Regurgitating Doctrines Does Not Constitute Analysis

Frances Widdowson, Albert Howard

Dear UTA,

Tom Keefer’s review of our book Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation attempts to prejudice its reception by implying that we have anti-native, colonialist, racist, and right-wing sympathies. These baseless accusations are a smokescreen for the vacuousness of Keefer’s own analysis. Keefer’s review is more concerned with parroting the doctrines of his guru, George Comninel, than evaluating the validity of our arguments.

Keefer provides no evidence that our views are “racist” or “right-wing.” He seems to think we come to similar conclusions as the neo-conservative aboriginal policy critic Tom Flanagan, when our arguments for intensive government intervention are completely opposed to the privatization that Flanagan is proposing. One of us (Widdowson) is even accused of “working directly with” Mark Vandermaas and Gary McHale, a fabrication based on their invitation to speak at a forum with a number of other presenters, including a representative of the Six Nations, Wes Elliott (is Widdowson also “working directly” with him?). Keefer also fails to understand that our arguments concern cultural features (learned behaviour), not biological characteristics. All people, regardless of their racial background, were once Stone Age hunters and gatherers; historical accident made it possible for some groups to develop more quickly and colonize others. It is “Two Row Wampum” promoters like Keefer who are actually embracing “racist assumptions” when they argue that traditional aboriginal cultures are racially determined.

Keefer’s insinuations are designed to prevent people from fairly appraising our historical and materialist position. Our arguments do not deny the role played by colonialism in native marginalization, as Keefer asserts. They maintain that developmental differences between traditional aboriginal cultures and modern societies have been a significant part of this process, especially with respect to the emergence of a self-interested Aboriginal Industry that grew out of the opportunities of millions of dollars in land claims settlements. This Industry is intent on denying this developmental gap so as to keep many natives perpetually in need of its “help.” And although Keefer puts “modern” and “developmental differences” in ironic quotation marks, he does not show why he disputes these characterizations.

Keefer seems to be more interested in “demolishing” an imagined claim to a “Marxism” we have never espoused than in exposing the flaws in our arguments (this endeavour is supposedly facilitated by an obtuse quotation from George Comninel on page 106, which is never explicated). But being a “Marxist” does not really make sense if one is attempting to understand history. Our position is that Marx’s views should be subjected to criticism like all others, and Keefer’s recitation of passages that support his own brand of ultra-leftism merely constitutes an indoctrinated appeal to authority.

Keefer’s main objection to Disrobing is its support of the framework of stagism– a premise flowing from Marx’s “materialist concept of history”– that the culture of human societies results from the material conditions of life, and their relations of production. Obviously, the technology employed in the productive effort affects the organization of production, its exchange, and the cultural outgrowth. As such, certain prior developments are necessary to the initiation of others.

Keefer is opposed to stagism, for the most part, not because he shows it to be historically inaccurate but because he believes (wrongly) that it justifies colonialism. He maintains that the theory assumes capitalism as essential in the movement of all peoples toward more socialized production and distribution. However, uneven and combined development in history indicates that it is not necessary for every group to go through these processes since combined development transfers specific aspects of progress between groups. Recognizing that the development of capitalism, in general, led to more organized forms of resistance to exploitation and oppression does not indicate support of it. We realize that the nature of a profit-motivated culture is exploitative, and therefore colonialist relations and imperialism will only disappear if the motivation for profit is superseded by common interest.

Our view that aboriginal isolation from the workforce is a contributing factor to native marginalization and social dysfunction also does not justify the exploitative character of wage labour. It is merely a recognition that all people should be socially productive, both so as to be a contributor to human progress and because the capacity to withdraw one’s labour is the main source of power available to those who do not own the means of production. Encouraging aboriginal people to remain perpetually segregated, as the “Two Row Wampum” ideology suggests, is to isolate aboriginal people from the working class and to keep them dependent on the Industry that benefits from the state subsidization of primitivism.

Keefer, however, is a promoter of diversity, not human equality, which is why he is so concerned that the “traditional culture” of aboriginal people will be destroyed. This, again, is an indication of “racist assumptions,” although they are disguised by romanticism, not the justification of colonialism. It is a politically reactionary position because concern with the creation of a more just and equal society has nothing to do with “tradition.” In fact, traditions often entrench oppressive practices and prevent social cooperation between groups. In the case of aboriginal traditions, for example, kinship relations form the basis of the “communal wealth redistribution” vaunted by Keefer. “Indigenous struggles,” therefore, are more of an attempt to preserve tribalism in the modern context than to oppose an oppressive economic system. Capitalism is acceptable, as long as the profits can be accrued by one’s kin.

The analysis and criticism presented by Keefer reflects the postmodern trends of a “new left” that veers away from class politics towards the opportunism and reactionary impetus of “identity politics” and cultural relativism. The inconsistency of this “revolutionary” vision with a more cooperative future can be seen on the ground in Caledonia (a conflict that Keefer is intricately involved in). Discussions about “land theft” by the “white man” and the promotion of unrealizable indigenous sovereignty has created the rift between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in Caledonia, who without the romantic and irresponsible wishful thinking of people like Keefer, could have found common interests with one another.

Frances Widdowson

and Albert Howard

Calgary