hasn’t worked out that way so far, even though no one seems to want to do the addition on it.
North America’s First Nations’ cultural music, meanwhile, may well be as scratchy and tuneless as the moaning and muttering witches in MacBeth. Ultimately, that isn’t a serious matter—an issue of taste and music criticism. But some of the other issues being raised these days are likely to prove genuinely damaging to First Nations causes over the next few years. That they weren’t paragons of virtue doesn’t change what Europeans did to them in the distant and recent past, or free anyone from the moral requirement to redress it. Where it may become a serious matter lies in the unfortunate reality that victims of injustice rarely get compensation unless they are both deserving andfashionable. The working class and black GIs who were sent off to Vietnam in the 1960s to get their asses blown off—and/or their minds addled—in an unpopular war still can’t get the time of day from Americans, and the result has been more postwar suicides among Vietnam War veterans since the war than were killed in combat. Japanese Canadians who were tossed into concentration camps during the Second World War were victims in 1942, 1952, 1962 and 1972. But their cause got nowhere until the European North American majority decided that Japanese culture was chic and that their own lives weren’t complete without sushi and Japanese cars. In the Global Village, fashion counts, even if it shouldn’t.
What’s making this worse is that North America’s native peoples and their leaders are pretty much their own worst enemies when it comes to public relations. They’re just not very focused when it comes to keeping their loose cannons tied down and out of sight. Once loose, the loose cannons tend to aim either at their own wheelhouse or at the people they most need to have onside—liberal-minded white people with money and voting power. Their antics may be entertaining for the half-dozen or so people left in North America still willing to laugh at slapstick even when it transgresses the boundaries of correctness, but the gaffes and the self-righteousness of First Nations are dangerous to credibility in a country where they’re demanding control over huge tracts of land and some very fragile other resources, along with full retention of a packet of special rights the rest of the population will have to pay for.
First Nations people and their leaders haven’t presented or held the victim pose very well, and they’ve gotten in far too many people’s faces with their elevated sense of entitlement. Recently in Canada they had anti-Semitic Senator David Ahenakew shooting off his mouth and then making the least-convincing apology in living memory, and there’s the ongoing haggling and hassling over who is going to be the Grand Chief of the Assembly First Nations, with discredited former chief Ovide Mercredi nearly defeating Phil Fontaine. A few months ago the Supreme Court of B.C. denied them the right to a race-based fishery, and the lobster fishery squabble on the east coast around Burnt Church didn’t made them many friends, local or otherwise. Nor has their behavior during the land claims settlement process in B.C. been much more civil than that of the increasingly impatient governments involved. At the extreme edge, the Fraser Institute—soon to be the unofficial think-tank for the Martin government in Ottawa—is mounting a deadly serious campaign aimed at tossing the Indian Act and replacing it with ordinary citizenship. The lead spokesperson for the Fraser Institute, Tanis Fiss, recently pointed out that if the rest of Canada had the same ratio of federally-paid politicians Canada’s First Nations have, the House of Commons in Ottawa would have 295,000 members. Such statistics are specious, but they do reflect a new undercurrent of irritation towards First Nations. Most of it isn’t as hostile as what’s coming out of the Fraser Institute, but many people are beginning to believe that native peoples are as feckless and opportunistic as the white majority, and that they’re not the paragons of shamanistic virtue and wisdom they’ve clearly come to see themselves as.
Most of the irritation and hostility isn’t fair, and all decent people ought to agree that victims of injustice shouldn’t need to play public relations games to keep an attractive spin on their cause. Unfortunately, decent people don’t run this world. People like George Bush, Paul Martin Jr., Mike Harris and Gordon Campbell do.
These days, about the only thing run by decent people is the anti-smoking lobby, and its recent handling of incoming empirical data doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Any day now the anti-smoking folks are going to notice that North America’s native peoples were the ones who stuck us with tobacco in the first place. When they do, they’ll likely include First Nations as defendants in the legal suits now being mounted against the tobacco industry and start demanding reparations. If their estimates of the fiscal cost of smoking, along with the number of people it has killed, are remotely accurate, native peoples will find themselves doing community service to pay down the debt until a few hours after hell freezes over, with no time for sweat lodges or smuggling cigarettes across the St. Lawrence River. And the anti-smoking lobby will be building new gambling casinos to savage our souls and our bank accounts.
1599 w. (November 3, 2003