Co-Author of ‘Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry’ Pens Her Rebuttal

The following is a response to Niigonwedom Sinclair’s critical review of Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation by one of its co-authors, Frances Widdowson.

I appreciate Niigonwedom Sinclair’s efforts in reviewing the book I co-wrote with Albert Howard.  Although I find most of Sinclair’s opposition to our work to be rooted in wishful thinking, and almost all the claims that he makes remain unsubstantiated, the opportunity to have this civil exchange is important: no one has a monopoly on the truth, and by honestly stating what we believe is true, and striving to objectively evaluate the evidence available, everyone can develop a more complete understanding of reality, including the nature of aboriginal/non-aboriginal relations.

Particularly refreshing is the fact that Sinclair does not engage in any personal attacks, or deploy the usual accusations of “racism,” “colonialism,” etc., to try to stifle debate on these issues.  The only label that he uses is “Eurocentric” — an orientation that could be defended, depending upon one’s view of the economic, political and intellectual advancements that have occurred in this region historically.  Sinclair’s major concern, as it should be, is about the accuracy of our work.  In his opinion, the theory of cultural evolution that we use has been “discredited,” our recommendations are “baffling,” and the claims made are “egregious.”

In his critique of our book, Sinclair encourages “Native Studies scholars” to

thoroughly interrogate and question … underlying claims, use reputable evidence to support [their] own, and always encourage honest and informed dialogues and debates among thinkers of diverse political and ideological opinions.

Although this sentiment is commendable, to what extent is Sinclair practicing what he preaches?  Has he “thoroughly interrogat[ed]” the argument that the theory of cultural evolution has been “discredited”? Although people like Taiaiake Alfred and Peter Kulchyski have said so, they have not really shown how this is the case.

The theory of cultural evolution has, in fact, been implicitly accepted in the discipline of archaeology, in the division of human history into the Stone, Bronze and Iron ages.  It is also generally understood that food production evolved out of hunting and gathering (what Morgan generally referred to as the stage of “savagery”), and industrialization was made possible by food production.  Therefore, what aspects of the theory is Sinclair contesting?

It also should be stressed that the theory of cultural evolution, and its conception of earlier developmental stages, does not just refer to “Native societies”: all human beings were, at one time in history, “’savage’, ‘neolithic,’ and ‘barbaric.’  Characterizing societies in this way is based on the technology present at the time, not on some kind of European “value” or a conception of particular cultures being “worthy or meritorious.”  Whether one values something or not depends upon its contribution to human survival.

In addition, it is not our view that aboriginal cultures are “static,” but that their capacity to “change, grow and adjust” is hindered by Aboriginal Industry initiatives that encourage the native population to look to the past for answers to current problems.  Respect for “tradition” is a mantra in aboriginal policy, and we are arguing that tradition should not just be accepted for its own sake, but on the basis that it can provide a social contribution.

In other words, we are opposing atavism in culture, not adaptation and integration.  Our point is not to deny that aboriginal cultures developed historically: rather, it is that, because of historical accident — namely, the absence of the necessary plants and animals in the Americas (wheat, for example), plus the north-south alignment of the continent — aboriginal cultures developed at a slower rate than what was possible in parts of the Old World.

Wishful thinking does not constitute legitimate criticism

If Sinclair is serious about using “reputable evidence” to support his claims, he should take a critical look at Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Sinclair, like many aboriginal commentators, is enthralled with this work because it supports his preconceptions about the “sophistication” of pre-contact native tribes.

Advocates for atavism in aboriginal life disregard the hugely speculative content of Mann’s writings. Take, for example, one of Mann’s flights of imagination about life on the Mississippi in 1100 A.D.  In this account, we marvel at the “city” of Cahokia with its population of fifteen thousand people and

carefully located fields of maize; and hundreds of red-and-white plastered wood homes with high-peaked deeply thatched roofs like those on traditional Japanese farms.

What was the technology that allowed for such accommodation? We are informed that the maize was weeded with stone hoes, but how were the homes built without saws or nails? What about the red and white paint? His claims of these fantastic developments include that “Cahokia was a busy port,” even though the Stone Age technology present would only have been able to produce small boats limited in the distances they could travel (making a “busy port” unlikely in this context).

It should at least be recognized that Mann’s speculations with respect to Cahokia are exclusively based on the existence of large mounds of earth found at the confluence of the Missouri, Illinois and Mississippi rivers, the source of which is debated — either they were built (for no understandable reason) or they are natural formations.

Sinclair also might want to critically investigate the claim he made that pre-contact native communities had

intricate signification systems (see: Anishinaabeg petroglyphs, Mayan codices, or Iroquois wampum), multidimensional governing institutions (like the Five — later Six — Nations Confederacy, clans/totems, and the ’red’ and ‘white’ Muskogee Creek town councils), and diverse legal systems (embedded in such principles as reciprocity, mediation, and responsibility) …

One of the sources used to support this statement is Mann’s 1491.  But it is not clear, for example, that wampum can be “read,” as is claimed by many Native Studies scholars.  This is shown in a case recounted by John Borrows, where the “self-proclaimed interpreter of wampum belts,” Stephen Augustine, declared that a belt of wampum was an ancient Mi’kmaq “constitution.”  A rigorous review of the evidence showed that the “belt” was actually a shawl that was created by a Quebec aboriginal group so that a gift could be provided to the Pope.

Sinclair discusses many circumstances that he claims are responsible for the difficulties being faced by aboriginal communities — a violation of treaty rights, the lack of recognition of indigenous languages and changes in aboriginal post-secondary funding. There is no attempt, however, to show how these policy changes have exacerbated aboriginal marginalization.

A number of aboriginal scholars are referred to as engaging in “responsible, ethical, and well-researched scholarship,” and it is argued that “their work proves that all Canadians can partake in, learn from and engage with Indigenous histories, practices and intellectualism to make the spaces we share meaningful, respectful and beneficial for all.” But, once again, Sinclair does not show how this is the case.

There are many instances in the field of Native Studies where critical works are avoided and the unquestioned acceptance of methodologies such as “oral histories” have resulted in erroneous claims being disseminated. The most disturbing refusal to “thoroughly interrogate and question … underlying claims” concerns the denial of the Bering Strait theory in the face of extensive and reputable archaeological, linguistic, and genetic evidence.

Although I have not examined all the authors Sinclair refers to, I am familiar with the work of one Native Studies scholar he praises — Leanne Simpson.  I would be interested in how her work could be considered “well-researched.” One recent article of hers refers to a “nation-to-nation” relationship between fish and human beings on the basis that weirs existed historically — a nonsensical proposition that assumes that all species are “nations” and that the killing of animals constitutes a “relationship.”  Simpson also constantly uses references to her own work to support highly contentious arguments — a practice that is considered to be unscholarly.

In conclusion, Sinclair is right in his demand that scholarship must be rigorous and fair to other points of view. Although Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry could have incorporated additional data, and some errors in such a wide ranging critique are inevitable, we did engage with opposing arguments, and tried to provide evidence for all the claims that were made.  More importantly, unlike many researchers working in the area of aboriginal policy today, we were not paid to produce a particular point of view; the book was produced without the benefit of any outside funding, and so we were not beholden to any interest.

We wrote the book because we thought our ideas were true, not because we were the hired guns of government or an aboriginal organization.  If Sinclair really is interested in critiquing our work — and not just dismissing an inconvenient truth — he should investigate the particular claims that we have made and show how they are inconsistent with the historical evidence that is available.

15 thoughts on “Co-Author of ‘Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry’ Pens Her Rebuttal

  1. An “inconvenient truth.” Hilarious. I almost wish she'd stay silent – the attempts at rebuttal only further reveal her ignorance. I'm starting to wonder if it's not a little bit beyond her scope of understand that while she's admittedly working from an institutionalized and yes, “academically rigorous perspective” that it *is* just that – a perspective (which she mistakes on more than one occasion for “truth.” There are myriad forms of “scholarship” within “scholarship” and FYI, Derrida and Foucault (even the hallmarks of yes, Eurocentric academia) built a career on *mostly* referencing himself. I strongly recommend a read of David Theo Goldberg's work “Racist Culture” that shows how “scholarship” can be done responsibly.

  2. It's interesting how Widdowson only comments on the points she can use to justify her own opinions and assumptions. I would love to see her take some responsibility.

    Now, I say opinions, because a number of the points she makes are not supported by empirical evidence. Rather, they are supported by a narrow conceptual framework that lets her comfortably dismiss key truths, interpretations, and anything of merit that runs contrary to her vision and her understanding of the issues. This is a key point because Widdowson claims that she is being objective and academically responsible. That is simply not the case.

    For instance, her assertion that the absence of “wheat” explains, in part, why “aboriginal cultures developed at a slower rate than what was possible in parts of the Old World.”

    First, this assumes Indigenous cultures in the Americas were not developed (something that I'm sure she would not contest). Second, it assumes the criteria for building and defining civilization. And third, it assumes that the advancement (perhaps, from barbaric to relevant) is “inevitable” as long as the right conditions are in place.

    “Wishful thinking does not constitute legitimate criticism,” indeed.

    Her dismissal of wampum is no different. The fact is, wampum belts are records of important historical events and contracts, including relationships. The Two Row Wampum belt (Haudenosuanee) is the perfect example http://www.akwesasne.ca/tworowwampum.html along with the Border Crossing Belt (Anishinabe) The Seven Fires Belt (Anishinabe) the Niagara Treaty belt (Haudenosuanee) The 24 Nations Belt (Haudenosuanee) and the list goes on. There are hundreds of other wampum belts, which were never worn, traditionally. Perhaps if Widdowson did some actual reasearch, she would discover this.

    The same goes for her outright dismissal of the “'nation-to-nation' relationship between fish and human beings.” While it may sound completely absurd to her, she makes no effort to prove the claim or view it from the perspective of the Nishnaabeg. Maybe they do believe the Fish constitute a “Nation” (in a genetic and cultural sense) and maybe they do have a special “relationship” with that Nation, which is to say, an understanding based on dignity and respect, not just blatant killing, as she, once again, assumes.

    Overall, these and other assumptions invalidate her claim of objectivity, along with her assertions that depend on them. And while I give her credit for trying to engage in some meaningful debate, and while she and Albert Howard raise some valid points in “Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry,” much of they assert cannot be taken at face value.

    For the sake of drama, I would say, no more than we can take the assertions of a 5-year old trying to explain “Fotofynfisis”. Of course, there's a small chance the kid could get it right, but even so, he lacks the knowledge and experience to do it on purpose.

  3. It's interesting how Widdowson only comments on the points she can use to justify her own opinions and assumptions. I would love to see her take some responsibility.

    Now, I say opinions, because a number of the points she makes are not supported by empirical evidence. Rather, they are supported by a narrow conceptual framework that lets her comfortably dismiss key truths, interpretations, and anything of merit that runs contrary to her vision and her understanding of the issues. This is a key point because Widdowson claims that she is being objective and academically responsible. That is simply not the case.

    For instance, her assertion that the absence of “wheat” explains, in part, why “aboriginal cultures developed at a slower rate than what was possible in parts of the Old World.”

    First, this assumes Indigenous cultures in the Americas were not developed (something that I'm sure she would not contest). Second, it assumes the criteria for building and defining civilization. And third, it assumes that the advancement (perhaps, from barbaric to relevant) is “inevitable” as long as the right conditions are in place.

    “Wishful thinking does not constitute legitimate criticism,” indeed.

    Her dismissal of wampum is no different. The fact is, wampum belts are records of important historical events and contracts, including relationships. The Two Row Wampum belt (Haudenosuanee) is the perfect example http://www.akwesasne.ca/tworowwampum.html along with the Border Crossing Belt (Anishinabe) The Seven Fires Belt (Anishinabe) the Niagara Treaty belt (Haudenosuanee) The 24 Nations Belt (Haudenosuanee) and the list goes on. There are hundreds of other wampum belts, which were never worn, traditionally. Perhaps if Widdowson did some actual reasearch, she would discover this.

    The same goes for her outright dismissal of the “'nation-to-nation' relationship between fish and human beings.” While it may sound completely absurd to her, she makes no effort to prove the claim or view it from the perspective of the Nishnaabeg. Maybe they do believe the Fish constitute a “Nation” (in a genetic and cultural sense) and maybe they do have a special “relationship” with that Nation, which is to say, an understanding based on dignity and respect, not just blatant killing, as she, once again, assumes.

    Overall, these and other assumptions invalidate her claim of objectivity, along with her assertions that depend on them. And while I give her credit for trying to engage in some meaningful debate, and while she and Albert Howard raise some valid points in “Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry,” much of they assert cannot be taken at face value.

    For the sake of drama, I would say, no more than we can take the assertions of a 5-year old trying to explain “Fotofynfisis”. Of course, there's a small chance the kid could get it right, but even so, he lacks the knowledge and experience to do it on purpose.

  4. “There are many instances in the field of Native Studies where critical works are avoided and the unquestioned acceptance of methodologies such as “oral histories” have resulted in erroneous claims being disseminated. The most disturbing refusal to “thoroughly interrogate and question … underlying claims” concerns the denial of the Bering Strait theory in the face of extensive and reputable archaeological, linguistic, and genetic evidence.”

    Um, I don’t know about you, but I recall that there is abundant Anthropological evidence to suggest that there were Indigenous peoples here before Clovis culture. There is evidence to suggest that there were people inhabiting South America at least 33,000 years ago. I’d suggest taking a look at the book – “Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity” By David Hurst Thomas, to understand how Widdowson’s claims are a perpetuation of shoddy politically motivated scholarship.

    What’s more interesting to ponder is if there was two way travel on the Bering Straight land-bridge, what could that mean for cultures on both sides. Not to mention the fact it is a theory for F*$K’s sake. There is no conclusive proof. However, there is lots of proof to suggest otherwise.

  5. I’m no academic, thank God. But I can’t help myself. I would have no problem with Widdowson attacking some aspects of aboriginal academia and the consultant’s “industry”, which does contain some startling examples of poor scholarship and fruitless, and even corrupt, practices (although I would say it’s no worse than the non-aboriginal academia and consultancy world); however, there’s one problem: Frances is unqualified to make this attack, and in fact belongs with the type of people she claims to be attacking.

    I am well read and know my history and culture, and in my humble opinion, Widdowson is either writing in an ideologically blinkered fashion to a very bigoted agenda, or she’s just too dumb to be a professor (probably both). She clearly knows nothing about deeper Anishnabek perspectives, or those of any other nation, and has made absolutely no effort to try.

    In my experience, aboriginal academia is like all academia: it is sometimes capable of propping up some completely flawed and inherently slanted views based on selective intellectual myopia and a political agenda. But this is because the standards for modern academia are low, and there are in my experience an equal ratio of batty and ideologically driven white professors, all the way across the political spectrum (sorry, Widdowson, I didn’t have time to do an empirical survey, since I’m not ensconced in academia, but have to work in the real world). No doubt some very crappy (as well as excellent) aboriginal scholarship exists. But Widdowson is a perfect example of crappy scholarship, and is only attacking those as weak as herself.

    People who are looking for the truth are constantly coming closer to one another from different angles. Those with an agenda (and who can even sometimes be as dumb as a bag of hammers) are the ones who move away from each other with preconceived, half-baked notions learned uncritically, using selective pieces of reconstructed intellectual hash. They also tend to think “conspiratorially” (without being literal “conspiracy theorists”), and implicit in all their case-building is a tendency to blanket condemnation of a political target. We have aboriginal scholars like this. But this is also Widdowson to a “T.”

    Yes, Frances, in an ideal world the substandard aboriginal “academics” and consultants would be drummed out of their privileged positions. But you would go with them. We just need to raise the standard of the academy and this kind of silly “debate” would disappear altogether.

  6. But you’ve done nothing to “raise the standard” with this comment. There isn’t a single scholarly reference in your comment; even your critique of the appalling state of academia {with which i agree} contains no actual examples of the things that you claim. So, not only is this simply an ‘ad hominem’ directed at Frances Widdowson — it is an ad hominem directed at academics in general and, as such, is a representation of the very thing you critique…

  7. “built a career on *mostly* referencing himself” Yes, and so much of it is gibberish… He could only reference himself….

    P.S. Why don’t you quote from Goldberg if you think it’s so relevant? That’s how academic discussions are supposed to proceed, as opposed to simply “shooting the breeze”…

  8. “her outright dismissal of the “‘nation-to-nation’ relationship between
    fish and human beings.” While it may sound completely absurd to her”

    Now, why would it sound absurd? Maybe because it makes a complete travesty of language? In order to clarify discussion points, it is necessary to clarify definitions. This has allowed the development of modern thought. To use a noun in such a broad fashion renders the word “nation” almost meaningless and while it may be fine for a poet to proceed in this fashion, it is entirely misleading and inappropriate in an academic discussion. Maybe it is this confusion of poetics and precise definitions that has held back the development of aboriginal scholarship…

  9. It is not my role to “raise the standard” of academia. As I said, I am not in or of the academic world, a lot of which is of highly questionable value, from what I can see, so like I say, I am thankful for that. If you like, I have directed an “ad hominem” at academia, in the very broad sense of making a statement against academia itself rather than its arguments – although I’m not sure how you expect me to address the diverse arguments of all of academia that I happen to be in profound disagreement with (a long list on both the left, centre and right) on a comments page. At any rate, I have read studies and reports with many “scholarly references” that are complete balderdash, so I’m not sure what that achieves… and I am entitled to that opinion, since I am not publishing in any academic journal, nor am I beholden to modern academic standards, which I regard as low indeed.

    I have certainly directed an “ad hominem” at Widdowson above (I really do find her profoundly offensive at a very personal level, and was probably in a snit when I wrote the comment), so point taken. It would be too easy to demonstrate her ignorance of indigenous ideas and realities, an ignorance which is carelessly splattered throughout just about anything of hers i have had the misfortune to read. I prefer to give you one example of her intellectual shallowness even in relation to the long history of her own coveted western “culture” (which, pardon the blanket ad hominem, is really a long social homogenization process that has left us in our modern dilemma, a horrific crisis if there ever was one).

    In her blog of April 4 2010, Widdowson describes the rites of Easter as a celebration of the “absurd notion of the resurrection of a mythical Supreme Being,” and reduces all of Catholicism (and in other places, any religion) to mere “superstition.” First of all, Widdowson’s definition of “myth” is clearly limited to modern pop sensibilities. Her understanding of the profundity of the Christian tradition, or any spiritual tradition, is mind-boggling. The rites and myths around Easter are of course absurd, as long as your intellectual grasp of metaphysical concepts is non-existent. Of course, there are people who take these rites at a completely superstitious level, but that does not make the religion itself a “superstition.” Whatever one may believe about religions, the etymology and real meaning of the term “superstition” is almost antithetical to the real meaning of religion, and to any authentic spiritual tradition (which do not include the watered down “new age” blather that has come into fashion in the west and stolen from everything from Sufism to various indigenous spiritual traditions). You can pile up as many “scholarly references” as you like, but WIddowson demonstrates in her own words that she does not understand the meaning and depth of even her own culture, language and history. it is no wonder she cannot even begin to grasp those of other cultural groups.

  10. Gerry Gagnon, Armchair Philosopher of Language. Go read Wittgenstein’s later work and bring your understanding of language into the 20th century. Till then. Stick to making bowls.

  11. Ad hominems are ultimately devoid of substance. All you indicated is that you know how to spell Wittgenstein. Well, so do i…

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