01/21/2012 12:46 EST | Updated 03/21/2012 05:12 EDT

Sci-Fi Writer Knows More About Aboriginals Than Most Canadians

For aboriginals, being mentioned at all in a mainstream work of fiction is rare enough. Sci-fi writer Robert J. Sawyer actual knows something about our traditions. How many of you were taught that all aboriginal people were nomadic?

I've been reading a lot of Robert J. Sawyer lately, because as pointed out by Adam Shaftoe and Matt Moore in the fall 2011 edition of On Spec, he's a Canadian sci-fi author who is surprisingly optimistic in his writing, in an age where so much science fiction is dystopian and disaster-themed. Also, I really get a kick out of his Canadian references, despite the fact that they are mostly related to Ontario. I'd love some more Prairie references, but you've got to write what you know, n'est-ce pas? Sawyer lives in Mississauga, after all.

As a related aside, my beloved was reading the final book in the Sawyer trilogy I'm about to discuss, at the same time as he was reading the final installment in U.S. sci-fi writer Dan Simmons' Hyperion series. He noted that within the first few chapters of the Simmons book there had already been a number of fights and all sorts of adrenaline pumping action, while he was nearly through the Sawyer book and the most shocking thing that had happened so far were some really great intellectual conversations about the nature of what it means to be human. I want to stress that this does not make Sawyer's book any less interesting, but it is certainly more Canadian somehow.

My ears always perk up (figuratively obviously, since I'm reading, not listening) when he mentions "Native Canadians" (a term I think he chose over First Nations because it would be more familiar to readers in the U.S.). I'm interested in how writers portray aboriginal peoples, and what attitudes are expressed in these portrayals. I've read a significant portion of Sawyer's work, and he introduces aboriginal characters fairly often, but never in stereotypically negative ways. Nor in stereotypically positive, "noble savage" ways (to his credit). Since he's writing sci-fi, many of the aboriginal characters end up being scientists, or other professionals interacting with the scientist protagonists.

The trilogy in question is The Neanderthal Parallax, where there is contact made with an alternate earth in which Homo sapiens did not become the dominant humans, but rather Neanderthals did. Sawyer explores all sorts of interesting cultural dissimilarities, related to differences in physiology, historical development, and even perhaps the ability to believe in a God. It's a good read, I recommend it.

So two passages in this trilogy caught my eye and I wanted to share them with you.

In the second book, Humans, on page 35, one of the protagonists (geneticist Mary Vaughan) is being asked to develop some sort of test to determine who is a Neanderthal and who is a Homo sapiens (you know, for possible immigration purposes). She has her reservations, but Sawyer has her thinking this:

Mary nodded slowly. It did, sort of, make sense. And, after all, there was a benign precedent: the Canadian government already put a lot of work into defining who is and who isn't a Status Indian, so that social programs and entitlements could properly be administered.

I bristled at the characterisation of this being "benign," I'll admit it. Nor upon further reflection has my reaction changed. To me, benign is something that is both well-meaning and does not cause harm. I don't think that either of these criteria are met by the current government policies which define who is, and who is not a Status Indian. Unless he meant benign like a tumour.

This struck me as one instance where Sawyer is perhaps too optimistic and forgiving, but it's also entirely possible that he had Mary Vaughan thinking this to highlight her naïvety. I think this would require a wide understanding among his readership that the example given is not actually all that benign, but I doubt most Canadians (or U.S. citizens) give it any thought at all. Anyway, I don't want to get into that trap of double or triple guessing what the author was trying to do with what was a very small bit of Canadian context.

I do want to point out the fact that being mentioned at all in a mainstream work of fiction is rare enough that here I am, talking about it like it's a big deal!

That wasn't actually the passage that got most of my attention though. Later on in the book, there is a conversation about a statement made that agriculture is a prerequisite to civilisation. You see, the Neanderthals in this trilogy do not practice agriculture, and yet had clearly developed a civilisation, including the development of technologies that impressed their Homo sapiens counterparts. (Failure to develop impressive technologies may cause people to dismiss you as primitive, even if you have civilisation, so be warned!)

In this conversation, the Neanderthal protagonist Ponter Boddit notes that hunting and gathering only requires about 9 per cent of one's time (15-20 hours a week), a claim that astonishes the assorted professionals present (and has been challenged as not entirely accurate).

At this point, a Native American named Henry Running Deer (apparently a professor at the University of Chicago) confirms this and goes on to point out some interesting things I want to share (pages 173-174). This might be a longish quote, but it bears reading:

"But how do you get permanent settlement without agriculture?" asked Angela.

Henry frowned. "You've got it wrong. It's not agriculture that gives rise to permanent habitation. It's hunting and gathering."

"But - no, no. I remember from school -"

"And how many Native Americans taught at your school?" asked Henry Running Deer in an icy tone.

"None, but-"

Henry looked at Ponter, then back at Mary. "Whites rarely understand this point, but it's absolutely true. Hunter gatherers "stay put." To live off the land requires knowing it intimately: which plants grow where, where the big animals come to drink, where the birds lay their eggs. It takes a lifetime to really know a territory. To move somewhere else is to throw out all that hard-won knowledge."

Mary lifted her eyebrows. "But farmers need to put down roots - umm, so to speak."

Henry didn't acknowledge the pun. "Actually, farmers are itinerant over a period of generations. Hunter-gatherers keep their family sizes small; after all, extra mouths to feed increase the work that an adult has to do. But farmers want big families: each child is another laborer to send out into the fields, and the more kids you have, the less work you have to do yourself...But as the farmers' offspring grow up, they have to move on and start their own farms. Ask a farmer where his great-great-grandfather lived and he'll name some place far away; ask a hunter-gatherer, and he'll say 'right here'."

How many of you were taught that all aboriginal people were nomadic? Of no fixed address? Perhaps you may have learned that some like the Haudenosaunee farmed and "stay put," but in the main, the perception is that we all just roamed the lands aimlessly, never really settling down permanently.

You've probably heard of our "territories" which perhaps in your mind mark some sort of hazy boundary within which we did all this roaming. You've no doubt also heard about our tie to the land, blah blah blah, but perhaps you never really considered what that actually means, and what knowledge (and stability) it requires us to have.

As the fictional Henry Running Deer points out, being a successful hunter-gatherer requires an intimate knowledge of a specific territory, a knowledge that does not come quickly, and is very vulnerable to relocation. When hunters from the U.S. come up to Canada, what do they do? They hire someone who knows the land. If they don't, they don't get their precious trophies. (Down with trophy hunting, arrrrrgh!)

Now nothing that Sawyer's character said came as a surprise to me, except for the fact that he had a character discuss this at all. (To me and probably most native people, this is common sense knowledge.) Yet it means that Sawyer has pondered this issue in a way that few Canadians ever do, because this approach flies directly in the face of what the Canadian system of education has taught students since that system was created. Sawyer suggests that being nomadic doesn't mean what you probably think it means and goes on to propose that in fact, permanent settlement might not mean what you think it means either.

If permanent settlement is building specific, then simply constructing a structure that will last a decade or longer may fulfill the criterion, but this is a fairly feeble definition. If instead it refers to successive generations inhabiting the same area over a significant period of time (like thousands of years) then folks...few people do "permanent settlement" like aboriginal peoples!

Basically Sawyer is challenging the ladder theory or unilineal theory of "civilisation" and development. I'm talking about the Sid Meiers' Civilization-type theory which has all people progressing through certain stages until they basically become like Europeans. You know...first you're an animist, then you're into polytheism, then you get with the program and believe in only one god...all the while you're developing agriculture, metallurgy, building cities...becoming civilised. (It's okay if you like the games, I do too! But I don't pretend that I'm a surgeon just because I rock at Operation!)

Sawyer questions what most of us were taught in school (something we should all do more of). The ladder/unilineal theory has been pretty soundly discredited, but like so many things we were taught (but never checked back on to see if they were actually true), it's had immense staying power in the minds of most Canadians, and it has certainly continued to influence opinions and policy.

Sawyer's characters are surprised by this different way of looking at the issue and I imagine that many people who have read this book were surprised as well. That surprise comes from the fact that we have all been so "well educated" on the matter, we don't tend to question these outmoded assumptions. I'm grateful that Sawyer did. I find it slightly ironic that more people are likely to have these beliefs questioned in the context of science fiction than in so called "real life," but then again, sci-fi is great for that sort of thing.

Now if I could chat with him on the pesky matter of what constitutes "benign" in the context of the Indian Act...

Originally published on the author's blog âpihtawikosisân.