10.25.2008

calling all anthropologists

In today's Globe and Mail, La Wente defends Dick Pound's recent statement calling aboriginal cultures "savagery".
Was Canada once a land of savages? And is saying so tantamount to racism? Many people would answer no, and yes. That's why Dick Pound, the high-profile Olympics figure, is in a heap of trouble for describing the Canada of four centuries ago as "un pays de sauvages." He was talking to a reporter from La Presse about the Beijing Olympics and the issue of human rights. "We must not forget that 400 years ago, Canada was a land of savages, with scarcely 10,000 inhabitants of European descent, while in China, we're talking about a 5,000-year-old civilization," he said.

Wente says Pound was stupid for saying this, but that he spoke the truth.

Because I have an abiding interest in ancient cultures, it's impossible for me to think of any ancient peoples as savages. On the contrary, I'm generally in awe of how much they knew, what they were able to accomplish, and the technology they invented out of nothing. The people who built Machu Picchu had no metal tools or written language. The people who sewed themselves into sealskin kayaks and survived Arctic winters, while their European visitors starved and froze to death, didn't prevail by accident. To me there's no question.

Meanwhile, Wente says of neolithic people, "Other kinship groups were regarded as enemies, and the homicide rate was probably rather high." Well now! Good thing we civilized people have evolved since then. Hiroshima says hi. The Somme says hi. Savagery or civilization? You make the call.

But here's my question.

Wente says, "Until about 30 years ago, the anthropological term for this developmental stage was 'savagery.'" Is this true? Was "savagery" an actual anthropological term? Or merely a descriptive term that lay people used in ignorant condescension?

Now, if anthropologists did use the word "savages" to describe neolithic people, that proves nothing. You can read newspapers or scientific papers from the late 19th Century that are laced with racist stereotypes and Eurocentric bias - and assumption based on zero evidence. It was the conventional mode of thought, but still not factually correct. There are scientific treatises about why slavery is proper. You can make fake science support anything.

But beyond that, is this statement - "Until about 30 years ago, the anthropological term for this developmental stage was 'savagery.'" - true? Was there a technical, anthropological term "savagery", and was that term used until the late 1970s?

I have another question: what is Margaret Wente's problem? But no one can answer that one, so please stick to the question above.

20 comments:

James said...

"We must not forget that 400 years ago, Canada was a land of savages, with scarcely 10,000 inhabitants of European descent, while in China, we're talking about a 5,000-year-old civilization,"

Yeah, totally out of line. 10,000 Europeans aren't enough to qualify it as a land of savages yet.

L-girl said...

10,000 Europeans aren't enough to qualify it as a land of savages yet.

HA! Excellent. I didn't see that one at all.

L-girl said...

I'm not even mentioning the ridiculous "China's an ancient culture" excuse for human rights abuses. Because Chinese civilization has been around a long time, therefore it's ok to imprison people without due process, to excecute thousands, to not allow free speech...?

John F said...

My background is in psychology. I'd call Dick Pound an idiot, but "idiot" used to be the scientific term for a person with a developmental delay. Mister Pound, by contrast, is a bigot.

M@ said...

I'm with John F. Dick Pound is a complete ass, and I'm not surprised to find neolithic thinking coming from him. And Wente's defence is weak at best.

I'd be interested in I/S's assessment of this -- my first reaction was that maybe sauvage does not have the racist overtones in French that it has in English.

I also find it a little funny that Europeans from 400 years ago, the vast majority of whom were illiterate, lived in slums, and washed only a few times a year would call anyone else "savages". The word sounds more like a synonym for "brown-skinned" the more people like Wente try to defend it.

L-girl said...

It is such an antiquated way of thinking, I can hardly believe people still subscribe to it. (Naive, I know.)

I think of stuff-shirted Victorian people calling the rest of the empire "barbarians". They don't have "our" culture, so therefore they have no culture.

There were ancient Indus civilizations (where Pakistan is now) that had a form of indoor plumbing. Not only did a series of pipes flush away waste, the waste was trapped before it went back into the water supply, then used as fertilizer.

What was "Europe" (a concept that didn't exist yet) doing at the time? Your basic raping and pillaging.

L-girl said...

I'd be interested in I/S's assessment of this -- my first reaction was that maybe sauvage does not have the racist overtones in French that it has in English.

Good point. I know "sauvage" is used for "wild", as in wild salmon.

I'm also waiting for the first anthropologist to show up. I know at least one who reads this blog. I will email.

Larry Gambone said...

I took anthropology at Simon Fraser in 1967-70 and do not recall the term "savagery" being used to describe non-European, pre-literate or pre-historic societies. I think you would have to go back to the 1950's (or beyond) for this. In actual fact when you research "primitive" societies you discover how "civilized" they are, especially compared to the Europeans who conquered them. Just one aspect alone - child rearing. Among "primitives" abuse is virtually unknown. Among there European conquerers, beating and humiliation were the norm.

L-girl said...

Thanks, Larry.

In actual fact when you research "primitive" societies you discover how "civilized" they are, especially compared to the Europeans who conquered them.

The Europeans who conquered them brutal beyond belief. I can never call those cultures "civilized" without the scare quotes.

impudent strumpet said...

Was the original interview conducted in English or in French?

L-girl said...

Was the original interview conducted in English or in French?

I think English, but I'm not 100% sure.

When I saw the "un pays de sauvages", I thought he must have spoken in French. But now I think he spoke in English and La Presse translated.

impudent strumpet said...

Sauvage as a noun is an old-fashioned/now-pejorative word for Aboriginal, kind of like Indian in English (apart from the fact that Indian is inexplicably still officially used sometimes). I think it's worse than Indian but not as bad as savage (although I'm not 100% sure on this). If it was originally uttered in English, "pays des sauvages" is the best translation.

If I encountered "pays des sauvages" in a text I was translating into English, I'd assume it's an attempt to be poetic (French is always trying to be poetic to varying degrees of success) unless I have further cues showing that it's an attempt to be offensive, but I wouldn't translate it as "a country of savages".

If he'd meant the "wild and untamed" sense of "sauvage" (and he was speaking French, and he was speaking French correctly), he would have said "un pays sauvage".

I haven't found any controversy about this in the French-language media or internet, except for mentions of the English-language controversy. But if he was originally speaking English that explains it.

L-girl said...

Thanks Imp Strump. If anyone knows for sure if he was speaking French or English, please let us know.

Wrye said...

I'm just so very tired of Wente's pseudoscientific contrarian schtick. Her and Rex Murphy, for that matter. Murphy's "I don't believe in Global Warming because some scientists use harsh language" is kind of a mirror image of this.

No one is arguing with the proposition that the Canadian first nations were less technologically advanced than China (This is not an argument you could make so clearly about the Aztecs, for instance), because that's not what Pound said. Defending an indefensible remark is not clever, or precocious, it is apologist and enabling.

Besides which as Sarah Vowell put it in The Wordy Shipmates, The Europeans of 400 years ago were pretty much medieval themselves, closer in time to the Canterbury Tales than The Wire.

Things that Europe in 1608 had yet to experience:

-The Thirty Years' War, and the idea that religious slaughter may not be the best way to develop your economy
-The Economy
-Isaac Newton, and Gravity
-The Age of Reason in General
-Spelling
-Witchfinders may in fact not be entirely altruistic
-Indoor plumbing
-The germ theory of disease
-This Shakespare Guy may be around for a while
-Machinery more complex than the wheel and the lever


I could go on...

James said...

I'm not even mentioning the ridiculous "China's an ancient culture" excuse for human rights abuses.

Not to mention that China's history is no less savage and barbaric than anyone else's.

L-girl said...

Good point, James. It points out the ridiculous illoogic as people try to rationalize government oppression.

I like Wrye's list!

dogsled_stacie said...

Thanks for the heads-up L-girl! I recall same as Larry, although I was in University in the early 90's. I do know the term was used way back when social evolutionism started to appear (mid-19th century), as a way to explain social development amongst societies. There were the "savages" then the "barbarians" and then of course, the "civilizations" - very unilinear thinking, to believe that all societies developed exactly the same way. Those "savages" were just the poor unfortunate souls who hadn't quite yet developed into the "great" civilizations of the time!!

To give it some perspective, early in her career (1920-30's) Margaret Mead commented on the use of the words savage vs. primitive (essentially the same thing) and preferred to use the latter in publications. Even then, "savage" had a negative connotation, but describing people as "primitive" was ok up until hell... not long ago! Maybe it's still used? I know I heard it quite frequently in school.

I just read that article, wow!!! The fact that Pound said he wasn't actually referring to FN people of today has me baffled, where does he think they came from?? Where does he think the FN people of 400 yrs ago went??

"kinship groups were not very productive"??!! Nahhh... amazing they survived really...

"Traditional knowledge is mostly useless today"??! Wow. FN people are regularly consulted up here for their knowledge on wildlife, archaeological remains, energy/mining/resources, the environment, etc. She is unbelievably clueless.

So. After all this - in answer to your question, I would say no! :)

L-girl said...

Ah, there's the wmtc anthropologist! Thanks Stacie!!

She is unbelievably clueless.

Also dangerous, and over-employed.

James said...

Even then, "savage" had a negative connotation, but describing people as "primitive" was ok up until hell... not long ago! Maybe it's still used?

I don't know about anthropology, but "primitive" is still used in evolutionary biology, where it means "not significantly differentiated from ancient forms", and can refer to either organisms or traits.

impudent strumpet said...

If the word primitive is no longer used, what word is used now?