I’d like to talk about popular perceptions about native peoples and our relationship to the environment.
Recently the CBC ran a story about the slaughter of 30 caribou in Northern Manitoba. Chief Joe Antsanen of the Northlands Denesuline First Nation and Grand Chief David Harper of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak decried the waste, and the article says that it looked like only antlers had been taken.
A follow up to the article had wildlife officials declaring that there was no wanton waste and that the kills were legal, saying the caribou were killed over a period of time and that most of the meat was taken. Grand Chief Harper argued that the killings, legal or not in the eyes of Manitoba’s Natural Resources officers, still represents an unacceptable waste.
But what really motivated me to write today, were the comments. I know, I know! Reading comments sections is a Bad Idea. Nonetheless, doing so provides some stark examples of common perceptions about indigenous peoples and our relationship to the land.
I won’t give any of these anonymous posters a platform, so I’ll just give you brush-strokes. An outline of the comments. Essentially, some of the highest ranked comments, before they were removed by a moderator, were full on racist attacks against First Nations people. Many of the less over-the-top comments remain to ensure you can see the directions taken. The gist? Well obviously First Nations people were responsible for this and were just trying to blame non-natives.
You see, a lot of people were upset that Grand Chief Harper stated “aboriginal hunters would never have done such a thing because First Nations use every part of the animal, including the meat and hides.” They took offence to this on two levels, claiming:
- It’s racist to blame non-native hunters.
- First Nations hunters are just as wasteful as anyone else.
In defence of these two points, anecdotes of drunken native hunters killing pregnant animals for kicks and other such stories were offered up.
Invariably in these discussions, native peoples are accused of being incredibly racist towards non-natives. Let us yes please just conveniently ignore the fact that aboriginal peoples in this country do not have the kind of social or political power to enact, enforce, or benefit from systemic racism against non-natives. That using dictionary definitions of racism for the purpose of pretending that native anger towards settler oppression is equal to if not worse than settler racism towards us, is in itself a tool of that systemic settler oppression. Claiming to be just as oppressed by natives as a settler, as natives are by settler socio-political structures, is an excellent way to shut down any analysis of those socio-political structures.
It is also very important to these commentators that everyone understand that First Nations people are as wasteful and disrespectful as everyone else naturally is (unless the Law steps in and prevents the baser side of humans from coming into play). For, as the dominant narrative goes, all cultures are equally bad in certain ways, particularly when it comes to laying waste to the environment. Indigenous peoples have only had less of an impact because we did not have the technology to destroy so much, so quickly.
Want proof? Oh, um…buffalo jumps! And didn’t our Paleo-ancestors single-handedly hunt into extinction all of the big game animals of the Pleistocene era? We are truly monsters, thank goodness someone came along and gave us Fish and Wildlife regulations!
These kinds of claims also conveniently forget the various policies that have been behind the kind of unbelievable waste depicted in this photo of bison skulls. This was not merely a case of overhunting and poor wildlife management (all corrected now in the ‘modern’ age, or so the story goes), it was part of a deliberate policy to destroy the way of life of those who relied upon the buffalo.
“The civilization of the Indian is impossible while the buffalo remains upon the plains. I would not seriously regret the total disappearance of the buffalo from our western prairies, in its effect upon the Indians, regarding it as a means of hastening their sense of dependence upon the products of the soil and their own labors.” - US Secretary of the Interior, Columbus Delano, 1873.
These were not just one or two ‘bad-apples’, this was an official policy and right up to present days, the Canadian and US governments continue to pursue a specific environmental agenda that puts development and exploitation of resources above all other concerns. This is widely criticised by natives and non-natives alike. To then compare this kind of approach to individual natives who are indeed capable of being wasteful, is a distortion of the most extreme kind.
As usual in these kinds of reports, it’s difficult to know what specifically Grand Chief Harper was responding to. The events as related by Chief Antsanen or the idea of trophy hunting itself? Who knows…you’ve probably gleaned by now that I’m not particularly impressed with the level of due diligence shown by mainstream media outlets in reporting such stories.
Very little attention has been paid to some important points made by various Chiefs in the area such as:
- the high cost of food in the North makes the wastage of even what was left behind (full heads and parts of the carcasses) shocking;
- First Nations hunters traditionally (and that means still today btw) use every part of the animal, from the blood to the tongue;
- local Elders estimated that what was left behind could have fed six families for an entire summer;
- there is clearly a disconnect between what provincial wildlife authorities consider ‘wasteful’ and what First Nations consider wasteful, with the more lax view being taken by the province.
When indigenous peoples speak out about wasteful hunting practices, destructive environmental projects and so forth, the twin attack of “you’re racist against settlers and you’re just as bad” is almost invariably unleashed. The common perception is that native peoples are hypocrites who lie about caring about the environment, while on the side we want to exploit it just as much as everyone else is assumed to want to. Sincere environmentalists and conservationists, native or not, are believed to yearn for stone-age conditions as though conservationist principles are technology dependent, not cultural. Part of the weird noble savage/primitive savage dichotomy.
It seems that our detractors just can’t make up their minds. On one hand we are constantly interfering with legitimate and important development works, and on the other, it should be common knowledge by now that we don’t actually care about the environment and if the government let us, we’d abandon all our traditions and slaughter everything in sight just so we have nice powwow regalia.
The common thread, regardless of which way this issue is approached (hilariously enough, it’s often approached in both ways, simultaneously) is that indigenous peoples must not be allowed to make our own decisions about the environment in our territories, or anywhere else. We must be held to impossible standards as stewards of the land who need to be prevented from doing more than subsist (though even this is cause for massive resentment), and who must prove that we can do better than a nation who let the cod fisheries collapse if we want any sort of control. Obviously if a great conservationist nation like Canada can’t avoid environmental catastrophes, we certainly aren’t equipped to have any real say.
That native peoples are not responsible for the vast and deeply concerning environmental degradations we face today is considered an unimportant detail. It is still outrageous to the general public that we would be granted privileged exceptions to the Rules For Everyone.
Given just enough time to make their points, and comment section posters will have you half convinced that it might even be…racist.
Tags: caribou slaughtered Manitoba, Chief Joe Antsanen, Enbridge Pipeline, Environment Canada, Fish and Wildlife, Grand Chief David Harper, hunting and fishing rights, Keewatinowi Okimakanak, Northern Gateway Pipeline, Northlands Denesuline First Nation