Finding a way toward cultural preservation

To hear Wade Davis say it, you'd think the Yukon was smack-dab in the middle of humanity's greatest challenge.

To hear Wade Davis say it, you’d think the Yukon was smack-dab in the middle of humanity’s greatest challenge.

Out here, where the survival of aboriginal culture and its validity is debated in bar rooms, policy discussions and college classrooms, the topic of his recent book, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, is very apropos.

In fact, if we can put off the brainy academic stuff for a minute, Davis draws inspiration for the plight of traditional lifestyles from only a few hundred kilometres south of the Yukon border.

He lives there near the town of Iskut, a tiny aboriginal community on the Cassiar Highway. In Tahltan territory, Iskut is near what is known as the Sacred Headwaters, a salmon-rich region where the mighty Skeena, Nass and Stikine Rivers collide.

While Tahltan people have found food, shelter and cultural identity in the region for centuries, recent years have seen human activity of a different kind. Royal Dutch Shell wants to open a coal bed methane pit, and Imperial Metals has shown interested in opening a copper and gold mine.

So not long ago, Davis met with BC Premier Gordon Campbell and showed him a photo of Davis’s friend, Oscar Dennis, from an article Davis had done for National Geographic.

“I think he expected me to come at him as an environmentalist, but I really didn’t,” said Davis, who received permission from the Dennis family to share the following.

In the five years since the article, one of Dennis’s brothers had hung himself, another had drowned, still another had died due to medical malpractice, a sister died on the streets of Prince George and another sister had shot her head off while playing with a pistol.

All the while, the Eskay Creek gold and silver mine had been pumping billion of dollars of bullion out of Tahltan territory nearby.

“What I told the premier is, ‘Why doesn’t Iskut have a hockey rink?,” said Davis. “‘Why doesn’t Iskut have an indoor swimming pool? Why doesn’t Iskut have an elder’s centre? Why does this community of all communities lack the infrastructure that pretty much every predominantly white community scattered along the Yellowhead Highway from Vaderhoef and Houston and Smithers and Prince George, Terrace and Rupert, all those towns including Hazelton has?”

The problem isn’t just about a lost generation of First Nations who went to residential schools or the various other forces that took aboriginal life by storm in North America over the course of a few centuries.

If you look at the problem with a wider view, the root of the suffering is the underlying lack of input that Tahltan people have had in the way society was run around them, said Davis.

Like another Canadian anthropologist, Hugh Brody, once said, “The issue is not the modern versus the traditional, it’s the rights of free people to choose the components of their lives,” said Davis.

“You can identify specific forces that are ideological in terms of the domination of the nation of Tibetans by the Marxist-Leninists of Beijing or whether it’s the cult of modernity inherent in the development paradigm being promoted throughout the world or whether it’s something very specific, like egregious deforestation in the homeland of the Penan,” he said.

It’s just like in Iskut, said Davis. If certain basic needs are denied, and your choice to manage those needs is denied, you’re signing a people’s death warrant.

“It’s a form of ethnocide, in a way.”

Davis, who coined the term ethnosphere to describe the vast pantheon of human culture and behaviour, is now firmly on a mission to stem that ethnocide.

You might think of it as an Iskut problem, or an aboriginal problem, or even a Canadian problem. But for Davis, the point is that it’s a global problem, with roots in how we perceive the progress of certain people in history and the future of the most vulnerable people today.

“Nobody is saying Inuit people or Athabascan people somehow should be denied the genius of modernity more than anyone is suggesting that those of us from the realm of the modern or from the industrialized world should return to a pre-industrial state,” he said.

“The issue is what kind of a world do we want to live in and how do we find a way that all the voice of humanity has a place at the table of knowledge.”

Wayfinders earned Davis a spot as the CBC Massey Lecturer for 2009, and he’s been on a wider tour promoting his book across the continent. On Monday, he lectured in Oregon. On Tuesday, it was San Francisco, where he did the interview for this story from his hotel bathroom so he wouldn’t wake up his daughter.

And after lecturing in Philadelphia on Thursday, Davis will zoom north for a lecture at the Environment After Hours annual public speaking event on Saturday, hosted by the Environment Department, in Whitehorse.

He gets the usual gripes from some academic circles of being a cultural relativist and for romanticizing the plight of people who don’t have all the luxuries of modern life.

“One of the important things about anthropology is that it doesn’t call for an extreme relativism,” said Davis. “It doesn’t call for the elimination of judgement; it calls for the suspension of judgement so that the judgements we are ethically obliged to make will be informed ones.”

“Anthropology is not, in any way, about ‘anything goes’ or people being absolved from personal responsibility or communities,” he said. “It’s not really what it’s all about. It’s really about recognizing the fact that all cultures are inherently ethnocentric, kind of loyal to their own interpretations of reality.”

“We’re all culturally myopic, including ourselves in the predominant society, and that kind of cultural myopia is what we can’t afford in the world at large.”

There is no shortage of things we can learn from cultures we’ve briskly deemed backward or primitive, according to Davis.

Among his favourites are the Polynesian wayfinders, who had to remember every current, wind and astrological change while travelling on week-long journeys across the Pacific Ocean.

If you take the hidden gems of ancient ingenuity with the contemporary crisis’ of our age – from environmental collapse due to overzealous industrialization or financial collapse due to greed – it’s hard to deny that crossover in terms of behaviour and beliefs couldn’t happen for the benefit of all people.

“In our society, technological innovation and wizardry has been the criteria that we have seen as a measure of success,” he said.

“But if you applied other criteria, for example, an ability to live in a truly sustainable way in a natural ecosystem or perhaps other skills sets, like Polynesians being able to navigate the Pacific 10 centuries before Christ, or the subtle intuitions of the mind that is evident through 2,500 years of empirical study by Tibetan Buddhists, you see that every society makes a contribution to our collective patrimony as a species.”

Davis will speak at 7 p.m. at the Yukon Beringia Centre on Saturday.

Contact James Munson at

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