The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation
By Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard
McGill-Queen's University Press, 330 pages, $30
PrepaRe for the road trip from hell.
In an age when informed cultural analysis has the capacity to serve as a social GPS providing inroads into places people may otherwise never dare venture, Calgary-based community college instructors Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard offer instead a recklessly drawn and misleading map through very treacherous political terrain.
Those not versed in Aboriginal colonial history, treaty and constitutional law, or in cross-cultural theory, who elect to follow their directions are more likely to wind up at a one-legged dead horse kicking contest in some off route slack-jawed-hillbilly-hick-town, than at the trade convention peeler bar promised by the title.
One might ask before investing any time or money whether either destination is desirable.
The Toronto Globe and Mail recently gave the book undeserved notoriety when columnist Margaret Wente used its arguments to defend the notion that Aboriginal peoples are arrested in evolutionary development.
It is not possible to conduct a rigorous analysis of the painfully inept political rant their assertions represent. The "argument" is so fatally flawed as to defy serious treatment.
Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard, failed government bureaucrats with an obvious paucity of experience in any actual native community setting, claim they will reveal the "deception behind indigenous cultural preservation."
They propose to do this by tackling what they identify as the central blinders impeding a "realistic" view of the Aboriginal "industry."
These include a common failure to acknowledge that Aboriginal peoples themselves, indigenous healing systems and First Nations' governments are primitive; that Aboriginal leaders and elders, anthropologists, lawyers and judges are thieving, pimping reprobates; that Native traditions innately extol ignorance and promote criminality; that Western Europeans invented respect for Mother Earth (Native people stole it from them); and, finally, that the falsity of Aboriginal traditional knowledge is truly scientific and the purveyors of oral histories sit on thrones of lies.
These, they assert, are real facts, not the "made up" ones that characterize "aboriginal 'knowledge.' "
What these snake-oil salespersons would have us swallow are not facts, but ideologies masquerading as scientific theories that can neither be invalidated nor seriously debated because of their complete divorce from anything resembling empirical reality. It's like trying to debate the argument that "the blue unicorn is actually green." Huh?
Their assertion that Aboriginal peoples were at the time of first contact with Europeans stuck in the stage of "savagery," for instance, is a self-serving fantasy about European "progress" that is built on a misreading of both history and long repudiated (19th-century) anthropological theory that erroneously proposed one universal order of cultural evolution (Western European).
The authors insist that contemporary cultural theorists are too "afraid" to posse up and pony-kick along with them on this point. Serious scholars today insist their tack takes as given narrow terms of reference that are relevant only within pre-confederation eurocentric discussions of European civility. But this is lost in the dust bath.
Throughout their diatribe, the authors refuse to capitalize "aboriginal," a term that conveys more than simply race but also political status (signalling their refusal to acknowledge the uniqueness of Aboriginal status).
They insist on placing italics around Aboriginal "leaders." They repeatedly reduce tremendously diverse entities to one singular "aboriginal culture" and a wide range of divergent political orientations to one "aboriginal view."
They revert to a schizophrenic style of reasoning that "reveals" an uncanny convergence of interests between post-modernists, contemporary legal conspirators, and other evil-secret-pact-makers who apparently revel in orgiastic excesses -- rolling all over the heaps of money they allegedly rake in at the expense of impoverished and duped Canadian taxpayers.
Together, these ingredients provide a recipe for utter inanity.
Although it would be easy to dismiss this stale mixture of right-wing sanctimoniousness and moral hysteria as predictable, the work offers one surprise -- just when you think it can't get any worse, it does!
Upon digesting the interminable, hackneyed prose, slapped-together overgeneralizations, and annoyingly exaggerated and antiquated rhetoric, one feels at once esthetically assaulted, physically dyspeptic and intellectually debased, desperately in need of a brain-shower and a redemptive re-reading of McMaster University anthropologist Wayne Warry's Ending Denial: Understanding Aboriginal Issues.
As a testament to mediocrity and in the tradition of providing quick and trite answers to questions of mammoth complexity, Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry represents yet another example of the blind leading the stupid.
Ironically, the book succeeds only in bearing forth the dismally slow evolution of two pseudo-scholars, who, after many years of solid and consistent criticism of their work, steadfastly refuse to remove their opposable thumbs from their ears in an honest effort to pull up their own bootstraps and progress out of some very stagnant ponds of thought.
Denial. Apparently, it ain't just a river in Egypt.
Kathy Buddle is a non-Native professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Manitoba.
Widdowson and Howard are speaking at 11:45 a.m. Friday at a Winnipeg Convention Centre luncheon sponsored by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.