The myth of indigenous utopia

By: on November 8, 2017 |

                                                                                (Image: Cornelius Krieghoff / Wikimedia Commons)

Genocide. Ethnic cleansing. Forced assimilation. Slavery. Racism.

As much as mainstream history and traditional anthropology have shown these five phenomena to be near universal features of the human condition, they are mostly portrayed these days in the ivory tower, government and media as late 15th century European colonizer inventions to subjugate, exploit, or exterminate the indigenous people of the world.

In Canada, this skewed portrait of the five sins of Westernization portrays the pre-contact New World as a veritable Garden of Eden inhabited by a myriad of aboriginal groups mostly living peacefully with each other and in harmony with nature. The indigenous “fall from grace,” if any, was precipitated entirely by the arrival of Europeans.

The de facto Book of Genesis for Canada’s indigenized creation story is the 4,000-page 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RRCAP). The Report does not suggest the country was created in six days, it is silent on serpents and sex, and the Flood only appears as a metaphor for immigration. But – and I mean no disrespect to the authors and believers of the biblical Genesis story – the RRCAP creation story is just as hard to accept.

Among its many evidentiary shortcomings, it privileges unverifiable oral history over well-documented written accounts; makes no mention of periodic pre-contact hunger, starvation, or famine; only fleetingly refers to “violent death and cannibalism” and occasional warfare among the militaristic Iroquois; briefly comments on lethal conflict among the famously warlike Blackfoot; and buries pervasive West coast pre-contact slavery in a one-sentence footnote.

Conversely, the Report deals extensively with similar activities, some now viewed as crimes against humanity, when they were perpetrated by European societies, regardless of their relevance to Canada. This partial and selective story is well on its way to becoming our country’s “official history”. It is increasingly taught in our schools and is constantly regurgitated by prominent members of the Canadian intelligentsia. One of the latest to do so is Niigaan Sinclair, Associate Professor of native studies at the University of Manitoba and son of Senator Murray Sinclair, former chair of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Although Professor Sinclair is a beneficiary of the modern nation-state, industrialism and the capitalist system, he strongly rejects all three in an essay published by the Globe and Mail earlier this year as part of a multi-part series titled “Walls, Bridges, Homes … a series of essays written in response to the emerging global appetite for a progressive narrative around inclusion and immigration.” The essence of his argument is that the economic, social and political structures of pre-contact aboriginal cultures were not only fundamentally different from but actually superior to those of the European invaders. So superior, in fact, that Sinclair contends they must replace western civilization in order to “save the world”.

Leaving aside the claim of cultural superiority, for the moment, let’s examine the claim of indigenous exceptionalism.

There is no evidence that the aboriginal settlers of the Americas, as full and equal members of the human race, were any different from their pre-modern counterparts all across the globe, including Western Europe, in coping with the severe survival challenges they faced. Although the political evolution of individual groups of humans was highly idiosyncratic, the overall path of humanity starting about 100,000 years ago traversed from loosely structured, scattered, highly mobile family groups to somewhat larger, more organized foraging bands, to larger, more tightly integrated semi-sedentary tribes to moderately centralized chiefdoms and, finally, some 5,000 years ago, to the world’s first six pristine, hierarchical states. The long-term global process (which in no way implies the notion of “progress”) called “general evolution” mainly took place on the back of some combination of slaughter, subjugation, tribute extortion, assimilation, and expulsion meted out against foes.

Not in his ancestral back yard, says Sinclair. In the Globe article, he sarcastically dismisses this cumulative story of thousands of years of human accommodation, adaptation, and change as a Eurocentric fiction based on an “an evolutionary model of human community [that] was invented, starting with the ‘tribe’ or some other savagery and ending with the great [19th century] Westphalian nation-state and notions of sovereignty.”

In every other culture but Sinclair’s, apparently, infanticide was used to control population growth beyond the environmental carrying capacity of stone-age hunters and gatherers; ethnic cleansing was undertaken against alien neighbours when local groups exceeded the demographic sustainability of their territories under simple forms of farming; cannibalism was practiced as a response to hunger or to capture the spiritual power of competitors; wholesale extermination of enemies – genocide – was organized and executed to seize territory or eliminate military threats; and just about any alien group (now called “subalterns” in Marxist postcolonial studies) was subject to enslavement in support of forced labour, sexual exploitation, trade, or status enhancement.

Around the world, groups that excelled at these practices, including the Aztec of Mexico and Inca of Peru, slowly evolved into state-level societies. In the process they typically conquered, exiled, or absorbed their neighbours. Sometimes they butchered them for food, as the Aztecs did to obtain enough protein to survive in the fauna-scarce Valley of Mexico. They also despoiled their habitats through deforestation and species extinctions. Many of their victims, human, plant, and animal, are now known only via the paleontological record.

What we know about the Mesoamericans comes partly from direct documentary evidence, for theirs was a literate society. Admittedly we don’t know a lot about human life in pre-contact Canada because literacy didn’t arrive until the Europeans, and petroglyphs don’t tell us much. The historical record in these parts thus begins with documents like the 18,000-page Jesuit Relations (1632-1673) based on the reports of Roman Catholic missionary priests. While these and other writings were undoubtedly tainted with ethnocentric and evangelical bias, they consistently and comprehensively report that Canada’s original inhabitants demeaned their foes using vicious quasi-racial stereotypes (from coast to coast); mutilated, tortured to death, and cannibalized enemies (prevalent in southern Ontario and Quebec); enslaved members of neighbouring groups (common among West coast tribes); massacred competitors for land and resources (widespread on the Prairies); and exterminated entire ethnic groups (as in the genocidal annihilation of almost all the Huron by the Iroquois in 1649).

In short, contrary to the idyllic picture painted by Professor Sinclair’s essay and the RRCAP, the preponderance of scientific evidence, as opposed to tales told around eons of campfires, indicates Canada’s first immigrants acted just as beastly as the rest of the human family.

Whatever was going on pre-contact, it was remarkably unproductive in terms of population growth, compared to many other regions of the world. The aboriginal settlers had at least 15,000 years to populate the northern half of the continent, but on the eve of European settlement there were no more than 500,000 indigenous people in what is now Canada, or one person per 20 square kilometres. It was a virtual terra nullius by any reasonable definition. To be sure, they faced technological and environmental challenges that limited population growth (although endemic plant and animal food shortages were not among them), but based on the relatively rapid population growth in Europe and elsewhere over the same period, it is reasonable to hypothesize that inter-tribal warfare was more lethal in pre-contact Canada than it was just about anywhere else, including Europe during its darkest ages. In fact, the kill rate likely exceeded – by a huge factor –  the number of indigenous people deliberately killed by Europeans.

None of this seems to have occurred to Professor Sinclair. Instead, he recommends the world look to aboriginal history for guidance on how to reduce modern inter-state and inter-cultural violence: “Indigenous nations have answers to nearly every single challenge facing nation-states and leading to such wars today.”

There is no denying that the death of tens of thousands of indigenous people in Canada and millions more elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere because of their susceptibility to infectious Western diseases like influenza, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, smallpox, and measles is a human tragedy of epic proportion, although it’s miniscule compared to the Black Death that killed an estimated 75-200 million people in Eurasia between 1346-1353. And it is outrageous that so many indigenous people died of smallpox contracted from blankets obtained from fur traders in return for animal skins. It’s widely alleged the Europeans deliberately infected their indigenous trading partners, which seems counterintuitive, to say the least. But even if they did, they were petty biological warriors compared to, say, Genghis Khan, who used catapults to toss plague-infested corpses over the walls of castles he besieged.

What Sinclair ignores most of all is that, unlike so many other places in the world, including Western Europe where even the names of most preliterate indigenous groups disappeared millennia ago, the post-contact European treatment of Canada’s original inhabitants involved neither genocide, nor slavery, nor ethnic cleansing, nor total assimilation, nor tribute extraction. On the contrary, though there was an unfortunate and unjustified period of legislated racial segregation for treaty Indians between 1885 and 1951, as well as other small and large injustices from first contact to the present, European settlement starting in 1535 eventually resulted in permanent pacification (the abolition of tribal warfare and the voluntary signing of treaties), the free and lively exchange of aboriginal products for European manufactured goods for 250 years, tens of billions of dollars spent since Confederation in 1867 to enhance the well-being of indigenous peoples, and an Indian Act (1876) and the Constitution Act (1982) – both rooted in the Royal Proclamation of 1763 – which defined, enhanced, and preserved the special rights and privileges of aboriginals (especially their treaty rights).

Warts and all, no country has ever done more for its indigenous people. And Professor Sinclair’s haughty claims to aboriginal moral superiority over European savagery have no foundation in Canadian history.

 


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About Hymie Rubenstein

Hymie Rubenstein is a retired Professor of Anthropology at the University of Manitoba.