Just who were the real "savages" anyway?
Naomi Lakritz . We were the uncivilized ones
Naomi Lakritz, The Calgary HeraldPublished: Thursday, November 06, 2008
Dick Pound's remark about "savages" has had a lot of interesting spin-off effects. It has sparked debates about semantics, etymology, comparative degrees of culture and civilization, and even free speech. Last week, there were calls for Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente to be fired after she wrote that aboriginals in Canada 400 years ago had an unevolved, neolithic culture, compared to that of the Europeans who came here.
The original firestorm was ignited when Pound, the Canadian representative to the International Olympic Committee and chancellor of McGill University, told a reporter from La Presse, in French, during the Beijing Olympics: "We must not forget that 400 years ago, Canada was a land of savages, with scarcely 10,000 inhabitants of European descent, while in China, we're talking about a 5,000-year-old civilization."
Pound used the word "sauvages," which was used by French speakers in Canada through the 19th century -- including Father Albert Lacombe. While he was certainly a product of his times, Lacombe cannot be called a racist -- he had a deep empathy for what the coming of white civilization, notably the building of the CPR, would mean to the Indians among whom he lived.
Father René Fumoleau, in his book, As Long As This Land Shall Last, explains: "The word 'sauvage' derives from the Latin word 'silva,' meaning forest and originally meant someone able to manage his economic life in a forest or in a wilderness, alone. This original meaning persisted until recently when 'sauvage' came to mean cruel and brutal. Sir Alexander Mackenzie explained that 'savageness' refers to a very high degree of the virtue of tolerance. Until 1920, 'Department of Indian Affairs' was officially translated 'Departement des Affaires des Sauvages.'"
Fumoleau notes that wherever his book reproduces documents translated from French, he uses "Indian" to avoid the contemporary connotation of "sauvage."
The discussion about Pound's remark hinges on that connotation and its implication that the more material progress a culture has made, the more superior it is. I can't imagine a more erroneous interpretation of culture and its polar opposite, savagery.
What could be more savage than for one race of people to decide it is in the best interests of another race to rip their children away from their parents, force them into residential schools, forbid them to speak their own language and make every effort to kill their culture?
That's what the materially superior, progressive European-settler culture perpetrated on Canada's aboriginals. There is a reason that 47 of 50 aboriginal languages in Canada are in danger of dying -- only Cree, Ojibway and Inuktitut are considered healthy enough to survive -- and it is due to the savagery inflicted on those languages' speakers by a "superior civilization."
Savagery is not about degrees of cultural advancement, which are biased in favour of the culture to which the person making the comparisons belongs. Savagery is about the ways people treat each other. You don't have to look too far back in time to see who the savages were in relations between the two races in Canada.
Simon Fraser, the founder of British Columbia, on his way down the river that now bears his name, wrote in his journal in 1808: "The Indians of this place promised to help us on tomorrow. They were extremely civil ... they gave us plenty of sturgeon, oil and roots." Some days earlier, Fraser had written, "We depended wholly upon the natives for provisions, and they generously furnished us with the best they could procure."
Samuel Hearne, little more than 30 years earlier, noted that the Copper Indians "endeavoured ... to convince our company of their readiness to serve us to the utmost; by the time we had got our tents pitched, the strangers had provided a large quantity of dried meat and fat by way of a feast."
In the journals of explorers and others who settled Canada, there is recorded this consistent theme of civility and good will on the part of aboriginals.
Sam Steele, who was stationed in Calgary with the North West Mounted Police, reported in his memoirs that at the signing of Treaty 7 in 1877, Lt.-Gov. David Laird told the Indians: "The Great Spirit has made the white man and the red man brothers, and we should take each other by the hand." Crowfoot replied: "(I) trust that all our hearts will increase in goodness from this time forward." Crowfoot's trust was tragically misplaced, as history has borne out.
Fast-forward two centuries to Weasel Tail: Stories Told by Joe Crowshoe Sr., a Peigan-Blackfoot elder. Queried as to his residential school experience, Crowshoe's poignant, terse reply speaks volumes: "They told me, 'Don't speak Blackfoot.'"
Just who were the real "savages" anyway?
Naomi Lakritz writes for the Calgary Herald.