Indigenous cultures rivalled those of civilizations around the globe
by Hayden King, Globe & Mail, October 29, 2008, (in rebuttal to Margaret Wente's ignorant and racist column published earlier in the same paper).
Thomas Jefferson once remarked that those who don't read newspapers are better informed than those who do, even as the former may know nothing, the latter only know falsehood and error. This brings to mind Margaret Wente's recent column about Olympic official Dick Pound, who said, "400 years ago, Canada was a land of savages." Ms. Wente's Saturday column has likely set back the first nations' campaign for an accurate representation of native peoples in the mainstream media by 10 years.
In fact, a brief survey of the original peoples of this continent illustrates an array of accomplishments that rival civilizations around the globe, including those in Western Europe. Yet today, in North America, the ancestors of those from both continents live side by side, separated by a canyon of misunderstanding. To gain insight, we need only turn to indigenous oral traditions, wampum belts, birchbark scrolls and Tsalagi and Aztec texts. In addition, scholars of all stripes from all corners of the globe have contributed to a greater knowledge of indigenous cultures.
Perhaps most impressive among their findings is that indigenous peoples were adept farmers, originally cultivating and harvesting two-thirds of the foodstuffs the world consumes today. These include the tomato, peanut, potato, chili peppers and corn. In fact, at the time of contact, and long before Gregor Mendel's experiments with pea plants, the Huron in Ontario had genetically engineered 17 different varieties of corn. Not quite the Stone Age hunter-gatherers of Ms. Wente's column.
But the achievements don't end there. And because Ms. Wente uses European-inspired standards of success when measuring first nations "savagery," a comparison is in order. At a time when the Anishinabek had societal codes forbidding incest, the crowned heads of France and England were as inbred as poodles. While Christians were burning "heretics" at the stake for suggesting the Earth wasn't the centre of the universe, the Mayans were charting the movement of the stars, creating a calendar within seconds of modern-day atomic clocks. The Wet'suwet'en practised a matriarchal society, while on the other side of the Atlantic, women were the property of men.
In addition, and contrary to Ms. Wente's assertion, the Haudenosaunee did influence the U.S. Constitution. American "founding fathers," including Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson, explicitly recorded the first nation contribution. John Rutledge even articulated the structure of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and their "Great Law of Peace" to the drafting committee. (He spoke of a complex federalism whose leaders included executive, legislative and judicial branches — the latter of which were generally a group of elder women). The Haudenosaunee actually practise a 900-year-old democracy and the longest lasting peace between nations in recorded history.
Yet another disturbing aspect of Ms. Wente's column was the dismissal of traditional ecological knowledge — this is the sum knowledge of a given first nation or Inuit community that has been accumulated and amended for thousands of years. Dismissing it reduces us to conclude, for instance, that the Inuit have survived in the world's harshest climate by sheer luck. Of course, this is nonsensical. Sophisticated knowledge of ice flows, animal migrations, wind patterns and temperature fluctuations ensured their success in the past and educates scientists, the military and resource companies in the present.
In fact, such traditional ecological knowledge also significantly contributes to Western medicine: essiac is a cancer treatment, evanta cures leprosy, foxglove aids heart care, kava kava reduces stress, and quinine treats malaria. All of the above are indigenous inventions. Not only can such ecological knowledge save lives, it may also help save the world. First nations peoples have lived sustainably in North America for tens of thousands of years, respecting all life, however small, putting an emphasis on reciprocity and understanding that their relationship with ecosystems is one of life and death. At a time when first nations peoples can teach us so much, Ms. Wente would have us ignore them.
Indigenous cultures were and are diverse and vibrant.
They lived in cities larger than those in contemporary Europe, had greater populations, taller buildings, sophisticated governance structures, varied art forms, tested scientific knowledge and on, and on. What is truly savage is the perpetuation of a false representation of first nations, Métis and Inuit peoples, particularly when they've worked so hard to overcome racism and stereotypes. But perhaps Jefferson was right all along, we shouldn't expect much from newspapers anyway.
Hayden King teaches indigenous studies at McMaster University and is a member of the Beausoleil First Nation on Chimnissing.