Monday, June 13, 2016

The more things change, the more they need to change

We do live in a time of rapidly changing attitudes — so rapid, in fact, that there are people who can't and won't keep up. Some of the changes that have crept into our daily lives over the past 20 years have only made life better but we know how far we still have to go.

One of the ways I gauge change is to go back and look at things I wrote in an earlier time. Because I was a columnist in a daily newspaper — The Daily News in Halifax — I have a fairly handy record of how things were in an earlier time.

This is a column I wrote in August of 1989. It shows a difference in attitude not only from then till now but going back even further. You'll see what I mean.

(I'll just point out that one of the difference would be the spelling of the word Micmac — now quite routinely spelled Mi'kmaq.)

It's no secret that the people in power are the ones who keep the official records and, thus, become the recorders of history, is it? I've been keeping this in mind all summer while I've been working on a project that demanded much historical research.

Here's a sample of something I've read about the lives of the native population before the arrival of the Europeans: “...They were divided into many tribes, having different languages and customs. They wasted their strength in frequent fighting.

They did not often make alliances with one another, but the five kindred 'nations' of the Iroquois wisely agreed to help each other and thus became so strong that they were a terror to all within their reach...”

And this, under the title Superstitions: “...The Indians had very strange ideas about God and religion. They believed in a great Good Spirit and a great Bad Spirit. They did not pay much attention to the Good Spirit but tried to frighten the Bad Spirit by wearing charms, and to put him in good humour by making strange sacrifices to him...”

Hmmm. Sound familiar?

About the Inuit, we read: “Near the Arctic Ocean and Hudson Bay live the Eskimos, who are of a different race from the Indians. Their habits have probably changed little since America was discovered. They are said to be honest and good-humoured but very dirty...”

This book is called A Canadian History for Boys and Girls.

It was written by Emily P. Weaver, published by Copp Clark, copyright 1919. (It has a little admonition on its title page which says: “This book is the property of the New Brunswick Government and should be returned to the teacher in good condition on or before June 30 each year.” I have no idea how I come to have it in my possession. I hope the New Brunswick government doesn't get wind of it.)

Compare that description of native spirituality with this one about the early Micmac civilization: “They learned the habits of the animals and the relationship between plants and animals. Since most of the things they made and all the food they ate came from these living beings that they knew so well, the Micmac developed a respect for life. They thought of these plants and animals – and even some minerals – as persons with whom they could communicate...This belief about plant and animal persons prevented the Micmac from wasting the natural resources. They did not gather or hunt more than they needed to survive comfortably.”

This beautiful interpretation is from the book The Micmac, by Ruth Holmes Whitehead and Harold McGee. I'd hate to think what Emily P. Weaver would have done with the same subject.

Until I discovered the Whitehead/McGee book (I called Ruth herself), the old Weaver history was one of only two books I had that gave any information about native history at all. In most books, the history of Nova Scotia begins with the arrival of John Cabot. Although the Micmac had been living here for 10,000 or so years, they seem to have been invisible to Cabot – who immediately claimed the land for England – and to later historians, who seemed to believe that life began with the arrival of the Europeans.

The other exception is a gem of a book called Nova Scotia/All About Us by Ivan Cassidy published by Nelson Canada, a division of International Thomson Ltd.

Although the book covers a good deal of material, right up to the present day, it presents a concise and respectful history of the lives of the Micmac before the arrival of the Europeans under such appealing titles as Seasonal Activities, Preparing Food, Shelter, Clothing and Equipment, and Family Life. Just what young people would want to know, I think.

It's good to see the attitudes in the reference books changing somewhat; it's also saddening to consider how much influence those earlier books had on the way people think – not just the people of the dominant culture who identified with the writers of the books, but also the people who were diminished and made invisible by material that was seen to be true history.

History is a powerful tool and has so often been used to justify prejudice and discrimination. Santayana said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Likewise, those who are given false representations of the past are more easily manipulated and more easily managed by those in control.

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