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Idealizing Aboriginals

A professor analyzes the comments from students taking her course on Indigenous peoples and the environment.


As a teacher of undergraduate courses on Indigenous peoples and the environment, I get a lot of questions about them. Who are they? What are the Natives’ spiritual beliefs? What is their culture? Could I bring in an elder so that we can absorb her ancient wisdom?

My students are very excited about Indian culture. They also know a great deal about what they want to glean from “disappearing ways of life.” “Indigenous knowledge has so much to offer in the realm of sustainable living,” is what many say when I ask why they signed up for the course. With this in mind, they are especially keen on reproducing the clever tricks Indigenous peoples used to find and process plants and animals and to shield themselves from weather and disease. “Could we please have workshops on basket weaving, pit-cooking, and how to colour wool with plant dyes?”

I don’t know how to do any of these things, but this does not deter my students, who believe that this knowledge lies comfortably within their reach. Life in the past was simple and straightforward, they tell me, “without the need to problem-solve,” and without the need for complex technology: “when a resource such as balsamroot is harvested, protected and nurtured in appropriate ways, there is no need for technology to advance beyond variations of a digging stick.” These societies were “simple and in-depth,” rather than “convoluted and inaccessible,” and had “a broad view” rather than a “narrow and technical” one: “They were not technologically, academically, or politically advanced, but they were emotionally advanced.”

What’s more, this emotion forms the inner kernel of a proto-science that belongs to “our common heritage as humans” – something we lost somewhere along the evolutionary road, but which students hope to recover in the space of my classroom. Such primordial knowledge also contains “vast ecological wisdom” that “could potentially be extremely helpful” to averting global ecological disaster. “They had a deep respect for the Earth and saw everything as interconnected.”

My course covers what I think are the basics of ethno-ecology: human origins in North America; salmon, cedar, and the Northwest Coast as an example of a culture area; the hunting economy; relationships with animals and the logic of the gift; the invention of the food fishery; Indigenous knowledge of the treaty relationship; aboriginal rights to hunt and fish; traditional ecological knowledge and co-management. The focus is on modern expressions of Indigenous identity.

These expressions are not embodied in the students’ modern Indians, whom they describe as “drunk,” “urbanized,” or “having lots of problems.” Indians of today have “lost touch with their Native roots,” and “have a muddled sense of priorities and values.” They also fish “illegally,” hunt “out of season,” and are “just as bad as a white person,” though this was not always the case, and wise elders, my students assure me, counsel against such bad behaviour. Surviving as faint shadows of their former selves, elders are themselves an endangered species: “dying off,” and living in a mythical space – “caught between two worlds” – but still able to impart timeless ecological wisdom.

Vanishing Indians need to be rescued from the incoming tides of time and progress, or at least their minds do, and my students are eager to provide this service. In the process, Indigenous “traditional wisdom” is transferred to the settler-Canadian student who, through a meeting of minds, becomes more authentically Native than “today’s Aboriginal youth.” These youth, I am told, are hardly children of nature. “Today’s Native kids are cut off from their Native culture.” They also “would rather have the latest cellphone than the oldest ecological knowledge.” My students, on the other hand, find themselves unconstrained by this time warp and are in the ideal position to “learn from and adapt these important cultural values, which sadly are on the verge of disappearing.”

For their own sake and that of the planet, they are ready to step in to preserve knowledge best grasped in childhood, when wonder, awe and playful discovery set the stage for a “holistic science.” “Techniques for sustainable extraction were developed,” I am told, “over generations of Aboriginal people interacting with and respecting the environment.” And these techniques “were passed down to children by knowledgeable elders,” a process that mirrors the student’s own role as a learner. Childhood features prominently in the student’s views of what education could become: not the “extremely dry” material of her science classes, but filled with stories about animals “that anyone could relate to, if only they were willing to listen.”

Such stories are absorbed in the course of her imaginative forays into deep time and the Indigenous “way of life.” From what I can tell, these encounters with the imaginary Indian are marked by surprise, admiration, guilt and racism, though not necessarily in that, or any, particular order. Some students said none of the things I recount here; perhaps a couple of dozen said most of them, with slight variations, over and over again. Others fell somewhere in between.

Here, I have gathered students’ comments, questions and analyses spoken and written across two universities and five separate courses into the voice of a single person, who, was she just a stereotype, we could dismiss as naive or misinformed.

The story about Indians that coalesces through this person is much more dangerous than that. In the business of dispossession, it does real political work – work that students do too in encountering, explaining and sometimes evading their own, settler-Canadian, participation in “nature” and “disappearing ways of life.” My classroom is probably just a way-station of sorts, where stories about Indigenous peoples, settlers and the land are told, disputed and reversed back upon themselves, and where there is little consistency in what students say about Indians from one day to the next.

With their introduction to Indigenous peoples coming just at the twilight of Indigenous culture, these settler-Canadian students have the option to transform themselves into the rightful inheritors of valuable tribal wisdom – wisdom they are quite certain Indigenous people themselves are not morally prepared to understand. Getting rid of artificial “mental divisions” and “opening up your heart,” I am told, is the right way of coming to grips with Indigenous knowledge, or what my students call “emotion.” This emotion is a peculiar type of mindset that acts as a convenient container in which culture can be carried around.

If this mindset can be freely taken on, felt and just as freely discarded, then decolonization is just one of many mental alternatives, requiring nothing more than empathy and what my students have branded “cultural recognition.” Since conflicts over land, trees or fish do not enter into this picture, anyone at all can be Native. All it takes is the ability to pare complex thoughts down to the basics. As it turns out, Indigenous peoples had “simple understandings” and “had no need for complex social structures.” Instead, “they lived by a few key beliefs that are simple, elegant and natural, and which replace the myriad of institutions Western culture has created.” “What if we were once all native to somewhere but our thought processes were all ‘colonized’ at some point?”

As the elder of the settler imagination encroaches on my classroom, I make an effort to introduce other Indigenous personalities, including what my students refer to as “angry” Indians. These are the ones blocking logging roads or like Harriet Nahanee, a Squamish elder, asserting aboriginal title on the ground. I show pictures of Tahltan elders preventing Royal Dutch Shell from accessing the sacred headwaters of the Skeena Nass and Stikine rivers. I assign articles by Sonny McHalsie on the history of Sto:lo fishing places and by Arthur Manuel on Secwepemc land users.

For one essay assignment, I ask the students to write a review of any book in the field of ethno-ecology, and I provide a long list of possibilities. The most innocuous-sounding titles appear to be the most popular – The Earth’s Blanket, Ecologies of the Heart, and Women and Plants. No one chooses Fish, Law, and Colonialism, As Their Natural Resources Fail, Kiumajut (Talking Back) or Hunters at the Margin.

At this point the student also realizes that he has been wrong about Indigenous knowledge all along: “I feel like in this class we romanticize Native people.” Speaking of dispossession in the present, as many Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars do, is not only “biased” but downright dangerous, he says. “Faced with the realities of the colonial past, it is clear that blame is due. However, the way this blame is expressed could incite among First Nations readers feelings of hate and alienation that may, in the long run, be counter-productive to the quest for a better future.”

I seem to have stirred up a lot of bad feelings, and I am warned to be careful. Some students suggest that “openness,” rather than a “rigid agenda” can help transform “negative attitudes about Indians,” and “cultural misunderstanding.” “I have found that it is not helpful to create excessive controversy around social and environmental issues,” one disappointed student reveals. “I believe that the open telling of the truth without a rigid agenda is the best way to inspire ‘Aha!’ moments in your audience.” We have come to the end of the term. She is tired of my “bias.” I am “too political” and she wishes I would just “stick to the subject matter.”

We just need to learn, my students suggest, who the Indians really are. What is their relationship with nature? I get some advice too: “Many schools have begun to increase the level of outdoor, practical learning. There are no doubt many within local Indigenous communities who would be more than happy to share their knowledge with students. Furthermore, this would work to empower the all-too-marginalized Indigenous communities across the country. I hope I get to have this experience in the rest of my courses here.”

I don’t begrudge the student his desire to learn the strong stories of our continent, to know the land – as the Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday put it, to “take possession of it in his blood and brain.” Many students hunger for a land ethic they can access directly, by way of Indigenous narratives – narratives that can set their minds free of what one student termed a “dog-matic and controlling concept of social and ecological relations.”

Histories of a world where, for example, animals and humans take one another’s form, belong in Indigenous communities. There, stories are owned and spoken, not spoken about, and also form the basis of Indigenous governance and law. In the university classroom, all I can do, as a settler-Canadian, is insist on a persistently decolonizing attitude and maybe also foster the kind of imagination required to see the work that Indigenous stories do in the world.

The next course I teach on Indigenous peoples and environment will take a different tack towards an ecology of Native Canada. I might take some time away from bentwood boxes and the varieties of cedar plank constructions to explore how black mold, that creeping sickness, that keystone species of the housing crisis in Native communities, can be understood as part of an ecology of Native-settler relations. Those relations could include logging practices, clearcuts and toxic water, but also a reserve geography, funding arrangements, “land claims” and “aboriginal rights.” Perhaps in this way students will participate in and transform an ecology that is alive, violent and shared, and where the prefix “ethno-” refers as much to themselves as it does to others.

Dorothee Schreiber is currently a visiting fellow at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich, Germany. She has taught courses in Indigenous peoples and environment in the department of anthropology at McGill University and the school of environmental studies at the University of Victoria. This essay is based on a longer article with the same title, published in New Proposals: Journal of Marxism and Interdisciplinary Inquiry.

Dorothee Schreiber
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  1. David Greenwood / April 3, 2012 at 10:49

    I teach an upper year undergraduate class in environmental impact assessment, and as part of that course students are introduced to the idea of considering traditional ecological knowledge as part of an assessment. A couple of years back I had a Metis student in the class. Upon hearing this he asked (and I paraphrase) “I am First Nations, and I want to know what you mean by this because as an urban aboriginal I don’t know what that means.” The question provoked some respectful debate in the class (which is mostly taught seminar style), but it brought into focus the disconnect between academic perceptions of what ‘aboriginal’ means and implies for environmental issues (often idealized; certainly in the Canadian text I use), and what the reality is for many aboriginal youth.

  2. random skin / April 5, 2012 at 01:18

    Just leave us alone. Don’t even learn about us. Because you will learn it wrong.

  3. Alex Thomson / April 9, 2012 at 16:20

    While some of these student’s comments do seem like they idealize, generalize, or patronize Indigenous cultures, they have a longing that I can relate to.

    I don’t blame people for wanting to re-connect with the traditional skills of their ancestors. While of course they need to learn that the majority of Aboriginal people don’t practice these skills, there is a growing re-surgence of people who do-both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. It is a journey I’m beginning myself. Why wouldn’t I want to learn how to relate to a mullein plant or my deer neighbours? How to use their bodies to the fullest so that I may express to them how much I love them and their gift to me?

    And for good reason, as the oil and manufacturing economy runs out of steam, we are going to have to learn how to provide for ourselves again.

    For these students to believe that Indigenous cultures had traditional technologies for connecting with nature and spirit is not wrong at all. Any of the literature on Indigenous Knowledge, such as Gregory Cajete’s Native Science will show this.

    However, to expect that the first few Aboriginal people they meet must be “ecological Indians” -like the “Crying Indian” -Iron Eyes Cody is where the sterotypes go wrong.

    Of course it’s important to learn about Indigenous Struggles for land. It is the current battle, in this short span of time, to maintain ecological relationships with their traditional territories. However, if we learn only about how relationships between people and nature have gone wrong, and not how to create, build or sustain these relationships, then I think we’re missing the longing that the younger generation has for a more earth-connected culture.

    But then, maybe your point is that a University classroom is not the place for building these relationships?

    An Elder once told me that that if you say “I don’t like potatoes” that the Creator can’t hear the “don’t” -the negative, and think that you do like potatoes.

    So I hear a word like “decolonizing”, to me it takes on the same violent tone as “Colonizing”. As in, we need to root out and remove all of the colonial aspects in our ways of thinking and being. Kind of like a chemotherapy for the soul.

    Instead of this violent imagery, I prefer to look instead to Indigenous languages for words that focus on living a good life, following a good path, etc. In Anishnabemowin it is Mino Bimmatiziiwin -living a good life, or as I interpret it, living life in full responsibility towards the oneness of being, all of the living creatures and spirits in the universe.

    It is this vision of striving towards balance, towards responsibility, towards awareness, towards connection that gives me strength to move forward. It is this vision that heals me from the pain I feel from looking at all of the sad stories that colonization has created.

  4. Omar Biggs / April 9, 2012 at 17:36

    The only way to understand Native peoples is to regard them as a heterogenous population forced to make a difficult transition to industrial society and needing to adapt to circumstances not of their own making. What is of interest in the “Native-White” dynamic in Canada (and also the USA, and elsewhere) has nothing to do with so-called cultural misunderstandings, nor with that old romanticist shibboleth about “preserving indigenous culture,” but rather the process of social and political negotiation between weak and powerful. Turning our analytic gaze away from this, and instead seeking to uncover the “authentic Indian,” amounts to little more than a racist tactic on the part of rich white kids trying to absolve themselves of colonial blame. It is a professor’s duty to make at least this much clear at the outset of any Native studies course.

  5. Jill / April 11, 2012 at 20:42

    Your new course proposal sounds very interesting – I think it would open eyes. Although honestly, I think that many who live in poverty have comparative issues. In response to David and “random skin” I would like to say that research hopefully allows us to look at preconceptions with a bit of distance and this is a good thing but it evolves over time as people overcome bias. Determining what you think is correct from what is actually happening is a primary goal in academic research.

    Funny, I was just talking today about “the “Crying Indian” -Iron Eyes Cody Keep America Beautiful campaign 1971.

    I personally believe that this ad campaign was designed to impliment an “in comparison” shame campaign.

    Worked too – if anyone remembers how roadsides looked in the late 60’s, early 70’s and how they look now. The effectiveness of this campaign is possibly why the crying Indian/environmental Indian is now a stereotype. At that period in time, the “Environmental Indian” was not the generally accepted stereotype of a Native American. Too bad we have to deal with stereotypes at all.