Dec 10 2006
“We don’t like so much the Europeans who came to this place and killed all the people,” an Italian visitor to Vancouver recently remarked to me. He said it while looking at representations of native artwork at the Vancouver Art Gallery with a sincere kind of wonder mixed with a frustrated incomprehension.
According to my acquaintance, Europeans have the idea that their ancestors essentially came over to this part of the world and wiped out the native populations in a terrible explosion of genocidal bloodlust. He actually assumed that the First Nations were extinct in Canada.
I tried my best to explain to the new arrival that while Europeans did indeed commit terrible atrocities against the indigenous population, diseases brought over from Europe had contributed far more to their decline and their current state as a disempowered minority in their own ancestral lands.
Duplicitous diplomats and cheating traders didn’t bring these cultures to their knees. Typhoid, Tuberculosis and smallpox ensured that the European colonial experience in the Americas would meet little resistance.
Most people living on BC’s west coast are at least somewhat familiar with the history of the Pacific Northwest natives. On the coast, in the midst of plentiful resources and a mild climate all year round, the natives were able to sustain relatively stable societies over more permanent swathes of territory than was possible elsewhere – before contact with Europeans brought its familiar apocalypse.
Unlike their distant cousins to the south who had access to advanced metalworking and stone-hewing technologies, the Pacific Northwest tribes used wood for everything. Hence, no pyramids. No lost cities, like Machu Piccu. Not even a single house remains of their ancient civilization. It has all quite literally rotted away.
Only painstaking work by archeologists, anthropologists and our own First Nations descendants have given us some idea of what went on here long ago.
Mel Gibson’s new film, Apocalypto, will attempt to bridge that gap in our vision a little for the ancient culture of the Mayas, pre-contact. The film must surely suffer from inevitable innacuracies of the worst kind – the ones where there is no living expert who can point out the mistakes. But it at least attempt to show us what this part of the world was like before the coming of the others. I look forward to seeing it – as the first effort of a new genre.