Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Going native

The Canadian authorities make a big thing of respecting the First Nations (i.e. the indigenous peoples) by appreciating their culture, upholding their human rights and not treating them as second-class citizens.

But this public stance seems to be at odds with the First Nations sections in museums and other tourist attractions which strike me not as respectful but as somewhat condescending and insulting.

I visited several of these displays in Vancouver and Victoria, expecting to find explanations of how sophisticated and intelligent these people really are and how they could teach us a thing or two about our supposedly superior 21st century culture.

But surprisingly all I found was collections of artefacts and tools and descriptions of traditional ceremonies and rituals, which to me suggested not sophisticated human beings but goofy dullards incapable of anything more than weaving rugs, carving totem poles and observing mindless superstitions about giant ravens and supernatural frogs.

Is this really the message I should be getting or am I missing something?

I kept wondering what they thought about the big questions - what is the meaning of life, why are we on this planet, how can we live together in peace and harmony? - but I didn't find any answers, or even any sign they thought about such things at all.

I couldn't help supposing that underneath the public honouring of the First Nations, there is a furtive counter-agenda to depict them as quaint and laughable rather than worthy of serious consideration and esteem. If so, it's succeeding brilliantly and misleading an awful lot of people.

Still, better keep an eye on them ravens, they might be up to something.


  1. Nick:
    I agree with you wholeheartedly on the museum depiction of the aboriginal peoples. However, this perception is counteracted by the Canadian University of First Nations which brings a remarkable cohesion to modern day science and the wisdom of the elders. Here is the link:

  2. The whole foundation to museums is based on racism. White people stole the stuff out right and put it in a glass case for other white people to gaze at it.

  3. www - thanks for the link. It seems though that I can't get much extra info without actually joining the university!

    medbh - I wouldn't be as sweeping as that. Some museums are okay, like the excellent Resistance Museum in Amsterdam. But that's an interesting point about the exhibits - how exactly were they obtained??

  4. I don't mean that every museum is racist, just that as an institution they began with imperialism and plundering other cultures. There are collections being contested around the world from people who want their stuff returned.

  5. I see what you mean. That's interesting, I didn't know that's how museums originated. Certainly in the UK there have been a number of stories about exhibits with contested ownership, or exhibits that have been returned to their rightful owner/s.

  6. I agree, Canada has a poor history when it comes to dealing with First Nation peoples. I've published a number of short articles at Indigenous Issues Today on Canada and its current treatment of First Nation peoples. Might be of interest.

  7. Thanks Peter. Some informative posts there. Will have a proper browse later, but in the meantime have read the one on how national parks (like Rocky Mountain NP) were basically stolen from the indigenous peoples and have often become artificial wildernesses with no natural life. Chimes with what Medbh was saying about museum exhibits also being stolen.

  8. An observation from my days in Canada.
    I think my very first impression there was that it is a truly multi-cultural country. I might be wrong, but I felt like everyone or at least majority was comfortable with who they were, and where they were from. Similarly, it seemed to me that there was greater tolerance and acceptance as well as integration (and not assimilation) of people who immigrated from other countries. That's one of the many things I really liked about Canada.

  9. That certainly seems true from my own observations of BC, Toronto and Quebec City (which is particularly full of French-speakers of course). Medbh says the same, so do our cousins Dermot and Cherith in Toronto. Though I think the flipside of that tolerance is that Canadians can be a bit self-contained and not very approachable.