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Rights + Justice

How to Talk about Relations between Indigenous Peoples and Europeans

A lot of common terms may seem ‘neutral’ but reinforce racism. A teacher’s textbook case.

Paige Raibmon 28 Sep

Paige Raibmon is professor of history at UBC. With Elsie Paul, Davis McKenzie and Harmony Johnson, she is co-author of the forthcoming open access digital book “As I Remember It: Teachings (Ɂəms tɑɁɑw) from the Life of a Sliammon Elder” (2019). She is grateful to colleagues who commented on drafts of this piece, and to the late historian and civil rights activist Larry Goodwyn who, with his signature passion for justice, taught her to beware the passive voice.

When I received the manuscript, I was excited to dive in. The subject was close to my heart. This was to be a new Grade 4 textbook focused on early relations between Indigenous peoples and Europeans, a topic I have taught at the university for close to 20 years. I had been asked to join the editorial team to help with the work in progress.

I am a settler, the mother of two daughters. We live, go to school, and work on xʷməθkʷəyəm land. That is to say: the xʷməθkʷəyəm have never ceded or surrendered their rightful title to these lands that they have inhabited for millennia. Put another way, the settler state has never acquired rightful title to these lands that it has occupied for the past century and a half.

In 2015, the Province of British Columbia began to overhaul what, and how, children are taught in kindergarten through Grade 12. The curriculum shifted from “old-fashioned” content memorization towards “modern” critical thinking. And it responded to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call to educate students about the histories and cultures of Indigenous peoples.

These changes are big improvements. But, I wondered, what would they actually look like? And so, as I say, when a publisher invited my assistance, I eagerly accepted. The timing was right. My older daughter had just begun Grade 4. Perhaps my younger daughter would use this book in a couple of years.

The manuscript proved instructive in unanticipated ways. It provided a guide to the ways that harmful, outdated assumptions lurk within common words and phrases that we take for granted. This means that we can perpetuate these assumptions unwittingly. And, it means we can begin to challenge them by bringing attention to the language we use.

There was plenty to admire about the manuscript. Its content was rich. It tackled topics many texts and teachers have long avoided, including the intentional spread of smallpox-infected blankets by the British. It went beyond token insertion of a few Indigenous names. It drew from illuminating oral and written accounts to highlight the active role of Indigenous actors.

I realized that although there was a lot about the past in this book, it was not yet adequately historical. I mean by this that the book presented as universal concepts and ideas that are specific to particular times and places. It was as though a mask of universality covered the true nature of the European-derived concepts, ideas and practices.

We all believe at some point that our particular ideas and practices are the norm. Those of us who benefit from various forms of privilege can retain that illusion because the world around us endorses our perspective. This is why the “First Peoples Principle of Learning” that “Learning requires exploration of one’s identity” applies to all learners of all ages. It invites non-Indigenous learners to start with themselves, rather than the Indigenous “other.”

That things European can still pass as universal is the result of the long entwined histories of colonialism and racism. Words carry their history with them. They work on and through us. Now, I am not so naive as to believe we can create a just world by avoiding language that offends. Instead, the language to which I call attention far too often fails to offend. To make visible these long-standing habits of language is an acquired skill. It is a skill we should teach our children in school; it is a skill we all should acquire.

So, let’s learn together, then, from a textbook in progress.

Modern? Natural Resources? Language is not neutral

Words that appear neutral on their face are often anything but. Terms like “modern,” “natural resources” and “wilderness,” for example, carry culturally specific assumptions about economy, politics, environment, work and leisure. These assumptions are not universal and when we assume otherwise, we undo the anti-racist work that a multicultural pedagogy tries to advance. We undermine the diversity that inclusion of Indigenous actors in the story attempts to achieve.

For example, when we introduce the “three sisters” farming method of planting corn, beans and squash together with a sentence like: “Three Sisters planting is very different from many modern farming methods,” we belie the sophistication and significance of this Indigenous technology through its juxtaposition with so-called “modern” techniques. In so doing, we reinforce outdated, evolutionary hierarchies. We can eliminate this implication, however, if we replace “modern” with the word “European.”

Similarly, when we explain that Indigenous peoples used “natural resources” — the term that the new curriculum mandates — differently than European settlers, we send a mixed message. Yes, we alert students to the existence and legitimacy of Indigenous difference. But at the same time, we naturalize one particular, in this case market-driven, category for understanding this difference. “Natural resources” is a limited concept that cannot accurately represent Indigenous ontologies in which animacy, kin and utility are differently configured. When we take this category as universal, we imply that the difference at stake is one between various human uses of trees, for example: a log destined for the sawmill versus one destined for a canoe. What requires unsettling, however, is the underlying assumption that “utility” defines the relationship between humans and the trees. The term “natural resources” implies that everyone who looks at a tree wants to make a dollar off it.

The Potawatomi botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer puts it this way: “In the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital or natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us. It was a gift, not a commodity.”

Wilderness? Permanent? More loaded terms

Wilderness” is another problematic term. It implies a place that humans neither modify nor call home. So when we attempt to convey respect for Indigenous knowledge with sentences like “Indigenous people were highly skilled at navigating and surviving in the “wilderness,” we present an oxymoron. Were Indigenous peoples other than human? If it is wilderness, how can people inhabit it? Allowing this paradox to stand sustains questions that should long ago have been taken off life support, but that retain vibrancy in powerful arenas, not the least of which include our courts: Were these “organized societies” living in the wilderness? Did these people have “exclusive use and occupation” of the wilderness? The absurdity of these questions comes clear when we jettison “wilderness” for more appropriate language, something like “homeland” or better yet, the people’s own term, the hahuułni of the Nuu-chah-nulth, Haa Aani among the Tlingit, or Anishinaabe akiiing. Kimmerer tells us, “When we call a place by its name it is transformed from wilderness to homeland.”

582px version of FortVictoria1860.jpg
In 1860, Fort Victoria was a small, palisaded fur trading post built by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Saying ‘Fort Victoria was the first permanent settlement on Vancouver Island’ uses an outdated, Eurocentric definition of ‘permanent’ to erase Indigenous peoples from their homelands. Simple fix: ‘Fort Victoria became the first permanent colonial settlement on Vancouver Island.’

Situating Indigenous peoples — however skilled — in the wilderness also feeds the problematic logic of common sentences like: “Fort Victoria was the first permanent settlement on Vancouver Island.” Without mentioning Indigenous peoples at all, this single sentence negates examples of Indigenous presence elsewhere in the text. An outdated, Eurocentric definition of “permanent” works here to erase Indigenous peoples from their homelands. This egregious implication can be fixed with an adjective: “Fort Victoria became the first permanent colonial settlement on Vancouver Island.”

Law and order? British Columbia? Look out for Eurocentrism

Eurocentric values also lurk in many of our descriptions of what newcomers set out to do. How we write about settlers and colonists and immigrants is as important as how we do or do not write about Indigenous peoples. When we use vocabulary that force of habit has made conventional, we attribute universality to distinctly European subjects and in so doing reproduce old assumptions about colonialism’s legitimacy. Again, this is true whether we know it; and also whether we intend it. For example, when we write that “James Douglas had a responsibility to maintain law and order in the colony of British Columbia,” we convey several things. We tell them that Britain assumed responsibility over “British Columbia” in legitimate and uncontested fashion. We tell them that “law and order” is a singular concept derived from British traditions. Neither claim is accurate. This statement perpetuates the invisibility of precisely that which a good social studies (or history) education should render visible. It normalizes that which should be problematized.

This may seem like heady stuff, beyond the capacity of Grade 4 students. Far from it. Simple but important changes can render specific and local the category of law and order. Referring instead to “British conceptions of law and order” tells students that Douglas's was one among many configurations of law. Even if the lesson does not discuss Indigenous laws, it must signal their existence to prime students for subsequent investigation. Similarly, we should not naturalize James Douglas’s authority to impose British law given that the majority of British Columbia remains to this day unceded to any power other than Indigenous peoples. We can lightly edit the sentence to clarify that “James Douglas believed he had a responsibility to maintain the British conception of law and order.” This is already a vast improvement because it avoids endorsing colonial authority.

When we make clear that European beliefs were not and are not universal, we also invert a troublesome trend in many multicultural narratives. It is common in a variety of media to see statements like “Indigenous peoples believed that treaties were land sharing agreements.” This sentence makes space in the narrative for Indigenous understandings. But it simultaneously denies their legitimacy if we situate it alongside a sentence that treats British understandings as benchmarks of truth: “Ceded territories are areas of land that are surrendered forever in exchange for other lands, gifts, or yearly payments.” Taken together, these sentences portray Indigenous people as naive actors who mistakenly believed that “x” (i.e. land cession) occurred. They render Indigenous perspectives as “cultural” and enshrine non-Indigenous ones as “real.” A revision that reads: “European peoples called the areas of land that they believed had been surrendered forever ‘ceded territories’” avoids the implication that Europeans had a monopoly on reality.

Who did what to whom? Beware the passive voice

Another useful fix for discriminatory claims of universality is to eliminate the passive verb tense. Doing so makes for better writing, and simultaneously uproots many hidden biases and racist premises. The topic of smallpox provides a high-stakes example. The textbook includes an extract from the infamous letter in which Governor General Jeffery Amherst wrote: “You will Do well to try to Innoculate [sic] the Indians by means of Blankets, as well as to try Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race.” This is difficult subject matter and Grade 4 students will need careful guidance.

We fail to offer that guidance if we follow this quotation with a passive voice sentence such as: “European blankets, given in trade, were thought to be one way that First Peoples caught the deadly smallpox virus.” This verb construction lets Amherst off the hook before thoughtful investigation can begin. “Were thought to be” dodges the question of “who thought.” And “given in trade” should make us wonder “given by whom”? Moreover, “given in trade” inexplicably soft pedals the biological warfare tactics that Amherst endorsed. It would be clearer and do greater anti-racist work to explain directly that the “British traded blankets infected with smallpox in order to spread the disease among their Indigenous enemies.”

The passive voice is common in textbooks, signage, speeches and apologies written by historians, politicians and educators alike. In nearly every instance, it obfuscates rather than clarifies. When we write that “treaties were often broken,” or “treaties were not made,” or “Indigenous land rights were not recognized,” or “there was great concern about ‘x’” we do a great disservice to our children. (Notice I did not write that “a great disservice is done to our children”!) We fail to provide them the directional sense that they need to navigate the past. These things did not just “happen”; people or other forces made them happen. Students must know who or what these historical actors or forces were.

Elimination of the passive voice forces us to specify the “who,” “what,” “where” and “when.” Many people misperceive these questions to be at the heart of historical enquiry. Instead, they are tools for casting our basic categories and assumptions into relief. (Who are “people”?; What is a “permanent” settlement?) When we use active instead of passive voice we redirect our attention to the historical agency of who did what to whom.

With the active voice, we provide students a pathway towards meaningful engagement with questions that are at the heart of historical enquiry, questions about power, ethics, significance, intentionality, responsibility and relationship. The who, what, where and when are a means to an end. We should train our students in the habit of mind to specify, not for the sake of policing the micro-politics of language, but to help them see the world around them in new ways.

What’s inside our question? Embedded stereotypes

As a teacher, I see how the questions we ask can inadvertently direct students to draw the sorts of Eurocentric conclusions that we want to transform. In its admirable efforts to train students to render ethical judgments about the past, the new B.C. curriculum includes these sample questions:

“Is the technology we have today better than the traditional technology of indigenous peoples?”

“Should indigenous cultures and languages be maintained?”

And, “Should anything be done about the loss of indigenous lands?”

As framed, these questions reinforce old stereotypes. Moral reasoning is not about deciding whose tools or culture are better or worse. These questions are poor examples of moral reasoning because they assume students can arrive at meaningful answers from the perspective of an omniscient, neutral observer. These questions work in much the same way as the passive voice — lands were “lost” rather than taken by someone — and carry with them the same pitfalls.

582px version of debry2.jpeg
This image shows how one European artist imagined trade between English and Indigenous people. He never visited North America and relied upon accounts by European explorers for inspiration. Instead of asking students, ‘How successful were European explorers?’ we might ask ‘Why did Europeans value the accomplishments of exploration in their day and how might Indigenous peoples have evaluated those accomplishments differently? How should we evaluate those actions today?’ Image by Theodor de Bry from America, published in 1634.

To evaluate the significance, success, consequences or moral valence of past actors or actions, students must instead know By whose standards? According to whom? For whom? By what measure?

Instead of asking: “Should James Douglas be celebrated?” it is more useful to ask: “Do you think James Douglas deserved to be celebrated for his actions a) during his time; and b) today?” Or, “When we honour a figure like James Douglas, whose historical experiences do we highlight and whose do we overlook?”

Instead of asking: “How successful were European explorers?” we might ask “Why did Europeans value the accomplishments of exploration in their day and how might Indigenous peoples have evaluated those accomplishments differently? How should we evaluate those actions today?” This reframing avoids directing students to employ the same definition of “success” as 17th century explorers.

And to offer one more example: instead of asking “Was Confederation good for British Columbia?” we could ask “Who benefited when B.C. joined Confederation? And who lost?” To assume a singular (and implicitly European) “British Columbian” subject undermines the larger goal of including Indigenous peoples in the curriculum in the first place.

Facing the irreconcilable

I am grateful for the invitation to join the editorial team of this Grade 4 textbook and for the collegiality of the editors who welcomed my suggestions and incorporated them into the final publication. I have shared these stories from our collaboration with the permission of the textbook’s publisher not to criticize others, but because the lessons we learned resonate far beyond grade school.

Paying attention to the nuances of language I’ve highlighted does not cost a lot of money or require much effort, but it can make a big difference in the values we convey to our audiences, ages nine or ninety, in the classroom, movie theatre, coffee shop, workplace, or on social media.

Many non-Indigenous students arrive in my classroom asking what role they might play in “reconciliation.” They understand it is not their task to fix settler society’s long-standing misrepresentations of Indigenous peoples. Indigenous people will speak for themselves. But it is a task for settler allies to remedy long-standing misrepresentation of Europeans and European ideas. Wilderness. Modern. Permanent. We must bring these terms down to size and admit they are not containers that can accommodate everyone, every place, and every time.

I wrote this shortly after Canada Day. Nationalist conversations abounded. There was much reference to Canadian history; but not much of it was historical. Nationalism swaddles the past in a shroud of timelessness and makes it a shrine. Our social studies texts will always still be nationalist narratives if they perpetuate false claims about the universality (and thus superiority) of European people and ideas. And they will remain fundamentally ahistorical no matter how much information about the past they contain.

For any meaningful form of reconciliation to occur, settler society must first admit that some things are irreconcilable. We cannot create anti-racist histories by inserting Indigenous (or otherwise racialized) characters into nationalist narratives. The centre cannot hold. And by this, I do not mean that the Canadian nationalist narrative cannot withstand the introduction of an Indigenous cast of characters. Indeed, it can. A nationalist narrative that is sure of itself can deeply lament past circumstances and at the same time rationalize their occurrence towards the end of a larger good: the creation of the nation.

My point instead is that as anti-racist educators or actors, we must not allow the centre to hold.

Not if our goal is something other than reproduction of a narrative that discounts Indigenous suffering, dispossession, and ways of being.

Not if our goal is to foster true critical thinking in students.

Not if our goal is to educate children to be more compassionate and open, rather than self-justifying and self-congratulatory.  [Tyee]

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