It’s taken some time for Olympic organizer Dick Pound’s comments on savages to boil down for me.
Here in the mountains where life borders on idyllic and our multiracial community prepares to hunker in for winter, the idea of Canada as a ‘land of savages’ is jarring. There are three native families here. None of us are considered differently than our neighbours. If anything we’re recognized as an important and valued part of the community.
Maybe that’s the irritant in Pound’s shortsighted blurb. Maybe it’s the ongoing fact that our realities, both aboriginal and not, continue to merge, join, become a flow of lives that come to mean ‘Canada’ in the end.
So it’s the hard-heartedness of Pound’s words that disrupted me the most. We all come from so-called ‘savage’ roots. Even Pound.
The inarguable fact is we all began our human histories in the same hunkered fight-or-flight stance. We all needed to find language and cultivate fire. We all gathered around those common fires in the night for community, security and a sense of home. We all began our ambulatory plod to destiny in the same way. That’s what really bugs me. The cultural arrogance of it all.
The argument that because one group of humans were further along the developmental path at some point in history, and thus able to judge others as ‘lesser’ in terms of that development, is an accepted conceit. But technology is not the arbiter of one’s fitness for the test of being human. Neither, apparently, is education, privilege or position.
Because when Pound said the word ‘savages’ he implied superiority. He meant that, at the time of contact, and in his mind, contemporary time too, the indigenous populations were inferior to white settlers. He said, in effect, that the savages who occupied the land were inconsequential. That their homeland was there for the taking. History, including the 2010 Olympics, bears that out.
The mindset that forms such thoughts is colonial. There are those who refer to the times we live in now as post-colonial. But the truth is that there is no ‘post’ in colonialism. As a system colonialism just keeps on ticking. The hallmarks of it, appropriation, subjugation, and cultural selfishness continue to manifest themselves in newer, mutated ways. Hence, the gift of Dick Pound’s insight.
But a colonialist mindset is the height of cultural arrogance.
The one simmering reality that lies beneath any discussion of history, evolution or social development, is that we all began in the same primitive way. In our pasts we have all been brutes. We have all shared a Neolithic period of stone tools, guttural language and cosmologies built of fear, speculation and wonder — and we have all followed the same path upwards.
The only variant is time.
In the Canada of the settlement era, time functioned in a different rhythm than in Europe. Here, where cultures flourished and societal structures developed without the influence of Western scientific thought, there was more attention paid to relationships with the land than invention and industry.
Not because native peoples were less able or less intelligent, but because time was measured seasonally and, with that, came the necessity of harmony with the environment.
That’s not to say native peoples became spiritually superior. We had our share of murderers, thieves, cheaters and frauds and we need to own that. In any circle of human beings there will always be those who are less noble, upright and morally refined. It wasn’t all sweat lodges and sunsets, but we were moved to consider the spirit of things and it made us, for the most part, spiritual.
The iconography surrounding that spirituality was not all that different from the belief systems European civilizations embraced in their spiritual evolutions. The search for meaning, for a God, a religion and an iconography that explains that manner of worship are also shared human beginnings.
So the term savage was, and is, a smug and haughty one.
It implies a refutation of the depth of our shared human experience.
It implies an accepted permissiveness to assume a hierarchal, top-of-the-totem-pole elevation.
For a prominent person to use the word and submit it for mass consumption flies in the face of what Canada and the Olympics have come to mean.
Canada is community. So are the Games. Here in the mountains where the sense of community is strong, the only savage element is the north wind in winter. Nowhere in our relationships with each other, does the term ever rise. Because we are neighbours and our struggles, worries, concerns, issues and joys as a community are the same — just like Canada.
We all come from the same beginning. That’s the truth of it. We all march collectively to same end. It’s savage to think otherwise.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, arrives in August from Doubleday.
He can be reached at