Archive for November 2nd, 2008

From Fierlbeck

I’m corresponding with Katherine Fierlbeck about the fuss over the book, Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation, by Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard, to appear soon from McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Readers of The Idea File will remember that Widdowson’s paper at the Learneds last spring occasioned controversy. Some people thought the discussion was disgraceful and some proposed censuring Peter Russell, the meeting’s chair, for letting things get out of hand.

The Canadian Political Science Association is not proposing to censure Russell. It is thinking of creating a protocol on “offensive speech.” We’re awaiting news of the CPSA Board meeting in December.

Katherine sends this url for Kevin Libin’s story on Widdowson and Howard in the National Post, “A Marxist take on native life.”

The article usefully reminds us that Widdowson and Howard mean by the “Aboriginal Industry” not a cabal of native peoples but the “mercenaries” who manipulate natives to inflate land claim grievances, demand industry payoffs and pressure politicians for more funding with fewer strings attached. Like proper Marxists, says Libin, Widdowson and Howard contend that the system is perpetuated by those benefiting from the arrangement – “which certainly aren’t rank and file aboriginals, persisting in poor, sick and miserable conditions.”

I say that you don’t have to be a Marxist to suppose that mercenaries gather when tens of billions of dollars are floating freely in the blue, up for grabs. The Post says that Widdowson and Howard are bothered by “accusations that they are in collusion with, of all people, such Fraser Institute types as Tom Flanagan and Melvin Smith.” There’s gratitude!  Flanagan wrote a highly favourable blurb on Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry for McGill-Queen’s.

I ask Katherine whether Widdowson is a bit too unsympathetic to the idea of learning from myth and story.

She replies:

Perhaps she is; and certainly there is much to be said for learning through
narrative (hello, Richard Rorty!). What bothers me about the position she
opposes is the implicit – and often explicit – argument that
liberalism/rationalism/scientific thought is inherently oppressive and
imperialist. The practical consequence of this is not only polarization, but
also the message given to native people (especially students) that engaging in
fields based on rationalist/scientific method is selling out to the oppressor
(sorry, “the Other”). They’re not considered “real Indians” if they accept this
mindset. And, if they do, they risk “assimilating” their people into mainstream
society, which is also racist.

So the real cost of this postcolonial claptrap is the intellectual stagnation
of generations of aboriginal students.

I agree.


We Live in the Archival Age

We live in an Archival Age. We’re preservers, conservers, collectors. We can’t let things go.

Is there a language spoken by only a hundred people? It must be preserved. A scholar at some small American University will produce a dictionary, records, sets of audio tapes. He’ll hold classes. He’ll apply for grants.

Is there an endangered species? We’re in anguish. Scientists are discovering new species at an unprecedented rate but we are not consoled.

We swear by the theory of evolution but campaign for survival of the less fit. So: the Royal Botanical Gardens (Hamilton and Burlington) tells those who live near the Garden’s many properties that they may not plant Vinca minor (common periwinkle) or Aegopodium (goutweed) in their front or back yards, for fear these fiesty little plants of European origin will find their way into Canadian ravines and forests.

There’s a fine of up to $1,000 for planting them. An RBG pamphlet shows pictures of Vinca and goutweed growing in deep forest cover. The effect is charming: woodsy, modestly colourful. But not allowed. The forest must be preserved as it is, or as it should be, that is, as it was in the nineteenth century.

And spare a thought for the dilemma facing the museum curator when a historically identifiable people asks for return of its artifacts. She wants to see historical peoples flourish, in possession of their traditions. Old ways must be preserved. (Not all old ways, of course. Some favoured ones, especially endangered ones.) But she worries about the artifacts. How will masks, feathers, and totems fare when removed from their expensively sterile, temperature-controlled conditions?

But that’s the story re nature and culture. When it comes to regimes, constitutions, and forms of government, the argument for conservation lapses. Now we’re told that we must evolve, progress, advance! The future beckons and it’s bound to be better. I turn on the computer after a day’s absence to find a dozen or more new e-mail messages from the boys on the Inroads Magazine chat-line, arguing for reform of political representation and the electoral system.