Jul 22/98: Editorial-"Treaty's culture of blame"


Vancouver Sun
July 22, 1998
Pete McMartin

[S.I.S.I.S. note: The following mainstream news article may contain biased or distorted information and may be missing pertinent facts and/or context. It is provided for reference only.]

I met my first native Indian in Toronto. He was a journalism student like me. He seemed very nice.

I met my second native Indian when I came to B.C. about 20 years ago as a rookie reporter. A group of natives had staged a sit-down strike at the local office of the then-department of Indian affairs and had refused to leave. The strike was into its second or third day when I was assigned to go down and cover the negotiations between native leaders and department officials.

It was close quarters inside the department offices, hot and tense, and there was the obligatory native drumming circle pounding out a beat for the TV cameras. The protesters - their singing reaching a sustained fervour - were feeling full of themselves.

I was bent over my notebook making notes, when an elderly native woman saw me. Her face pinched with hate, she pointed an accusatory finger at me and, in a loud voice that was more of a command than a question, shouted: "Why don't you go back where you came from?"

I was shocked - hurt, really. Why had she singled me out? I thought: "Where does she imagine I'd go back to? Ontario? Or Scotland, where my ancestors had lost their farms to English overlords and Scottish collaborators?"

It was my initiation into the native resentment of the white man and the collective blame that we were supposed to feel. This was her land, she was saying, and we whites were trespassers. Worse. We were war criminals.

This sentiment was just gaining public expression back then, but now it's so common it's the stuff of TV commercials. Rousseau's Noble Savage has been reborn to sell Volvos and banking services, to play the good guys in movies (Little Big Man, Dances With Wolves), to personify the natural and ecologically sensitive in an entire genre of touchy-feely art.

But every morality play needs a villain, and with the rebirth of the Noble Savage came the repositioning of the White Man. Wrote critic Robert Hughes in his 1993 work, Culture of Complaint: "European man, once the hero of the conquest of the Americas, now becomes its demon; and the victims, who cannot be brought back to life, are canonized."

This canonization is claptrap, of course: Natives had warred upon their own for centuries before Europeans arrived.

For a people that supposedly believe in the oneness of nature, they were, and are, just as territorial. But in this new view of history, Columbus, Cartier, Thompson, Lewis and Clark, Vancouver, Cook - the white man's expeditionary heroes - found their heroic explorer status degraded to that of agents of a genocidal imperialism.

This revisionist view of history reached new heights with the 1992 quadricentennial of Columbus' arrival in America. Once the inspiration of a national holiday in the U.S., Columbus became the source of a flood of history books that, rather than honour him, preferred to concentrate on the devastation that followed in his wake. The Great Navigator became the Bringer of Death.

And, well, yes, he was, unwittingly. Hughes cites David Stannard's book, American Holocaust: Columbus and The Conquest of The New World, and Stannard's number of 100 million native deaths in two centuries after European arrival. I find the figure improbable. But of widespread death, and even deliberate genocide, there is no question.

The question is, though, how much cultural revisionism are whites expected to shoulder personally? How much of our history are we expected to debase before there is a backlash?

Not much more, I suspect. I - and I think many people - recognize the devastation white society has wrought on native civilizations, and believe compensation must be made. But I also see what happened as inevitable.

"What would have happened if the peoples of the western Atlantic had not been conquered by eschatological brutes?" Hughes asks.

Probably, he writes, somebody else would have done the job. Probably, I suspect, the natives themselves, eventually.

But a more important question is, how much of this good guy-bad guy view of history is good for natives? How long can they sustain a culture on blame and the memory of conquest? Where is there room for growth? The Quebecois have reached this cul-de-sac; the Israelis are reaching it.

And so, when I read of the $445-million Nisga'a deal being signed - with a tearful Premier Glen Clark in attendance - I wasn't thinking about its moral significance, or about the doomsayers who say natives will either bankrupt the province or end up owning it. I don't believe either sentiment.

I was thinking what a deep cultural mistake was being made; that natives were being ill-served by their leaders; that they were so consumed by the past that they were ignoring the future; that more than ever they will become a people apart, insulated not only by race but by mutual resentment, and by the illusion that more money, more land and a cult of victimization, enshrined in a treaty, will be enough to insulate them from the world.

Pete McMartin can be reached at pmcm@pacpress.southam.ca
or at (604) 605-2905.

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