Edward S. Curtis gained fame a century ago for his iconic photos of indigenous people. That fame was later tainted by revelations that he removed traces of western society from his subjects and paid them to wear culturally and historically inaccurate clothing. Curtis couldn’t resist the urge to impose his own idealized notions on indigenous people.
A similar urge plays out in the national conversation about the environment. Narrow portrayals of aboriginal views are often used to support environmental protection. I have heard many versions of this line of thinking that says indigenous people have an exemplary conservation-oriented reverence for creation, while settler—non-indigenous—people have a bulldozer-oriented worldview that is killing the planet.
I have been informed and inspired by this argument. A profound alternative to the dominant ideology of limitless economic growth is vital. That said, to avoid the temptation to which Curtis succumbed, the above argument needs to account for another set of realities.
Indigenous-owned companies cashed in on more than $1.3 billion worth of work in the Alberta oil sands in 2010, with 1,700 indigenous people working in oil sands-related jobs. Further north, three of the four regional indigenous governments in the vicinity of the proposed Mackenzie Valley Pipeline have formally teamed up with the world’s largest oil companies to push for a $16.2-billion natural gas pipeline.
The Canadian Mining Association—which displays an Inuit inukshuk prominently on its website—says 4,500 aboriginal people work in mining (according to the 2006 census), with more than 170 agreements between indigenous people and mining companies. And in the hydro-electric sector, indigenous people in Labrador and Manitoba are backing $22.6 billion worth of new mega-dams.
In most of these cases, indigenous influence has or will alter project designs to reduce environmental impact, but that doesn’t change the fact that these are industrial mega-developments.
Of course, a segment of the indigenous population in each of the above cases opposes development. And in other places, indigenous governments are resisting developments, but gone are the days when virtually every big resource project could expect stiff aboriginal opposition.
The situation is more nuanced now. Consider the Haisla First Nation, located at Kitimat, B.C., within sight of the proposed western terminus of the contentious Northern Gateway Pipeline that would deliver bitumen from Alberta to China-bound super-tankers.
During visits with their chief and other leaders last summer, I learned that they are dead-set against the pipeline. I also learned that they have become a key player in the multi-billion-dollar push to export liquified natural gas, much of it from controversial fracking operations. They are shrewd and aggressive business people, as well as deeply committed defenders of the ecological health of their homeland.
Many more examples exist.
This murkier new reality is shifting the moral landscape of our country, a country still significantly defined by resource-development decisions.
To the extent that we church folk participate in dialogue about indigenous relations, the environment and the economy—as I believe we should—we must grapple with this new reality. Those of us who may be inclined, like Curtis, to remove any hard hats or bulldozers from our image of aboriginal people, need to resist that urge.
Conversely, those people who are inclined to criticize aboriginal people for standing in the way of progress also need to reassess their perceptions.
For me, the upshot of this emerging era of indigenous industrialization is twofold. First, I still believe that there are essential lessons about balance and respect to be learned from aboriginal people. We need an antidote to the dogma of consequence-free growth.
Second, what I have learned from my conversations with development-inclined aboriginal leaders is that those of us who push for environmental protection must also address the need for economic opportunity among indigenous people.
In 2011, I interviewed Fred Carmichael, an indigenous leader who champions the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline. His message for environmentalists and romanticists is blunt: “Don’t just come here and take away our bread and butter.” If people don’t like pipelines, he says, “find us another alternative to the pipeline.”
That is not necessarily an argument for pipelines; he concedes that the project “might not be the best for the environment.” His comments could also be interpreted as a call for a society in which indigenous people have more choices than just grinding poverty or industrial mega-development.
The old dichotomies and simplifications—whether romantic or critical of indigenous people—won’t get us there. Edward Curtis worked in black and white. We need to work in grey.
Adapted from Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry: Conversations on Creation, Land Justice and Life Together, a collection of essays edited by Steve Heinrichs, director of indigenous relations for Mennonite Church Canada.