Letter to the Financial Post
As a lecturer in political geography, specializing in indigenous and ecological issues, I almost choked reading David Frum's grade-school re-write of North American history ("Natives Should Do the Thanking", January 13, 1998). His tirade was out of place in your newspaper, from which I expect at least a modicum of intelligent analysis. To answer his false assertions one by one would take several pages, so instead I will point out the most important errors in his facts and/or reasoning.
First, indigenous peoples have populated the North American continent for at least 40,000 years, not 12,000. Secondly, the ecological behaviour of indigenous nations needs to be evaluated not on the basis of alleged activities twelve millenia ago (at a time when Europeans were living in caves and long before the extermination of the European lion), but rather by looking at the more recently evolved cultural systems of the past 1000 years. In this time frame, there is no question that indigenous nations across the continent had developed sophisticated adaptive systems that allowed large populations (an estimated 70 - 100 million people inhabited North, Central and South America before contact) to exist in harmony with the environment. Thirdly, Europe is not the originator of all "modern" innovations. For example, many medicines (such as aspirin - derived from willow bark) are in fact indigenous North American in origin. And the wealth that indigenous nations generously shared with European colonial settlers (none of whom could have survived in this "harsh" environment without the assistance of sophisticated indigenous survival techniques) allowed the later industrial revolution to take place.
Finally, the civilizations of indigenous peoples such as the Mi'kmaq and the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) confederacy taught Europeans such basic principles as democracy and human rights, not the other way around. Jefferson borrowed liberally from the Haudenosaunee political system in drafting the U.S. Constitution. As Benjamin Franklin said in introducing the Iroquoian notion of democracy to his colleagues, "All their Government is by Counsel of Sages; there is no Force, there are no prisons, no officers to compel obedience, or inflict Punishment." By contrast, at the time of the colonization of North America, the European population laboured under despotic monarchies, lived in squalor, and their city streets were filled with beggars. The first North American Natives to visit Europe were appalled by the comparative barbarism of European culture.
The federal apology to Native people was only inappropriate in one regard: it should have been accompanied by a profound "Thank You"!
Department of Geography
Carleton University, Ottawa
After reading David Frum's Jan 13th, 1998 article (Natives Should Do the Thanking) I think the Financial Post should be renamed "Canada's Racist Voice" or better yet "Canada's Genocidal Voice". The contempt with which Frum views aboriginal peoples and their cultures is astounding and I find it imcomprehensible that his article would be published.
Firstly, the Canadian government's apology is simply an acknowledgement of the grave injustices that have been perpetuated against aboriginals since the time europeans arrived up until present day. In fact, this apology is inadequate and sidesteps the reality that the Canadian government is guilty of numerous genocidal actions (as defined by the United Nations).
Secondly, Frum paints an insulting and gravely misrepresentative picture of aboriginal life before european invasion or "discovery" (as some like to call it) of what is now known as North America. His discription is quite at odds with most anthropological research and is in fact a simple reproduction of decade-old stereotypes of aboriginals as "savages".
The so called "benefits" of western civilization that Frum pays homage to are not, as he claims, readily accessible to all aboriginals today nor do they come without severe costs (loss of cultural identity and lifeways as well as sovereignty). What we should learn from the recent ice-storms in Montreal is that centralized technological societies are highly vulnerable to the elements (much as we wish to dominate the weather as well) and that were it not for other provinces helping out, hundreds of thousands of people would have died. Is this progress?
In conclusion, it is difficult to understand how Frum still thinks of europeans as the "saviors" of the "backward" peoples who inhabited "canada" before us. Thank goodness we brought aboriginals small pox, alcohol, christianity, residential schools and even capitalism...their lot definitely seems to have improved as a result.
My father threw bottles filled with gasoline at Russian tanks in 1956 at the age of 20. He must have been happy when he saw the final stage. I watched communism crumble on television as a Canadian citizen. I have learned history through many different eyes. From my grandmother who lived through both World Wars, from my parents who practically lived their childhood in bomb shelters, and from a communist government who taught me what I 'needed' to know.
The basic lesson I have learned is that history is always written by the winners. Thank God that somehow the losers' message always stays alive. Looking for a new world is a European dream, and when I sailed out alone at the tender age of 20, I very much felt like the first settler...
The question is not whether the natives were perfect. They were not, they were human. However they knew something fundamental we as European settlers did not, they knew the Law of Life. They knew that if they followed it, it guaranteed them life on this planet as long as it existed...a happy life. They never wanted our way of life, they couldn't understand why anyone would want to live our way.
When the white man came to this land he saw nothing but opportunity. He came from disease, famine and misery. He died early and unhappy, but he is our hero. The sailor who arrived in paradise, but couldn't see it for the greed.
From the beginning natives helped us to stay alive. They gave us corn and tomatoes, food that was brought back to Europe and saved them from starvation. They tried to teach us how to live and stay alive, a lesson we still have yet to learn.
In fact the settlers were so impressed with the natives' style of government that it was the basis for our new democracy, that is why the US senate sits in a circle. Even our stock market was based on how natives were trading with the white man.
We received free land, land like we had never seen before, abundantly rich. We made deals so that the two cultures could exist side by side, without interference. But our words were empty. We killed them and took their land away. We forced them to think how we thought.
We murdered, abused and had an almost successful genocide. After all we were building paradise.
As we are approaching the year 2000, let us see what we have learned on this planet. Our 'precious' civilization has four distinctive signs; suicide, depression, crime, and drug addiction. Our very own studies show that these signs are non-existent within any functional aboriginal society.
They may have killed animals or even each other, but they never unleashed an instant death for 10 000 years like Chernobyl. We are facing extinction from polluted air, water and land.
To quote Frum "treating sickness with modern medicine...and eating hygienic food." Where does he think the basis for Aspirin comes from? It comes from the rain forest, where most of our 'modern' medicine was discovered, shown to us by natives. And as far as 'hygienic' food, does he mean laden with preservatives and chemicals, things that we are now just thoroughly testing to see if they are linked to cancer and other diseases? Or foods that contain pesticides that we have unleashed and that have leaked into our food chain?
Our situation is so bad that we can't even think about it. Our brains are so full of lies and Prozac that all we can say is 'don't worry be happy, it will be okay.' Our biggest lie is yet to be tested--that technology will save us all. Right now that is exactly what is killing us and the planet at a phenomenal rate. The final blow has come, our scientists, the brightest minds of our society are saying, 'the red man was right all along.' What do you consider more intelligent, to invent things just because you can, or recognize what it will do a thousand years from now?
A smart man said something to me a few days ago, "The only true freedom you'll ever have is the freedom of your mind." We should all learn to use this freedom. Today we should have no more enemies, human is human. We must learn how to communicate to each other without fear, hate, envy, racism or judgement. We must find a way or ignorance will kill us all.
The natives wanted to be heard, we should have listened. They tried to teach, we should have learned. Today we can feel their ancestors crying in our bones. We feel that something is wrong and long to fix it, it starts with listening with an open mind and heart...without it we won't make it.