Why Featherfolk?

I started this project in order to talk about Aboriginal culture and history and related subjects, most of which you learned nothing of in school if you are at all an average Canadian.

I’d say that the average Canadian, including the average Canadian journalist and the average Canadian school teacher, and certainly the average Canadian politician, has probably gained more of their understanding of Aboriginal people from watching the Lone Ranger and Tonto, and old John Wayne movies, than they learned in any other way.  Hollywood historiography being what it is, the understanding imparted is consequently muddle-headed, rotten with stereotypes, and wrong.  It is in fact, whether you realize it or not, a fundamentally racist understanding, part of the self-serving mythos of a conquering people designed to prove that the people they conquered, enslaved, raped, robbed and oppressed were deserving of what they got.

Sound like Hollywood to you?

I also realize that it’s not your fault.  You didn’t mean to be so wrong.  You couldn’t know you were being misled.  And you promise not to watch any more cowboy and Indian movies without adult supervision. You’re just another victim of the times.

Everybody understands, and nobody holds a grudge.

History is written by the victors–we’ve all heard that before.  The fashionably cynical like to quote it when they can’t think of anything else to say.  I’ve had it said to me innumerable times throughout my career as an educator, as a teacher of history, but I’ve never been quite sure to what point.  Is it an excuse for past behaviour, for past lies and past distortions about Aboriginal people?  If so, I accept it as an excuse.  History telling has been a long time growing up.  But the fact that we did it in the past is hardly a reason to continue doing the same in the present, and nor is it  a solid basis for ongoing educational policy.

Lies: bad.

Truth: good.

Even a school trustee can understand that.

Do people tell me that history is written by the victors assuming that it can’t be any other way?  But that’s nonsense.  Historians can strive for accuracy and balance, and most of them probably do.  In fact, I rely on such historians for much of what I have to say.

Anyway, what you will find here is history not as told by the victors, not as referred to by the ignorant, the historical denialists, the colonizers and racists.  You will find here those parts of history which the “victors” –whoever they are–have left out.

So why featherfolk?  I use the term to refer to the mainstream image of Aboriginal people.  I once saw it when my daughter was young, while walking down the halls of her elementary school.  Some teacher had asked his or her students to draw a picture of Indians, and the image produced by student after student and now posted on a hall display, was of somebody wearing a feather.

Try it yourself.  Ask a child or an adult to draw an Indian.  See how often the stereotype returns.  Then consider whether such a stereotype is a healthy or respectful one, or whether it speaks to a well-rounded, nuanced understanding of Aboriginal people in general.

For one thing, the image derives from a lifestyle long past.  It is an image frozen in time, as if Aboriginal people were frozen in time as well.  For another, the image is representative of a single time and place, whereas Aboriginal people belonged to hundreds of different cultures which represented a greater variety of cultural expression than what was found in Europe at the time of contact.  It is as if the whole of European culture and history was represented in the image of a Bavarian yodeler with a Robin Hood cap and lederhosen.  No European would accept such reductionism.  Aboriginal people should not be expected to, either.

I address this project to Aboriginal people who wish to continue to educate themselves about the past, and to aid their understanding of present day issues.  I equally address this project to those of the Canadian public who wish to enrich their understanding of Aboriginal people, who might be dismayed at the thought that perhaps their understanding of these matters up to now has been coloured by colonialism and unconscious racism, or who wish to learn more or examine another point of view.

Of course there are those who do not want to hear or know the truth.  Fine.  Ostriches were once purported to hide their heads in the sand, although that myth has been long since defeathered.  The only creatures who really do such a thing, so far as I know, are people.  People of the ostrich clan, and many other species of denialist, will get little satisfaction here.

And a hell of a lot of sarcasm.

~ by fathertheo on July 23, 2008.

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