Some of it is bad history...

The first problem comes, for me, when the writers attempt to show that the North American peoples were equal politically. [Don't get me wrong; I am one of the already converted; I believe that the First People were Nations; that they never lost that status; that they do not have to prove it to me or to anyone else, using anyone else's standards; that they have a right to self-determination still.] However, in their rush to convince readers that the First Nations were political equals to the European nations, Peter and Wayne paint a picture of carnage, bloodshed, severed heads, massacres, parallel and equal to the carnage and bloodshed characteristic of Europe at the same time. This argument suggests to me a colonized mind that has bought into the denigration tactics used to justify the land grab from "the savages."

This example of being equally bloodthirsty seems to be part of an outdated idea of what history is. Surely we have moved beyond believing that history is, like the nightly news, the Bad News, the "if it bleeds it leads" stories. The glorification of "war as an intimate act" and "worship[ping] at the altar of courage" is outdated. Both imply a lost Eden of noble savages. What is worse, such attitudes encourage martyrs who promote armed resistance against impossible odds. Moreover, this outdated attitude is also bad history because it touts one old technique (warfare) removed from the context of an Old Order. The warrior imagery standing alone is a distortion of any culture. When it dominates the media or the history books, elders, women, children become invisible, their voices silenced, their contributions and vision unacknowledged.

Reinforcing the false impression that history is men, dates, politics, alliances, and battles (the old depressing kind of history), the flyers ask directions from lost youths, pay verbal homage to elders they never meet, as they head off to interview tired politicians girding themselves for boardroom battles. There are no female voices, except the one mother who is asked about her politician son. Inadvertently, Ancient Land, Ancient Sky exemplifies why the future for First Peoples cannot be left in the hands of blinkered lawyers and politicians who have a distorted understanding, who see only small pieces of the whole picture.

The maps of the Old Countries that introduce each chapter seem to me to be examples of seeing a small distorted picture. Granted, territories could be drawn on to maps, and boundaries were clearly defined in people's heads even when the occupation of the land tended to vary from season to season, and wars and famines meant much shifting of peoples from place to place. To draw these on a map, to attempt to fix the boundaries on paper, to call them countries seems to me to be misleading. To refer to what happened as "death by cartography" seems so reductive. This selling-out, or rather, this buying-in to the imposed new cultures is not helpful. It suggests a lopsided understanding of the Old Orders, as if politics, external affairs and war, were the most important elements of the cultures. Referring to traditional homelands as Old Countries seems to beg: We were just like you; we want to register our claim to private property. Trying to imagine a new world order will require envisioning nations with distinct identities existing within the physical boundaries of a province, a country, a continent, side by side with other nations. Perhaps even the eventual disappearance of all borders. We need Newthink, not OldEuropeanthink that never worked in the past

As bad history, Ancient Land, Ancient Sky repeats mistakes common to other histories. It describes one flight, "following Canada's Native Canoe Routes," as if these are the only routes, and as if the people they visit are the only native people. I think it is very risky to assume that readers will know that much is left unvisited, that many are excluded by being ignored, unacknowledged, just as the writers accuse others of doing. They also imply by not clarifying otherwise, that because these communities exist in what is now Canada, there is some connection, some unity of First Peoples. It is obvious that little is known about most of the cultures mentioned. We get no idea how the people live, what they believe, whether any of the Old Ways survive, whether reconstituting the Old Countries would accomplish anything other than employing more brown men in suits. Now, I'm sounding bitter.

Some really important aspects of history, important today and to the future, are ignored. There is no mention of the fact that, in most of British Columbia, there are no treaties, that millions of people live on unceded land. There is no explanation of the difference between B.C. reserves and other reserves where agreements were signed, although perhaps not lived up to. There is no explanation of why Delgamuukw is so important, or whether the Nisga'a Treaty is a dangerous surrender of rights, an end rather than a beginning. There is no discussion of what "aboriginal rights" means, of whether aboriginal rights are the same as or different from human rights, of whether anyone can sell their rights. There is no mention of what Land Claims means in different parts of the country, of what is meant by self-determination, of the rights of off-reserve Indians, of whether native people are also Canadians, of how International Law can help, of how we are going to make nations within a nation work. It would seem that the travelers, revisiting stories of injustice, betrayal, and loss, get stuck in the past. Maybe they came down too fast on the landing gear, or clipped a wing going through a narrow pass and they're scared, or sore. This shortcoming, this impression of mortal wounds, gives the book an elegiac quality, which is sad. Where do we go after dislocation and loss? Who are the mechanics, the healers? The People of Turtle Island must have some ideas. What would "the Ancestors" say?

The chaser of political correctness leaves a bitter taste. Drafting maps of the "Old Countries," the navigator imagines a return to glorious past, even taking back the old countries and setting up "white reserves." Well, there goes my vote. Erasing 500 years of history, turning back the clock, taking revenge for past mistreatment seems like some kind of adolescent get-even fantasy. Who wants to go there, even if we knew how to get there? The readers are left to hitch their own ride between that past, today, and tomorrow. No rumors of a land bridge are corroborated. No flight plan to the future is filed. | Back

-- J.M. Bridgeman