Clans and Tribes in the 21st Century

The anthropological definition for “clan” is “a group of people all descended from a common ancestor, in fact or belief” (Wiktionary, January 4, 2011).

The anthropological definition for “tribe” is “a society larger than a band but smaller than a state” (Wiktionary, April 22, 2011).

Thesauruses often list “clan” and “tribe” as synonyms of each other.

My maternal Scottish Highlander ancestors moved to Upper Canada in the 1850s. They experienced many hardships before they came here, none of which I would want to experience. I also have no desire to reignite the clan feuds that they eventually discarded in the New World. I am proud of their many outstanding qualities and accomplishments, but I see my lifestyle as constantly growing and evolving, not remaining static in the 19th century.

Nevertheless, I enjoy hearing stories about the different clans that existed among my relatives, and the symbols and tartans associated with them. I also believe that my interest in this helps me more fully appreciate why tribal systems are still placed in high regard by many aboriginal people in Canada.

Without question, Canadian aboriginals have often suffered a painful history, marred by the shameful legacy of the residential schools (although the schools were not all bad, but that’s another story). For many years, I worked in aboriginal organizations, and witnessed first hand the difficulties residential school survivors faced because of the loss of their culture. In fact, I helped natives preserve their culture and tribal systems. However, I became increasingly concerned that they were preserving aspects of their culture that I thought they were better off discarding.

I felt the situation went from bad to worse when aboriginal rights were entrenched in the Canadian Constitution in the early 1980s. Entrenchment seemed to give some natives and their supporters the permission to believe that the aboriginal approach should always take precedence–even if there were better alternatives available. If I had known then what I know now, I would have departed from the aboriginal scene at that time. Instead, I remained involved up until the mid-2000s. I had many positive experiences with aboriginals throughout this period, but I felt these experiences were often superficial in nature. This was because I sensed they primarily regarded me as a political tool to help them get where they wanted to be.

It seems to me that some natives have overreacted to the loss of their culture by insisting that every aspect needs to be preserved. Don’t get me wrong–many aboriginal practices are absolutely worth preserving–my home is filled with aboriginal art, music and literature that I treasure. But I now realize I was being forced into buying into the argument that all aboriginal cultural practices need to be maintained forever, and any questioning of this was usually labelled as racist.

What I experienced was cultural relativism. This principle contends that an individual’s beliefs and customs should be viewed through the lens of that person’s own culture. In other words, I was being forced to distrust my gut instinct that some aspects of the process did not result in positive outcomes. Unfortunately, far too many administrators in universities, churches, politics, media and unions have bought into the notion that cultural relativism is the route to go. It most definitely is not.

Just as I do not think it is a good idea for me to reignite the clan warfare of my Scottish ancestors, I also do not think that certain aboriginal tribal customs, such as bad medicine, should be preserved. There are many positive aspects to aboriginal spiritual practices, but bad medicine causes illness or bad luck to befall unsuspecting victims. It has been used on me with devastating consequences. In his book, Bad Medicine (2010), retired Alberta judge John Reilly recounts his own harrowing experiences with this affliction. Although I do not agree with some of the conclusions that Reilly comes to in his book, I am eternally grateful to him for getting his account published.

Australian anthropologist and linguist Peter Sutton also expresses concerns about bad medicine (he calls it sorcery) in his book The Politics of Suffering (2009). Sutton worked for more than 40 years among the Australian Aborigines, and has come to many of the same conclusions as I have. He laboured long and hard to help Aborigines preserve their culture, but became disillusioned when he saw that welfare dependence and substance abuse were leading to gross dysfunction in many of the outbacks. Aborigine scholar Marcia Langton wrote the foreword to Sutton’s book and shares many of his concerns.

All cultures evolve and grow over time. Practices that are deemed counterproductive are discarded in favour of more effective ones. Although it is certainly understandable that many natives want to preserve aspects of their culture that they have lost over the years, I think they should carefully examine whether all of these practices are worth preserving. I contend that some aboriginal leaders would be better off concentrating on what will help their people move forward into the 21st century, rather than clinging to methods and ways that may be holding them back–and that may be causing unnecessary friction with non-aboriginals.