Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Catch-22s in First Nations Depictions: The "Noble Savage" Today

Continuing with my series leading up National Aboriginal Day on June 21....

Last time, my focus was on the popular conception of the "Noble Savage" and the various stereotypes of First Nations peoples that myth generated historically. If you haven't had a chance to read that, please do: 

This time, my focus is shifting more towards the present day. While the exact myth of the "Noble Savage" as previously discussed does not hold much water anymore, I think that it has not so much disappeared as evolved. Even now, many Canadians continue to see the First Nations as either "Noble" or "Savage", albeit under different names.

But before I begin, a quick disclaimer: I, Kita Inoru, am NOT a person of First Nations descent. What this means is that the perspective and the opinions that I express here are solely my own. If there is anyone here who is of First Nations descent and/or is directly affected by the issues discussed in this series, please feel free to shed further light on them in the Comments, and please be patient with me in regards to any errors I might make. Thanks!

Recall from the previous installment in this series that I have grouped historical stereotypes of First Nations peoples under two main categories: the "Noble" and the "Savage". For the most part, they could easily be thought of in terms of positive and negative characteristics: those that make us think of the First Nations as "noble", and those that make us think of them as "savage".

First Nations dancer in regalia, from the Vancouver First Nations Exhibition on June 23. 2008 (Photo by Philippe Giabbanelli)
So how does that work nowadays, in the 21st century? Surely, outside of Hollywood depictions, artwork, and historical re-enactments, people don't still believe that the First Nations are simple hunter-gatherers who feel the ever-pressing encroachment of the "white man" and, at times, resort to violence to push them back. This is, after all, the 21st century! A time of advanced technology, greater tolerance, and a better appreciation of the cultural diversity in Canada.

Actually, about that....

True, the actual details and trappings of the myth of the "Noble Savage" are well known to be just that: myth. Canada's First Nations have a sufficiently active presence in society and culture for that to be immediately apparent. However, that is not to say that the core distinctive divide in the stereotypes no longer exists. The details might vary, but the heart is still there. Canada's First Nations are still associated with a host of both positive and negative stereotypes. And while positive stereotypes might be "better" than negative ones, it's hard to tell which set of the two really wins out at any given moment.

The First Nations as "Noble"

"Noble" stereotypes attached to today's First Nations peoples abound. These traits, in my opinion, are the ones that tend to lead people to express some deep sense of admiration for Native peoples and their cultures. I do want to say that while there is a great deal of fact in these stereotypes - and that they are certainly positive ones - that the danger here comes in automatically assuming that all First Nations people are going to fit these traits. Individuals are what they are, and that's not going to change.

1. The First Nations as "Earth Stewards"

 This one is probably the first one that will come to most people's minds: the idea that First Nations people are innately environmentalists who preach being "at one" with nature. It's the image that we see in the popular "Indian Prophecy" message that has shown up on a number of Internet memes and inspiration posters: "Only after the last tree has been cut down; only after the last river has been poisoned; only after the last fish has been caught; only then will you find that money cannot be eaten." The point of this message is that the First Nations are seen as staunch protectors of the wilderness and natural environment - and are, because of that, morally superior to those who seek to simply exploit Canada's natural resources for monetary gain.

The one-year anniversary event for Idle No More in a shopping centre in Burnaby, British Columbia. (Photo by Eviatar Bach)
Those who are aware of, say, the recent Idle No More movement and other First Nations incentives to curb the oil sands, fracking, etc., can see that there is a foundation of truth to this. However, things get a bit more complicated when we combine this with another major "Noble" stereotype:

2. The First Nations as Spiritualists and Animists

This one, I think, is best summed up in what was my own first exposure to First Nations peoples growing up: Disney's Pocahontas. Many of us would be familiar with the major musical number from the film, "Colours of the Wind". Well, if so, you may recall this line: "But I know every rock and tree and creature / Has a life, has a spirit, has a name". It's the image that makes First Nations spirituality so appealing to people who are seeking something outside of the stricter regimentation of many established religions. So think of things like the recent obsession with totem animals, dreamcatchers, sweat lodges, Native ceremonies, etc.

In a way, this particular aspect of the "Noble" is focused on the idea that the First Nations peoples possess a wisdom and moral strength that the rest of the world (especially those of Caucasian descent) have somehow lost. However, if that is the case, then one must be careful not to run too far with that idea - or one risks going from the "Noble" into the "Savage".

The First Nations as "Savage"

Now, the word "Savage" can carry a few different meanings. It obviously bears a very strong negative connotation either way, but there are two particular ways where I think the First Nations are still perceived as "Savage", even in the present day.

1. The First Nations as Primitives

This, I will confess, can very easily come out of a lack of exposure. When historical and/or stereotypical images are maintained and continue to be disseminated, it's inevitable that we will have a significant group of people for which that is their ONLY encounter with the First Nations at all. It's because of that that there is, out there, a stereotypical image that people have of Canada's First Nations people: that they are hardcore traditionalists and always appear in feathers and paint.

First Nations dancers in regalia at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics (Photo by Voice of America)
The problem here is that this assumes that First Nations cultures are static and have not changed over the years, with the further - darker - implication that they will forever wish to dwell in the past and will not or cannot "modernize". That can take us into very dangerous territory, as it's that exact type of thinking that led to many of the discriminatory policies towards the First Nations peoples throughout Canada's history, such as the Indian Residential Schools.

Also, the logic behind that stereotype is flawed in and of itself: all cultures evolve and do not lose their authenticity for doing so. Even as far back as the 18th century, many First Nations peoples who traded with Europeans were adapting to new ideas and practices: wearing shirts and trade cloth rather than skins, using muskets rather than bows and arrows, etc. The cowboy movies that show otherwise are just that: movies. But that's the image that persists in people's minds even to this day.

Finally, and quite possibly worst of all:

2. The First Nations as Corrupt

The actual form that this takes varies substantially. But it's one of the most common conceptions of the First Nations in the 21st century. Here, I am speaking of anything associated with alcoholism, drug abuse, obesity, domestic violence, suicide, sexual harassment and name it, it's there. Most of this gets pinned on to the First Nations communities that are still on the reservations. And while there is abject poverty in many of the reservations that do, statistically, contribute to these problems, just blowing off the First Nations as being "like that" isn't going to help.

On top of that, the old belief that the First Nations were "lazy" still persists to this day. Whereas historically, the stereotype came out of a lower emphasis on agriculture in many First Nations cultures, it now stems from the popular conception that First Nations reserves simply rely on substantial government handouts that are paid for by hardworking taxpayers, and that the poverty that is readily apparent comes from corrupt chiefs and elders pocketing all the funds for their own personal use. Quite a wide brush to paint an entire group, in my opinion!

I will admit that I myself do not have the statistical knowledge to know whether there is any truth to this belief. But I am also unwilling to gamble on the chance of its veracity to use it to automatically justify a refusal to intervene for innocent people and/or communities who are actually in need.

In conclusion, then, the historical concepts of Canada's First Nations as "Noble Savages" does still persist to at least some extent today in the 21st century. For the remainder of this series, then, I will be turning my focus to some practical ways that non-First Nations people like myself could show respect and/or support for the First Nations and their current needs and issues.

Image Credits

All images (c) their original creators as indicated in the captions, and are used here under the terms of Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license

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