Culture Clash

Ashley at UBC GardensYou can’t take a course called ‘The Land is Sacred’ in the Native Ministries program without going out on the land! — Rev. Ray Aldred, explaining why our VST class was taking a field trip.

Our class visited the UBC Botanical Gardens for a tour of Indigenous Plants. Tamara, our guide, stressed the survival value of knowing your local plants. I was flooded with a recognition of the immensity of the culture clash between Indigenous and settler communities. Hunter-gatherers and industrialized capitalists. Two really different ways of life. Of course each group wondered at the other.

My early education taught me something about what capitalists thought. At university, I studied the writings of philosopher as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and anthropologist James George Frazer (1854-1941). Neither scholar could grasp difference except by reference to what was familiar. Thus, they both imagined hunter-gatherer societies to be primitive versions of industrialized society. Rousseau was sure that “natural man” would devolve into a member of a greedy, power-obsessed, class-stratified society. Frazer was sure that “magical thinking” would evolve into religion and, later, science.

As a student, I didn’t buy into either of these ideas. Rousseau’s “natural man” seemed already formed by the emotional culture of European society. And Frazer’s hierarchies of thought seemed false, as I’d already learned that much of what we call “magical” or “supernatural” is simply natural, if you know how to look. Sociology professor Kurt Wolff strengthened my intuitions when he grumbled, “What’s wrong with calling people ‘primitive’? It insults an entire society, saying they are like ‘children’!”

After the field trip, all that old learning came rushing back. It brought insight into the magnitude of the settlers’ mistake: they saw a simpler economy and assumed it generated a simpler culture. Thus they could not appreciate the sophistication of local knowledge, communities, or traditions of craft and story.

The next morning, however, my insight evaporated. Our assigned reading on Canada’s treaty-making tradition (Miller, 2007) turned it inside out. The early settlers actually had great appreciation for local Indigenous culture. But as settler numbers grew, so did their demands for a share of Indigenous resources and land. Respect for culture became irrelevant.

The Introduction to the Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015) says it plainly: “The Canadian government pursued this policy of cultural genocide because it wished to divest itself of its legal and financial obligations to Aboriginal people and gain control over their land and resources.”

This left me feeling quite sad. Not just about horrors of the past but also about paths forward. Does everything peace educators teach simply fall away when greed kicks in? Or can multicultural education play a positive role?

Image: Ashley Wan at the UBC Botanical Gardens, photo by Laura Duhan Kaplan

  1. When I was sailing, I’d look at the maps, and see tiny areas marked “I.R.” (Indian reserve). All the rest of the land was owned by the Crown, not by the First Nations. I always wondered how that happened.

    If you want some distressing reading, on dispossessing indigenous populations, try “The Unmaking of Israel”, by Gershom Gorenberg. He’s got a good section on the legal structures of the Naqba.

    1. Thanks, Charles, for commenting. How that happened: a good and easy to read book: The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King. I think you’ve recommended Gorenberg’s book before, thanks for suggesting it again.

  2. maybe it is not what is taught but how it is taught. how much is too much so that sufficient becomes excess. is excess ‘allowed’ and when does it become ‘greed’? perhaps peace educators would benefit from examining what is needed to generate peace. Rosenberg defines greed as meeting one’s own needs without consideration of the other’s needs. Rather than teaching peace, perhaps our families will benefit from learning ‘nonviolent communication’.

    1. Thanks, Zelik. I think many would agree that regular communication about treaties would have gone and still can go a long way.

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