Cannibalizing Canada's Indigenous History
Apollonius - 16 May 2022
A short while back I took a trip to Victoria, B.C. Although I am well familiar with the city and even briefly lived there during my youth, it had been some years since I last visited. My first stop was the Royal British Columbia Museum, a place I was well acquainted with from having gone through it many times before. They have a beautiful collection of Indigenous art work: totem poles and all sorts of carvings, masks, rattles, baskets, and many other examples of Northwest Coast Indian craftsmanship. Unlike many galleries and museums these days, you are welcome to use your camera as much as you want. I got quite a few good shots.
I have to admit, though, I was disappointed on several scores. For one thing, even though they’ve added a large annex onto the building that is not accessible to the public which I assume houses administrative offices and provides storage for the material they don’t put on display, the part of the complex open to the public presents exactly the same material that we’ve seen before, with no new additions in at least thirty years.
Interior of Indigenous artifacts collection at the Royal British Columbia Museum (photo by the author).
The commentary that accompanies the material is superficial, to put it kindly. I found a number of inaccuracies some of them merely annoying, perhaps excusable to accommodate tourists. For instance, the house displayed as an example the kind of thing one would encounter in an Indigenous community hundreds of years ago [see photo] is entered just as you would walk into your own home, though without a door, but the reality is that in pre-contact days you would have had to stoop on all fours to gain entrance into a such a house. This probably helped to keep things a little warmer inside, but the most important reason for small doors was that it made entry difficult and less vulnerable to enemy attack, and the Northwest Coast Indians were, like almost all tribal peoples, fierce and warlike with many foes both near and far. Slaves always slept just inside the entrance so that they would likely be the first casualties in any assault.
The Museum also included some outright propaganda. For example, there is an odd little note on one of the display cases about human sacrifice, which according to the writer of the description, has been “misinterpreted” as being real, when it was only pretend, or enactment. This flies in the face of many well documented accounts and lots and lots of archaeological evidence. It also tries to make Canada’s native peoples somehow exceptional; that is to say, ALL (or nearly all) cultures at the level of sophistication that indigenous peoples living on the Northwest Coast attained, from the Celts to the Aztecs, practiced human sacrifice.
This sort of dishonesty is representative of the kind of embarrassing ignorance and premeditated deceitfulness that pervades discussion of early cultures.
My old professor Wayne Suttles used to say that he looked forward to the day when Native peoples started writing their own histories. The sentiment expressed here is that someone who is part of the culture is best suited to describe it, a position that is by no means secure.
For information about the history of the Roman Catholic Church should we rely on official church pronouncements, histories, and treatises written by Vatican officials? Do the best histories of the Soviet Union or China come from members of their Communist parties? The truth is, people who live the culture often find it difficult to write objectively and critically about it and as anthropology and the study of history have become increasingly tribalized description has given way to advocacy and promotion.
One big reason that we’re unlikely to find much authentic history coming from indigenous peoples is that for the most part they are not interested in it. A quick trip through some of the few remaining bricks and mortar bookstores in the country confirms this.
Every so often I go out to my old alma mater, University of British Columbia, and take a look around the bookstore. That bookstore used to rank as Vancouver’s best, but it would come to no surprise to anyone to learn that these days they have more space devoted to sweat shirts and coffee mugs than books.
Because the school’s anthropology department is well-known, not to say world famous, that section is given some prominence from being near the entrance to the store, and it does retain a larger collection of books for sale than most other subject areas. However, it is still a pale and pathetic shadow of its former self. There are a few nice art books. No ethnologies. No archaeology. Not even anything about Native languages. There are a few autobiographies which purport to tell the stories of people living in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries but more Indigenous fiction than anything else (which really belongs in the literature section). Most of the remainder of what they offer concerns Aboriginal law.
In this essay I will briefly touch on a few items that are usually left out, cancelled, and deleted from most tellings of the Indigenous cultures of Canada today, for example, the treatment and condition of women and children, warfare and ethnic cleansing as practiced by indigenous peoples, class distinctions including slavery, the practice of witchcraft and treatment of witches along with a few words about human sacrifice and cannibalism. Recent protests and demands arising from the discovery of so-called ‘unmarked graves’ on the grounds of residential schools might also provoke curiosity about Indigenous customs relating to health and disease and in particular those relating to disposal of the dead, but inevitably this is responded to as some sort of whataboutism and is not seen to compensate for the harm that is perceived to come from European colonials and their descendants.
Still, it’s worth always keeping in mind that most people in today’s world have only the vaguest notions of life in the pre-contact Americas and unfortunately most of what they do know or think they know, they owe to the popular press or Hollywood and not historical researches. Additionally, activists and journalists today are typically critical of documented history. The usual claim is that early reports are highly biased from having been written by non-Natives, European explorers, traders, administrators, and others who supposedly do not have access to oral history and ‘Indigenous ways of knowing’.
But in fact, almost all of those who described what they saw in Indigenous communities, even the earliest outside observers, put a positive spin on things:
Most ethnographers have been decidedly “pro-Indian” and usually have been personally concerned about the current situation and condition of native communities even when their scholarly publications are exclusively on arcane academic subjects. The earlier professionals (Franz Boas and Edward Sapir especially), for example, lobbied to overcome the negative image of the potlatch in the public mind, an image created largely by missionaries and government agents. Although their efforts met with little early success, in more recent times the public has realized that the potlatch is not an irrational ceremony in which the participants beggar themselves. No one should criticize efforts to replace inaccurate, sensationalized accounts of the potlatch with accurate ones. But these have had some unfortunate effects on scholarship. Other elements of the traditional culture that Euro-Americans might disapprove of or view with distaste have been played down and little research has been done on them. These include head-hunting, cannibalism, slavery, and, to a lesser extent, warfare. Two brief examples must suffice: the Kwakwaka’wakw, like most Northwest Coast peoples, took heads in war, but although Boas collected or caused to be collected literally thousands of pages on a vast array of topics, there is no indication that he sought texts to explain or describe this culture trait from a Kwakwaka’wakw point of view. In 1914 Curtis made the first full-length ethnographic motion picture about a North American Native group. The subject was the Kwakwaka’wakw and the film was In the Land of the Headhunters. When the film was refurbished and rereleased in the 1970s it was shown under the title In the Land of the War Canoes
Leland Donald, Aboriginal Slavery on the Northwest Coast of North America (University of California Press, 1997).
Examining recent books, college texts, journal articles, and video documentaries about the indigenous peoples of the Americas aimed at students and the general public we find a style and tone that strongly contrasts with and is deeply at odds with those that describe European history and culture. No reader of accounts of New World societies can fail to notice the tone of unflinching respect that authors inevitably give to their subject matter.
Just for example, the Incas had a particularly practical but also ruthlessly draconian approach to dealing with restive native peoples they had recently conquered. Communities of so-called mitmaq, colonies of loyal Inca subjects were established near and far as a way of controlling them. This approach included what we today would call a policy of massive ethnic cleansing, with whole large settlements forcibly moved sometimes hundreds of miles away from their original homes to put them in a position where they could be encircled or otherwise placed under the watchful eye of those more reliably acculturated to the Inca state. It’s odd and even jarring to see authors almost universally proclaiming the shrewdness of this policy when one considers that if these same authorities were talking about twentieth century Europe or more contemporary events, we can be confident that they would be condemning it in no uncertain terms.
There is also almost inevitably a reverential tone to discussion of religious matters, that despite the fact that almost all American Native groups practiced human sacrifice at least at some level. While the Incas were not so determinedly bloodthirsty as the Aztecs and other meso-American societies, killing children in religious rituals involving human sacrifice was routine. Many South American groups also practiced what in (Hindu) Indian society was known as sati (suttee), that is, the killing of the wife or wives of prominent men to accompany their recently-deceased husband to the grave or funeral pyre.
Today we extol the supposed learning and environmental sensitivity of Indigenous peoples-- never mind that, for example, the Incas and almost all of the New World’s first colonists were illiterate and that the first Americans drove to extinction almost the entire megafauna soon after their migration from Asia, or that, for example, the classic lowland Maya civilization collapsed due to cutting down the forest and depletion of tropical soils, a story repeated in miniature in the Mississippi region in what is now the central and southeastern part of the U.S. a few centuries before Europeans arrived on the scene.
In most cases early observers were at least initially naive and unknowledgeable about Native lifeways but they did understand that they had a lot to learn, so they asked Indigenous people to explain their customs and usually recorded the words of their informants as they spoke them, often including Native terms if there was any reason to suspect that misunderstanding could ensue. In more recent times linguistic and archaeological studies have supplemented historical documentation, but again, the emphasis has been on describing what is encountered. Languages were transcribed, artifacts and other remains photographed, dated, and mapped, and attempts were made to put them into the context of everything else we know about linguistics, geography and human ecology in general, and especially looking for clues that referred back to any actual verbal or written descriptions we had that might relate to these findings.
A recent book developed out of a conference focused on the Tlingit people reveals the radically altered situation today. It includes fascinating insights into Native Alaskans and British Columbians as they speak to one another and to anthropologists. The familiarity and intimacy is immediate. The writers mostly know and address one another on a first name basis.
The biggest change that has taken place in anthropology and related disciplines involved in studying the history and culture of the indigenous people of southeastern Alaska is the obligation most professional researchers feel to make sure that their research benefits the so-called source communities. This new ethics of philosophy of doing research, known as collaborative, community-based, or participatory action research, has emerged out of the changing ideological climate in the United States as well as the needs and demands of the native communities that researchers conduct their work in such a way as to benefit them and allow community input into the research design and the research process. In the words of Alison Brown and Laura Peers,
These new ways of working begin with the acknowledgment that dominant-society heritage professionals are not the only ones who know about, own, and control heritage resources: that local communities have rights in their culture and heritage and in its representation and dissemination”. This new approach to research has often been referred to as “the repatriation of knowledge.” This term is particularly appropriate when it comes to enabling indigenous communities to gain access to archival documents, photographs, recordings of songs and stories and other forms of valuable cultural/historical data, which must find their way back to them, and engaging in (re)interpreting these data in collaboration with experts from these communities.
Sergei Kan in Sharing Our Knowledge: The Tlingit and Their Coastal Neighbors edited by Sergei Kan (University of Nebraska Press, 2015)
It’s an astonishing admission that anthropologists are no longer interested in collecting data, whether it be linguistic, dietary, disease and mortality rates, housing types, places and forms of residence, systems of descent, forms and distribution of property, or all the hundreds of cultural traits that ethnographers used to describe and collate.
Anthropologists are now instructed to consult with the community they are describing and “conduct their work in such a way as to benefit them and allow community input into the research design and the research process.”
Camille Paglia put it this way:
The problem of political correctness is intensified by the increasing fixation of humanities and even history departments on “presentism”, that is, a preoccupation with our own modern period. Even the Renaissance is being redefined: it is now clumsily and in my view inaccurately called “Early Modern.” Presentism is even afflicting major museums, when they repair and over-restore ancient objects so that they look brand-new. A year ago, for example, in conjunction with my current research project into Native American culture of the late Ice Age, I visited the National Museum of the American Indian, a beautiful modernistic building on the Mall in Washington, D.C. I had very high expectations — hence my surprise and horror at how vapid and unscholarly the exhibits were. The entire museum looks like a glorified gift shop, stocked with glossy fabrications, poster-board displays, light shows, and annoying recordings of vacuous happy talk. After a long search, I finally found something old and authentic — a small, sad picture-frame display of a handful of genuine arrowheads and unremarkable stone tools from the Washington area. I have found far better artifacts right here in the plowed fields of Southeastern Pennsylvania! The worst crime of political correctness is that it has allowed current ideologies to stunt our sense of the past and to reduce history to a litany of inflammatory grievances.
To break through the stalemate and reestablish free speech on campus, educators must first turn away from the sprawling cafeteria menu of over-specialized electives and return to broad survey courses based in world history and culture, proceeding chronologically from antiquity to modernism. Students desperately need a historical framework to understand both past and present.
… and got this response:
This was a minor point in your essay on “Free Speech and the Modern Campus,” but your comments on the National Museum of the American Indian really struck a chord with me, and I wanted to thank you, since I never saw any appropriately awful reviews.
I visited not long after it opened, in anticipation of seeing an organized, well-structured tour through the cultures, languages, and religions that we have lost (the Smithsonian does a good job in other places!). Obviously, there was nothing but happy talk about how man and nature used to live in harmony, not a word wasted on the linguistic diversity that was lost in North America since 1600, and absolutely no thematic organization across the museum. I had the distinct impression that the curators thought that putting together a coherent program would have been one final, intolerable act of cultural imperialism!
How could you take such amazing ingredients and produce something so tasteless? It was like going to a nice restaurant in anticipation of a wonderful steak dinner and being served a picture of parsley. What a waste!
Assistant Professor, School of Computer Science
Carnegie Mellon University
I totally agree with you! As I said last month in the free speech lecture at Drexel University that you refer to, the beautifully designed National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. has been shockingly furnished like a tacky gift shop, devoid of scholarly substance and clarity of presentation. This is a major scandal that demonstrates the failure of parochial identity politics, which has so distorted American education and directly led to today’s plague of campus political correctness.
In the 1970s, when women’s studies, African-American studies, and Native American studies were hastily added to the curriculum by administrators under public relations pressure, those new programs were not coherently planned or structured in scholarly terms, so they became instantly vulnerable to highly politicized ideology that has limited their wider cultural impact over time. The tragic emptiness of the National Museum of the American Indian (whose major draw seems to be its multi-ethnic cafeteria) is one result of the ghettoization of Native American studies, which should have been incorporated into the broader, well-established fields of world anthropology and archaeology.
When we study the politics and wars of the ancient Greeks, or the Roman or Chinese Empires, or the travels of Ibn Batuma and Mungo Park in Africa we do not look for a description that will benefit the people living there and allow community input into the research design and process. We want a description of what they saw and the conversations they had with the people living there at the time.
There was a time not so very long ago when scholarship was devoted to exactly that.
I’ve already mentioned Professor Suttles. He was the editor-in-chief of volume seven of the Handbook of North American Indians published by the Smithsonian Institution. That was back in the day when they too were interested in ethnology and history and left politics to the people working down the street from them.
The designation “handbook” is obviously an archivist’s idea of a joke. It is difficult to hold even one volume in your hand, each of which contains something like seven hundred densely packed pages, and there are some thirty volumes in all. Each chapter is written by a specialist in the field. The Handbook is the starting point for serious discussion of any particular native North American culture and this series constitutes the basic reference source on the subject.
There is so much in these books that you cannot possibly absorb more than a tiny fraction. Even when you restrict yourself to one cultural area, the detail can be overwhelming. So let us take a quick dive into a subject which is usually considered to be at least somewhat uncontroversial, namely music.
Volume seven covers the Northwest Coast cultural area.
Quite contrary to the usual ill-informed ideas about how Natives lived in primitive socialist cultures, societies on the Northwest Coast were obsessed with lineage, rank, and property. Issues of originality, copying, and ownership have dogged music for a long time, but if you want to examine extreme notions of who could be allowed to play a tune, turn your attention to pre-contact times on the Coast. In Kwakwaka’wakw society songs and dances were the exclusive personal property of their owners. These songs and dances were handed down in families. Sometimes they were stolen.
The Cedar Bark Dance or Winter Dance (ceqa) was the most important festivity of the year. Invitations went out with messengers travelling by canoe to neighbouring villages and singing out an invitation from their boats. Sometimes the callers were invited to ashore, and this is where song and dance robbery was a possibility. The Fort Rupert people acquired the Cannibal Dance by inviting some high-ranking Bella Bella chiefs to perform the dance, after which they were all murdered, with the perpetrators then claiming ownership.
These days there are romantic notions of how Indians were supposed to have engaged in communal living and sharing the wealth, but the truth is that there was (and remains) a vast disparity of wealth in Native societies of the Northwest Coast, between what the Tsimshian call smkiket ‘real people’ and liqakiket ‘other people’, much less wah’a’ayin ‘unhealed people’ or ‘people without origin’, or xa - slaves.
One of the most persistent myths about Indigenous cultures is that they were matriarchal and that the status of women in them was high, especially by comparison with Europe. It is true that some Native American societies were matrilineal. At bottom this simply means that when the hereditary chief, cacique, or ‘king’ dies, his sister’s son becomes the new leader, and a way of insuring that the inheritance stays within the family.
Furthermore, matrilineal societies everywhere whether the Iroquois or the Zulu, tend to be highly militaristic. It goes without saying that in war councils, women had no direct involvement. While they might try persuasion of individual family members and other warriors, it would be the men who would ultimately vote to go to war.
In most Native societies in Canada brides were bought. High status men brought presents, which would later often be reciprocated. Low status women were not likely to have relatives who could in any way protect them from what was in essence domestic slavery.
This has me recalling one of the most interesting early encounters between British traders and Indigenous inhabitants of Canada’s west coast.
Two British sailors were the only survivors in an attack by the Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) Indians of Vancouver Island in 1804. They were part of a fur trading expedition mounted from Hull, England which sailed all the way around South America and up the Pacific Coast. All of the ship’s crew except these two were massacred. One of these two was a blacksmith and became the chief metallurgist of the “king” of the Nootka for two-and-a-half years. He kept a journal describing his captivity and was ultimately rescued. His description is all the more impressive because only a couple years earlier an artist had accompanied one of these fur trading expeditions and drew sketches of the landscape, villages, and even some of the very people portrayed in the journal.
John R. Jewitt, who was the personal slave of Maquina, relates a passage describing one of the big religious ceremonies held by the Nootka:
It was terminated by an exhibition of similar character to the one of the last year but still more cruel. A boy of twelve years old, with six bayonets run into his flesh, one through each arm and thigh, and through each side close to the ribs, was carried around the room, suspended upon them, without manifesting any symptoms of pain. Maquina, on my inquiring the reason for this display, informed me that it was an ancient custom of his nation, to sacrifice a man at the close of this solemnity in honour of their God, but that his father had abolished it, and substituted this in its place. The whole closed on the evening of the 29th, with a great feast of salmon spawn and oil, at which the natives as usual, made up for their abstinence.
A few days after a circumstance occurred, which from its singularity, I cannot forbear mentioning. I was sent for by my neighbour Yealthlower, the king’s elder brother, to file his teeth, which operation having performed he informed me that a new wife, whom he had a little time before purchased, having refused to sleep with him, it was his intention, provided she persisted in her refusal, to bite off her nose. I endeavoured to dissuade him from it, but he was determined, and in fact, performed his savage threat that very night, saying that since she would not be his wife, she should not be that of any other, and in the morning sent her back to her father.
This inhuman act did not, however, proceed from any innate cruelty of disposition, or malice, as he was far from being of a barbarous temper; but such is the despotism exercised by these savages over their women, that he no doubt considered it as a just punishment for her offence, in being so obstinate and perverse.; as he afterwards told me, that in similar cases, the husband had a right, with them, to disfigure his wife in this way, or some other, to prevent her from marrying again.
Captive of the Nootka Indians: The Northwest Coast Adventure of John R. Jewitt, 1802-1806 edited by Alice W. Shurcliff and Sarah Shurcliff Ingelfinger (Back Bay Books / Northweastern Universitry Press, 1993)
Others describe the buying and selling of women for marriage in close detail:
Wives, as has been before stated, are obtained by purchase, and the price is regulated by the rank and wealth of both parties. There is no particular mode of courtship; the matter has generally to be arranged with the parents. No English father, in his library, raising his spectacles to survey a diffident youth who longs to be his son-in-law, is sterner in the matter of settlements than a family man among the Aht. I was offered a young, pretty, wellborn woman for one hundred blankets; but a wife can be bought sometimes for an old axe or half a dozen mink skins. Though a wife is always purchased, it is a point of honour that the purchase money given for a woman of rank – not for a common woman – shall, sometime or other, be returned by her friends or her tribe in a present of equal value. A man occasionally steals a wife from the women of his own tribe; but it is much like eloping in England, for both parties understand each other: and after all, it is a purchase, as the friends of the woman must be pacified with presents. Though the different tribes are frequently at war with one another, women are not captured from other tribes for marriage, but only to be kept as slaves. The idea of slavery connected with capture is so common, that a freeborn Aht would hesitate to marry a woman taken in war, whatever her rank in her own tribe.
Gilbert Malcolm Sproat, The Nootka: Scenes and Studies of Savage Life (Sono Nis Press, 1987). Originally published 1868.
Virtually all societies of any sophistication included slaves in their midst. Even though peoples living on the Northwest Coast of North America did not practice agriculture, slavery was important. These peoples relied on the fishing, whaling, the gathering of mollusks, and other resources from the sea. But the Haida, for example, considered fishing to be slaves’ work-- while high-ranking individuals pursued other tasks.
Warfare was endemic and though territorial conflict played a role, the major motivation for violence was, as in most tribal societies, revenge wars (wars conducted as pay-back for wrongs or insults, both actual or perceived) and slave raiding.
The capture of slaves for labor and wealth was a common and critical motive for conflict. Kamenski stated that warfare provided the Tlingit with wealth in the form of slaves and argued that “the Tlingit himself considered it demeaning to perform dirty work… this was the duty of slaves or at least women.” Slave raiding was also standard practice among the Haida, who raided up and down the northern Northwest Coast against the Tlingit, Tsimshian, Heiltsuk, Kwakwaka’wakw, and other Haida. Among the Tsimshian, Garfield noted that “raiding parties were organized for the capture of slaves or to avenge a wrong or injury inflicted by another group”, and that “raiding for captives, either to be returned to their relatives for ransom or kept as slaves, was profitable.” The northern, central, and southern Coast Salish groups needed to be constantly on the defensive because the Lekwiltok Kwakwaka’wakw were avid slavers. Traded to the Haida or Tlingit, Salish slaves often ended up nearly 1,000 km (over 600 miles) from their home. The taking of their people prompted a number of southern Coast Salish revenge wars against the Lekwiltok.
– Kenneth M. Ames and Herbert D.G. Maschner, Peoples of the Northwest Coast: Their Archaeology and Prehistory (Thames and Hudson, 1999)
There are a few primitive societies, invariably those at the most basic survivalist hunter-gatherer stage of development, in which warfare was completely absent and even murder was almost unheard of. The Ojibwa of the central sub-arctic in Canada were such a society. Physical violence of any kind towards others was avoided at all costs. Yet the Ojibwa were absolutely obsessed with witchcraft. They, like many primitive peoples, regarded all sickness and misfortune as the workings of sorcery. Anyone might enlist the help of witchcraft and everyone was a potential victim of witchcraft. The only thing you could do to counter the effects of witchcraft was more witchcraft, and in many societies this translated into “sacrifice”, usually involving potions and burnt parts of dead animals. More “advanced” societies produced more elaborate sacrifices, and at the chiefdom level of sophistication warfare was common. Captured women usually ended up as concubines. Male prisoners were worse than useless so their likely destination was in the pot, but before eating, “sacrifice” of some part of the meat was thought to be expedient to appease the gods and ostensibly to reduce the risk of the inevitable retaliation from other tribes, either from physical attack or from more witchcraft, and most importantly, in order to take on the power of defeated enemies.
Disease, famine, the ever-present fear of being accused of witchcraft (which had no defence and was punished with torture and death), endless tribal warfare, which also usually involved either torture or slavery or both, and often included outright genocide, were not something for the history books. They were the lived experience of almost everyone who resided in the Americas.
Everyone knows about the Salem witch trials which resulted in the hanging of twenty individuals. There are articles and books published about the events every year. Not much attention is given to Native American witchcraft, which almost certainly resulted in the torture of many times that number every single year.
The way in which some children were raised in Canada before Europeans arrived is another topic that didn’t come under review in the Report of the Royal Commission on Truth and Reconciliation and is unlikely to come to the attention to those who rely exclusively on the kind of reporting CBC does when describing how former students ‘survived’ residential school.
Charles Hill-Tout was the first ethnographer of the Salish people. Back when he collected accounts from the Sechelt people, recently now referring to themselves as Shíshálh, there were three hundred and twenty-five of them of whom he estimated sixty or seventy were adult males. The town of Sechelt is of recent origin because although its location would seem to be a favourable one, situated as it is on isthmus between the Straight of Georgia and Sechelt Inlet, it was too exposed to attack from marauding Yukeltas, sometimes written as Euclataws, a subdivision of the Kwakwaka’wakw, to become the main community in the region until the British had suppressed headhunting, slave-trading, and warfare on the Coast and a mission was established there by the Catholic Church.
The Shíshálh had a peculiar custom with regard to certain young men in their tribe:
The war-like division of the Kwakiutl stock which ruled the waters of the Strait, and kept the Sechelt isolated from other influences, effectually hindered the acquisition of foreign ideas or conceptions from those quarters; and the large influx of Lillooet blood in the present Sechelt suggest close relations with that tribe, if not original descent from it. Of the two dozen photographs which I obtained among the Sechelt, a preponderating number are those of individuals with Lillooet blood in them. Another thing which points to relationship, or at any rate close contact, with the interior Salish, is the fact that they formerly practised that peculiar custom of secluding certain of their children, a custom which my collection of Thompson folklore shows to have been at one time prevalent among the Thompson, the neighbours of the Lillooet tribes. A propos of this practice, I learned from Charlie Roberts that the object of this seclusion was, in the case of male children, to make great hunters of them; great, that is, in the sense of securing by some occult means large quantities of game. They are said to have been quite white in appearance, much lighter than the average settler, from their long seclusion. They were shut up in box-like receptacles, and never allowed out of them, or the house, save at night, when they could not be seen. These individuals aroused much curiosity in the other members of the tribe, and all kinds of schemes were resorted to in order to get a sight of them. In the case of youths, when it became known that one was about to set out on a hunting expedition, the young women would do their best to get a glimpse of him, and if possible, would waylay him, and induce him to break his celibacy in the hope of securing him for a husband. For, if a young man lay with a maid, she became ipso facto his wife. On leaving the house, they were always covered up with blankets, and were conducted by some near relative into the forest, until beyond the gaze of the curious and prying.
Charles Hill-Tout, Report on the Ethnology of the Siciatl [Sechelt] of British Columbia, a Coast Division of the Salish Stock (1904), reprinted in The Salish People. Volume IV, The Sechelt and the South-Eastern Tribes of Vancouver Island edited with an introduction by Ralph Maud (Talonbooks, 1978)
Canada’s residential schools are always described in the bleakest of terms, even though they were not substantially different from schools where non-Natives were educated. And even conceding the worst abuses of nineteenth and early twentieth century educational practices do we suppose being told to go stand in corner for the duration of the class or getting an occasional box on the ear for not attending to English study properly is worse than being locked up in a “box-like receptacle” and only let out at night for years and years?
A protest installation has been going on at Robson Square in downtown Vancouver for a year now. There are brightly coloured sneakers on the stairs of the art gallery which are supposed to represent a tribute to the ‘unmarked graves’ of Native children who attended residential schools, some of whom died and were buried near the schools. Remembering that most indigenous peoples living in coastal British Columbia went unclothed and un-shoed, the Nikes seem like a particularly inappropriate case of cultural appropriation.There is a Naugahyde tipi at the site manned by an activist whose job it is to explain to passers-by what this demonstration represents, outrage that some children died young and no one remembered them until two years ago, and that even though their point-person is typically barricaded in so tightly that it is impossible to ask questions.
In any case, you’re unlikely to be told that no one actually knows the identity of anyone buried at these schools. It’s likely that many were Natives, although it is also certain that many were not. It’s also highly unlikely that the cause of death was ever anything other than diseases like flu and tuberculosis, rampant in all communities, Native and non-Native alike during this time period.
Pre-contact Indigenous practices for disposal of the dead in Canada were not uniform, but although some elite title-holders received elaborate ceremonies to mark their passing, most did not. In the snowy and permafrost covered Interior and North, burial was often impossible and corpses were often slung in trees or simply left lying where they fell. Native bands were on the edge of survival, chasing game and often moving every day. Stopping to dig a grave with stone and stick tools at a frozen rocky site was simply not possible and in any case graves that ever were dug or even ‘marked’ were forgotten as memories faded and bands moved on. Here on the Coast, the corpses of slaves were simply left on the beach or rafted out to sea and and dumped in the ocean. Few of any status had marked graves.
The aged and unwell weren’t treated particularly well either. Famously, Inuit who considered themselves a burden left the warmth of their tent or igloo and committed suicide by freezing. But this attitude was widespread even among groups of peoples like those living on the Northwest Coast who lived in less harsh environments:
The practice of abandoning aged persons, or those afflicted with lingering disease, was lately quite common. Before satisfying myself on this point, I had believed that this inhuman custom was confined to those savage tribes which, being forced to wander over extensive districts in pursuit of game for food, and obliged to be at all times ready to fight an enemy, were unable to carry with them, in their rapid marches, persons infirm from age or sickness, and children of defective formation. But the practice is common among the tribes on this coast, who are seldom in want of food, and who never move their encampments but for short distances, and the custom, I think, rests simply on the unwillingness of the natives to be troubled with the care of hopeless invalids. It is not much worse, as a proof of the insensibility of the human heart, than the manner of treating insane persons was in Scotland, and other civilized countries, before lunatic asylums were established. The victims among the Indians, as state above, are not always aged persons; young and old of both sexes are exposed when afflicted with a lingering disease. A father will abandon his child, or a child his father. In bitter weather a sufferer has been known to have been taken to a distance from the encampment, and left unsheltered, with a small quantity of water and dried salmon. No one is permitted to add to the allowance, or to show attention to the miserable invalid; his own relatives pass him by in the woods with indifference. Individuals thus abandoned occasionally recover and return to the village, more more often they perish wretchedly, and the wild beasts devour them.
– Gilbert Malcolm Sproat, The Nootka: Scenes and Studies of Savage Life (Sono Nis Press, 1987 ; Originally published 1868)
Yes, Europeans and colonists in the Americas went to war, burned witches, kept slaves, and were often abusive towards women, children, and the elderly. We’re reminded of that every day. But when we talk about war and witchcraft and slavery and abuse of women, children, and older members of society among the indigenous peoples of the Americas we’re not just engaging in whataboutism, we’re wondering why so much of this history is being obscured and even deleted.
Romanticizing Natives didn’t start with Rousseau. There is a long history of romanticizing primitive peoples. It was Tacitus who got the ball rolling with his description of simple Celts and Germans. Montaigne thought Brazil’s cannibals were a cut above his countrymen in France, or at least more honest about their intentions.
But it has gone much further now. Previously we were told to look away when presented with the facts about the savage treatment of women, witches, the disabled, slaves, and enemies of the tribe. Now academics, the media, and government collude to actively suppress these facts.
They are even purging libraries and archives of material deemed to be ‘offensive’.
This parallels a similar action in Ontario last year when the school board started actually burning books in school library collections :
The “flame purification” ceremony, first reported by Radio Canada, was held in 2019 by the Conseil scolaire catholique Providence, which oversees elementary and secondary schools in southwestern Ontario. Some 30 books, the national broadcaster reported, were burned for “educational purposes” and then the ashes were used as fertilizer to plant a tree.
“We bury the ashes of racism, discrimination and stereotypes in the hope that we will grow up in an inclusive country where all can live in prosperity and security,” says a video prepared for students about the book burning, Radio Canada reported.
In total, more than 4,700 books were removed from library shelves at 30 schools across the school board, and they have since been destroyed or are in the process of being recycled, Radio Canada reported.
Lyne Cossette, the board’s spokesperson, told National Post that the board formed a committee and “many Aboriginal knowledge keepers and elders participated and were consulted at various stages, from the conceptualization to the evaluation of the books, to the tree planting initiative.”
“Symbolically, some books were used as fertilizer,” Cossette wrote in an email.
A final footnote to this look at history and ethnology of Canada’s indigenous peoples is that we now learn that the Royal British Columbia Museum has plans to ‘de-colonize’ their exhibits and ‘increase cultural safety’ in order to make it a welcome place to all, or at at least all who prefer sugar coated stories to uncomfortable truths.
Conflating speculation and even wishful thinking with facts, the trend is demonstrated and emphasized in this strange incident which saw a sculpture carved by a presently working artist stolen, taken to the Royal British Columbia Museum, passed off as an archaeological find of Indigenous origins, and accepted by the museum curators until investigation into the robbery led back to the museum.
Let’s not let those with political and identitarian agendas distort, rob, and even cannibalize Canada’s past.
BIBLIOGRAPHY AND FURTHER READING
Kenneth M. Ames, Herbert D. G. Maschner, Peoples of the Northwest Coast: Their Archaeology and Prehistory (Thames & Hudson, 1999)
Leland Donald, Aboriginal Slavery on the Northwest Coast of North America (University of California Press, 1997)
John R. Jewitt, Captive of the Nootka Indians: The Northwest Coast Adventure of John R. Jewitt, 1802-1806 edited by Alice W. Shurcliff and Sarah Shurcliff Ingelfinger (Back Bay Books / Northwestern University Press, 1993)
Sergei Kan, editor, Sharing Our Knowledge: The Tlingit and Their Coastal Neighbors (University of Nebraska Press, 2015)
Gordon F. McEwan, The Incas: New Perspectives (W.W. Norton & Co., 2006)
Norman Newton, Fire in the Raven’s Nest: [The Haida of British Columbia] (new press, 1973)
Gilbert Malcolm Sproat, The Nootka: Scenes and Studies of Savage Life (Sono Nis Press, 1987). Originally published 1868.
Wayne Suttles, editor-in-chief, Handbook of North American Indians. Volume 7, The Northwest Coast (Smithsonian Institution, 1990)