Thursday, 5 September 2013

Dancing with a ghost

Exploring Indian Reality
Rupert Ross, 1992

I want to do a little bit of a book review of a book my mother turned me on to.  My mom seldom reads non-fiction books.  So when she told me she was really enjoying reading this particular book I was intrigued.  The way she was explaining the book to me this summer, it sounded like the kinds of ideas I had been thinking about a lot lately.  I kind of blew my mind.  The book is an attempt to explain to the non-native, Canadian majority, the fundamentals of the workings of aboriginal culture.  It’s an attempt to bridge the apparent gap between two cultures.  Written from the point of view of a white lawyer from Ontario, it’s a personal account in dealing with aboriginal culture in the justice system.  Rupert Ross tries to deal with disconnections in the cultural intercourse that ends up leaving both parties in confusion.  This book was written more than 20 years ago, but I feel this is still a relevant book with a topic essential to be understood by all people wishing to understand aboriginal issues
Right off the bat I would like to acknowledge my clear ignorance of the issue at hand.  In fact I feel slightly uncomfortable talking about this issue because I feel like I am stumbling around in the dark.  I am blind to know what should be obvious to me, what sensitive issues I may want to avoid.  I hope in admitting my humble amount of knowledge, I can hopefully be forgiven for any sensitive trespasses I may cause in my writing.   I’m ignorant to even what words I should be using to refer to aboriginal culture groups.  Indian? Aboriginal? Native?  The book is titled “exploring INDIAN reality”, but this is now a small world we live in.  This is a multicultural community.  We deal with the country of India and people who are Indian who hail from said country.  For the sake of clarity, it would be just be effective not to use that word.  I heard it through the grapevine, the word “Natives” is a little rude.  So Aboriginal sounds like the current politically correct word to be using.  So that’s the one I will stick to for now.   Also, I must mention that I don’t feel entirely comfortable referring to myself as “white”, but I cant find a replicable word for it at the moment.

Culture is your operating system

This is the one thing that jumped out at me when I was reading the opening few chapters.  The way that culture acts as the basis of your social blueprint is fascinating to me.  One of my favorite pet theories these days is that culture acts like an operating system of a computer.  Now, this book was written before the general public had incorporated the concepts involving computers into their lexicon.  But this idea is vivid in this book at least in my own eyes.  The operating system is the blueprint that a computer uses to interpret and filter the code world into a uniform system so that people can move around the digital world effectively.  Likewise, culture is the way our own mind takes the raw data of experience and human interaction and processes it in order for the human being be able to move around the social world effectively.  Computers must all be running the same operating system in order to effectively share information properly.  Because like humans, computers operate using different languages of code.  Macintosh computers can interact somewhat with Windows computers, but it is sometimes difficult to share certain files.  Perhaps similarly the way someone speaking Newfoundland English might have trouble trying to talk to someone who is from South Africa.

Different models of the universe

I think what Ross is trying to point out, is that the cultural operating system of aboriginal culture is very different in fundamental ways to that of white North American culture.  Things we take for granted as first premises of existence are not as concrete as we would like to think.  The structure of Aboriginal metaphysics is based on a different view of the universe.  The place that human beings occupy in nature is nearly polar opposite in White and Aboriginal culture.  This has huge implications on the purposes of life and has a ripple effect all the way to the shores of mundane interaction with other people.   
A culture that is still relatively near in time to its hunter-gatherer roots is going to have a different purpose than that of an agricultural people.  A hunter gatherer operating system will be focused on the fundamentals of survival.  In a land so harsh as Canada, the day to day activities are going to be a matter of life and death.  The cultural operating system is going to create a lens for the human being that will make the decisions for life and death of the group as first premise assumptions.  Whereas in agricultural society, the lens focus is elsewhere.   
One of my favorite thinkers, Alan Watts described that the agricultural, Judeo-Christian society has the idea of the “ceramic model of the Universe”.  Or the “universe as an artifact”.  Mankind’s place in the universe is that of an alien.  In our view, humans are foreigners in a static and dead world and we are in some fundamental way, separate from nature.  Because the world is an inanimate object, the world can be owned, taken apart and controlled.  We feel we have the right to make the world as we see fit.  I have the feeling that since we developed agriculture, we had to develop a cultural framework to deal with food surpluses, sedentary life and ownership.  Because of these new problems, to effectively move around the agricultural world, human beings need a fundamentally different set of metaphysical first premises than that of nomadic, hunter gatherers.                
So then, the aboriginal people of modern day Canada are the inheritors of culture that is operating under a set of cultural assumptions that developed in a nomadic, hunter-gatherer context.  This may be why there is such a huge disconnect with white culture.  This may be why there are so many problems in aboriginal communities.  There is a malfunction in the way people are relating to the sedentary reality of the 21st century. 
When the Canadian government and justice system pushes solutions to problems onto aboriginal communities, there is a misunderstanding of the very cultural context specific conditions that these solutions work under.  The notions of crime and punishment that white culture operates under, do not necessarily compute with aboriginal culture.  We take it for granted that the natural reaction for wrong doing is punishment, yet this does not seem to be the case in aboriginal culture, according to Ross.  If there is an incidence of violence, instead of focusing on punishing the perpetrator, there is a focus on discovering the root problem that caused this act to happen in the first place.  There is a more focus on healing and forgiveness, instead of punishment and removal from the community as in white justice systems.  Things that come off rude to one culture may be just attempts at being polite and cordial for another.  In the white Canadian culture, it is commonly polite to maintain eye contact and be complimentary about other’s achievements.  Whereas showing respect in the aboriginal social landscape is to be modest in talking about others directly and not make too much eye contact.
Rupert Ross emphasizes that Aboriginal culture operates under a strict rule of non-intervention.  This may be why there is perceived attitude of apathy in these communities.  This includes child rearing.  Instead of the commonly used authoritarian way of setting rules and boundaries for young Canadian white children, aboriginal culture uses a lead-by-example way of guiding young people.  Unfortunately due to the advancement of mass media technology in these remote communities, young people are beginning to emulate different social norms than their parents.  Yet their parents have a different framework and keep a more traditional way of socializing.  This is causing a widening gap between generations and causing a harmful alienation of young people.  These are just a few examples Ross gets into in this short book.        

Seeing through the rules

What I learned from this book was not how to solve all the problems in the aboriginal communities.  I learned that even to begin trying to solve the problems, we have to stop talking past each other.  Our cultural systems do not fit well with each other to create a healthy discourse for problem solving.  Both sides have to break down our own cultural norms and deeply question our first premises of reality.  We cannot assume what brings us happiness and well being will be the solution in an environment and a culture much different than we are used to When we rise above the cultural planes we live in, we can objectively judge where our cultures will be able to fit together well for co-operation.        

It looks like I’m late to the party.  I assume that the movement of “Idle no More” was much to do with this very topic.  But I suppose I choose not to pay attention and hoped that aboriginals would be able to deal with their problems themselves.  But I now realize it’s the responsibility to understand fundamental culture difference on both sides.  That way we can try to progress to a time where there are no “sides” to be on.

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