The crows tell me” he says to the few men left, “that I shouldn’t listen to my dreams, that I should only listen to the crows and the Great Voice. But I can no longer ignore my dreams…my dreams tell me that it won’t be long,” he says, “before fires consume this country.” The last of the donnes walk out. Aaron looks at us three Jesuits. “My dreams tell me the end of this world I know is near. – Joseph Boyden, The Orenda.
The white man says that our customs are bad; and our own brothers who have taken up his religion also say that our customs are bad. How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.-Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart. 1
The polytheist is oppressed and distracted by the variety of superstition. -Edward Gibbon 2
In our analysis of the breakdowns of civilizations, we found that the ultimate criterion and fundamental cause of breakdown could be described as a loss of harmony which leads to the forfeiture by a society of its power of self-determination. – Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History3
The Royal Proclamation implicitly envisaged a somewhat harmonious and positive relationship between Indians and new settlers as Canada grew. Indians would retain the bulk of the lands of Canada (subject to what they might give up by sale or treaty), and would live on those lands more or less separate and apart from non-Indians, which latter group would somehow be confined to the areas already developed at that time, or about to be developed, in Quebec, the Maritimes and southern Ontario (as they then were). Where there was to be new development it would somehow remain quiet and orderly, with all parties interests somehow remaining intact. There would be planned, legal and orderly development of this northern Arcady, with no group falling out of or being expelled from this contemplated state of relatively static, sylvan harmony.
Unfortunately, but not unsurprisingly (ever onwards flows the river), the course of history after 1763 did not bear out these fond imaginings.
Firstly, as stated, America broke away from Great Britain, rendering the Royal Proclamation a nullity in their western wilderness lands. The manner of American expansion, characterized by settlers going first, followed very tardily by the law, resulted in a state of semi-anarchy, disorder, confusion and vigilantism on America’s western frontier – a situation in which American Indians fared wretchedly. Fear, greed and racism in this wide-open and uncontrolled environment resulted in outright warfare, massacres, forced marches, fraud, broken treaties and involuntary re-settlements. Many proud tribes were extinguished, their former existence today only evidenced by geographic place names – Mohave, Illinois, Miami, Texas (Tejas), Natchez, Kansa, Wichita, Cheyenne, Apalachee, Missouri, Iowa. In 1869 President Ulysses S. Grant, in his Inaugural Address, bluntly told Native Americans that their days as a hunting and gathering people were numbered and that he favored “civilization, christianization and and ultimate citizenship” for them.4
In Canada, where development north-westward was slower, the dreams of Arcady took longer to vanish.
There was little migration of settlers away from the original New France base of Canada until the mid-1800’s. During that calmer, initial period, when, to borrow a phrase from American Christian essayist Marilynne Robinson, “history had not yet hardened”5around the populations of Canada, and when the Hudson Bay Company and the fur trade still predominated, the benevolent and just imaginings of the Royal Proclamation – that there could be progress and development yet with Indians somehow being preserved from the debilitating effects of it – seemed still possible.
But that theory only seemed to work for want of being properly tested. And when it was, it failed. The effects of the operation of the historical norm of migration, conquest and assimilation were just too all-pervasive and overwhelming.
In Canada, unlike in the United States, the manner of expansion and development westward was characterized by the “law” first going out into the intended settlement lands, setting itself up, and then permitting settlers to follow in and establish themselves – an early example of our proper tendency towards “peace, order and good government.”
But once the surveyors, the mapmakers, the constabulary, the government officials and the rest of the apparatus of British law and order had done their preparatory work – once the Hudson Bay Company’s ownership of and monopoly over the western lands of Canada was ended in 1870 – then ever-greater numbers of settlers and traders began to pour into the West.
The railroad was built.
As the inevitable result of all this the immediately destructive impact of European culture on pre-contact Indian cultures that first occurred in the 1600’s, and which had increasingly and uninterruptedly occurred after that time, quickened and, for the Indians of Canada, reached its pathos-filled, catastrophic climax in the mid-to-late 1800’s. This process and it’s sad finale was described by Diamond Jenness, one of Canada’s most learned and compassionate scholars in this field, in his book, The Indians of Canada, first published by The National Museum of Canada in 1932 (referred to in chapter 6 above, Pre-contact Indian Culture and the Shock of the New).
This work went through five subsequent editions and was last reprinted in 1972 (not coincidentally, just about the time that “blood” and myth-based identity politics was kicking into gear). For all that time it was regarded and used, in universities, government and elsewhere, as the authoritative word on this subject.
This book is hard to find now and rarely referred to because it’s fact-driven – suffused with inconvenient truths – rather than, as are most current works on the subject now, ideology-driven and replete with convenient omissions and distortions – and its considered conclusions are now too politically incorrect.
Dr. Jenness’ assertion that frequent famines, and the hardships and accidents incidental to paleolithic life shortened the average life span of and caused a high death rate amongst pre-contact aboriginals is now deemed by modern aboriginal advocacy historians to be “Eurocentric,” as if this and this alone is sufficient, without anything further, to disqualify it. It’s also deemed by modern advocacy historians to be factually incorrect (with no cogent or coherent reasons given why this is so – their mere desire that it be so and their declaration accordingly being seemingly sufficient for them), thus assuring the continued neglect of this important book.
The neglect of this great work is an example of what Marilynne Robinson calls “the principled neglect of primary texts”. (From the essay Decline, in The Givenness of Things (above). The shorter life span-higher death rate phenomenon is a good example of this. Dr. Jenness writes at length about it, citing lack of proper food, lack of milk, lengthened lactation periods affecting fertility, brutal and merciless warfare, slavery practises, uncertain food supplies causing starvations, deliberate abandonment of “weaklings”, and women (who were lower in status and deemed more expendable), and deliberate infanticide, particularly of baby girls.
High infant mortality, female infanticide, and famines, all due in the main to the economic conditions, kept the hunting tribes down to a marginal level, so that many of them barely escaped extinction.
Dr. Jenness cited authorities for everything he says: other scholarly works, first-contact journals of explorers, (Champlain, Hearne, Thompson), the Jesuit Relations. The reader acquires a feeling of confidence in the competency and objectivity, to the extent possible, of the writer.
On the other hand, the same issue was dealt with by the modern scholar Arthur J. Ray, in his book, An Illustrated History of Canada’s Native People. 6
Mr. Ray, with no cogent reasons given, and no authorities cited, in a merely declaratory fashion, and as an example of “unargued persuasion” (See The Haida Nation Case, below), states that Dr. Jenness was “plainly wrong” “We now know”, he says, that that wasn’t the case. (We do? How do we know? On whose authority, other than his own mere say-so? He never says. A serious, objective scholar should cite his authorities for such a statement.) “In fact” he says, “some anthropologists suggest” (none actually mentioned, as they should be), that pre-contact aboriginal societies were the “original affluent societies”. ( Affluent? – Walt Disney redux.) He then blames low aboriginal populations on colonialism (predictably), and European-originated epidemics, conveniently ignoring the fact that Dr. Jenness was confining his analysis to pre-contact aboriginal societies, and citing authorities who were citing pre-contact and contact-era studies, journals and observations, when colonialism and epidemics were not a factor.
Mr. Ray also ignores contradictory aboriginal writings.
The late Ojibway writer, Basil Johnston, (referred to and admiringly described in The Essential Humanity of the Migrators to Canada, above), in the Foreword he wrote to Dancing With a Ghost- Exploring Indian Reality, by Rupert Ross,7 stated:
To set aside enough food to last them through the winter was what drove men and women to labour the summer through till the first fall of snow. If they failed to store enough food, they and their families faced hardship and the prospect of eating bark, frozen berries and moss.
In the book itself, the contents of which Mr. Johnston fully endorsed, Rupert Ross, referring to pre-contact Indian life, stated:
Death by starvation was formerly one of the most powerful and cohesive forces in Native life…If people stepped out of line, if they failed in their obligations of effort and excellence, they faced the immediate and occasionally fatal response of nature…the threat of starvation was indeed a coercive force prompting obedience to the rules, and its interventions were likely to be both swift and severe.
That Dr. Jenness’ book would get such a slighting, neglectful pass by someone like Mr. Ray, who is regarded as a modern expert in this field, is evidence of the same kind of prevalent, present-day, much lower-than-before, intellectual and academic standards, as is Indian Horse, The Inconvenient Indian, The Comeback and Bob Rae’s slight and conflicted take on the situation in What Happened to Politics? (See The Essential Humanity of the Migrators to Canada, above)
Equally damning to Mr. Ray’s credibility as an unbiased scholar is the fact that he failed to mention William Wuttunee, the first aboriginal lawyer to, while he did not argue it, take a case to the Supreme Court of Canada- an historic (!) and prideful accomplishment- or Ruffled Feathers, or the intellectual and political divides and fallout caused by its publication. Yet he mentions the publication of Harold Cardinal’s The Unjust Society -The Tragedy of Canada’s Indians, the first cri-de-coeur of the burgeoning Indian-rights movement, which latter book was one of the reasons Mr. Wuttunee wrote Ruffled Feathers, – to refute it-and which latter book Mr. Wuttunee, in impressive, lawyer-like fashion, in my opinion, demolished point by point.
But the measure of a book’s current degree of political correctness, current popularity, use or acceptance bears no relation to the truth or worth of its contents. And The Indians of Canada, having been written before our present age, one characterized by a large decline of values and standards in academic and public discourse, an age of officially-sanctioned untruths, especially in this area, demands to be read and relied upon, even if only to consider what serious, caring, informed Canadians were writing, speaking and thinking about this topic before our present era of intellectually lightweight, conflicted, “advocacy” history and anthropology began (see the excellent discussion of this in Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry, above) and before the implicit censorship of free speech on this topic began.
Dr. Jenness wrote (in 1932):
The civilized world is intolerant of (primitive) peoples, whom it has neither the time nor the patience to protect and train for three or four generations until they can bridge the gap between the old conditions and the new. So the world is strewn with their wreckage….
He described the ills that contact with modern Europeans subjected Canada’s Indians to – alcoholism, smallpox, typhus, tuberculosis, the destruction of their hunting and fishing grounds (as stated, by themselves and by non-Indians), and perpetual inter-tribal warfare, conducted with European weaponry, over an ever-shrinking land and food base- a tragic series of events, painful to read, involving, during Great Britain’s approximately 200 year period of being in charge, mainly unintended harm. (Dr. Jenness’ recitation of the historical events surrounding the arrival of the white man, the incorporation of Indians into the capitalist world fur economy, white man’s diseases, environmental destruction followed by famine, more diseases, and ultimately, Indian cultural failure and collapse, was masterfully updated and harrowingly particularized by scholar James Daschuk in Clearing The Plains (above).
Of the effect of Christianity Dr. Diamond, expanding on Edward Gibbon (above), brilliantly and succinctly wrote:
…the nature worship of the Indians was too vague, too eclectic, to withstand the assault of a highly organized proselytizing religion like Christianity, or to serve as a rallying ground for the bands and tribes that struggled without guidance to adjust their lives afresh. The epidemic of smallpox hastened its downfall, for in those days of trial and suffering that would have tested the strength of any religion the Indians called on their deities, their guardian spirits and their medicine men in vain…When the missionaries of a dominant race can invoke the aid of economic interests, they meet with little resistance from ill-organized religions. Although most of the tribes still cling to some of their old superstitions and beliefs, all of them very quickly transferred their allegiance to one or the other of the Christian churches….
Of alcohol he wrote:
Whiskey and brandy destroyed the self respect of the Indians, weakened every family and tribal tie, and made them, willing or unwilling, the slaves of the trading posts where liquor was dispensed to them by the keg. Even the fur traders recognized its evils and gladly supported the government when it finally prohibited all sale to the Indians under penalty of a heavy fine. Disease and alcohol demoralized and destroyed the Indians just when they needed all their energy and courage to cope with the new conditions that suddenly came into existence around them.
With the destruction of the beaver resource and the buffalo herds came “war and confusion” between the Indian tribes affected and, in the late 1880’s:
The buffalo herds at last failed to appear and the Indians, dying of starvation, had to accept unreservedly the conditions laid down by the white man…No longer was each tribe a self-contained and self-supporting unit, but from the Arctic to the Prairies and from the Atlantic to the Pacific all alike found themselves enmeshed in the economic system forced upon them from without. One by one they ceded their territories to the invaders, and wherever European colonization was proceeding, submitted to confinement on narrow reserves. The needs of the colonists then became their needs also, and in place of their former self-sufficiency, they were reduced to purchasing most of the necessities of life at European trading stores.
Dr. Jenness’ book makes for grim, pathos-filled reading in places, as exemplified above. Clearly he was no Eurocentric triumphalist. Rather an honest humanist sadly but in clear-eyed fashion dealing in facts and fact-based conclusions – something that is so rare in this area today.
So also did Peter Newman, in Caesars of the Wilderness,8 the second of his three-volume series on the Hudson Bay Company. Describing the events surrounding the transfer of the Hudson Bay Company lands to Canada, he wrote:
Least consulted and most directly affected of all were the Indian peoples. As land sales rather than fur barters became the HBC’s prime concern, their traditional way of life lost its raison d’etre, and hunger was the result. Indians begging for food at white settlements became a common sight, as did the sad sight of natives having to subsist on a meagre diet of gophers caught by pouring water down their holes and snaring the tough little animals as they emerged. On April 13, 1871, Chief Sweet Grass and a delegation of Plains Cree from the Edmonton and Carlton House districts came in stately procession to address …the Chief Factor at Edmonton, asking him to transcribe and submit a petition to the Governor at Fort Garry. “We heard our lands were sold and we did not like it,” went the proclamation. “We do not want to sell our lands; it is our property, and no one has a right to sell them. Our country is getting ruined of furbearing animals, hitherto our sole support, and now we are poor and want help-we want you to pity us. We want cattle, tools, agricultural implements, and assistance in everything when we come to settle-our country is no longer able to support us…Indian claims to the grasslands were gradually muffled, and the interracial fur-trade partnership that had shaped day-to-day contact over most of a continent for much of two centuries was irrevocably severed. A native heritage was regarded as a liability, not an asset, as tent towns grew into villages and villages expanded into towns and cities. The buffalo herds were gone, their mournful bellowing replaced by the echoing hoots first of steamboats and then of locomotives….
More recently these events were described by Richard Gwyn in Nation Maker:
Ottawa’s response to the loss of the buffalo was to pressure Indians to take up farming on their reserves as the only way they could sustain themselves. The scale of the challenge the Indians faced was not understood then, nor is it easy to comprehend it even in hindsight. In essence, the Plains Indians underwent a cultural catastrophe that encompassed every aspect of their lives-not just the material and political, but the social, the economic, the spiritual, the cultural, the psychological; each of these was either shattered or reduced to the redundant, the retrograde or, in the eyes of many outsiders, the comic. It is not easy to identify any people anywhere who have had to cope with so complete and swift an extinction of their way of life other than those defeated in war, occupied and reduced to slavery. Perhaps the best intellectual analysis of this transformational trauma is that by the American philosopher Jonathan Lear in his book Radical Hope. There, he explores the dimensions of a comment make by Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow Nation that, after the buffalo disappeared, “Nothing happened.” Chief Plenty Coups was saying that once the buffalo were gone, his people became like the living dead. 9
These three great writers, and James Daschuk in Clearing the Plains, tell a tragic and heart-rending story. But while this tragic story should always be re-told and remembered, it should not be allowed to form the permanent, guilt-ridden basis of our present-day approach to fashioning proper, long-range solutions to the serious, intractable problems facing Indians in Canada today.
Canada’s fiduciary duty towards Indians – the notion that Canada’s Crowns must always act “honourably” towards them – properly and justly arose during those times and circumstances. (My view of how this fiduciary duty should be discharged today – how Canada should best exhibit honourable behaviour towards Canadian Indians in today’s modern context – is discussed in Rethinking the “Honour of the Crown” Principle, below.)
The phenomenon of contact occurring between European cultures and previously isolated “aboriginal” cultures, with the attendant negative effects on the latter, as it was happening in accelerated fashion in Canada in the mid-1800’s, was happening at the same time in accelerated fashion all over the world. The remote ancestors of those early humans who had first trekked out of Africa 100,000 years ago were, like long lost cousins emerging from Sir David Cannadine’s undivided past, all finally meeting up again.
The European imperial expedition transformed the history of the world: from being a series of isolated peoples and cultures , it became a history of a single, integrated human society. 10
Africa was being overrun by European powers. Imperial Russia was invading and conquering the areas to the south and east of it, dealing with the resisting locals mainly in the brutal Spanish fashion. (The causes of recent Chechen guerrilla attacks on Russians can be traced to that.) China, historically always an expansionist power, had expanded into Tibet and Central Asia. China itself, along with the rest of east and southern Asia, was being colonized by European powers.
No corner of the earth was left untouched or unchanged by this, and, more particularly, almost all aboriginal societies still remaining in the world at the time were, in terms of the maintenance of their pre-contact viability, affected in the same tragic, heart-breaking, world-ending ways as were Canada’s Indians.
The shock and ineffable sadness inherent in the collapse and abrupt end of a formerly confident, purposeful, violent, sensual, mystical, rigidly patriarchal and code-bound, clan-based, tribal world- almost immediately after contact with Europeans and their trade goods, ships and soldiers, missionaries, laws, medicines, schools and all else good and bad- is poignantly and unforgettably portrayed in Chinua Achebe’s aptly named African novel, Things Fall Apart, (above), the title from Yeats’ famous couplet from The Second Coming:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
That the events described in Things Fall Apart, and The Orenda represent an historical norm doesn’t make them any less difficult to process or accept.
The 1800’s was the last, great age of European expansion and hegemony – the zenith of European world power and influence. What was happening then was in effect an earlier variation of the globalization movement – the epitome of permanent, irreversible, social dislocation and change for us all. As always, the world was on the move.
But in that era – an era unprecedentedly mechanical and industrial – an era constituting a complete quantum break with man’s rural, agrarian past – the world was moving faster and farther than it had ever moved before, as if the flow of time’s river was being speeded up by rapids and waterfalls. And, as always, when technologically and organizationally dominant peoples migrated, less powerful, less organized and less technologically-proficient peoples in their way, like Canada’s Indians, got badly hurt.
Canadian Indians were indeed profoundly affected by this process, as poignantly described by Messrs. Jenness, Newman, Gwynn and Daschuk. But, as stated, so were the remaining aboriginal societies the world over. And the process itself, being a world-wide phenomenon and being a constant of history, was and is, viewed in a properly larger, informed and realistic historical frame of reference, as stated (but which cannot be emphasized enough, so little do we ever hear it stated at all!) an impersonal, morally neutral one, particularly with reference to our Canadian experience, given the relatively benign, compassionate and honourable way the process has unfolded here.
To a large degree, with this essay, for the sake of intellectual honesty and real progress for Indians going forward, I am trying to reduce the overwhelming focus on indiscriminately ascribing moral blame for the tragic situation of Indians in Canada today.
Canada did indeed engage in blameworthy conduct at times. For instance, in Clearing the Plains, James Daschuk tells of the Canadian government’s heartless, shameful and inhuman decision in the 1880’s “to use food as a means to control the Indian population to meet its development agenda rather than as a response to a humanitarian crisis.”
But overall, Canada, over the span of its history, has acted relatively decently. In this regard I’m with aboriginal activist, writer and lawyer William Wuttunee, who wisely and compassionately wrote in Ruffled Feathers:
It was not entirely the fault of the non-Indian Canadians that such conditions (the social problems of Indians) exist. It was a combination of factors of that particular period in history.
But if the blame game needs to be played, it’s a game that goes both ways.
Nobody forced Indians to adopt- to “culturally appropriate”- European ways and means, and forego their own.
Nobody forced their chiefs, elders and leading men to agree to enter into military alliances with Europeans, and to use their powerful, new European allies, and all their awesome and revolutionary instruments of war, against their traditional Indian enemies.
Nobody forced them to enter into extensive, embroiling and ultimately dependency-inducing trade arrangements and agreements with Europeans.
It’s wrong, and too easy, to put all the blame for the collapse and dissolution of pre-contact indigenous culture on Europeans and non-Indian Canadians.
If people are so insistent on applying the concept of moral blame to all aspects of this great Canadian tragedy, (I’m basically against it as being mainly ill-founded, wearying, stale, flat and unprofitable), the indigenous peoples, as penance for the “sin” of simply being human, have to bear some of this blame.
But fundamentally, neither side can be justly “blamed” here. The essence of tragedy is the pathos of human fallibility- of simply being human.
In tragic life…
No villain need be: Passion spills out the plot. 11
These tragic world changing events constituted history simply being history- people being people- events that we as a country have to view more realistically and honestly and, as a country, not let hamper us from doing the right things today – the courageous things – for the betterment of Canada’s Indians and Canadians as a whole.
- Anchor Books, 1994, Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe’s great and heart-breaking 1959 novel of African tribal cultural and civilizational collapse almost immediately upon contact with European culture .
- The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chapter 50
- Arnold Toynbee. A Study of History. Weathervane Books, 1972.
- Ron Chernow, Grant, Penguin Press, New York, 2017
- From McGuffey and the Abolitionists, in The Death of Adam, Essays on Modern Thought, Picador, New York, 1998
- Key-Porter Books, 2010
- Octopus Publishing Group, 1992
- Peter Newman. Caesars of the Wilderness. Viking Books, 1987.
- Like Visigoth Chief Athanaric, long defiant of Rome and long refusing to amalgamate with Roman civilization. In 381 A.D. he was chased out of his former Dacian homeland by the Huns, and forced to seek refuge in Constantinople. There, after only a few months, “he died broken-hearted, it may be at the collapse of his barbarian state, or more probably, pining away, as the American Indian pines, in contact with a higher and more complex civilization.” (From Thomas Hodgkin’s above-referenced The Barbarian Invasions of the Roman Empire,first published in 1880.
- Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens, above
- English novelist George Meredith, quoted in Alexander Solzhenitsyn- A Century in His Life, by D.M. Thomas, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1998