We make good scapegoats, eh?

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.

What? I’m just saying what everyone else is thinking!

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:

  1. It’s racist to blame non-native hunters.
  2. 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.

Looking in one of these is not going to help you understand how systemic racism (not just prejudice) works.

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.

Yes. This is exactly comparable to buffalo jumps, and native people would do the same thing in a second if we could.

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.

Grand Chief Harper, “No, it’s okay CBC, my quotes don’t need context, your comment section posters will  fill in the blanks”.

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.

Oh yeah this is the life, I’m so glad there are no horses or guns because if there were, our whole cultural outlook on the environment would surely change!

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.

No no, don’t listen to us. We’re not sophisticated enough to make good environmental choices.

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.

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Categories: Aboriginal law, Alienation, Decolonisation, First Nations, Indigenous law, Injustice, Representation of natives

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12 Responses to We make good scapegoats, eh?


  1. joecanuck says:

    good post. One nit picky comment. There is no conscious entity known as ‘your detractors’. Individual detractors might believe in more resource development, or more environmental protection, but not necessarily both.

    • Kiaayohkats says:

      “Individual detractors might believe in more resource development, or more environmental protection, but not necessarily both.”
      It’s actually quite amazing how often it /IS/ both. I’ve heard the point argued that, on one hand, we waste resources by not using them, while on the other, we waste them by using them. While the resources referred to are generally different in nature (oil vs. deer), it’s shocking how often the same person will refer to both in order to delegitimize Aboriginal land usage. For an example of this seemingly contradictory discourse, see Larry Nesper’s Walleye Wars (2002)

      • Thank you. I do disagree that people saying horrible things about us online or even politically are approaching the situation with anything remotely like a logical argument. You refute them on one point, they come up with the opposite point, ignoring the problems with switching positions so easily. And why do they do this? Because their arguments are nothing but a cover for deep-seated racism. It’s just that being openly racist isn’t as socially acceptable as it used to be, and now people have to put a little bit of effort into covering it up.

        I know merely saying this will cause some people to reject it as impossible, so widespread is the need to pretend that racism is a thing of the past. But for example, when you deconstruct the myth of First Nations paying no taxes, and you very clearly say, “Here are two ways you can justify your argument, neither of which are specific to First Nations”, and they STILL hammer on natives only…that’s racism. No getting around it.

        If this has anyone wanting to chime in with, “but not me,” or “not everyone”, please do not. The conversation about racism nearly always gets hijacked by people who need others to recognise that they are special and the fact is, if you are special, you don’t need a public pat on the back for doing the right thing.

  2. john lavers says:

    well put. i remainn amazed how so many americans and canandians have adopted the language of the victimized and oppressed when they are the most privledged and richest people in the history of the world. as a retired lawyer i can easily say that natives rarely get a fair shake in our court system, and do not have equal access to education and other resources most people take for granted.the elimination of the buffalo by whites was openly stated at the time to be a method of destroying native resistance. we call that a war crime now, but forgive our selves for past crimes while happy to claim discrimination. it’s very sad

  3. Athapee says:

    As usual, well said. I come from the area and was not surprised when MB Conservation chalked it up to a communal kill site. The people from Brochet and Lac Brochet use snowmobiles to hunt and skin the caribou out on the land. I have driven the winter road many times and not once have I seen a person from my community use the winter road for this purpose. I cannot say the same for hunters from the south, with my having to swerve to avoid them and their caribou parts strewn on the road a few times. BTW,we consider caribou heads one of the most delicious parts of the caribou and this wouldn’t be left behind. So it seems we are still made out to be the scapegoats even though there was no mention of exactly who used the site.

    • Exactly. The follow up insinuated very strongly that this was a normal ‘native kill’. Except as you said, the heads are particularly prized. Who would leave that behind? To the wildlife officers perhaps the heads are ‘offal’ but that is certainly not a view shared by those who still eat wild meat regularly.

      What is most telling about this, and all the accusations of how it was probably ‘just the natives again’, is that provincial officials feel that regardless of who did this, native or non, it is okay. It wasn’t too much waste. That is exactly opposite of the message being sent by the Chiefs in the region. Native or non, waste period is unacceptable.

  4. Perry Bulwer says:

    “But what really motivated me to write today, were the comments. I know, I know! Reading comments sections is a Bad Idea.”

    I’m glad you did, though. On one of your recent articles I commented on my months-long battle with CBC website moderators and the Ombudsman over the issue of racism in the comments section and censorship of my comments when I point it out or try to rebut it. I wasn’t sure what my next step will be, but now I know. They have ignored my email complaints, so now I will be writing a formal letter delivered by snail mail to both the Ombudsman and his direct supervisor, whoever that is. I’ll let you know what reply I get.

    • Justice Sinclair recently commented that he is of the opinion comments sections should be held to the same standards as “letters to the editor”. I tend to agree. I think anonymity brings out the troll in people, and in the real world, people are accountable for their words. Let it be so online, too.

      • Perry Bulwer says:

        It turns out that the CBC Ombudsman reports directly to the President of CBC. So, I drafted a letter to him this morning and will mail it this week. It will be interesting to see his response.

        • Perry Bulwer says:

          Here’s an update regarding my letter to the CBC president. I mailed it on March 21, 2012 so it has been nearly a month now. I have received no reply.

          I provided both my mailing address and my email address, so thought I would at least receive a courtesy reply by now. I am really not sure what to make of the silent treatment I have received from CBC. In the past few months, I have complained many times in many forms about anonymous, anti-indigenous comments on the CBC site, and so far the only reply I have received is from the Ombudsman telling me that he had no jurisdiction over my complaints.

          I have not merely complained, but offered to communicate and provide suggestions for how to resolve this issue. Still no one wants to discuss this with me. I think they are hoping I will just get tired of complaining and go away, but if they think that they are wrong.

          I’m quite busy with a couple other projects right now, but I will not drop this. I think my next step in a week or so will be to send copies of my letter to the CBC president to all of the other CBC board members. I have no idea if they have seen my letter to the president, so I will give them an opportunity to respond to me before taking any other action.

          If that fails to get a response, then I might try to get media interest, starting with the CBC itself. Here in BC CBC has an investigative reporter who does a whistle-blowing segment called Go Public, which claims to hold companies, organizations accountable for illegal, unethical or unprofessional conduct. Maybe she would be interested in reporting on CBC’s accountability for allowing racist commentary on its website.

  5. Adam says:

    overall a decent read, i’ve noticed that comment sections of various CBC and other national sites are racists. They could use better monitoring to ensure proper dialogue about issues but that is not there place, sigh.

    @ the quote by “US Secretary of the Interior, Columbus Delano, 1873” i think the emphasis was a little misplaced on the eradication of Indians. The reason the U.S. and Can wanted the buffallo gone was for the hastening of cattle ranching and to settle territories. Cattle ranching and agriculture was believed to be the meal ticket for prosperity. Since buffalo have dominance hierarchies it was impossible to settle Cow cattle ranching where buffalo lived. The removal of the buffalo from the continent was multifaceted as it benefited agriculture, ranching, settling, and of course changing the Indians into civilized peoples.

  6. Yannick says:

    I’d be interested to learn your take on the New Brunswick Burnt Church Crisis, it seems pretty relevant to the discussion.

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