Once I am settled in new digs [which won’t be for at least two weeks, as it happens] I’m gonna hafta spend a bunch o’ time dragging me BS net through the pertinent literature that’s come to light in the past month. So, please don’t expect today’s blurt to contain anything sensible about our favourite anthropological fields. Instead I wanna tell you about my experience while lunching yesterday at the Chinese restaurant next door, The Ocean Bay, on 3rd Street.
Two couples wandered in and took a table a couple of yards away from mine. Including them the clientele numbered just seven. In such circumstances it requires a level of concentration that I don’t possess to close one’s ears to audible conversation. When I left, I wished I’d been blessed with that kind of concentration. I would gladly have settled for tinnitus!
I learned how to think more or less anthropologically beginning in 1970, from my pal Al McMillan, at the then Douglas College campus in Richmond, BC. At that time I began to learn about the past and present circumstances of the First Nations of the northwest coast of North America. My learning comprised many, many empirical observations to the effect that us European oppressors were and continue to be responsible for the social circumstances of those First Nations and their people. It all seemed so clear to me. It still does. So, when lunching at the Ocean Bay I heard the same execrable harangue of First Nations in the present that I first heard almost fifty years ago, I couldn’t keep the bile down.
Here’s a paraphrase of what I heard.
‘They call themselves First Nations now. I don’t care if they were here first, and I’m not certain even if they were the first. But we’re all here now and we should all act responsibly. Giving them handouts hasn’t helped and it should be stopped. That way they’d have to learn self-reliance, and blah, blah, blah.’
‘One of them was behind me in line the other day and something I said obviously irked him, because he said that his circumstances and those of his peers was the result of what I’d call water under the bridge. He said that when he was seven years old he was taken from his family and put in a residential ‘school’ and mistreated terribly by the nuns. Sure, he might have suffered abuses in the school, but he was probably already being abused at home. So, what difference would it have made whether he lived with his abusive parents or some overzealous nuns? And let’s face it, we’re talking decades in the past when most of the badness took place. Why can’t they just get over it?’
and so on, and so on and scooby-dooby-dooby. [The first person to correctly identify the song from which this last phrased originated, the artist(s) that first recorded it, and how it fits in the context of today’s blurt will receive, free of charge, free of postage and handling charges, a bona fide “A drink is like a hug” t-shirt in any colour and size you want.]
So, now to the litany of empirical observations that at a bare minimum go together to explain the present-day circumstances of a great many of the indigenous peoples of North America. I’ll try to keep it brief.
First, the stereotypes of an ‘Indian’
In the beginning, they were untrustworthy renegades, ruthless killers, drunkards.
Today they’re drunkards and drug addicts, leeches, unambitious, lazy, always blaming their past.
Second, the depredations that Europeans visited on the ‘Indians’
Arrogant entitlement involving usurpation of land and resources.
Third, ‘Pacification’ such that Europeans could settle and prosper on what had been their land and resources. This took the form of overt and covert actual and cultural genocide—organized massacres; provision of disease-ridden blankets as part of the European end of a mutually agreed upon trade agreement; outlawing traditional ceremonies such as the potlatch; forced relocation to ‘reserves;’ precluding them from taking part in the political process through election laws if they did not give up their treaty rights and registered Indian status to do so. This last was part of the official strategy of assimilation, which included legally removing children from their families and relocating them to residential schools where their persons were derided for being who they were, and where they were forbidden from and punished for speaking their native language and acting in accordance with their cultural traditions.
I could go on. There are [increasingly small numbers of] indigenous people in North America who were victims of cultural genocide, and are less than a generation removed from those whose parents were directly affected by the attempted actual genocide that occurred in the 19th century. How is it that my fellow restaurant-goer can suggest that the native people just ‘get over it?’ What arrogance! What ignorance! What a paradigm of public opinion that to this day continues to oppress and disenfranchise the first people of these lands while at the same time proclaiming that they aren’t to blame for what their forbears did in the recent past.
No offense intended, but if you weren’t already familiar with the myriad reasons for the political and social circumstances of First Nations and Metis people in Canada, I hope this makes you sick to your stomach. And I hope that the next time some descendant of European immigrants blathers on about how they aren’t responsible for and shouldn’t feel ashamed about the ongoing treatment of indigenous peoples, I hope you’re better able to disabuse them of their bigoted stereotype and their myopic historical and social perspective. We all bear responsibility, just as any other genocidal society always will.
I’m outa here. Have a nice day.
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