Belaney Baloney Sends All the Wrong Signals

Call it Black Like Me syndrome. White folks prefer their hard-bitten “reality” stories served over easy with lots of sauce. They’re more inclined to pay attention to someone who speaks their language, even if these ersatz spokespeople get most of the details wrong.

The Globe and Mail has published 11 stories about the movie Grey Owl, which follows Englishman Archie Belaney’s stint as an Aboriginal person. Two of these stories were published a full year and a half before the film was released. In contrast, The Globe published just three pieces on the movie Smoke Signals, which had an Aboriginal cast and crew. (I’m not just biting the hand that sort of feeds me. Maclean’s magazine, for its part, ran a cover story on Grey Owl that called fraud-artist Belaney a “great Canadian legend” in 18-point type. It ran one small review of Smoke Signals, a lovely little movie directed by Chris Eyre about fathers, sons, ghosts, and the power of memory.)

Yeah, yeah, yeah, sputter the same old excuses, but make it quick. Here, I’ll help: Smoke Signals was filmed in the U.S.! Grey Owl was filmed in Canada! It’s about a Canadian! Reality check: The principal cast of Smoke Signals is “Canadian” – Aboriginal people who live in what is now called Canada – Belaney wasn’t Canadian (or Aboriginal), and Aboriginal people don’t recognize the colonial border anyway. But Grey Owl had “cultural consultants”! The powwow scene used “Canadian” actors! Yup, and they’re dancin’ for the tourists. Colourful and easy on the eyes, as you like it. There was no dancing in Smoke Signals.

Canadians like Belaney’s stuff because he uses language they understand. In his books and speeches, oppression masquerades as primitivism sublimated by progress, and cultural genocide is described as, “Boy, life in the bush was really hard before you folks gave us steel axes.” It’s shiny, noisy crap that fails to expose the imperialist nature of Canadian culture or deconstruct a dominant society characterized by its institutionalized and systemic racism. Belaney said he was just a poor Indian who had learned the errors of his once savage ways. He was acceptable because he was willing to convert and didn’t talk back. That’s why Grey Owl is so safe and Belaney’s work oh-so-reprintable, while the deconstructed stereotypes of Smoke Signals remain a little too scary and therefore best left on the margins.

It’s a curious thing, this margin. Writers employing the language of dominant systems – even ones with shoe-polish skin-dye jobs – are treated as individuals with expertise. Those who espouse a non-dominant worldview are described as having an “agenda” (a charge levelled at me by some bureaucrat at the CBC). If I poke a few holes in Canada’s civilization-is-us mythology, my writing is either ignored or dismissed as “too political” (says Maclean’s magazine). If someone rediscovers a 63-year-old speech Belaney wrote about his own special version of “Indian life,” it’s called news. This hierarchy of perspectives stifles intelligent critical debate and silences non-dominant voices.

Canadian media value and reflect the constructs and ideals of the dominant society over and above the cosmology of non-dominant cultures, which is why they respond so enthusiastically to Belaney’s hokum. Last season, the CBC ran a series called Great Books, a discussion about essential texts. All you need to get through life, apparently, is the Bible and some Goethe (or was it Plato?). The oral texts of Sufi devotional singers, African griots, or the Iroquois Thanksgiving Address were not included.

Oh, every once in a while, the media will throw us non-dominant types a bone, as if to prove they’re paying attention. They’ll do a piece on some “healing initiative” or take us inside a real-life, guaranteed 100-percent-traditional sweatlodge. But these trips are negotiated on their terms and portrayed through the narrow lens of their ethnocentrism. Our own forays into the dominant society don’t rate quite the same coverage. Canada has practically erased Aboriginal perspectives from daily life, and the closed doors of this country’s media have prevented Canadians from hearing critical and well-informed Aboriginal thinking on any current reality.

Canadians deserve better. They deserve to hear a collective speech, an interweaving of voices, an historicized debate where voices aren’t ignored and other voices don’t speak for, but in relation to. What this country needs is a truly Aboriginal viewpoint on issues of the day: the boatloads of Fujian migrants, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, genetic engineering, the Prairie farm crisis, the civil war in Sierra Leone. Because Aboriginal thinking might just save the world.

Even Grey Owl knew that.

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