A Review of Daniel Paul’s “We Were Not the Savages”

After working for seven years in the United States, Daniel Paul wanted to brighten his economic prospects. He sought an opportunity to further his education back in Canada. Instead of offering help or encouragement, the Shubinacadie Indian Agent explained that manual labor is all a Mi’kmaq is good for. Undoubtedly, that Canadian Official never expected the young Mi’kmaq would eventually be inducted into the Order of Canada and Order of Nova Scotia and receive many other honors, included an Honorary Doctor of Letters and Law Degree. Despite the odds, Paul would eventually use the Indian Agent’s words and many other racist acts to build a comprehensive Indigenous history. “We Were Not the Savages” exposes a hidden chain of centuries-old racism in Mi’kma’ki.  This review will begin with a few key summaries of the book’s theoretical framework and main ideas. Next, based on an analysis of several reviews, I will address a main critique of the book. Finally, I will explore how to use historical research as a tool for social justice in order to carry on the work of this book.

In the first edition of “We Were Not the Savages,” Paul focuses on racist behaviors British and Canadians freely acknowledge. Their records, however, rarely reveal any awareness of wrongdoing. One Anglo-Canadian historian proudly relates the “accomplishment” of British volunteers, who hunted down Mi’kmaw women and children for money in Digby County. Paul asks, “How can they argue with the documents and findings of their own?” By grounding his interpretations in their words and attitudes of the oppressors themselves, he broadens his plea for justice beyond an Indigenous audience.

The book uses an alternative framework for gauging civilized behavior. Western society commonly judges civilizations on European literacy and weapons technology. Paul, by contrast, evaluates a civilization’s response to its Peoples’ needs. Prior to Mi’kmaw subjugation, he explains that “poverty among the People was virtually unknown.” At confederation, the British-Canadian government enacted their responsibility to protect Mi’kmaw lands by offering the “Agent of Indian Affairs in the province of Nova Scotia…an allowance of ten percent on all moneys collected” for selling Mi’kmaw lands. The book traces the evolution of Britain and Canada’s disastrous response to Mi’kmaw needs.

Paul questions underlying assumptions of Canadian authorities. For instance, the White Paper policy to revoke Indian status was promoted as a cure-all to Indigenous issues by white politicians. According to Paul, however, “[it] would have assured…Britain and Canada’s 254-year-old goal of extinction of First Nations.” He also draws support for his conclusions from Mi’kmaw oral history. While the government implies it received permission from the Shubinacadie Band to replace their tradition leadership with Indian Act elections, Paul states, “I don’t recall a plebiscite ever being called…neither does any other Band Member.” Paul guides his readers beyond political propaganda to unearth the harsh realities Mi’kmaq face.  

Michael Mullin, a Euro-American history professor from an Evangelical Christian college, offered a scathing review of the first edition of “We Were Not the Savages”. His critique centers on Paul’s “enthusiasm” and “polemic attacks,” which get “in the way of Historical accuracy.” Mullin, however, does not provide any definitively inaccurate statements from the book as evidence. For instance, Mullin dismisses Paul’s claim that Europeans were “held in human bondage” for its inaccuracy. Yet the impoverishing effects of Feudalism and Capitalism alone make Paul’s claim arguable. According to Claudio Katz, a professor of Economics at the University of Buenos Aires, with the rise of Capitalism, the “peasantry put an end to the [Feudal] lords’ capacity to reproduce themselves as lords; but peasant class struggle proved quite inadequate to raise the peasantry to a position of dominance.” As capitalism grew in the 16th and 17th Centuries, a vast amount of Europeans stayed in a state similar to serfdom, which Karl Marx defined as “bondage in the truest sense,” because landlords began to expropriate their labor.

Mullin discredits Paul’s “[belief that] his book is necessary since most books on Micmac-European relations have not taken the Micmac perspective.” According to Mullin, Paul did not draw enough from previous Mi’kmaw histories (all written by Europeans) “to win converts” to this belief. Maori Scholar, Linda Smith, claims that Indigenous perspectives are often dismissed as “naïve, contradictory, and illogical” by Western intellectuals, who “reinscribe their power to define the world” through delegitimizing Indigenous approaches. She reminds historians, “[cultural values and behaviors] are ‘factors’ to be built in to research explicitly…to be declared openly.” The aspects of the book, which Mullin denigrates as overly-enthusiastic, stem from Paul’s cultural experience and understanding as a Mi’kmaq. Paul’s overriding critique of British actions in Mi’kma’ki during the past few centuries is not only valuable for its factual basis. The book gives voice to a marginalized historical perspective.

“We Were Not the Savages” exemplifies how to use critical race theory to dispel myths and widen the possibility of approaching historical truth in Mi’kma’ki. To carry on this vital work, historians must make their cultural encapsulations known. They must critically examine both Indigenous and Eurocentric sources to retrieve Indigenous Peoples from historical obscurity and inconsequence. Indigenizing history is a necessary first-step towards the goals of building understanding among Europeans and improving the current circumstances of Indigenous Peoples.

 

Bibliography

Katz, Claudio. “Karl Marx on the Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism.” In Theory &

Society 22, no. 3 (June 1993): 363-389

Marx, Karl. Capital 3. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr and Co., 1894.

Mullin, Michael. “We Were Not the Savages: A Micmac Perspective on the Collision of

European and Aboriginal Civilization by Daniel N. Paul.” In American Indian Quarterly 19, no. 4 (Autumn, 1995): 588-590

Paul, Daniel. We Were Not the Savages: A Mi’kmaq Perspective on the Collision between

European and Native American Civilizations: New Twenty-First-Century Edition. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2000.

Smith, Linda. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Dunedin:

University of Otago Press, 1999.

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