An Open Letter to Margaret Wente: Modern Racial Segregation Talk

As Nick Reo mentioned, Margaret Wente’s column in the Toronto Globe and Mail last weekend cannot go unanswered by the North American Native community. In this column, Ms. Wente offers a theory/proposal that Canadian First Nations be segregated, usuing the American/Jim Crow-style “separate-but-equal” rhetoric.

I offer a few preliminary comments based on some truly amazing things she asserted. I leave the “Disrobing” book by Widdowson and Howard for a later date.

Let’s start with this quote:

  • Instead, our policies are based on the belief that aboriginal culture is equal but separate, and that the answer to aboriginal social problems is to revive and preserve indigenous culture on a “separate but equal” parallel track.

Ok, first, “separate-but-equal” was discredited in Brown v. Board of Education, decided by the United States Supreme Court 54 years ago. “Separate-but-equal” is code for racism, for Jim Crow, and for racial segregation. And a person with an American education like Ms. Wente knows that full well. This use of racist code words is intolerable.

Segregation is not what American Indian law is about, and it isn’t what Canadian First Nations law is about. Charles Wilkinson called it “measured separatism” in 1987. American Indian tribes and Canadian First Nations signed treaties to preserve their individual rights, their property and property rights, their culture, and other protections, all in exchange for land cessions that would now be considered unconscionable by under modern law.

The American and Canadian governments once imposed segregation on Indian people in the form of boarding schools for Indian children, where Indian children were beaten and murdered, raped and tortured, all in the name of American and Canadian “civilization.”

Speaking of civilization versus savagery, here’s another quote:

  • The truth is different. North American native peoples had a neolithic culture based on subsistence living and small kinship groups. They had not developed broader laws or institutions, a written language, evidence-based science, mathematics or advanced technologies. The kinship groups in which they lived were very small, simply organized and not very productive. Other kinship groups were regarded as enemies, and the homicide rate was probably rather high. Until about 30 years ago, the anthropological term for this developmental stage was “savagery.”

First off, broad generalizations about the hundreds and thousands of North American cultures prior to, say, 1492, are utterly worthless, except for persons trying to make a political point. None of the above statements, taken together, is true for any specific group anywhere in the world. I’m from Michigan, as is my family’s communities, and they weren’t so savage. They had enormous agricultural output, even north of the so-called freeze line in mid-Michigan. In fact, these “unproductive” Indians fed the British (later American) fort at Michilimackinac in the 18th and 19th centuries with surplus corn, sqaush, beans, and other veggies.

Second, the property and commercial laws of the Michigan Anishinaabek were sophisticated enough so that the French simply followed them. The British and Americans were more into conquest, so they didn’t. But the Michigan Ottawa and Chippewa communities pretty much dominated the western Great Lakes region from the late 17th to the early 19th centuries. And they didn’t do it with “savagery,” but with commercial and political control of the trading posts.

Third, unlike those “civilized” Europeans who all but invented incredible disease, warfare and violence, and sexual and racial political inequality, the Michigan Anishinaabek considered their neighbors relatives. They treated women with respect and protected female autonomy to chose their own partners. Think about this — Anishinaabe women could own property!

Ms. Wente’s column has no value in modern intellectual life, and serves only to incite hatred and violence toward Indian people.

3 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Margaret Wente: Modern Racial Segregation Talk

  1. megan October 27, 2008 / 4:58 pm

    Wow. This is a place where archaeology can be really fruitful.

    First – the neolithic is a term we use to describe the rise of farming and the (sometimes) ensuing increased complexity that comes with the development of large populations in urban centers. So neolithic doesn’t mean ‘litte & unorganized’. Further, during the European neolithic, places like Ireland were denuded of trees with…stone axes.

    Second – Archaeologically we can see a great array of diverse cultural manifestations in North America. There were regions that had large and complex urban centers several centuries before European contact, with extensive trade across the continent, fine artisans, and mass production of corn beyond the levels of mere subsistance. And like all other urban centers, these came with disease, inequality, complex religious structures and struggles for power.

    Third – you can debate the number of wonderful things we’ve gotten from every culture, but the fact remains that MUCH of our medicine is based on indigenous plant knowledge – so much so that anthropologists have written books about the ethical practices associated with publication and royalties for indigenous partners/informants. The most famous might be quinine from Peru, but there have been plenty that directly led to contemporary pharmacuticals.

    How does one define a particular culture as ‘superior’ to another culture? Can we say one is more technologically advanced than another? Sure. Have more complex political organization? Fine. But as those of us who’ve dealt with red tape know, more complex does not necessarily mean ‘superior’. Anthropologists long ago got rid of the idea that there is a ‘best’ type of cultural organization, and that cultures necessarily climb through stages as a form of advancement to an ‘ultimate culture’. This has less to do with the political correctness of the last 30 years, and more to do with our much greater understanding of cultural diversity doing research over the past 100+ years.

    Cultures get more AND less complex, as we can see over time in the archaeological record. Massive civilizations fall and people return to less complex organization. Anthropologists world wide can point to numerous development projects that are deemed ‘good for society’ and show just how much development can negatively impact one portion of society while giving benefits to another – just ask any community that has been forced to relocate when their town was buried under a reservoir from a dam being built, or else ask the people down river in the next country, who no longer have enough water.

    Perhaps Mr. Widdowson and Ms. Wente aren’t getting the information they want from the elders. But maybe they should consider what information they are getting, information about indigenous values and history. And maybe, they’re not asking the right questions.

  2. Jess October 28, 2008 / 11:18 am

    Wow. Excellent post here. Thanks for sharing and explaining, so succintly, where people like Wente are going so very wrong. Excellent points too on how later “cultures” (French, American) built on existing systems.


  3. Jak December 22, 2008 / 12:39 pm

    We are talking semantics here, and the definition of words. Wente or Pound were not referring to native people of today. However, no one has a monopoly on cruelty and hatred. These can exist in primitive and savage societies as well as in “civilized” societies. Perhaps she and Pound should have used the word primitive instead…although in our overly politically correct society people would still get “up in arms” over it. Anyway in 5000 years we will all be considered savage and primitive, so lighten up people.

    SAVAGE: Not civilized; barbaric

    CIVILIZED: having a high state of culture and development both social and technological.
    “high state” is of course going to relative to when one lives and in comparison to other world cultures of that particular time. This is not too difficult to comprehend, so let us stop taking offense at every perceived slight.

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