David McLaren on understanding

'We have a different understanding'

'When they arrived, we had the land and they had the Bible. And they told us to close our eyes to pray. When we opened our eyes, they had the land and we had the Bible.' — Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

By David McLaren
Special to True North Perspective

28 January 2012 — At the January 23 summit meeting between First Nations Chiefs and the Prime Minister of the rest of Canada, the two solitudes talked past one another. 

Grand Chief Shawn Atleo spoke of another kind of relationship, one informed by an Aboriginal understanding of things. He even brought the wampum agreements of the 1700s, made long before the Indian Act and residential schools would corrupt the future.

The Prime Minister spoke respectfully and hopefully of “shared goals and principles” and giving Aboriginal people “the tools they need … and allow them to move forward.” These words are rooted in a Western understanding of how things ought to be done. 

They mean different things to people who are different.

As Red Jacket, the Seneca orator and chief, said, to a New England missionary in 1805, “We have a different understanding. To you the Creator has given the Book, to us he has given the land.”

He was telling the man, politely, what to do with his theology. But religion is the rock on which a culture—any culture—is built. So Red Jacket was also saying, “if you really want to work with us you have to step outside your Western way of thinking and look at the world in an entirely different way.”

Thomas Kuhn, the scientist and philosopher and author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions calls this a paradigm shift. His best example is the shift in understanding of our solar system from the Ptolemaic to the Copernican—from the earth at the centre to the sun at the centre.

That shift, like most paradigm shifts, was mightily resisted. Galileo, despite his telescopic evidence supporting Copernicus, was hauled up before the Inquisition. Apparently, people don’t like to be told their view of the world is wrong.

Our paradigm has been nicely summed up by Niall Ferguson in his new book, Civilization: the West and the Rest. He says that the West became dominant because it had six “killer apps” (his term) that no other culture had: competition in a free-market; a consumer based society; the rule of law based on private property rights; science’s experimental method and the technology it spawned; medicine; and a killer work ethic.

They are the paradigm of the West and they have served us well ever since (not coincidentally) 1492 when Columbus sailed the ocean blue and Copernicus was dreaming up his sun-centred theory.

They have served other peoples not so well, especially Indigenous cultures. These six apps have allowed us to out-compete whomever we came across. Driven by these cultural imperatives, we built empires based on colonizing others. That’s the price of progress you say? Maybe, maybe not.

Let’s bring back Red Jacket. What are the apps of Aboriginal society? Is “the land” really as important as all that? If you look at Indigenous languages, you’ll find it at the core of the culture. I’m most familiar with Ojibwe where the word for land is aki. You find it in all kinds of words that hold a treasure trove of cultural meaning. For example, akinoomaaugae-win is the word for ‘learning’, or more literally, ‘what the land teaches.’

Aki is also at the heart of Aboriginal science. Aboriginal science is not based on experimentation – the rigorous control of variables to test hypotheses – it’s based on being on the land, and observing, over generations, how things relate to one another. This methodology, by the way, is far superior to Western science for understanding complex ecosystems.

There is competition, but it is fettered by devaluing confrontation and valuing saving face. There is consumption, but it is mitigated by the practical and cultural directive to not take more than you need.

There is rule of law, not based on private property, but on public harmony. The emphasis is on re-calibrating relationships rather than incarcerating offenders. I know it works, because I’ve seen it at work.

Neither software, neither set of apps, is “bad” – as long as each stays within its cultural operating system. But, as we should know by now, when we apply our apps to Aboriginal communities the result is a demonic parody of Western culture: suburban-like houses with no plumbing and no insulation and mould in the walls. Residential schools. Native men and women in jail far out of proportion to their numbers in Canada. Rates of infant mortality that are a national shame.

There are those, like Tom Flanagan, whose Western paradigm is so deeply bred in the bone that they still think Aboriginal people should become like us. They should, for example, own the land their houses sit on. Then they could raise capital and do things with their lives just like the rest of us.

Well, been there, done that in the US with the Dawes Act. The result was predictable. Allotments and defaults eventually allowed Euro-Americans to own reserve land. Naturally, the newcomers applied their cultural paradigm – the killer apps – to override Aboriginal jurisdiction on their own reservations.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, knowing better than most that religion was the spear point of this cultural assault, put the problem as succinctly as Red Jacket: “When they arrived, we had the land and they had the Bible. And they told us to close our eyes to pray. When we opened our eyes, they had the land and we had the Bible.”

© David McLaren January 2012

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