I began reading this book filled with contrarian glee and the opening sentence of what I felt sure would be a fascinating review: “Only an old crank would dredge this book up again. Ta da!”
I had developed the idea, independent of this book, that this screed, which has been denounced repeatedly since it was first published in 2008, might actually contain some merit that had been buried in poor rhetoric and politics. A very small part of me thinks it possible this still might be true. Unfortunately, I was unable to unearth any merit at all because Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry is so filled with racist, unsubstantiated claims that I was unable to finish it.
I’ll pause on the gravity of that statement. Reviewing a book you haven’t read, while living in a free and open society such as the one I’m privileged to live in, borders on criminally irresponsible. But I’m going there. Because the act of reading this book was kind of ruining my life. It was making me dangerously unstable and unhappy. I became a little … unhinged.
A brief history: Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: the Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation, written by Frances Widdowson, a professor at Mount Royal College in Calgary, and her husband, Albert Howard, was published in 2008 by McGill University Press.
The book promised to argue that aboriginal welfare had been seriously harmed by non-aboriginal lawyers and consultants who enmesh themselves into land claims disputes and cultural programs intent only on furthering their lucrative careers, and lining the pockets of Indigenous leaders who will work with them.
Disrobing was denounced almost immediately, though it’s almost comical now to see how polite that kind of thing was in 2009. If published today, Widdowson and Abel would no doubt be trafficking their forbidden knowledge on the intellectual dark web.
What is that forbidden knowledge? I’m an unreliable guide, but let’s get into it, shall we?
The book opens with the authors wandering into an environmental assessment hearing for the proposed Ekati diamond mine at the Prince of Wales Heritage Centre in Yellowknife in 1996. They had come to observe one of the first instances in Canada where a review panel was instructed to incorporate “traditional knowledge” alongside scientifically produced environmental science.
It’s a juicy beginning, especially when the authors set in on “a well-known pattern of behaviour in the North: publicly, everyone declared unconditionally that traditional knowledge was a valid and essential source of information,” while in private discussions “many people had concerns about traditional knowledge’s usefulness.” Deadly familiar.
But it’s a quick leap from there to the deliberately “obscurantist” research that hides the “cultural gap” that Widdowson and Abel identify between the “barbarism” of the First Nations and the civilization of the Europeans. This ugly and wrong claim is what set the academic conferences afire when this book first came out.
We’re now in interesting territory. Widdowson and Abel have indeed, in 1996, stumbled into a rich vein of contradiction, intellectual stumbling, and groping in the dark. Traditional knowledge is a complicated minefield. Who holds it? How does one present it? Can it be put into a database? How does it fit with science? What about in places where there is no science? None of this was well understood in 1996, nor is it now.
What say our guides in this murky terrain? “Isolation from economic processes has meant that a number of neolithic cultural features, including undisciplined work habits, tribal forms of political identification, animistic belief, and difficulties in developing abstract reasoning, persist despite hundreds of years of contact.” Page 13. I pulled this sentence almost at random. There are hundreds more like it.
Though Widdowson and Abel repeatedly bait the reader with sacred cows that seem ripe for examination (“‘Native Studies’ and the Creation of Pretentious Arrogance” is the title of one alluring chapter), the goods simply aren’t delivered. “Large sums” we are told, are spent on lawyers. How much? We don’t know, though we do know that: “Most aboriginal peoples are not even aware of the amounts involved. They simply wait to benefit from these settlements just as people dream about winning the lottery. But as with lotteries, only a very few will share these elusive winnings. The rest will spend their lives hoping, becoming increasingly resentful as the glorified welfare never comes.”
The authors lament, in passing, the vulnerability of Indigenous political leaders forced to rely on outside advice. But they are genuinely horrified by the “more disturbing element” that those leaders’ (the authors would put the word leaders in quotes) “objectives are personal gain through sinecures and attendance fees.”
If non-Indigenous people who work with Indigenous governments are perpetrating a fraud at the expense of their clients, I want to know about it. (Just DM me; I’ll get this to a reporter asap.) No evidence, however, is presented here, not even anecdotal evidence, though this abounds when needed. “Several winters ago we encountered our dentist at a ski resort in the lunchtime lineup…” reads the opening of one chapter.
What’s truly baffling about this book is just how mean-spirited it is. “The aboriginal tribes of North America have puzzled European philosophers, missionaries, and adventurers since first contact. Who were they and where did they come from? Were they human beings fundamentally similar to the people encountered in the Old World, or sub-humans with a completely different place in the ‘natural order’ of things?”
Or this casual sideswipe at Indigenous language translators, “who are in a position to freely interpret the message.”
I had hoped, for the purpose of this review, to make it past sentences like this to find whatever kernel of truth prompted this atrocity. Unfortunately, I wasn’t up to the challenge.
Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation
Frances Widdowson and Howard Abel
McGill University Press, 2009