Noble History

The idea of the noble savage has run through philosophy, anthropology and literature for several hundred years and it seems to colour ideas about Aboriginal history. Many books and movies tend to show the life of North American Aboriginals in historical times, living with dignity, close to nature. There is an idea that aboriginal peopled have been dispossessed of their land and deprived of the right to keep on living as noble savages. In than context, the idea of the noble savage is a metaphor for the status of Aboriginal people in the modern world, where Aboriginals face discrimination and live with social and economic disadvantages.
Colleen Simard, an aboriginal woman and a writer, has a weekly column in the Winnipeg Free Press. On Tuesday October 12, 2004 her column was a reaction to Amnesty International’s document on violence against Aboriginal Women, Stolen Sisters. The column begins:

“if I had been born a few hundred years ago, my place in society would have been certain. The role of aboriginal women was revered; we were the head of the family, the life-givers, the back-bone of our nation. But things have changed.”

Most of her column was a painful story about seeing the abuse of other women in her family, the effects of discrimination on her own self-esteem, and her own experience as a battered woman in a four-year relationship. As such it was a good, honest piece of writing.
She cited Amnesty International as saying that aboriginal women are the targets of violence, receive inadequate treatment by police and are five times more likely to die “brutally”. What Amnesty said was:

“According to a 1996 Canadian government statistic, Indigenous women between the ages of 25 and 44 with status under the federal Indian Act, are five times more likely than other women of the same age to die as the result of violence. Indigenous women’s organizations have long spoken out against violence against women and children within Indigenous communities – concerns that have still not received the attention they deserve. More recently, a number of advocacy organizations, including the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), have drawn attention to acts of violence perpetuated against Indigenous women in predominantly non-Indigenous communities”.

Stolen Sisters goes on to refer to news stories about unsolved crimes by white men against aboriginal women and violence against aboriginal sex trade workers, perhaps taking advantage of the media’s fascination with the allegations of serial killings in Vancouver, Edmonton, Regina and other Western cities and the gruesome detail of the bodies of victims being fed to hogs in one case. Douglas Cuthand, an aboriginal writer in Saskatoon had a column, also devoted to Stolen Sisters, published in the Free Press later the same week. He noted that Amnesty seemed to be occupied with crimes against sex trade workers, while the fact is that most of the violence against Aboriginal women is committed by aboriginal men within the family and aboriginal society. He was right. The Stolen Sisters paper did not discuss violence against aboriginal women within their domestic relationships, although the full version of the paper cited other material that addressed the subject.

Colleen Simard’s argued that violence against women is contrary to the values of modern authentic Aboriginal spirituality, and I would hope that she is right about that. She also seems to make a factual claim about the history of Aboriginal peoples and what life was like for women in real historical Aboriginal communities. She may be implying that violence against women, like alcohol and smallpox, was introduced to America by Europeans. I think she was carrying a metaphorical spiritual or moral vision too far when she suggested that women had more status and power, or were safer in the old days.

I would assume that Aboriginal spirituality, in some or many First Nations, was positive about the life-giving role of women. In fact many religions and spiritual systems have been positive, in one way or another, about the life-giving role of women, without addressing equality issues in modern terms. Traditional Aboriginal spirituality may have said all kinds of things about the importance of women without according women real status or power in traditional society. We see how modern spiritualities and religions deal with the issue. The present Pope wants to revive the cult of Marian devotions within Catholicism and says nice things about the role of women, but he will not give them power and influence in the Church. Mohammed is supposed to have had good relationsips with the women in his life and the Koran and other writings can be read to imply modern ideas of equality and liberation, but fundamentalist Islam brings the veil and the burka.

Typically, a really fundamentalist movement that gets back to old-time values will not place a high value on women’s equality and it will probably tolerate physical discipline and other forms of force that are unacceptable within a modern society. Real historical examples on this particular topic are not useful in advancing claims for the status of women, because real historical societies had a particular place for women and some tolerance for the use of physical force against women and children. It’s hard to find real evidence that women were safe from domestic violence in historical aboriginal societies, and it’s pretty unlikely that they were. People struggle over resources. People struggle for power in personal relationships and families. Anger and resentment are always there. We aren’t as nice as we think we are. Women want things and they fight too.

It’s wrong to talk about all the diverse Aboriginal societies as if they were the same. Without making any judgments about how “advanced” those societies were, they had their share of conflicts and violence. Some did better than others.. The historical record is that physical contact has been a part of conflict resolution in all societies . In most societies some physical contact was and is tolerated by custom and law, and in all societies there have been and are boundaries.

Ms. Simard has plugged modern ideas about women’s equality into a romantic, idyllic and imaginary historical context. We can pick scenes in literature and movies showing aboriginal women as having had an idyllic life. A lot of otherwise serious and scholarly women fantasize about prehistoric European societies in which women ruled in the name of the Goddess. People have the ability to imagine a good or ideal situation, and the idea of a lost Eden, a lost Paradise is a powerful metaphor for the sense of restlessness and discontent we experience in our lives, and for striving towards an ideal.

Ms. Simard’s personal story illustrates the possibility of leaving an unsafe situation. A positive spirituality and morality is important. The National Aboriginal Circle Against Family Violence has a poem on the index page at their web site proclaiming positive values within an Aboriginal context. It’s useful to question the superiority of European culture at the time of first contact. It’s useful to celebrate and promote Aboriginal spirituality and Aboriginal cultures. It is good to look to history to identify the traditions that will sustain a distinctive Aboriginal identity against the forces of globalization. It’s not that useful to talk about an imaginary past in which there was no domestic violence against aboriginal women.

I reviewed the Stolen Sisters document, which is a kind of a position paper combined with a fund-raising campaign. Amnesty International calls it a report and a study, but that’s a questionable description. Their paper summarizes news stories and recycles material from the Manitoba Aboriginal Justice Inquiry and Federal Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP). The RCAP report addressed family violence in Aboriginal families very specifically. Among other things, the RCAP report addressed family violence social conditions of Aboriginals as a dispossessed and disenfranchised people as one of reasons for the prevalence of violence against Aboriginal women by Aboriginal men.

Amnesty’s voice reinforces what aboriginal groups have been saying for themselves, and it should renew interest in the recommendations of the Manitoba AJI and the RCAP. At the same time they seem to be taking advantage of the issue of violence against aboriginal women to publicize their organization.