Finding unmarked burial sites outside the former Kamloops residential school more than a year ago ignited global awareness of Indigenous concerns, but it has not left the world with a greater understanding of the lives and aspirations of First Nations people says Geoff Russ, a Haida journalist based in British Columbia.
“Indigenous people remain as misunderstood today as they were a year ago, or even 60 years go,” says Russ. “Whoever has watched a John Ford Western can see the ignorance, deliberate or not, that accompanies those movies’ portrayal of Indigenous people as the primitively-armed antagonists.”
The new indigenous stereotypes are: “no longer primarily portrayed as intimidating warriors, but as sympathetic characters who require daily apologies (National Post, May 28, 2022),” adds Russ.
The discovery of unmarked burial sites led to a number of church burnings across Canada. This left Canadians thinking that First Nations have a “revolutionary mindset.”
Indigenous people are wrongly characterized as anti-development, says Russ, “the anti-pipeline blockades on Wet’suwet’en land perfectly symbolize the divide between what non-indigenous people think Indigenous people want, and what the latter actually wants.
I have often wondered why Indigenous people continue to be viewed as the “other.” After all, we are all one people.
This is not suggest that the original people of North America, the first settlers, don’t have grievances over treaties broken and land taken.
The stereotype that European colonizers held of First Nations wavered between one of glorification and contempt. At one time they were noble savages, wild human, an “other” who has not been “corrupted” by civilization, and therefore symbolizes humanity’s innate goodness.
At the same time, the original people were stereotyped as inferior Europeans in need of rehabilitation; conversion from their primitive cultures and religions into English-speaking Christians.
More recently, Indigenous people are stereotyped as superior managers of the land and environment.
The history of human occupation of the earth reveals how similar we all are.
Given the technologies of clothing, shelter, weapons and tools, we exploit resources wherever we find them.
We arrived in North America, in what is now Canada, 16,000 years ago. By “we,” I don’t mean we European colonizers, I mean we Homo sapiens.
There were no indigenous people when we arrived. The animals that lived in North America had no fear of humans. We could just walk up to them and kill them. And we did.
When we entered North America across the Bering Strait, we had no idea that we were walking into a new world. In just a few thousand years we traveled all the way to the tip of South America.
Along the way, we exterminated many species says Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens:
“According to current estimates, in that short interval, North America lost thirty-four out of forty-seven genera of large animals. South America lost fifty out of sixty.”
Oh well, some might say, the arrival of humans and the mass extermination of species was just a coincidence. But no, after flourishing for 30 million years, sabre-toothed cats were gone as well as giant sloths that weighed up to eight tons. Gone were giant beavers, horses, camels and mammoths.
We arrived in Australia with the same disastrous results. Within a few thousand years, out of twenty-four species of large Australian animals, most of them marsupials, twenty-three became extinct.
The unsettling fact is that we were not good stewards of the land, not as first people and certainly not as European colonizers.