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The purpose of this section is to explore aboriginal stories as they unfold in the newspapers. Articles have been organised by date and summarised, so that readers may acquire factual information on issues and the various perspectives concerning them. A second purpose is to model critical reading, a skill that all students need to acquire in order to become informed citizens in a democracy.
For copyright reasons, the following news stories are summaries rather than verbatim copies of the original newspaper articles. They include comments and questions that are designed to model critical thinking through analysis, so that students can get into the habit of reading critically themselves. For example, how informative is the article? Does it clarify issues? Does the writer display bias? Are any questions left unanswered? What new information is revealed? How does it add to the topic at hand? Is the reader left hanging? Readers should also consider the biases of the person summarising the article. Was his interpretation of the news story helpful? Was he leading the reader in any way?
27 April 2007: “U.S. Indian activist getting chilly greeting” [Winnipeg Free Press, A8]
Journalist Alexandra Paul described the controversy surrounding the choice of Ward Churchill, a “U.S. Indian activist,” to speak at the University of Manitoba. He came apparently at the invitation of a “history graduate students’ group” that justified its choice on the grounds that Ward’s “provocative work has been critical to studies of colonization and indigenous peoples in North America“ and that his “academic troubles deserve its defense [sic] in the interests of academic freedom.” Aboriginal leaders in Manitoba were not happy about this, and Ron Evans, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, asked that the university cancel Churchill’s visit. So, who is Ward Churchill? A review of a person’s life and career via the Internet can be quite revealing, and if you persist, you’ll find the clincher. For any reputable historian that can be found here. Thomas Brown, professor at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, provided a concrete example of how badly Churchill did history. Added to all the other evidence, it made the man a poor choice for the annual History Graduate Student Conference. One wonders what the organisers were thinking. If this was the only person they could find in academia to bolster studies of colonization and indigenous peoples, the discipline must be in a sorry state. The old red herring of academic freedom was invoked as justification, but it was competence that was the issue here. Not just Ward Churchill’s competence but that of the organizers. Update: In a second paper entitled “Ward Churchill’s Twelve Excuses for Plagiarism,” historian Thomas Brown gave additional and convincing evidence of Churchill’s “plagiary, fabrication, and falsification.” Churchill was fired on 24 July 2007 by the University of Colorado. That he was able to survive so long as an academic is truly remarkable and begs for historical analysis in its own right.
12-18 April 2007: “Jacking Up the Tension” [NOW Magazine]
10 March 2007: “Sacred herbs inspire cultural odyssey” [Winnipeg Free Press, B4]
The above article by Nick Martin was a report highlighting some of the student projects at the First Nations Regional Science Fair held in March 2007 at Red River College. The event involved 400 students from 30 reserve schools across Manitoba, which was up a third from last year, and five times the number in the first science fair four years ago. Four students would be going to the Canada-Wide Science Fair in Truro, N.S., May 12-20, 2007. This should have been a good news report that had everyone cheering for our youth, but instead it provoked angry letters to the editor.
The first letter was from Michael Melanson, who objected to one particular project and to aboriginal science fairs in general. Here’s part of what he wrote (Winnipeg Free Press, 13 March 2007, A10):
Instead of all the worthy science fair projects that could have been featured prominently, the article’s main focus was on a project that conformed to a romantic stereotype of aboriginals as people who are in spiritual symbiosis with the physical universe. Not to discredit these students’ efforts, but a project that advocates explaining to “Mother Earth” why you are plucking some of Her “sacred” herbs “to connect with the Creator, to entice him with your prayers,” belongs somewhere other than a science fair. Emphasizing a project that promotes cultural awareness by advocating superstitious customs demeans the efforts of all those other students who seemed to have understood what a science fair is about….Holding separate, culturally specific science fairs demonstrates an insidious bias. Rather than letting aboriginal students compete on a level playing field with other students, they are given their own playing field. In other words, they are treated as exceptions rather than as equals. A German cultural anthropologist pointed out once that romanticizing Native Americans was the other side of the same coin as anti-Semitism; both views dehumanize.
Melanson’s objections received an angry response from Jacqueline Fitzpatrick of Thompson, who wrote (WFP, 14 March 2007, A12):
The general public always misses the point in aboriginal people’s attempts to remain culturally unique. Our culture was destroyed by colonialism and it is only through persistent efforts that many colleges and universities today are beginning to recognize what has happened and turn this around for aboriginal people…Aboriginal people were never on a level playing field and never will be. How can you treat unequals as equals? From day one, aboriginal people were treated as third-class citizens in their own land, so don’t speak to me about equality when we are treated differently based on our ancestry…The attempt to assimilate aboriginal peoples into Canadian society and keep them at a disadvantage is oppressive education, which we will no longer tolerate.
Joanne Neepin also responded (WFP, 14 March 2007, A12):
I take offence to Michael Melanson’s letter referring to some aspects of aboriginal culture and spirituality as being a romantic stereotype. Simply stating some facts about certain beliefs or customs of aboriginal culture is not “romanticizing” it. Melanson’s dismissive and condescending attitude toward aboriginal culture is really what dehumanizes and demeans a group of people.
Wow! All this rhetoric about a report on a science fair! What’s going on here? Let’s see if we can “deconstruct” this exchange and come up with an answer. First of all, Martin’s focus was skewed; Melanson was right about that. Martin privileged a project by Tashina Monias and Marcia Quill that explored the origins, meanings and uses of sage, cedar, sweetgrass and tobacco. Unfortunately, he barely mentioned the science, focussing instead on the cultural aspects of their discoveries. This type of research would certainly be more appropriate for a heritage fair project. However, Melanson went further and used dismissive language regarding traditional aboriginal beliefs that Joanne Neepin rightly called him on. She certainly touched upon a problem that often makes it difficult for aboriginal students to compete on a level playing field with non-aboriginals and may explain why a separate aboriginal science fair was conceived. Fitzpatrick’s response is much more problematic. Not only did she not respond to Melanson’s main objections, she painted a dismal picture of aboriginal culture and talent. In point of fact, aboriginal culture was not destroyed by colonialism; it just reinvented itself. And level playing fields are often a matter of perception. If you think you are unequal, life will always confirm your perceptions. Aboriginal people are gradually abandoning the reserves that inspired the now discredited apartheid system of South Africa. They are entering the mainstream in increasing numbers. They’ve decided to be “first-class citizens” and increasingly they are becoming so. That’s good news.
Last updated: February 8, 2010