Playing the Indian Card

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Got Wheel?

Recently, some Saskatchewan Indians began wearing t-shirts with the slogan: “Got land? Thank an Indian.” Kate McMillan, proprietress of the Small Dead Animals blog, also in Saskatchewan, came up with a response which kind of spoiled the effect: “Got wheel?”

We all know the Indians of the Americas never developed the wheel and axle, for all that it seems fundamental. Jared Diamond, in Guns, Germs, and Steel, absolves them of cultural backwardness, or lack of intelligence, in this, by arguing that they had no use for wheels, not having any large domestic animals for haulage. “That seems incredible to us, until we reflect that ancient Mexicans lacked domestic animals to hitch to their wheeled vehicles, which therefore offered no advantage over human porters.” (Diamond, p. 577).

Okay. But wait. First, the wheel is not only good for hauling wagons. Notably, besides pulleys and gears and such, it is invaluable for turning pottery. This actually seems to have been its first use.

But then, most American Indian societies had not invented pottery either. Unfortunate, because almost any other cooking or eating container they could come up with had a serious leaking problem.

And never mind not inventing pottery. Never mind not inventing the wheel. Why did they never domesticate large animals? After all, these would have been a steady and reliable source of meat, milk, and leather or wool for clothing, as well as hauling carts, or performing other tasks requiring, if you will, horsepower. Milling, sawing, raising roofbeams, drawing water.

Diamond excuses this technological failure, in turn, by suggesting that there were no suitable local wild species. But his primary evidence for this is simply that none of them were, in fact, domesticated: “Surely, if some local wild animal species of those continents had been domesticable, some Australian, American, and African people would have domesticated them and gained great advantage from them.” (Diamond, p. 389). This is a perfectly circular argument. They might have gained just such an advantage by inventing the wheel, or pottery, or metal. They didn't.

Inconveniently for Diamond's argument, before Columbus disembarked, North America was choking with caribou. They ranged historically from the Yukon to Newfoundland, from Baffin Island to New England and Idaho. Their herds numbered in the hundreds of thousands, thundering through the forests and across the plains. It would be hard for most Canadian tribes to miss them. Indeed, many made their living following the herds, cutting down stragglers.

Caribou, as it happens, are also called, in Europe, reindeer. As in, reins. As in, Santa's sleigh. Reindeer and caribou are the same species, Rangifer tarandus. Successfully domesticated in Eurasia, and proven good for milk, meat, and haulage.

There are other obvious candidates for the farmyard in North America. Canadian Indians never domesticated the turkey, although they were successfully raised in captivity in Mesoamerica and the US Southwest. They never domesticated bighorn sheep, although they seem remarkably tame even in the wild. They are, after all, sheep. Canadian Indians never domesticated muskoxen, whose coats produce a very fine wool, qiviut; although they have been successfully domesticated in modern times. Indians never domesticated moose, or bison. They never domesticated the pigeon, a source of meat elsewhere, although the skies were dark with passenger pigeons when the first settlers came. Or the rabbit. Or the prairie chicken, or pheasant, or duck, or goose, or any number of other native fowl.

Diamond argues that some—obviously not all--of these species were not suitable because of a “nasty disposition.” Yet he allows that people will adopt almost any wild animal as a pet: he mentions kangaroos, possums, flycatchers, ospreys, eagles, cheetahs, gazelles, hartebeests, cranes, giraffes, elephants, bears, and hyenas (Diamond, p. 391). And he ignores the likelihood that a nasty disposition can be bred out of domestic stock over time. After all, the Pekinese is descended from the wolf. How comfortable or safe would it be to keep a wolf in your apartment? If people are able to tolerate a nasty disposition in a pet, why not in livestock, until it was bred out?

Yet American Indians had only dogs—which they did not themselves domesticate, according to the DNA evidence, but brought with them from Asia. They had no need for inventing the Roman arch, let alone the flying buttress: they built no permanent structures. They had no writing. Aside from the odd meteor, and some copper for ornament, they knew nothing of metal. When the first Europeans came, Indians were still in the stone age; they were a neolithic people. Besides the wheel and axle, they also do not seem to have come up with the lever, the screw, the inclined plane, the pulley, the wedge. 

Hopewell copper falcon ornament

Diamond admits—indeed, he insists--that some cultures are more innovative than others. He takes this, oddly, as evidence of his thesis. Surely, then, he argues, some American Indian cultures must have been innovative. So it cannot be the fault of the cultures if they did not innovate as much as Europe. Yet that does not follow; the opposite does. It is entirely possible that all Canadian Indian cultures were simply very conservative and resistant to new ideas. QED.

This inevitably left them materially poor. As the Jesuit Relations record of the Whitefish Indians near Quebec, “these good people, concealed in the depth of the forests, have not great opportunities for Sin. Luxury, ambition, avarice, or delights, do not come near their country; poverty, sufferings, cold, and hunger, banish from it those monsters.” - Jesuit Relations, 1647, Chapter 11.

Lucky them.

So it is simply objectively true that the average Canadian Indian or Eskimo is incomparably better off materially, incomparably richer, because of European contact. The average Indian may still, for whatever reason, be poorer than the average Canadian. And that may breed envy and resentment. But they have not lost; they have gained. Gratitude might be in order. Land may come to the rest of us from the Indians; but they did nothing to create it or improve it themselves; and they were nevertheless amply compensated for it, so that the rest of us could also use it. The wheel—that took thought, enterprise, and was a general boon, freely available to all mankind.

And who invented t-shirts?

Granted, man does not live by bread alone. Material comfort is not the only source of human happiness. There are definite attractions to a conservative culture; so much so that most of the world's cultures have indeed been traditionalist and conservative, certainly more conservative than Canadian culture is. We even know of cultures, once highly innovative, that have collapsed in exhaustion and become traditionalist: China, or the Muslim world.

Innovation, despite its benefits, involves constant sacrifice. Change is painful; it produces what economists call “creative destruction,” the loss of ways and things once familiar; to which we may have developed some emotional attachment. And so we grow nostalgic over “simpler times,” over steam trains, home milk delivery, vinyl 45s, the lost taste of the strawberries of our youth. Innovation also leads to the need for more individual decisions, more stress, and more chance of personal failure.

Every innovation brings a kind of culture shock; what Alvin Toffler termed “future shock.” Our innovative culture is constantly changing under our feet; there is no solid ground on which to stand. The cursive writing we learned in grammar school is suddenly useless; we type with our thumbs. Things we learned in high school have been proven wrong by later experiment. And culture shock is no small thing. I have lived most of my life abroad. I have seen it many times. It almost always happens, to everyone who moves overseas. At full strength, it can produce depression, even psychosis. Some retreat into alcohol or drugs; you see them at any expat bar. Some start to behave outrageously, thinking there are no longer any rules. Some stop caring for themselves. Some just become relentlessly critical and gloomy. It is far more humane, more comfortable, to be sure that familiar things are not going to change, that you are going to live about the same life as your grandparents. That is something you can reasonably prepare for.

Besides producing poverty, though, cultural conservatism only delays the inevitable. To remain unchanged, among other things, you must shut out the rest of the world, with its foreign ways; to be traditionalist is to be xenophobic. Sooner or later, though, the rest of the world comes knocking on the door. Most likely, the most restless, most innovative among them. And then the reckoning is swift and terrible. All the culture shock you have been avoiding for centuries, or millennia, hits at once. And you have no experience with it. You discover you are far behind everyone else, that you are poorer, that you cannot do things they can do. They have planes always delivering cargo; all you can do it pray. You are also probably acutely vulnerable to new diseases to which you have developed no immunity. If you physically survive, nothing makes sense any more. Your culture is likely to collapse, as everything is thrown into question.

Does all this sound familiar? Haven't we just described the North American Indian experience? No European guilt need be involved. It was going to happen, sooner or later.

Crow Indian headdress.

Without anyone else's assistance, then, traditional Indian culture seems in collapse, for it always bore the seeds of its own destruction. It is questionable how much of it really remains. Since Indians had no written records, most of what we know of aboriginal culture comes from European sources, from the early settlers. Most of what Indians know is probably from the same source; or from recent Hollywood movies. A Métis relative not long ago presented a postcard of Iroquois elders meeting in Tyendinaga in the 1950s. All were wearing impressive feather headdresses.

But only the Indians of the plains ever wore such headdresses, and following a strict protocol. The Iroquois were only recreating what they imagined Iroquois culture to be. Or what they saw in Roy Rogers, or the Lone Ranger, on TV.

There is in reality probably no path back to traditional Indian life in its isolationism, its innate conservatism. That train long ago left the station; that ship sailed, with the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Our forefathers, aboriginal and white, up until about the 1970s, saw the only solution as abandonment, however regretful, of a failed and obsolete culture, and eventual assimilation to the mainstream. Martin Luther King, and those who fought against apartheid in South Africa, passionately believed the same. More recently, that approach and attitude has been termed “cultural genocide.” It is, it seems, suddenly on a par with Adolf Hitler. Now we insist passionately that all cultures are intrinsically equal, and the Indian culture must be preserved.

The idea that all cultures are equal, that on balance they all have counterbalancing strengths and weaknesses, is no doubt attractive to many; many of life's losers. Like the similar doctrine that all people have equal talents, just in different areas—the “multiple intelligences” saw, beloved by the educational establishment. The reality is, though, that both ideas are impossibly romantic. When we say that all men are created equal, we do not mean that all have equal abilities; that is easily disproven by a simple IQ test. Nor do we mean that their cultural achievements are equal. If they are not equal in detail, why should we think it is any more likely that they are equal on the whole? When we say that all men are created equal, we simply mean that they are equally loved by God.

Even this, as any reader of the Old Testament must know, does not apply to their cultures. Yahweh was not keen on the Egyptians, or Canaanites, or Philistines, or Sodom and Gomorrah, as cultural entities.

Leave aside the probability that, given the nature of traditionalist culture, preserving or restoring the Indian or Eskimo culture is simply impossible, that its core value of resistance to change was long ago defeated by contact. But even if cultural relativism is real, even supposing that all cultures are equally useful, differing only in their areas of accomplishment or expertise, it does not follow that it is wise to artificially sustain cultures and demand segregation. It does not justify keeping anyone isolated from the rest of us on, shall we say, a reserve. To do so is to deny such individuals any of the admitted advantages of any culture not his own. It denies him the choice. It would be condemning some Canadians to an unnatural life as museum pieces. After all, really, what Indian or Eskimo today, given the option, wants to live without central heating, or pottery, or indoor plumbing, or TV, or metal, or telephones?

Pygmies on display at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis.

Yet we seem to be heading in that mad direction with our new segregation. Last time I visited Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, you could see an Indian woman—presumably not Huron, since the Iroquois wiped out the local Hurons—sitting, looking bored, in a reconstructed longhouse. I doubt she had any better idea than I did how to make do it one. This sort of thing is now politically “progressive,” even though we still, not noticing any contradiction, condemn the “human zoos” of the early 20th century. For fifty years, we worked hard to end segregation, as demeaning and rendering some less than human. Now we condemn all those who promoted the idea, and are working hard to reverse their efforts.

Imagine instead that people are individuals, each with free will. This is, granted, for many, counter-intuitive; it is the very opposite of the colonialist mentality. In the natural course of things, if left alone, each will tend to adopt from other cultures that which he or she finds best, while keeping what is best from their own culture. No outside intervention is necessary, and nobody's culture should be, or need to be, subsidized by everyone else. To do so is to throw money away.

If some then choose to cling to the limited extent they can to a traditionalist, xenophobic culture, that too is their business. Good luck with it. We may believe they are chasing a wisp of swamp gas, but that can safely be their own business. So long as they do not expect the rest of us to subsidize them in this preference.

Multiculturalism, dividing Canada into colourful little ghettos, was lately fashionable, but was always a lousy idea. For many reasons, probably too obvious to most of us now to mention. Visited the ISIS tent at Folkfest recently?

The current attitude to aboriginal peoples is in many ways the last vestige of this failed segregationist approach. In fact, Canada's great strength is that, having invited the world to our banquet, we can each pick and choose from the best the world has to offer. We eat sushi, not to mention hamburgers and pizza, and watch anime; we listen to originally African music, and marry Filipina wives. Similarly, we paddle canoes, hike on snowshoes, row kayaks, push our kids on toboggans, and play lacrosse. Why deny ourselves any of these things? Through these many individual choices, over time, the two (or rather, many) cultures should naturally converge, as they both adopt the best of all. This is Canada, or what Canada ought to be.

Unfortunately, isolationist forces have embraced the aboriginal movement as their natural vehicle. And they seek to impose their xenophobic preferences on the rest of us. Not only do they want to prevent any transfer of culture from non-natives to natives. They also want to inhibit any transfer of native culture to non-natives. This, after all, is now a matter of “cultural appropriation.” Common heritage of mankind be damned. The recent United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, among its provisions, requires (Article 11 2) that:

States shall provide redress through effective mechanisms, which may include restitution, developed in conjunction with indigenous peoples, with respect to their cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property taken without their free, prior and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs.

Note the inclusion of “intellectual property.” What can this mean? This normally involves patents and copyrights. It has nothing to do with one's ethnicity. All you do, aboriginal or not, is to submit the details to the patent office; or, in the case of copyright, in Canada, it is automatic. Just write something; just create something.

Instead, this provision seems to refer to a novel idea: that aboriginal cultures hold a joint and perpetual patent or copyright to anything their culture has ever developed.

An Australian government site explains: 

In conventional western legal terms, intellectual property rights refers to copyright, patents, trademarks, designs and trade secret laws, and breach of confidence. To Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, however, the cultural products, forms and expressions for which protection is sought do not strictly conform to the limited provisions of intellectual property laws. ... Indigenous peoples also consider that they have rights in the substance that underlies these cultural products. That is, the knowledge, innovations and practices that give rise to cultural products and expressions are significant elements of their culture. ... Indigenous knowledge is also essential to Indigenous peoples' rights and interests in medicinal substances, biological diversity, land and ecosystem management, and sacred sites and objects, as well as arts and other cultural expressions. The performance aspects of Indigenous cultures, such as language use, story, song, dance and ceremony are vital to Indigenous identity and cultural expression ...

One can see why this view might be attractive to a traditionalist, isolationist, and communal culture: hands off, universe! Nevertheless, it is incompatible with the idea of human equality, general human progress, or individual rights. Theoretically, by this doctrine, we have no right, if we are not aboriginal, to play lacrosse or paddle our canoes or slip on moccasins. At best, if we are going to do so, we owe everyone who is an aboriginal, for all that they had nothing to do with devising these things, some sort of payment. After, of course, we have asked for permission.

Now consider if this principle were applied to everyone across the board. As it must be, if we are going to accept that humans are equal. That would mean aboriginal people, and most of the rest of us, would also owe something to the English any time we played football/soccer; to the Americans if we played baseball. We would even owe anyone who is ethnically English some form of payment any time we spoke English. Anyone of Greek ancestry any time we tried to philosophise. Ethnic Jews if we opened the Bible. A vast legal industry could emerge to work out the precise ethnic contributions for any and all innovations. All, of course, a transfer of wealth to people who did nothing to deserve it.

But in the end, eerily logically consistent and of a piece with our current Indian policies generally.

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