Review of “Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry”

By Gerald Taiaiake Alfred, reposted from his personal website.

Redressing Racist Academics, Or, Put Your Clothes Back On, Please! A Review of Widdowson and Howard’s, Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry (McGill Queen’s University Press, 2008).

racist book

Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation

From the excited, glowing reviews of Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry I had seen in The National Post, and as a critic of parasitic white lawyers and consultants, sell-out aboriginals, and collaborationist Aboriginal politicians, I was prepared for a hard-hitting critique and useful deconstruction of the complex of injustice that has been built up around Indigenous-state relations in Canada. Instead, I found a collection of distortions, omissions, and exaggerations, that provides a reading experience like that of slogging through an undergraduate essay by, say, a kid from Alberta ruminating on Québecois nationalism, or an Alabama schoolgirl writing on the root causes of black-on-black violence. What a disappointment.

Evidently, Widdowson and Howard get up in the morning and eat a dog’s breakfast of outmoded communist ideology and rotten anthropological theories washed down with strong racial prejudices inherited from their own unexamined colonial upbringings, all of which would turn anyone else’s stomach. Their ideas are, amazingly and unapologetically, the sort of “socialism from above” characteristic of 1930s vintage Stalinism listing upon a ragtag collection of theoretical frames which taken together form a methodological approach remarkable mostly for its inability, like the authors who employ it, to comprehend indigeneity outside of being the object of colonization and empire. To wit: elements of Darwinian evolutionary stages theory, bits of Hegelian historical determinism, and a reliably unsophisticated view of capitalism is a necessary destructive-progressive force leading to the realization of a communist utopia wherein exists a scientifically planned and state organized global society made up of human beings who are worthwhile only to the extent they are “productive”. Thus it is understandable how the authors can, or must, advocate for the destruction of the natural environment by industrial development, and why they must hate and seek to destroy the people most closely connected to and committed to the preservation of nature in the face of capitalist exploitation of the land: Indigenous people.

Widdowson and Howard attempt an awkward and ineffective mental sleight-of-hand trick to deflect anticipated criticism of their attacks on Indigenous people as being racist – as if Widdowson’s simply mentioning a potential charge is a Teflon dress protecting her against it sticking. Rather than speaking about Indigenous people, they speak about Indigenous “culture”. Instead of attacking Indigenous people, they attack the “Aboriginal industry”. But their cover is blown the instant you realize, and it’s pretty obvious from the first page of the book, that their notion of culture is equated to ethnicity and that their “Aboriginal industry” includes and embodies just about every Indigenous writer and representative in the country. There is nothing novel or insightful in their conceptualization of an “aboriginal industry.” In fact, the idea is lifted from the Métis scholar Howard Adams’ seminal work in Prison of Grass (Fifth House) and my own work on the subject, Peace, Power, Righteousness (Oxford University Press), both of which have a sustained focus on the cooptation of First Nations leaders and “comprador” Aboriginal leadership and the problem of parasitic white professionals. But both Adams’ and my book are over a decade old; isn’t it an obvious point by now that white professionals profit off the misery and have a stake in perpetuating the colonial injustice? As a critique of this problem, the book is boring drivel that anyone working in this field has heard and read many times over by now. And if this was the point of the book, I could stop my review right here. But their point is not to illuminate, it is to denigrate, and the book is voluminous in this objective.

If Widdowson and Howard were serious Marxists concerned with the oppression of Indigenous peoples, even as a class of society, they would no doubt have focused on the economic and political relations that are at the root of the problems besetting Indigenous peoples and Canadian society as a whole. So, where is the analysis of Canada as a colonial regime and the broad consideration of Indigenous-state relations and the history of imperialism that forms the backdrop to any serious discussion of Canadian history and of Indigenous issues?

This book really is a shoddy piece of trash posing as serious analysis and pretending to respectability. And I use the word “pretending” advisedly; it is common knowledge among people who work in the field academically and professionally, that Widdowson and her husband worked diligently for a number of years to integrate into and gain access to the profits of the “Aboriginal industry” for themselves. But they were unsuccessful. They could not, after trying for some time, gain acceptance and a permanent position in the very structure of land-claims negotiation in the NWT which forms the main target of their polemic. Finding themselves shut out of the profits and unable to gain the respect of colleagues because of their unprofessionalism, lack of skill, and social ineptness, they took to hysterically attacking the structures and people who denied them.

Widdowson and Howard see the dissolution of Indigenous culture and the assimilation of Indigenous people into the whitestream as the best thing that could possibly happen in Canada. They hold up the Métis, in contrast to First Nation and Inuit, as having “principled leadership” and because of their being assimilated, “it is with them that hope for real change lies” (256). So it becomes clear that the extermination of any meaningful sense of Indigeneity is Widdowson and Howard’s end objective. This point is driven home by the only two Indigenous writers lauded in the book: Calvin Helin, a cheerleader for corporate resource extraction and cultural assimilation; and, someone named Ron Bourgeault, who the authors outlandishly claim has “made the most significant contribution to date to understanding the interaction between aboriginal peoples and the Canadian state” (254). In reality, Bourgeault is a complete unknown academically and politically, and the sum of his scholarly output is one self-published, co-authored paper in 1992, two articles in obscure journals, and one book chapter. As for Helin, his “book” was rejected 32 times by reputable publishers before he self-published it and began a marketing campaign to sell himself as a corporate consultant advocating the wholesale abandonment of traditional values in favour of reconstructing Indigenous culture to accommodate market capitalism and the need for industrial development of Indigenous lands. Are these the best and most accomplished that Indigenous people have to offer? Of course not, but these heroes do support Widdowson and Howard’s championing of the industrialization of Indigenous lands as the guarantor of a healthy, stable, and prosperous future, in contrast to every other Indigenous scholar writing on the subject. Basically, their fundamental prescription is idiosyncratic and asinine, and it renders Widdowson and Howard, along with people like Bourgeault and Helin, as blind fools, especially given the global financial and political realities facing the world today. What would an auto worker in Windsor or a former steel worker in Hamilton think of the authors’ plan of integration into the industrial workforce as a solution to Indigenous problems?

I would not want to level the charge of Widdowson and Howard being haters without providing some evidence to that effect. Listed below are some of Widdowson and Howard’s views on Indigenous people, taken directly from the book:

– We have “not developed the skills, knowledge, or values to survive in the modern world” (9) and have “undisciplined work habits, tribal forms of political identification, animistic beliefs, and difficulties in developing abstract reasoning” (13)

– We are “lazy” and unwilling to work (97) and “are unable to participate in wider society”. (105)

– Our societies are characterized by “savagery” and “barbarism” (12), and residential schools were “positive” and “necessary.” (25)

– Traditional land-based lifestyles do not require “forethought, discipline, and cooperative labour”. (22)

– Encountering our ancestors, who were ignorant (190) British explorers had never seen people “at such an early stage of economic and social development” (23)

It would be easy to refute these, and the many more, derogatory and unsubstantiated attacks levelled by Widdowson and Howard, but serious engagement with the substance of such insulting slanders would dignify their book. Instead, I refer readers to Charles Mann’s 1491 as a corrective to Widdowson and Howard’s utterly ignorant views on Indigenous-European contact and pre-Colombian civilizations in the Americas. Needless to say, Mann’s comprehensive and authoritative survey of the current scientific literature will disabuse anyone of the notion of Widdowson and Howard possessing scholarly integrity. Indeed the scientific literature goes even further in debunking the authors’ central arguments as the scholarly consensus supports many of the Indigenous teachings and oral histories that Widdowson and Howard debase as mere superstition in their book.

Most of the book consists of uninformed and ideologically-driven assertion. There are significant chapters on subjects in which the authors have no expertise at all and have done no research, save for their own unique methodological innovation: web surfing and Internet chat room analysis. Their main sources for the chapter on justice issues, for example, are newspaper articles, a book published in the 1960s, and a more recent article on First Nations as potential terrorist threats produced on contract for the RCMP (138). Unverified personal anecdotes are also repeatedly given as proofs: Widdowson and Howard confronting a First Nations couple on the street, insisting that an assault was happening before their eyes, against the opinion of supposed participants – the woman, the man and, eventually, the police officer sent to investigate the authors’ complaint. This is bizarrely offered as proof that the justice system is corrupt and unworkable. They then go on to say that Indigenous cultures condone violence against women and that in comparison non-indigenous Canadians have more “socially positive attitudes” which lead them to deplore and not tolerate violence against women, in contrast to the toleration for it  displayed by Indigenous people (159). While their writing throughout the book conveys a profoundly wilful ignorance of both Indigenous realities and scholarship on Indigenous issues,  this section is also both insensitive and oblivious to the extensively studied experiences of colonized peoples, the social phenomena of acculturation, the anomie resulting from state-induced social suffering and the psychological and social effects of oppression in a colonial regime, not to mention work by feminist scholars critiquing frontier culture and its views of Indigenous women’s bodies, as well as the mainstreaming of sexual violence against women in North American society today.

Claiming to be an analysis of the conspiracy to obscure the fact that Indigenous people are culturally backwards, the section titled “Denying the Developmental Gap” is in effect nothing more than emotive reaction and unsubstantiated accusations countering the existence of successful and influential Indigenous scholars via their online presence and published biographies of various well-known university programs and professors who advocate the idea that Indigenous people have rights and cultures worth respecting. Their overview of the program I developed and run at the University of Victoria, for example, consists of statements that it doesn’t value academic achievements, romanticizes Indigenous traditions, is racially essentialist, and pits white people and Indigenous people against each other (74). None of this is true, of course. And with just a few more clicks of the mouse they would have discovered that we have Canada Research Chair holders and members of the Royal Society of Canada among our faculty, and that our graduates are well-placed in doctoral programs and faculty positions all over the world. They might have also found out to their dismay that up to 40% of our students, including our first earned Ph.D., are white, and were never assaulted in the classroom! But having done this actual research on the facts of the situation, they would not have been able to make the counter-factual point that our program and others like it “compromise the essential concept of a university” and exist to engage in “political and religious indoctrination,” which are precocious words coming from two people whose highest achievements are to have been hired on at a community college and as a vocational school teacher.

The authors: Frances Widdowson (left) & Albert Howard (right)

The authors: Frances Widdowson (left) & Albert Howard (right)

Their section on education argues against the teaching of Indigenous languages, which they view as inherently backward and inferior to European languages as communicative tools in the modern era. What is their proof of this? They set up a table in which French, Dogrib and Inuktitut translations of an English phrase are contrasted in the attempt to show the relative ability of each to convey a complex thought. The problem, for us anyway, is that the English and French versions are standard translations whose veracity most people in Canada could confirm easily, but the Indigenous language texts are translations provided by Widdowson and Howard themselves. It’s no surprise then that the Indigenous language texts read as if written by an unfrozen cave man. Widdowson and Howard excitedly declare that this conclusively shows that English and French are better suited to communication in a modern society. What a gem of knowledge they are offering us: European languages are easier to translate into European languages than Indigenous languages. Basically, they argue that their French translation of Hegel more elegantly reflects the English reference passage better than the Dogrib and Inuktitut translations that they paid some unspecified people to produce, and that since European languages are superior, Indigenous languages should be left to die off.

The chapter on environmental management, a scant 12 pages in length, is a recycling of hostile email exchanges in which actual experts in the field tell Widdowson and Howard that they don’t know what they are talking about. This makes it the most truthful and satisfying part of the book. It’s topped off by the authors telling us what Indigenous people think about the environment, and then criticizing their own cartoonish representation of Indigenous philosophy. This is a tactic which is old hat by this point in the book, to be sure.

In the chapter on traditional knowledge, they say that traditional Indigenous knowledge “is immune from questioning and resists its methods being assessed. It is assumed to be ‘held’ by people with revered qualities, usually elders, whose views must be critically supported” (240). Beyond citing the work of other white academics on the subject (and duplicitously reading into and distorting their words by using supportive statements declaring respect for Indigenous people and knowledge to support their own hostile position), no evidence is provided from Indigenous people to back up their spurious claims. They also say that Indigenous people are opposed to science (248). This is yet another ridiculous statement lacking supporting evidence. The reason they cannot provide evidence for their claims is that the processes of knowledge generation and transmission among Indigenous people in no way resembles Widdowson and Howard’s caricature. Their method here, clearly, is to try to generate an understanding of Indigenous knowledge that has little relation to actual Indigenous beliefs and which serves their own critical purpose. They attempt to do this by using fragmentary quotations gathered unsystematically and without the benefit of a human subject ethical research oversight framework. They then decontextualize the information and transpose it into unrelated discussions so as to distort and belittle the information’s significance.

Another underhanded strategy they use to attack Indigenous people is tangential distraction. In the case of purporting to disprove that Iroquois society was complex, they offer no analyses or empirical evidence one way or the other, and instead attack scholars – again, not critiquing their work substantially – who argue that the Iroquois Confederacy’s constitution influenced the design of the United States constitution. As if disproving white scholars’ theories on Iroquois history proves anything about Iroquois society itself – their fundamental racism is betrayed here too, in that they never do accept any other representation of an Indigenous personhood or lived reality that is not (mis)represented by themselves or another white scholar. But even in this unrelated argument, the manipulative biases of their work are betrayed. In this case, Widdowson and Howard’s counter-factual assertion is built solely on the opinion of a discredited racist “Iroquoianist” scholar of mid-20th century vintage. More troublesome is their failure to cite the fact that the Congress of the United States itself passed a concurrent resolution in 1988 acknowledging the vital contributions of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy to the United States’ form of government. US Senate Resolution 76 (100th Congress), explicitly “acknowledges this vital Iroquois contribution to the very foundation of democracy upon which the United States is established”. Even the authors’ web surf as research approach should have brought this to their attention; but dealing with the facts is not really the point of this book, is it?

What is important to Widdowson and Howard is the rejection and denigration of any and all attempts by Indigenous people to speak for themselves and to defend their ideas. The authors’ distortion and mockery of Vine Deloria, Jr. and Georges Sioui, in particular, are unwarranted and disrespectful of the serious scholarship and contributions these scholars have made in their writing and teaching over the course of their careers. The truly galling part of their attack on Indigenous education is their low-blow dismissal of the value of the achievements of Indigenous students, saying that their successes are nothing more than “undeserved rewards and praise” and that Indigenous educational programs have created a sense of “superiority, narcissism, and arrogance” among Indigenous students (77).

Reminiscent of a nightmarish succession of under-researched, badly-written, unedited and emotion-laden undergraduate-level papers, this book wears you down in the end… Suffice to say by this point that if you’re a person who rejects the notion of global warming and doesn’t believe that the Holocaust ever happened, you’ll really enjoy this book. For a sane person, Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry is nothing more than a piece of garbage picked from the dustbin of history by two ignorami scurrying on the margins of academia clutching Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon and stooped low under the weight of their personal and professional frustrations.

The plentiful metaphorical references to nudity and disrobing throughout the book conjure images that, given the authors, are just painful. But, steeling myself against that frightful vision, I’ll offer one last critique of the book by way of its unfortunate titular image: it is not Indigenous people and their allies who have been stripped down; not at all. It is Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard, whose inadequacy, hatred, and contempt are exposed, and who we can all now see lying naked in a compromised position next to the Emperor.

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Posted on October 26, 2009, in Imperialism & Colonialism, Indigenous Struggles, Radical History, Revolutionary Culture & Cultural Work and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Review of “Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry”.

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