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Rousseau's Noble Savage - Not on this Continent

Despite the considerable support I have received whenever I have jumped into the native fray, the vitriol from the stakeholders has been vicious, almost too vicious to withstand. Ordinary Canadians, on the other hand, have been fair-minded to a fault on aboriginal affairs. What they told me, in a nutshell, was this: they respect diversity, but they want to interact with other Canadians, natives included, as equals before the law of the land. Canadians also question the native industry's version of justice in which they must now acquiesce.  

There are certain narratives that come to dominate the market place of ideas to the exclusion of competing perspectives. The narrative of justice in society is one example. Like any successful monopoly, the monopoly over cultural discourse is won through government privilege. In partnership with government, native leadership, the lawyers, consultants and academics get to decide who is on the side of the angels and who must burn in purgatory. With hefty incentives at stake, these special interests work particularly hard to relieve Canadians of their decision-making rights, while continuing at the same time to indenture them in the funding of their agenda.  

Before they were effectively silenced, Canadians spoke loud and clear on aboriginal privilege. They delivered a resounding referendum-No to the 1992 Charlottetown Accord, which proposed to entrench special rights for Indians. Believe it or not, but the battered—and might I add, Western—principle of equality before the law still had its adherents. Alas, government found other legislative tricks with which to undermine the Charlottetown Accord, forging ahead with its agenda and overriding the will of the people. The cultural script concerning all things native became indisputable.  

For example, buoyed by the perverse principle of collective guilt for posterity, native readers informed me that my ancestors were land thieves, as was I. Who cares that my people have an alibi? At the time of the crimes against natives they were being persecuted in Europe for being Jews. No matter: according to orthodoxy, all Eurocentric folk stand in the dock accused (falsely) of stealing the land from natives, who, of course, had only ever lived in harmony with it.  

Natives are nature's custodians; there's another fallacy popularized by Jean-Jacques Rousseau's panegyric on the Noble Savage. Voltaire was in the know when he said that Rousseau is to philosophers as the ape is to man. Rousseau certainly was uninformed by facts when he described natives as living in unity with nature. Less forgivable are the many present-day authors and researchers who, despite the corpus of research attesting to the lack of conservation among natives, persist in describing pre-Columbian America as "a pristine natural kingdom".  

Before the decimation of the native population, largely via the white man's diseases, the Americas had a sizable population of natives that exerted a considerable ecological footprint. For one, native tribes engaged in bi-annual forest burning. According to an article in "Environment" by B.L. Turner and Karl Butzer "the forests of the Americas, from Canada to Argentina were so highly disturbed or modified by Amerindian use by 1492 that it is surprising that even the popular literature missed this point." "The species which the Indians most wanted to hunt…were found most easily in areas of recently burnt forest, which is why they burnt the forest over and over again."  

Then there was the stampeding during a hunt of herds of animals over a cliff. Used repeatedly, some buffalo jumps hold the remains of hundreds of thousands of animals, with patterns of local extinction being documented. Where agriculture was practiced in the central and southern parts of America, evidence from sediment points to severe soil erosion, which was already widespread before the arrival of the white man.  

And who penned the famous words "the flowers are our sisters…the eagle our brother…Whatever we do to the earth, we do to ourselves…"? Chief Seattle's famous 1854 New Age speech, deployed by environmentalists to buttress native conservationism, was written in 1972 by a Hollywood scriptwriter by the name of Ted Perry.  

In light of archeological findings, the myth of the purity of primitive life juxtaposed to the savagery of Western Culture is even less justified. The Americas are scattered with archeological evidence of routine massacres, cannibalism, dismemberment, slavery, abuse of women and human sacrifice among native tribes. Why, the Northwest Territories Yellowknife tribe eventually disappeared as a direct result of a massacre carried out as late as 1823. By the same shift of logic, should remaining native "nations" perhaps not be made to pay reparations among themselves?  

In no way do these facts mitigate or excuse the cruel treatment natives have endured. All they do is cut through the "rhetoric of moral superiority" and challenge the cultural script.  


 ©2000 Ilana Mercer
  The Calgary Herald
  September 14



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