Questioning assumptions, Sawyer did it, will you?

I’ve been reading a lot of Robert J. Sawyer lately, because as pointed out by Adam Shaftoe and Matt Moore in the fall 2011 On Spec, he’s a Canadian Sci-Fi author who is surprisingly optimistic in his writing, in an age where so much science fiction is dystopian and disaster-themed. Also, I really get a kick out of his Canadian references, despite the fact that they are mostly related to Ontario. I’d love some more Prairie references, but you’ve got to write what you know, n’est pas? Sawyer lives in Mississauga, after all.

As a related aside, my beloved was reading the final book in the Sawyer trilogy I’m about to discuss, at the same time as he was reading the final instalment in US Sci-Fi writer Dan SimmonsHyperion series. He noted that within the first few chapters of the Simmons book there had already been a number of fights and all sorts of adrenaline pumping action, while he was nearly through the Sawyer book and the most shocking thing that had happened so far were some really great intellectual conversations about the nature of what it means to be human. I want to stress that this does not make Sawyer’s book any less interesting, but it is certainly more Canadian somehow.

My ears always perk up (figuratively obviously, since I’m reading, not listening) when he mentions “Native Canadians” (a term I think he chose over First Nations, because it would be more familiar to readers in the US). I’m interested in how writers portray aboriginal peoples, and what attitudes are expressed in these portrayals. I’ve read a significant portion of Sawyer’s work, and he introduces aboriginal characters fairly often, but never in stereotypically negative ways. Nor in stereotypically positive, ‘noble savage’ ways (to his credit). Since he’s writing Sci-Fi, many of the aboriginal characters end up being scientists, or other professionals interacting with the scientist protagonists.

The trilogy in question is The Neanderthal Parallax, where there is contact made with an alternate earth in which Homo sapiens did not become the dominant humans, but rather Neanderthals did. Sawyer explores all sorts of interesting cultural dissimilarities, related to differences in physiology, historical development and even perhaps the ability to believe in a God. It’s a good read, I recommend it.

So two passages in this trilogy caught my eye and I wanted to share them with you.

In the second book, Humans, on page 35, one of the protagonists (geneticist Mary Vaughan) is being asked to develop some sort of test to determine who is Neanderthal and who is Homo sapiens (you know, for possible immigration purposes). She has her reservations, but Sawyer has her thinking this:

Mary nodded slowly. It did, sort of, make sense. And, after all, there was a benign precedent: the Canadian government already put a lot of work into defining who is and who isn’t a Status Indian, so that social programs and entitlements could properly be administered.

I bristled at the characterisation of this being ‘benign’, I’ll admit it. Nor upon further reflection has my reaction changed. To me, benign is something that is both well-meaning and does not cause harm. I don’t think that either of these criteria are met by the current government policies which define who is, and who is not a Status Indian. Unless he meant benign like a tumour.

This struck me as one instance where Sawyer is perhaps too optimistic and forgiving, but it’s also entirely possible that he had Mary Vaughan thinking this to highlight her naïvety. I think this would require a wide understanding among his readership that the example given is not actually all that benign, but I doubt most Canadians (or US citizens) give it any thought at all. Anyway, I don’t want to get into that trap of double or triple guessing what the author was trying to with what was a very small bit of Canadian context.

I do want to point out the fact that being mentioned at all in a mainstream work of fiction is rare enough that here I am, talking about it like it’s a big deal!

That wasn’t actually the passage that got most of my attention though. Later on in the book, there is a conversation about a statement made that agriculture is a prerequisite to civilisation. You see, the Neanderthals in this trilogy do not practice agriculture, and yet had clearly developed a civilisation, including the development of technologies that impressed their Homo sapiens counterparts. (Failure to develop impressive technologies may cause people to dismiss you as primitive, even if you have civilisation, so be warned!)

In this conversation, the Neanderthal protagonist Ponter Boddit notes that hunting and gathering only requires about 9% of one’s time (15-20 hours a week), a claim that astonishes the assorted professionals present (and has been challenged as not entirely accurate).

At this point, a Native American named Henry Running Deer (apparently a professor at the University of Chicago) confirms this and goes on to point out some interesting things I want to share (pages 173-174). This might be a longish quote, but it bears reading:

“But how do you get permanent settlement without agriculture?” asked Angela.

Henry frowned. “You’ve got it wrong. It’s not agriculture that gives rise to permanent habitation. It’s hunting and gathering.”

“But – no, no. I remember from school -”

“And how many Native Americans taught at your school?” asked Henry Running Deer in an icy tone.

“None, but-”

Henry looked at Ponter, then back at Mary. “Whites rarely understand this point, but it’s absolutely true. Hunter gatherers stay put. To live off the land requires knowing it intimately: which plants grow where, where the big animals come to drink, where the birds lay their eggs. It takes a lifetime to really know a territory. To move somewhere else is to throw out all that hard-won knowledge.”

Mary lifted her eyebrows. “But farmers need to put down roots – umm, so to speak.”

Henry didn’t acknowledge the pun. “Actually, farmers are itinerant over a period of generations. Hunter-gatherers keep their family sizes small; after all, extra mouths to feed increase the work that an adult has to do. But farmers want big families: each child is another laborer to send out into the fields, and the more kids you have, the less work you have to do yourself…But as the farmers’ offspring grow up, they have to move on and start their own farms. Ask a farmer where his great-great-grandfather lived and he’ll name some place far away; ask a hunter-gatherer, and he’ll say ‘right here’.”

How many of you were taught that all aboriginal people were nomadic? Of no fixed address? Perhaps you may have learned that some like the Haudenosaunee farmed and ‘stay put’, but in the main, the perception is that we all just roamed the lands aimlessly, never really settling down permanently.

You’ve probably heard of our territories which perhaps in your mind mark some sort of hazy boundary within which we did all this roaming. You’ve no doubt also heard about our tie to the land, blah blah blah, but perhaps you never really considered what that actually means, and what knowledge (and stability) it requires us to have.

As the fictional Henry Running Deer points out, being a successful hunter-gatherer requires an intimate knowledge of a specific territory, a knowledge that does not come quickly, and is very vulnerable to relocation. When hunters from the US come up to Canada, what do they do? They hire someone who knows the land. If they don’t, they don’t get their precious trophies. (Down with trophy hunting, arrrrrgh!)

Now nothing that Sawyer’s character said came as a surprise to me, except for the fact that he had a character discuss this at all. (To me and probably most native people, this is common sense knowledge.) Yet it means that Sawyer has pondered this issue in a way that few Canadians ever do, because this approach flies directly in the face of what the Canadian system of education has taught students since that system was created. Sawyer suggests that being ‘nomadic’ doesn’t mean what you probably think it means and goes on to propose that in fact, permanent settlement might not mean what you think it means either.

If permanent settlement is building specific, then simply constructing a structure that will last a decade or longer may fulfill the criterion, but this is a fairly feeble definition. If instead it refers to successive generations inhabiting the same area over a significant period of time (like thousands of years) then folks…few people do ‘permanent settlement’ like aboriginal peoples!

Basically Sawyer is challenging the ladder theory or unilineal theory of ‘civilisation’ and development. I’m talking about the Sid Meiers’ Civilization-type theory which has all people progressing through certain stages until they basically become like Europeans. You know…first you’re an animist, then you’re into polytheism, then you get with the program and believe in only one god…all the while you’re developing agriculture, metallurgy, building cities…becoming civilised. (It’s okay if you like the games, I do too! But I don’t pretend that I’m a surgeon just because I rock at Operation!)

Sawyer questions what most of us were taught in school (something we should all do more of). The ladder, or unilineal theory has been pretty soundly discredited, but like so many things we were taught (but never checked back on to see if they were actually true), it’s had immense staying power in the minds of most Canadians, and it has certainly continued to influence opinions and policy.

Sawyer’s characters are surprised by this different way of looking at the issue and I imagine that many people who have read this book were surprised as well. That surprise comes from the fact that we have all been so ‘well educated’ on the matter, we don’t tend to question these outmoded assumptions. I’m grateful that Sawyer did. I find it slightly ironic that more people are likely to have these beliefs questioned in the context of science fiction than in so called ‘real life’, but then again, Sci-Fi is great for that sort of thing.

Now if I could chat with him on the pesky matter of what constitutes ‘benign’ in the context of the Indian Act…

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18 Responses to Questioning assumptions, Sawyer did it, will you?


  1. Cynthia Preston says:

    I knew these things but I didn’t KNOW these things, THANKS for helping me to KNOW these things!

  2. You are right about how we were taught about hunter gatherers. This is kind of interesting. When I first moved to Vancouver Island, I was told by a Cowichan person that his grandmother used to jump in a canoe, catch the tide and an ocean current and be at the mouth of the Fraser River in a couple of hours to get fish or clams and do the same thing coming home to be back in plenty of time for dinner. I found it hard to believe.

    Then, some years ago, a woman fell off a boat during an evening party at a marina in Richmond, I think, and they found her early the next morning, still alive (and by now, sober) off Salt Spring Island. I stand corrected!!

  3. memebot says:

    I think, from a “Hunter Gatherer” point of view, it was inefficient to built a permanent settlement because it would have been a waste of time and resources to build something that would be used so rarely. When I was growing up much of my family still lived a subsistence lifestyle and supplemented their income by trapping to sell furs. There was much discussion between different family groups (sometimes nuclear, sometimes extended) about what areas were plentiful in resources and what areas should be allowed to regenerate resources. We never spent the spring break up (when the ice recedes off the lake) in the same camp from year to year because it was a particularly sensitive time for the environment. Flora and fauna heavily disturbed during new growth or while tending to their young would be discouraged from regrowth/return the next season. IMO, it was a natural resource management strategy not to leave a permanent structure in an area even if the family planned to use it again in several years time. From this point of view, non-settlement implies long term management of a vast area, not aimless wandering from place to place.

  4. Noni Mausa says:

    To me, there are two kinds of “nomads,” which you might call responsible versus irresponsible. (I actually DID have a Native college teacher, but I didn’t learn this from him.)

    The responsible ones know the land, plants and animals well, and cycle through regions of their territory as season and resources require, and as some areas might become depleted.

    The irresponsible ones are more like locusts, swarming into an area and consuming what they want until it’s badly depleted or their attention wanders. They don’t play well with others, tending to elbow others out of the way by deceit or force.

    Terry Pratchett described these people: “There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who,,, say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty.
    The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: ‘What’s up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don’t think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass!
    And at the other end of the bar, the world is full of the other type of person, who has a broken glass, or a glass that has been carelessly knocked over (usually by one of the people calling for a larger glass), or who had no glass at all, because they were at the back of the crowd and had failed to catch the barman’s eye.” (“The Truth”)

    Noni

  5. I am a non-native who was escalated to the rank of Native many years ago by means of marriage to Native man. For almost forty years, I have lived with the guilt of what I received monetarily because of my change in status. I went back to college thanks to the funding I received based on my new status. I received an award from then Indian Affairs for my academic achievement. At the awards ceremony, a representative from my community spoke with praise about the first person from their community to win such an award. I went home and cried.
    As I have been reading your blog, I have discovered something has happened over the years. Yes, I still feel a guilt that I have status? and someone like you does not because my forefathers made decisions that were designed to encourage and promote assimilation. Yes, I had a reluctance to interfere or speak out on areas concerning aboriginal issues hoping instead that people like you and Cindy Blackstock would do it for me. You see, it was very easy for me to wear the guise. No one would suspect.
    This time I am not hiding it. I am not qualifying my status by saying I am a married Native because I decided that sounded like I was being apologetic or defensive. When someone, even my friends, makes a racist or colonial remark such as “they just want handouts” or “why don’t they just move”, I am challenging those comments. I am saying, “Hold on, I’m Native. Is that what you think of me?” I am asking that they get their facts straight and take time to read the truth. Your blog has become an awesome way for me to provide them with that truth plus find a way of expressing the pride I feel for my great opportunity to be, even in a small way, a part of a very special culture.

  6. I think people often mistake systematic relocation for ‘wandering nomadism.’ Most aboriginal groups in north america moved with the seasons or with the migration of various animals they depended on. But it was cyclical and they’d basically be back in the same place the next time that season rolled around. People who depend on livestock do this, too. Turkish shepherds do the same thing in NE Turkey (I’ve seen it myself). They’re up in the mountains in the summer and down in the valleys in the winter. That used to be NORMAL, you know?

    As for the ‘technology that impresses’ and all that, I’ve been bugged about that issue with the Cree for years. They don’t have a lot of very fancy-business stuff of the kind that fleshes out the Vancouver Museum of Anthropology, for example. But i think they have a different kind of technological innovation that is actually much more useful than the stuff we ooh and ahh over: a philosophy that allows them to both find a meaning for their very difficult lives and one that gives them the ability to coexist with each other so nobody starves. Pretty handy if you ask me. Adrian Tanner wrote a very nice account of it for James Bay people – worth a look.

    • The issue of nomadism becomes important when it is (as it has often been) raised in the context of asserting that there were no pre-existing property rights…no harm no foul if in your culture there is no such thing as land ownership, right? Except of course what is really being said is, “if you didn’t have European style land ownership, then it doesn’t count”, because reciprocal territorial obligations are easily as strict (and I’d argue are often more strict) as European ownership systems.

      But it also goes towards notions of ‘social organisation’, which as I pointed out is still heavily incorporated into Canadian law. In the source I provided at the end of the above piece, a portion of Baker Lake (1979) is quoted (this portion coming from a 1919 judgment). This is exactly the kind of reasoning many Canadians are relying on in so many comment sections and conversations on these topics:

      Some tribes are so low in the scale of social organization that their usages and conceptions of rights and duties are not to be reconciled with the institutions or legal ideas of civilized society… Such a gulf cannot be bridged. It would be idle to impute to such people some shadow of the rights known to our law and then to transmute it into the substance of transferable rights of property as we know them.

      Nomads are seen as being pretty much the lowest on the scale of ‘social organisation’, and as you mention later on, material goods not intellectual institutions have been the primary form of evaluation beyond that.

      And this is why I am excited by the work finally being tackled by indigenous scholars all over the world…work on indigenous socio-political structures which demonstrate a depth and complexity that is truly ‘impressive’. Of course the trick has been to get non-indigenous people to understand or even acknowledge these intellectual traditions, so I think of these indigenous scholars as real bridge-makers.

  7. I apologize if my comment is not as erudite as others recently posted in this stream. What came to mind, for me, when I read your post was something that I read last year in a book about birds.
    The author of that book said that many intelligent people believe that birds go to sleep each night in nests in trees. This is absolutely not the case. Birds use their nests to hold eggs and to shelter their hatchlings. Their feet are made in such a way that they can fall asleep standing up and not fall out of the tree!

    A few years ago I saw this wonderful quote, attributed to Black Elk.
    The Sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nest in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours…

    That people revisit the same places and thus live life in a circular way makes so much sense to me. Why would our ancestors have roamed far and wide when the earth as they knew it probably provided them with most of what they needed, with some seasonal variations in residence–the aboriginal idea of “vacation”? 🙂 This is something I often ponder when I sit on a smooth rock outcropping that slopes into the waters of Lake Temagami where my husband’s family has a cottage. The island where I sit and ponder is such a delightful place that I imagine it attracted many canoes and many people as a good spot to fish and gather berries centuries ago. Now, of course, it’s “private property”–the scourge of civilization.

    In a similar vein but on a different level, I often think that I am now exactly the same person as when I emerged from my mother’s womb. The journey of learning and healing as an adult is one that mostly seems to be about letting go of conditioning and social conventions to come to something more essential: my true nature. It’s a connection to the consciousness I had before words, the consciousness that was there when I took my first breath. It’s pure and it’s real. Will it disappear when I take my last breath? I don’t know the answer to that question.If it doesn’t, will I say that the circle is unbroken, or that it has just come back to the point where it began, like the image of the snake swallowing its tail?

    Thanks for providing this forum to share ideas. It’s a valuable and welcome addition to the online world.

  8. Muskwa means Bear says:

    Your nerd is clearly visible in this post – but it is a great post nonetheless. How great would it be to do a major re-education of the masses? It kind of feels like you are already well on the way, Ms. Dill.

  9. Muskwa means Bear says:

    LOL! 😉

  10. Matt Moore says:

    Thanks for the mention! Hope you enjoyed the piece Adam and I wrote. I really like the points you made in the post.

    • I’ve been reading sooooo much Sawyer lately, and your article about the stages sci-fi has gone through was something I’d been turning around in my mind a lot lately precisely because Sawyer is very different from most of the newer sci-fi I’ve been reading. I think you two really locked down some of the reasons for that and it was a really interesting read, so thank you!

      • Matt Moore says:

        I’m glad we could get each other thinking. That’s so important.

        Also, just noticed you spelled my name with an extra “e” on the end. It’s just plain “Matt”

        • Thanks for catching the typo! I’ve fixed it here, and have submitted a request for an edit to HuffPo. It sometimes takes them a while to do these things, but it will be changed soonish I’m hoping!

  11. Pingback: Adam Shaftoe and my article mentioned in Huffington Post (but as Matte Moore) « Matt Moore Writes…

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