Category Archives: Indigenous People After Contact

The Honour of the Crown

 

I continued on my inferior trip to Lake Superior as I have called it.  I love northwest Ontario particularly with its magnificent little rocky islands. To me they express the wonder of this beautiful country. I saw a few fine ones on this little jaunt and could not stop myself from stopping to photograph them. Some people say this country is just rocks and trees. They find them boring. Friends have told me this. I think only boring people could be bored by the stunning beauty of the country.

 

Some people think the government should renege on contracts (treaties) it has made with First Nations even though it continues to enjoy the benefits of those treaties. Is this a viable option?

There is a critically important concept the courts have enunciated in explaining the constitutional relationship between the federal government and indigenous peoples. That is the notion of the honour of the Crown. The crown is expected to be honourable. The crown must be honourable.

The honour of the Crown must be the basis of the relationship between the Crown (the government now) and the First Nations? Would failure to honour our obligations to first nations people not amount to the erosion of the rule of law in this country? Is that really what we want?

People often ask me why does the government give so much money to First Nations? Well, in large part, because they entered into contracts with First Nations by way of Treaties, that obligate them to do that! It is not free money Canada is giving away. It is money it owes the First Nations for sharing the land with them. Don’t we think we should pay that? Should we renege on the bargain? Would that be the honourable thing to do? Would that not require us to give our right to share the land back to the indigenous peoples?

Although each treaty is different, basically those treaties legally require the government of Canada, in return for getting to use the indigenous land, together with the first nations, to provide those first nations with schooling, housing, health care, and education. In simplified terms that is what Canada as a sovereign nation agreed to. It is bound by those treaties. The First nations are also bound by those treaties. They are considered sacred agreements by First Nations peoples.

 

f Canada walked away from its legal obligations would it not, as Professor Bohaker asked, “invalidate our legal system?” Do we want to do that? I know I don’t want to give up ownership of my house. What about my lease for our cottage on land owned by the Buffalo Point First Nation pursuant to Treaty 3? I don’t want to give that up either. I had to rush this short jaunt because my family was gathering on Thanksgiving Weekend at Buffalo Point to sand and stain our deck. I don’t yet want to give that cottage away, though I could do without the work.

In the film Colonization Road, indigenous lawyer and activist Pam Palmater said, said this about the effect of treaties made between Canada and First Nations:

 

“Even after the Royal Proclamation why were so many treaties signed? Because they had to have our consent. There was no choice by law or international law. And that’s significant. Treaties don’t take away from any of that, it actually just bolsters that. And now that the treaties are constitutionally protected it means they are. Recognition of our sovereignty and nationhood is the basis of the legal legitimacy of this country. You take away that and Canada has no legitimacy whatsoever. They need to recognize our sovereignty and nationhood in order to even exist as a state. And every other country in the world is well aware of that. And all Canada has to do is make one stupid move and look how quickly Russia or the United States comes in to claim our territory.”

 

No. I think we need to maintain our treaties. They are part of the social and legal framework of this country. We are all treaty people.

 

 

Treaty-making

 

Some people think Canada’s boreal forest is boring. Nothing but rocks and trees some of them say.  I think only boring people find this country boring. In Particular I love the small islands on tiny outcroppings.  I think that is the essential boreal forest. This is the country I love.

I wasn’t really thinking about treaties and indigenous settler relations all the time as I drove though eastern Manitoba and North-west Ontario. But I was always at the back of my mind.

The process of treaty making began shortly after 1867 with the negotiation of what came to be called numbered treaties. The first treaty successfully negotiated was right in the area I travelled through on my jaunt. This was Treaty One Land. It is beautiful land. It is valuable land. It should be cherished. I also drove through a substantial portion of Treaty 3 land where I happen to have a cottage on land the  Buffalo Point First Nation has developed and offered to people like me with a long-term lease. Thanks to the Royal Proclamation of 1763 declared by the British King George  no one could purchase land from First Nations, but one could acquire a leasehold interest like we did.

 

Treaty negotiations were a means for Canada and the First Nations to work out trade relations between them in a peaceful manner. First Nations though did not see what they had done as “ceding” land to the settlers. They saw it as a means of agreeing to share the land and thought each party would learn from the other. Neither would dominate. They would be partners on the land.

The Royal Proclamation was issued by King George III after concluding the 7 Years War with France.  As a result, he wanted to establish rules for how the land England had acquired would be governed.

As Pam Palmater, a brilliant Canadian indigenous lawyer has  said,

“All of our rights are inherent. That means they were here before anyone else came. And we had those rights because we were nations. And we had our own laws and our own territories. These things all belonged to us before anyone else came here. All the Royal Proclamation did was recognize that. If you read the Proclamation they say why they had to recognize those rights. It was the only way their colony could be secure, or have any justice, is if they recognized and protected those rights because we weren’t giving them up.”

 

Some people think Canada should just walk away from its obligations under those treaties. But those are contracts made between sovereign nations.  How can the government which is presumably law-abiding walk away from its own legal obligations? How can we even have the rule of law in this country if we did that? Would people who live here respect the law if the government didn’t? Those obligations and those rights Canada received as part of the bargains with First Nations were to exist “as long as the sun shines and the rivers flow.” Canada still has those obligations to this day pursuant to those treaties.  Many people think Canada is always “giving” money to First Nations people but to pay money Canada has promised to pay in return for substantial benefits which Canada continues to enjoy is not a gift.  It is the fulfilment of an obligation.

Does Canada want to give the right to share the land back?  I doubt that too many  Canadian would be in favour of that.

I know i am very happy the first nations of this wonderful country agreed to share it with Europeans.

 

Genocide Repudiated

 

The Indian Residential Schools established by the Canadian government under the provisions of the Indian Act were instruments it used, often through its church partners,  to ensure dominance over indigenous people. Even if the Popes had disavowed the Doctrine of Discovery, the basis of these notions were also the foundation of that doctrine, which I have called vile.

Here is what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (‘TRC’)  said in its report to the Canada in 2015,

“For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as “cultural genocide.””

 

Since that report was delivered many critics have said the TRC was too gentle with Canada. They suggested the word “cultural” should be dropped from that destruction. They say, Canada was guilty of genocide. Pope Francis on his recent visit to Canada said he thought it “genocide.” The subsequent report of the 2019 Inquiry into Missing and Murdered  Women and Girls, said the actions reported on in that report amount to “genocide.” There was no qualification. It may be that the reticence of the TRC was a consequence of it not being authorized to accuse people of crimes, and genocide is a crime.

The TRC said this about genocide:

“Physical genocide is the mass killing of the members of a targeted group, and biological genocide is the destruction of the group’s reproductive capacity. Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.”

 

 

And then the TRC added, “In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things.” If Canada did all 3 things necessary to be classified as genocide, then the TRC is saying, Canada committed genocide in its dealings with its Indian Residential Schools. According to the TRS, and was amply justified by the evidence revealed in its report,

 

As if that was not enough the TRC also said this,

“Canada denied the right to participate fully in Canadian political, economic, and social life to those Aboriginal people who refused to abandon their Aboriginal identity. Canada outlawed Aboriginal spiritual practices, jailed Aboriginal spiritual leaders, and confiscated sacred objects. And, Canada separated children from their parents, sending them to residential schools. This was done not to educate them, but primarily to break their link to their culture and identity.   In justifying the government’s residential school policy, Canada’s First prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, told the House of Commons in 1883:

When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”

 

But as if that was not enough the TRC added,

“These measures were part of a coherent policy to eliminate Aboriginal people as distinct peoples and to assimilate them into the Canadian mainstream against their will.”

 

Who can possibly deny that taking children away from their parents for such a vile policy is not genocide? I think the conclusion is clear and unassailable.

In my opinion these genocidal policies are incompatible with the statements made by Pope Francis in Canada. He spoke plainly and clearly. This was a most welcome message from a Pope.

 

A Call for Love, Truth, and Justice

 

Friends have asked me what I thought of Pope Francis’s recent words in Canada during his pilgrimage of penance. As I said earlier, it is up to indigenous people to say whether or not the apology is satisfactory, but I want to comment on some of his other statements.

 

The vicious Doctrine of Discovery, has for more than 500 years held that it is justifiable for Christians to steal land from indigenous people and brutalize and murder them in the process and then force them to be become Christians. What could be worse than that? Even if the doctrine was dismissed by former Popes, the doctrine was used to exploit indigenous people right up to the 20th century. Pope Francis while in Canada was implored to reject that doctrine  And guess what?” He did it! At least that I is my interpretation of his words, for what he said is clearly incompatible with that doctrine.

According to Niigaan Sinclair, writing in the Winnipeg Free Press, “Pope Francis has rebuked over 500 years of how the church and Catholics treated Indigenous people.” Sinclair pointed out how in 1550, almost 500 years ago, a trial took place among Catholic leaders at Valladolid where the question was: are Indigenous Peoples human? Today, it seems incomprehensible that such a question could even be asked, but in 1550, the idea that indigenous people might be human was radical. Until then, the Popes had declared that indigenous people could be robbed of their land and must be converted while authorizing the use of brutal and even murderous force against them. It was a heinous doctrine that required a heinous world view—white male supremacy—to found it. It was not confined to Catholics but was the common European attitude to indigenous peoples everywhere.

Catholic leaders had a hard time coming to a final decision on the issue and hence acquiesced in violence, evangelization and yes, even genocide for the next 500 years. At least that was the case until now. On July 28 in Quebec City, Canada, Pope Francis asked a monumental question: “How about our relationships with those who are not ‘one of our own,’ with those who do not believe, with those who have different traditions and customs?”

 The question is astoundingly simple and yet astoundingly profound. Then the Pope gave a very clear answer to his own question: “This is the way: to build relationships of fraternity with everyone, with Indigenous brothers and sisters, with every sister and brother we meet, because the presence of God is reflected in each of their faces.”

 Pope Francis gave a theological answer to the question. I would have given a more naturalistic answer. I would have said, this is because ‘we feel the humanity in the indigenous people as we feel it in our ourselves.’ But either way, the answer really is the same.

 Niigaan Sinclair said this in response: “In a simple statement that rebuked over 500 years of Catholic doctrine, the Pope had pronounced Indigenous cultures and traditions are valuable, worthy on their own terms, and represent “the presence of God.”

Sinclair explored the idea further by speculating what this revolutionary idea of Pope Francis means in practice:

 “Bishops and priests must now “build relationships of fraternity” with Indigenous ways, instead of forcing us to give up our songs, stories, and traditions. Because, finally, after 500 years, the church finally recognizes us as human. Forgive me if I don’t give the Pope a standing ovation — as the priests and bishops did — but I do recognize a step when I see one.”

 

So far, I have not read any other pundit who has recognized the significance of Pope Francis’ remarks, but Sinclair has done so. This is how he characterized those remarks: “The impact of Pope Francis’ new doctrine is nothing short of a game-changer for Catholicism in Canada (and, I guess, the world).

Sinclair showed how significant the Papal comments are:

“It means Indigenous languages, cultures and ceremonies must be recognized as legitimate spiritual expressions by every member of the Catholic Church. It means any effort to destroy Indigenous traditions is to attack the “presence of God.” It means the purpose of the Canadian residential school system — to eradicate “the Indian in the child,” to use an infamous phrase — was invalid in the eyes of this Pope.”

 

I acknowledge that I scoffed at the suggestion that the Pope would discard 500 years of Catholic history—even ignominious history such as the Doctrine of Discovery—but that is exactly what he did. It was a historical moment! Indigenous people should be proud of what they have achieved. It is truly, deeply momentous.

Pope Francis summed up his thoughts in Quebec this way:

 Thinking about the process of healing and reconciliation with our Indigenous brothers and sisters, never again can the Christian community allow itself to be infected by the idea that one culture is superior to others or that it is legitimate to employ ways of coercing others.”

 

I am not aware of any more profound remarks made by any Pope in the past 500 years and they were made in Canada at the behest of the indigenous people of Canada! This was a great day.

So forget about the Pope’s apology, forget about the doctrine of discovery, what Pope Francis said in Canada was a miracle.  It was magnificent.   I think in his own humble way, without fancy words, Pope Francis did do what Niigaan Sinclair wanted him to do—he called for truth, love, and justice.

The Doctrine of Discovery Moves from Religion to Politics and Law

The Doctrine of Discovery originated as policy in the 15th century as a result of Papal Bulls (decrees) to the monarchs of Portugal and Spain.  According to According to Olive Patricia Dickason and William Newbigging in their book A Concise History of Canada’s First Nations this amounted to a “virtual declaration of war against all non-Christians and an official sanction of the conquest, colonization, and eventual non exploitation of non-Christian people and their territories.”

Yesterday, I promised that I would opine on the historic comments of Pope Francis in Quebec last week.  I have decided to make a few more comments on the Doctrine of Discovery today before I do that tomorrow.

As a result of a conversation yesterday, with a friend who is a professor of Religious studies, and clearly knows a lot more about the Doctrine of Discovery than I do, and says that the Doctrine of Discovery was repudiated by Catholic Popes and church leaders more or less from the beginning. However, the attitudes that underpinned it, namely white supremacy and its corollaries, dominated western thinking for centuries. Those attitudes allowed the people from Europe to believe they had an inherent right, if not a religious right, to dominate the people of what they referred to as the New World. According to Olive Patricia Dickason and William Newbigging,

 

“The main principles of the discovery doctrine was accepted by European colonizers and remained an unspoken assumption until the famous U.S. Supreme Court case of Johnson v. McIntosh in 1823. Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice John Marshall noted that the European colonizers had assumed dominion over North and South America during the Age of Discovery, and that the indigenous peoples had lost their rights to absolute sovereignty, but they did retain the right of occupancy in their own lands. In addition, Marshall claimed that the United States of America, upon winning it independence from Great Britain, simply assumed this right of discovery and the authority of dominion from the British. Succinctly put, the colonizing powers assumed the right to claim possession of the Americas by virtue of their belief in the superiority of Christianity and its adherents . In turn, the US Supreme Court ruled that they had inherited their right of possession, by way of the British, from the doctrine of a fifteenth century pope who was attempting to curry favour with the King and Queen of Spain.”

 

The basis of the policies that flowed from the doctrine were based on a fundamental assumption of European superiority over indigenous people. That attitude poisoned the relationship between Europeans and Indigenous peoples for centuries even if Popes repudiated it.  The religious leaders could not erase the attitudes of assumed European supremacy.

 

Doctrine of Discovery: As Vile as Vile can Be

People have been asking me what I think about the recent apologies of Pope Francis. Some were complaining it did not cover everything he ought to have covered. Others told me they hate apologies. I have been resisting a reply as I consider an answer.  I know this is not like me. I usually allow whatever inane thought has entered my head to plop out ungraced. This time I wanted to do better. I am glad I waited because on his second last day in Canada, Pope Francis made a momentous statement, which in my opinion dwarfs all else. He got to the root of the problem and he apologized for that and said we must do better. Frankly, it was a shocking statement that many have not taken note of. He has effectively ended, in words at least, more than 500 years of an important plank of white supremacy and hate that has been a stain on western civilization that urgently required redress.

 

First, about the apology I don’t claim the right to tell indigenous people what form of apology they should accept or what wording is good enough. That is for them to decide.  I think however I can comment on what Pope Francis has done to remove a deep dark stain on so-called western civilization for the benefit of beneficiaries of that civilization like me. Pope Francis made some astounding remarks about the foundational notion of white male supremacy and its corollary doctrine of discovery. Few have commented about that.

I have often said that Pope Francis is my Pope. I have never been taken seriously in comments because I not a member of any organized religion and certainly not the Catholic Church. So I have no claim to ownership of the Pope.  Part of the reason I have been opposed to organized religion is that it has been used for so long to buttress the thinking that produced the Doctrine of Discovery. That doctrine is based on an underlying philosophy of white male supremacy, which is the real original sin.

The Doctrine of Discovery is a doctrine as vile as vile can be and it was produced in the name of religion by Catholic Popes starting in the 15th century. In those days statements by the Pope were important. They were almost like laws. To many they were laws because  all of Europe was Catholic. But on July 28, 2022, in Canada, the current Pope poked a hole in it so deeply that it is bound to sink. This was a truly historic moment. I applaud the Pope.

To begin with, we should note that the doctrine of discovery (or discovery doctrine) is a concept of public international law that was produced by the Roman Catholic Church and adopted by the European monarchs in order to justify and legitimize the colonization and evangelization of lands outside of Europe. These lands were often ludicrously described as “uncivilized” or “savage.”  The inherent dehumanization of non-Europeans in the eyes of Europeans was used to legitimize the theft of foreign lands by Europeans by giving a thin veneer of legality and religion to that organized theft.

This doctrine was used from the mid-fifteenth century to the mid-twentieth century to permit European countries to seize land that was inhabited by indigenous people around the world and in particular in the recently contacted western hemisphere.

The idea of the doctrine was that any land not occupied by Christians could be seized by Christians for their own uses. This idea was the basis of colonization. It really was doctrine invented by Popes and European monarchs to try to justify (weakly) their invading, of the western continent, and raping and pillaging its inhabitants  in the name of the Catholic Church and European monarchs. it really was a doctrine that authorized exploitation.

The doctrine was often promulgated by written statements made by Pope that were called Papal Bulls. A papal bull is a type of public decree, such as  letters patent, or charter issued by a pope of the Catholic Church. It got the name from the lead seal the Popes used to make their statements look official.  Most of now think of them as bullshit, but actually for centuries those decrees were very important and had serious consequences attached to them because of the prestige of the Popes.

The doctrine emerged during the Age of Exploration. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued what was called, most appropriately, a Papal Bull, Dum Diversas that authorized Portugal to conquer non-Christian lands seize the inhabitants as slaves and consign them to perpetual servitude. Is it possible to imagine a viler doctrine that this? In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued another Papal Bull that permitted Spain to claim the lands visited by Christopher Columbus on behalf of his patron Spain. In 1494 the two competing Christian nations concluded the Treaty of Tordesillas that divided the western “New World” between the two of them. As if they had the right to do that. It showed the extreme arrogance of Christian Europeans that gave them the confidence that they could own and control the world while ignoring the wishes of people that already lived there.

France and England, for a while at least, also used the Doctrine of Discovery to justify their dubious claims in the New World even though they refused to recognize the Spanish-Portuguese hegemony. Francis I of France said he wanted to see the “testament of Adam” that divided the world between Spain and Portugal. When Christian nations quarrelled over disputed western territories, they sometimes asked the Pope to arbitrate the disputes. Inhabitants of course, being savages, had no say in what was decided. Their lives did not matter.

After the English Reformation when England no longer recognized the supremacy of the Papal Bulls, it retained the Doctrine of Discovery to sanction its own bloody deeds. It was just that after that the English monarchs had the supreme authority, rather than the Pope but it did not cede jurisdiction to local people. The effect on indigenous people was the same.

In 1537 Pope Paul III issued a Bull Sublimis Deus that forbade the enslavement of the indigenous people of the Americas that he called the “Indians of the West and the South.” The Pope stated that “Indians” are fully rational human beings who have the rights to freedom and private property even if they are not Christians. That was a radical idea. It was so radical that European monarchs often ignored it.

The Doctrine of Discovery continues to this day to be referred to in American and Canadian judicial decisions and it continues to influence American treatment of indigenous people. The doctrine was expounded upon by judges of the U.S. Supreme Court in a series of cases most notably Johnson v. M’Intosh in 1823. In that case, demonstrating the poverty of American common law, the Supreme Court Justice John Marshall had large real estate holdings that would have been adversely affected if the case were decided in favor of one of the litigants, Johnson, so rather than recusing himself, Justice Marshall wrote the decision of the unanimous court in a manner that protected his personal interests. The court ruled that the ownership of land came into existence by virtue of discovery of the land which in that case was discovered by Great Britain and then lawfully transferred to the United States, again without consent by the indigenous inhabitants.

The Doctrine of Discovery has been roundly criticized as socially unjust, racist, and in violation of basic human rights. In 2012, the UN called for a mechanism to investigate land claims. Speakers at the UN conference noted how the doctrine had been used repeatedly over centuries to allow for the transfer of land from indigenous people to colonizing authorities or dominating nations without consent of the indigenous.

Numerous religious bodies have condemned the doctrine, including the Episcopal Church in 2009, the Unitarian Universality Association in 2012, the United Church in 2013, the Christian Reformed Church in 2016, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) also in 2016 and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In November 2016, a group of 524 clergy publicly burned copies of Inter caetera, a specific Papal Bull that underpinned the doctrine as part of the protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline protests near Standing Rock  Indian Reservation.

The Canadian bishops have called on the Catholic Church to issue a new Doctrine of Discovery and stated that they “reject and resist the ideas associated with the Doctrine of Discovery in the strongest possible way.”

Finally, in July of 2022, without mentioning the doctrine specifically, Pope Francis during his penitential pilgrimage to Canada  made some profound comments that seriously undermine the legitimacy of the doctrine. It really was a historical moment. I will get to that in my next blog post.

The Nightwatchman

 

 

The Night watchman by Louise Erdrich

This Pulitzer Prize winning book tells the story of Pixie Paranteau, a young indigenous woman living on an Indian reservation in North Dakota who insisted that everyone call her Patrice, but very one called her Pixie.  Even her friend Valentine Blue, who was “pretty as a sunset,” would not call her what she wanted. As so often in life, people don’t get to choose much about their own lives. That is particularly true about Indians, as indigenous people are still called in the US. To make such choices they must be very determined. That applies to young people and old people alike.

 

Thomas Wazhashk was a nightwatchman at the jewel bearing plant near the Turtle Mountain Indian reservation in North Dakota. He was also a Chippewa council member who was given the task of trying to understand the “Emancipation Act” that was being considered by the United States Congress in 1953. As happens so often in politics, the name of that legislation is badly misleading. It is not about granting them freedom, it is about reneging on treaty obligations and removing the rights of the Indians to their land and their identity. Again, freedom is hard to come by. Others are deciding what is good for them. A Senator from Utah, a Mormon, discussing, the proposed bill was “filling the air with sanctimony.’

 

One day Thomas was beset by the appearance of two young men approaching his house and wearing white shirts and black pants—the unmistakeable uniform of missionaries who would want to tell Thomas what to do. One of the men asked Thomas if he ever wondered why he was there? Thomas said no, because I know. Don’t you he asked?  This deflected the young men. They wanted to tell him why he was there. Instead, Thomas asked them why the Mormon Senator wanted to do away with Indians.  He said he wanted to “terminate” them. The Mormon men wanted him to read their sacred book. The men were so ignorant they believed their religion was the only religion that originated in America.  But Thomas politely told them he had a religion and wasn’t interested in a new one. The two men walked away “full of mystifying purpose.”

 

Patrice learned religion from her mother Zhaanat. Whereas the Senator from Utah wanted to divide the people from each other and from their land and the creatures on it, she refused to see divisions. She instead saw connections. “Zhaanat’s thinking was based on treating everything around her with great care.” Why would people with such a religious world view need Mormons to tell them why they were there and what they should do? Later Louis told them “We are thankful for our place in the world, but we don’t worship nobody higher than…” as he gestured out the window at the dimming sky.”

Bu the heart of the novel is a love story or really 2 or 3 love stories involving 4 couples. This required contradictory feelings, but what was wrong with that? Millie, another friend, of Patrice understood that one explanation did not rule out anything else. The northern lights could be spirits and also electrons. After all, “mathematics was a rigorous form of madness.” So a man could love two women and a women could reject one man and lose another. Emancipation could be termination. These are just some of the issues explored in the novel by a very fine writer.

I recommend you read this book.

Exterminate all the Brutes

Kurtz, the central disturbing character in Conrad’s novel, The Heart of Darkness, was a product of Europe.  He was the child of Europe, believing naturally, without thinking about it, that Europeans were naturally superior to and could help the native savages achieve civilization. All the Africans had to do was assimilate to the superior Europeans. Europeans of course, are famous for this point of view though it is shared by many peoples.

Kurtz had been given the task by his company of preparing a manual to help new Europeans learn about the job of “helping” the native inferiors.  As Marlow, the narrator of the novel,  said, “the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs had entrusted him with the making of a report, for its future guidance.” He wrote it.  “He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, ‘must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings—we approach them with the might of a deity,’ and so on, and so on.  ‘By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded.’  The reader, like Marlow got the idea reading this pamphlet of “an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence.”  It made Marlow tingle with enthusiasm.  No doubt it had the same desired effect on new recruits.  Marlow noted “that this was the unbounded power of eloquence—of words—of burning noble words.”

 

Marlow explains though that this report was started “before his—let us say nerves–, went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites which …were offered up to him.   After all Kurtz, as Marlow said, “had the power to charm or frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated witch-dance in his honour.” Those rites are merely hinted at. Conrad never explains exactly what happened, we just know that Kurtz was treated like a god, and withered black human  heads were attached to the end of spikes on poles in the dark jungle. How that happened we are left to imagine, and our imagination is no doubt more effective than any bald statements would be.  Good novels can do that.  As a result, at the end of that report Kurtz abandoned  his noble ideals, and his noble words.

As Marlow said,

“…at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightening in a serene sky: ‘Exterminate all the brutes.’”

In Kurtz’s case, that was the inevitable result of all those noble ideals. Just as it was the inevitable result of all the pious talk of civilizing the natives. It was all a lie—a cunning, false rapacious lie!  That was the end of the noble philanthropic enterprise of European colonialism.  That was the end of noble lies everywhere. That was the heart of darkness we all carry within us and which we have to guard against. Or we too will end up exterminating the brutes!

This has significance far beyond European colonization. It is a chastening for all enterprises with excessive hubris. We would do well to be modest. Humility always becomes us. Over confidence not so much.

Kurtz is us. We are no different. That is the most terrifying part of his story.

Joseph Conrad and The Heart of Darkness and The Conquest of the Earth

 

It is time to return to the classics. The novel, The Heart of Darkness is certainly one of the best books I have ever read. I think I have now read it 3 times.   It is well worth a re-read. It is a definitely a classic. And it is a short read (unlike Moby Dick).

The book was originally serialized in Blackwood’s Magazine in England in1899 by Joseph Conrad whose original language was Polish. He only became fluent in his twenties. It always amazes me that he became such a good writer in English in such a short time.

It is a simple story. A steamboat captain Marlow, travels up the Congo River to meet Kurtz an agent of the ivory company for whom he works. There, Marlow finds Kurz living among “the savages.” He tells the story to a group of civilized Englishmen drinking and smoking cigars while sailing the river Thames in London.  The setting is important. A key question is whether or not the heart of Darkness is London or the Congo.

The novel describes a journey by Marlowe, the protagonist and narrator, to the heart of Africa.  It was a trip up the winding Congo river, (we presume). That river is described, not accidentally, as a snake. There Marlowe found a corrupt agent of the English company hunting for ivory.  The book powerfully describes the black heart at the centre of European colonialism and exploitation of the continent of Africa and other places as well. He reveals the deep dark truth hidden by the pretense of lofty moralistic goals.  Illusions he calls them. Of course, the book is more than a trip to the heart of the darkness of Africa, it is also a trip into the heart of darkness of each of us who remain behind in the safety and comfort of our homes. That darkness exists there too.  And what Marlow finds, and what we would find in the centre of our own heart of darkness, if we were brave enough and honest enough to make the journey was horror!

One of the interesting things about how the story is told, is that it is told by Marlowe to 4 or 5 others sitting on a boat in the Thames. Why there? Why is this relevant?  In my view it is important because Conrad wanted to make it clear that everyone is capable of savagery. The savage is within each of us–even civilized people in London, the centre of the world at that time. London is also in the heart of darkness!

Conrad lays bare the reality behind the ‘civilizing’ goals of the European traders. With that he lays bare the thin veneer of civilization and the thin armour around our own darkness inside of us, for none of us are pure. We are all tainted.  We all share the rapacity that engulfed the traders like Kurtz.

With Conrad’s analysis we also learn the despairing truth behind the notion of the “benevolent despot” that has so tortured Africa. It is a lie. A lie that Kurtz embodied.  Kurtz who eventually gave way to unspeakable lusts and gratifications had gone to the heart of the continent with enlightenment goals. Sentimentally, he wanted to be a humanitarian helper. So many Europeans have gone with similar lofty goals only to be thwarted. Not usually as sensationally as Kurtz, but they have been destroyed nonetheless by their own rapacity and naiveté.

As Marlow takes the trip up that river he realizes the land is a swamp and he feels the reality of the person who ventures into this dark heart on behalf of some commercial enterprise back home.  Conrad feels for the innocence of that intrepid venturer, who does not know what he is getting into.

” Or think of a decent young citizen in a toga—perhaps too much dice, you know,–coming out here in the train of  some pretext, or tax-gatherer or trader even, to mend his fortunes.  Land in a swamp, march through the woods, in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had close around him,–all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men.  There’s no initiation either into such mysteries.  He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestableAnd it has a fascination, too that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination—you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate. “(emphasis added)

 

Our commercial enterprises into the heart of dark continent have come cloaked in lofty goals.  But, according to Conrad, the people who came may have looked like religious zealots looking to help the poor savages, but they were the real savages.  They came with strength. It was an accidental strength based on the technological weakness of the indigenous.  There was no moral superiority that accompanied it. Conrad described those efforts this way,

“It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind—as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.  What redeems it is the idea only.  An idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before and offer sacrifice to.”

 

One of the things Conrad looks at in the book is the conquest of the earth by the men of Europe a dubious enterprise at best.  Conrad took a close look at colonialism and the sense of superiority and what he saw as the darkness at its heart. As he said, it was not always pretty.

The Blindness of Privilege

 

Recently a person I know, the daughter of a friend of mine, said that she just could not understand “Indians.”  Why didn’t they just get over it? Why didn’t they forget about past wrongs? She said, “If our family could get over being cheated by a scam artist and robbed of hundreds of thousands of dollars, why can’t they get over residential schools?” I did not hear this first hand, so unfortunately I did not have an opportunity  to challenge her statements.

First of all, I know a little bit about the losses of my friend’s family. They lost a lot of money.  No one would like to lose all that money.  But the fact is that they were still left with lots of money after it happened. The family is still wealthy. They are just a little less wealthy than they could have been and or should have been.

This is actually a common attitude among white people. I have heard similar statements many times.

Frankly, though my white friends are much better off than most indigenous families. None of them were taken away from their homes and made to live in shabby schools with predatory teachers and religious scoundrels while they ate poorly, spent half of each day working literally like slaves, and all the while were taught that their parents were worthless, their culture was worthless, and they were worthless. Then the children that survived (and thousands did not!) were robbed of the opportunity to learn how to take care of children, which they could have learned from their parents. Instead, they were dumped in schools where no one wanted to teach them things like that, they wanted to teach them religion and the benefits of the white ways. Many of those children were then physically, mentally, emotionally, and sexually abused. They grew up thinking that they and their families and their race were all worthless. This happened for generations and the effects have cascaded through the generations. Then as adults these former children were subjected to pervasive systemic racism. The trauma of losing some money hardly compares.

Who do you think was better off? Who should get over it? I think these children of wealthy whites should get over it. They should get over their privilege. They don’t even see their own privilege.  And they don’t even see the gross exploitation of others. There is nothing more blind than privilege. And nothing more ignorant. There is nothing so hard to see as one’s own privilege, because it seems so natural and right.