Native Rights and the Indian Act

Dear Editor:

Some lively debate has been sparked by recent letters about the UN’s Declaration of Indigenous Rights. I must agree with many of Julian Hudson’s points. Part of the tragic loss of much of Native American or other indigenous cultural history is a common lack of a written language.

This was brought home to me when I had young Israelis stay with us one summer and they took a trip to Head-Smashed-in Buffalo Jump. They were astonished to learn that people lived this hunter-gatherer life up until as recently as 150 or so years ago — and wondered why, in that same time, western culture had gone to the moon.

To me, the missing link was a written language that allowed for easy and vast dissemination of information and collective memory.

In Western Canada, it was the missionaries (such as James Evans and John McDougall) who invented a written alphabet (syllabics) that helped to capture the history of the Cree and Stony people in a written form. Without a written language to pass on information, an oral language cannot maintain itself, and indeed, even the spoken forms of many native languages are being lost.

This is a gap that cannot be guaranteed by any declaration.

By comparison, for my young Israeli friends, the Hebrew spoken language was ‘dead’ before modern day Israel was established — but written down. It was revitalized into the modern spoken language of Israel — but its concepts had always lived on and spread throughout the world through the various translations of the Old Testament, and the subsequent development and spread of Christianity and the New Testament. It was written down and could not be entirely lost.

Cathy Canfield’s passionate rebuttal letter supports the challenges that native people face in trying to maintain their cultural roots and histories. However I would like to refute her comments about the Indian Act.

The tragic irony of Canada’s Indian Act is that it was developed with no consultation of the “Indians” (most of whom had already signed peaceful treaties with the Crown through the representatives and the North West Mounted Police). Further the Indian Act is a white document decided by white people in Ottawa and the ‘list’ of ‘Indians’ has no relationship whatsoever to the Indian blood in a person. White people have been noted there as Indians, while tragically, many native people who are full-blooded native in their genetic heritage have been left off that list.

They are therefore not ‘Indians’ — even though there is no one more Indian than they. This typically occurred due to problems at the time of registration of birth of the person — but honestly, the Indian Act has also become a weapon to determine treaty and band privileges.

Please note in Canada, there were no Indian wars like in the United States. Ms. Canfield is correct that there were mostly friendly trading between white and native in Canada. The Mounted police were sent west to defend the Canadian border and our native people from the murderous onslaught of whisky traders and Confederate soldiers who were then trickling north. The Mounties were greatly assisted by the Blackfoot and other tribes in learning how to survive here and where to camp.

At the time the Mounties marched west (1873), the US Indian wars were costing $20 million a year, a million more that Canada’s whole defense budget. The U.S. Civil War had just ended and the north had a standing army of one million men. Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald was concerned that they might continue with Indian wars into Canada and take the west away from the nation he envisioned. With the exception of the Riel Rebellion (a Metis struggle), the Crown had traditionally had friendly relations with native people in pre-modern Canada and Iroquois had even fought in the war of 1812 on behalf of Britain.

There are many countries in the world (which are members of the UN) where native rights are trampled every day and important cultural artifacts are blatantly destroyed or pawned. There have been many wrongs in the West as well — but there have also been events of pride — such as “The Spirit Sings,” which the Glenbow Museum sponsored during the Calgary Olympics in 1988.

The Glenbow has been very active in retaining and restoring native history in Western Canada – as have many of the bands in that area. Dr. Dempsey married into the Blackfoot Nation and has written many books about their history and way of life before the white man — thus proving many of Mr. Hudson’s points I believe. Likewise, in Edmonton at the Royal Alberta Museum, the oil sands company Syncrude has invested substantial time, money and intercultural care to develop the Syncrude Gallery of Aboriginal Culture. This type of public display (and excellent book) was only possible through the financial profits of the industrialized society and the gallery reaches out to the broader public to show and tell the wonders of a people whose voices fell silent.

It was the literate culture that saw the special value of many aspects of native culture and made efforts to preserve much of it — despite the fact that western culture also totally decimated the buffalo, through greed, stupidity and ignorance.

Hindsight is always 50-50, I like to say. We do not know what the outcome would have been had things been done then the way we think they should have been done now. Consequently, UN legislation is unlikely to fix past wrongs, particularly in the West where there is a high priority on historical and archaeological research.

I say this because I have a friend from Japan who is an archaeologist. I took him to Head-Smashed-in Buffalo Jump too. He was astonished to speak with young native people working there who could show him how certain tools and weapons were used. He asked them “How do you know?” And they said, “This is what my grandfather did with it and he taught me….”

My friend studies similar tools that people used thousands of years ago — cultures long dead — and he writes many detailed papers on these items. The level of knowledge about these prehistoric items continues to expand, as I also believe will the level of knowledge about more recent native cultures — particularly if the native people themselves get deeply immersed in this study. There will be many clues from their own parents and grandparents sayings and actions that will give them insight that outsiders won’t have.

The UN is a crazy place today. It has a human rights panel made up of the worst human rights abusers in the world. It has recently passed a resolution that does not allow people to make fun of Islam — anything else is okay. It has a disproportionate number of members who have dictatorial governments or oppressive regimes, yet it attempts to impose such legislation on the West? Legislation that, in my view, will actually limit further constructive research and restoration of indigenous rights, and that will, as noted by Mr. Hudson, attempt to enforce regulations on the literate cultures that can and are documenting dying or weakening cultures — by preliterate cultures that are not in a position anymore to protect their own histories.

There are many wrongs in the world, much of history that we would like to rewrite if we only could based on our current understanding — but revisionist attempts like this are not constructive overall in my view — particularly not from a corrupt organization like the United Nations.

Michelle Stirling