Original positing: July 14, 2007
by Theodore Plantinga
Preserving an ancient way of life sounds noble. Isn't it just what all right-thinking people would want? And it sounds Canadian. After all, Canadians like to think of themselves as broad-minded and multicultural and so forth. Who would want to trample an ancient way of life underfoot?
Perhaps no one, but the pursuit of such an ideal can also produce significant tensions. In the year 2007, native protesters in Canada who were trying to draw attention to native grievances have taken to blockading public thoroughfares, such as the main train line connecting between Montreal and Toronto. Highways have also been affected. On one occasion Highway 401, the freeway link between Canada's two largest cities, was closed as a result of native activities intended to draw attention to their cause. Much tension has resulted, although it must be admitted that not as much heat was generated from this friction as one might have expected. Nevertheless, a review of the issues is called for.
If there is to be a careful and sympathetic discussion of native discontent as manifested in such economically disruptive actions, it must begin with the question: What exactly do the natives want? When they are interviewed on television, they tell us quite clearly what they're after. We hear that they want their land claims settled. And then typically we also hear something about bad conditions on the reservations on which some of them live, including matters having to do with water supply, poor health, and lack of opportunity for their young people, which has led, sad to say, to an alarming suicide rate among those young people. Clearly there are things that need to be discussed, and there is plenty of reason for concern on the part of Canadian governments, to say nothing of the general public.
But there is one more issue that does not get voiced as often as it should, an issue that functions more like a presupposition in such discussion. That issue is the desire -- some would say: the right -- of natives to continue and preserve their ancient way of life. It is this somewhat neglected issue, in particular, that I wish to investigate in this essay. But it is not easy to do, for the three sets of issues tend to get jumbled together. Therefore I will say at the outset that although I have some opinions about the first two sets of issues (land claims and conditions on the reserves), and although I am sympathetic to the natives in their frustrations over them, I plan to address myself only to the third.
"In what capacity do you propose to do so?" someone might ask. "After all, you are a white person -- how could you possibly understand?"
I submit that this is not altogether a fair response. It is true that there are some so-called white persons in North America who are of such mixed ancestry that they would hardly know how to describe themselves in anything akin to tribal terms. But I do not fall into this category. I come from a definite and distinct tribe -- the Frisians. But unlike the aboriginals of North America, I am not now living on my ancestral homelands.
The homelands of the Frisians lie along the North Sea all the way from the country called the Netherlands to the country called Denmark. Over the centuries the Frisians have been displaced from some of those homeland territories, but they are still to be found in many of them. Moreover, they have their own distinct language (which is akin to Old English, the kind of English spoken before the Norman invasion). Their unique language helps them consolidate their identity. And so they have a good claim to being considered an ancient tribe whose cultural rights and prerogatives need to be respected.
And I would not want to suggest that the Frisians are not being respected in any way. Since the majority of Frisian-speaking people now live in the country known as the Netherlands (which includes a province called Friesland), it needs to be acknowledged that the host country, so to speak, is actually quite generous toward the Frisians within its borders in terms of protecting their unique culture and language. But there is no thought that the Frisians should continue to live as they lived a hundred years ago or five hundred years ago or a thousand years ago. Europe's Frisians are part of a modern social system and economy, and therefore are subject to pressures that often take them to other places, perhaps to other provinces of the Netherlands, and quite often, as in my own case, to other countries.
I immigrated to Canada at the age of four, and have no regrets about the decisions my parents made in bringing me here. And so, while I still honor my Frisian ancestry and continue certain cultural aspects of it (I speak Frisian, but not as well as I speak English), I do not maintain that my life can be defined in terms of the project of continuing and preserving an ancient way of life. Perhaps this puts me in a position that leaves me at something of a disadvantage when it comes to sympathizing with natives in Canada.
Having indicated my skepticism, I now need to be more specific. My inclination is to respond to the aspiration to continue an ancient way of life by saying simply that it can't be done. Give up the dream! But this initial response would be too black-and-white to qualify as a considered answer. Provided we are willing to water down the meaning of the phrase "continue an ancient way of life," there is an interesting comparisons that might be used to shed some light on the issues being faced by natives.
When I think about native issues, my mind often turns to the Amish, a unique and easily identified people who live in some rural areas in Canada and the United States. (Here I am using the term "Amish" in a broad sense; some of the people one might take to be Amish are their close theological cousins who call themselves Mennonites of some old-order variety.) The Amish, too, wish to preserve an ancient way of life, and they signal this desire to the rest of us through their distinctive dress. But their ancient way of life is grounded more in a religious tradition than in a particular region of the world. When one studies them carefully and reads their history, one sees that they do allow small innovations by means of which they wind up going along with some recent technological, cultural, economic, and ecological realities. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Amish wish to live in a manner that is utterly distinct from that of the rest of Canadian and American society.
I suppose most people realize -- but do not stop to think about it -- that the Amish do not have any sort of government ministry or agency dedicated to helping them preserve their distinctness and their ancient way of life. Indeed, the Amish would be aghast at the thought of such an agency. They don't talk much with the rest of Canada and the United States, but on the rare occasions when they make a pronouncement, they leave us in no doubt as to what their basic desire is: they wish simply to be left alone as much as possible.
One might be tempted to say that their aspirations in this regard are foolish, that is to say, that it can't be done, that they can't possibly opt out of society to such an extent, that they can't possibly thrive when relying on such obsolete and out-of-date methods for farming and economic life. But the fact is that the Amish are amazingly successful. Functioning with nothing in the way of higher education and using farming methods that many would consider antiquated, they prosper, thrive and grow.
Part of my response to native claims about preserving an ancient way of life is to suggest that natives look carefully at the Amish and to consider whether the path of more independence -- as opposed to the old route of heavy dependence on public funding -- might not be advantageous for them. But if we were to consider such a line of thought seriously, we would also have to look at economic and geographical and meteorological realities. And this is where a second comparison comes into the picture as perhaps fruitful for understanding the problem.
The ideals which many members of the native community cling to call for a sparse population density in the areas to be inhabited. To fish and hunt and till the soil in ways rooted in ancient aboriginal traditions calls for a lot of land to be kept free of the use to which much of the best land in North America is now being put. It has become harder and harder -- and ever more expensive -- to find such land to live on. Even native communities remote from the cities and towns in which non-native North Americans live and deeply affected by the conditions down south -- to the point that their water supply may be endangered and their fish not safe to eat. Much acid rains makes its way to their remote communities. In short, conditions affecting the continent as a whole are taking away from the viability of the older way of life.
All of this brings to mind a second comparison which, I submit, may be fruitful when it comes to considering the natives' desire to continue an ancient way of life. I am thinking of the choice which many people make to locate their homes in spots offering great natural beauty while at the same time being subject to powerful forces of nature that may destroy those homes. I am thinking of people in North American society who may make their living in some conventional, modern way while, in their residential arrangements, seeming to hanker after a time in which North America was relatively underpopulated, a time in which there could be considerable stretches of open territory between homes. Such people may choose to maximize their access to natural beauty and in the process take some risks: for example, they may live along rivers that are known to flood or in close proximity to forested areas in which fire remains a distinct possibility during a hot summer.
There is a great deal to be said for living in such proximity to nature, but in a time of flood and fire we get to hear on the television news -- after the exciting footage of the fire or the flood has been shown -- that a natural disaster in such a location should not come as a complete surprise to us. After all, certain areas are known historically to be prone to flooding and forest fires. The question is then asked (perhaps politely, perhaps not): Why do those people insist on living there? Sometimes the television reporters give them an opportunity to respond to such queries, and they point out the virtues and delights of such existence. But then an economic policy question arises: Who gets to pay for all the reconstruction that is necessary each time flood or fire ravages the homesite?
There is no simple answer to this question. Of course insurance comes into the picture, but conventional insurance may well be denied to people who build their homes in what are known to be hazardous areas. Government assistance and support is surely an important part of the answer, and it may come in massive form. I think especially of the hurricane that devastated New Orleans in 2005 and the subsequent debate over the question whether the low-lying parts of New Orleans, which are thought to be especially vulnerable in a time of climate change and rising oceans, are actually suitable for human habitation and should be rebuilt. The stubborn and prideful insistence on rebuilding seems to fly in the face of scientifically tempered common sense when it is gently suggested that there are probably some places where humans now live that should be returned to nature. The Dutch, much of whose land lies below sea level, are willing to concede this point and are even now making adjustments to future climate change and the prospect of rising oceans.
Part of the answer to the question concerning the cost of preserving an ancient way of life -- in the sense of living in a natural setting surrounded by forest with a river running by -- has to do with one's ability to pay. If you are sufficiently wealthy and the prospect of needing to reconstruct your house is not a daunting one for you, I suppose there's nothing wrong with building and rebuilding and rebuilding on what is known to be a hazardous site. If you can pay for your traditional way of life, who is to stop you or say that you may not be there?
I believe this question needs to be addressed to native communities as well. Some of them inhabit distant reaches of Canada in which the economic and ecological basis for human existence has been eroded by environmental degradation over a period of decades. And so it turns out that their situation is a lot like that of wealthy people who live in areas where they are subject to the dangers of flood and fire. It costs a lot to keep human life going in areas where suitable drinking water and food are very hard to come by. Of course these things can be supplied by helicopter and sea plane and so forth, but there is quite a cost involved in maintaining such supply routes. Likewise, medical services for people living in utterly remote locations are hard to supply: usually some form of air transport to medical centers down south needs to be made available. In order for Canada to maintain an official Arctic presence, it needs to pump considerable money into maintaining outposts where government personnel (some of what are natives) engage in operations necessary to maintaining Canadian sovereignty. I believe this is money well spent. But there's still the question whether aboriginal or native groups ought to be eligible to make similar claims on the public purse in virtue of their desire to live in territories which were occupied by ancestors of theirs a number of generations or even centuries ago.
The reality of climate change, along with changes in the earth's surface, leading in turn to further changes in vegetation, shifts in animal populations, and environmental degradation -- all of this needs to be looked in the face. Therefore the phrase "preserving an ancient way of life" needs careful scrutiny. In particular, I would challenge the presupposition that any area that was once inhabited by human beings must be deemed by us to be forever inhabitable thereafter. Human beings open up new territories for settlement, but they also need to relinquish their hold on some areas and return them to nature.
The prospect of moving away from territory that was long occupied by one's forebears causes tension and forms part of the background to the friction being generated in Canada over native land claims and other issues, friction that has come to the boiling point during their blockades of roads and railway lines that cause considerable disruption and economic damage. It is my contention on this website (not just in this essay) that frictophobia is a phenomenon in human life that needs to be taken more seriously. Friction is an inevitable result of human beings living together in a single society, and the evasion or denial of the friction is not a fruitful or sustainable response. We need to learn how to deal with friction.
Our interest as human beings often clash, and in that clash ill will is generated, disruptions result, and some people suffer damage of one sort or another. The frictophobes, I believe, are not sufficiently realistic in terms of recognizing what it takes to settle genuine human disputes. I would not wish to be regarded as a frictophile, for I take no more delight in fisticuffs or their verbal equivalent than the average person, but I do want to recognize a limited place for people to "make a stink," as we used to say. And so, on the one hand I want to affirm the ethical appropriateness of so-called "days of action" on the part of natives in Canada, while on the other hand I would insist on counting the cost of the economic damage and disruption that they cause through such action. We need to be open to the possibility that the cost is too high in view of the amount of good that might conceivably come from the friction being generated.
When Martin Luther King and his associates engaged in civil disobedience in the United States decades ago, it was with the full realization of what consequences they might face. Many of them wound up spending time in jail. They were legally in the wrong but, most of us would judge, ethically in the right. And so it may well be with native protesters. But I would not wish to push the Martin Luther King analogy too far. It seems to me that what we need in Canada at this time are other mechanisms that recognize on the one hand that friction generates heat that in turn needs a place to go, while on the other hand remaining careful not to open the floodgates to the disruption and damage.
I suspect this essay will make me sound quite unsympathetic to native claims. A word of correction is therefore in order before I conclude. It seems to me that more recognition of the symbolic dimension of the continuation of an ancient way of life is needed. As I and other people of European descent observe the way of life of natives who live in Canada, we see quite a mixture between some of their own traditions, on the one hand, and technologies and conveniences drawn from the European-culture-based world, on the other. That their current way of life is actually a mix needs more open acknowledgment, in my judgment.
I am quite happy with the suggestion that the continuation of their way of life has to do especially with ethical and spiritual realities. I'm an admirer of native attitudes toward ecological issues, and in a course which I teach on environmental philosophy I tip my hat to them openly and elaborately for what they have taught us and for what they continue to hold before us in that regard.
On the other hand, I'm also a proponent of integration. I'm even willing to run the risk of being called some nasty names when I suggest that a greater degree of integration with the rest of Canadian and American society may be in order. Considerable intermarriage already takes place, and we all know plenty of people whose ancestral heritage is a mixture of native and European and perhaps also African. This is as it should be. And so we need new elements and ways to honor and continue native traditions, while leaving the door wide open to native participation in mainstream Canadian and American society, without thereby denigrating the ancient heritage which the protesters and blockade folks are trying to honor. [END]
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