The Museum

Off the museum's Great Hall, behind walls of broad cedar planks, the exhibits go on, room after room. The rooms themselves are dim: we're supposed to be inside a longhouse. But the exhibits themselves are well lit: masks, tools, close-woven ornamental mats of goat's wool, fine carvings, wall hangings. Outside the rooms stand the great totem poles, properly painted. It's stunning stuff, these pieces by the Haida and Salish and Kwakiutl peoples of the Canadian West Coast. I walked into one room, and under a replicate rainforest canopy, there was a seagoing canoe, a huge thing, so beautiful it made me gasp.

And our (white Canadian) response to this rich culture was to try to stomp it out of existence. We forbade the potlatch; we moved the people away from their coastal villages and into reserves (without, by the way, settling their land claims). We snatched the children from their homes and took them away to school and beat the living language right out of them. To some, we did much worse than that. The consequences of that sexual abuse of Aboriginal children are now starting to fruit for us, as they have for our victims for two or three generations.

Why did we do this? Oh, some of it was in the interest of "saving their souls": I can see that fine missionary zeal, and while I don't agree with it, I think I can at least respect where it came from. But I think maybe it was more that we thought we were doing them a favour - and the parents agreed that education would be a Good Thing. They could see the benefits for their children of being able to operate better in our world. They were quite ready to take whatever seemed good that we had to offer. It didn't, perhaps, occur to them until it was too late that we weren't trying to help them live in their world with one foot in ours. We were out to get rid of their world altogether. For their own good, we thought.

It has got to be one of the most common delusions of humankind, this strange belief that if I were just like you, I'd be far better off; and if I resist being just like you, I must not understand where my own best interests lie. Our differences must be somehow blessing/curse: either my blessing and your curse (if I am white and you are black) or my curse and your blessing (if I am gay and you are straight). If the differences between us are remediable, I must be grievously at fault for failing to remedy them. If the differences are irremediable, then this curse must be part of God's plan for me. Argh!

Before anyone makes the obvious comment: I'm not talking about wrongdoing here. Some behaviours are acceptable; others are harmful. Some of our actions further God's purpose, while others run in the opposite direction. That's a different matter. Nor am I talking about bringing real benefits. One of the neater things about the exhibit was the ways in which West Coast peoples neatly adapted whatever good the white man had to give them, from buttons to metal fish hooks. I don't have a problem with penicillin and clean drinking water either.

But I truly believe that the West Coast peoples were living a remarkably rich life, and that we did our level best to mash that life flat, not because they were being "sinful" but because they were being different--and we genuinely thought that they'd benefit from having their "primitive ways" corrected. It couldn't be good for them to live in longhouses; they'd be better off in separate small houses. We hadn't learned the language of their lives. We made no effort to understand and appreciate who they were. We just saw them as Wrong and took strong measures to Fix them. For their own benefit, of course.

We do this to each other, ever-so-helpfully inflicting all sorts of correctives, from the irritating to the disastrous, to correct these dangerous differences among us. Makes us feel safe and warm and good about ourselves, to see how helpfully we're acting to fit that poor erring square peg to that Godgiven round hole.... Of course it's tough on the peg, but stubborn human nature sometimes just has to be broken.

But if there's anything that Creation teaches us, it is that God has an inordinate fondness for variety; look at beetles. Only in extreme climes do the local fauna and flora get reduced to a few species, and only a few species--ourselves being the obvious - are relatively homologous across the face of the earth, and let's face it, we don't exactly fit the ecological norms. For the rest, God seems to have a Thing about diversity. I don't think God micromanages Creation; I think he set the rules and lets the game go on unimpeded, evolution included. But whatever God's intention was, it doesn't seem to have included uniformity. If God wanted us all to be matching pink petunias, we'd be matching pink petunias.

There's a strong tendency, however, for the pink petunias to see the marigolds as weeds and to demand that they be extirpated from the flowerbed. And the marigolds and the petunias together cry out "shame!" when a real live dandelion pollutes the holy precincts. As if God didn't intend the dandelions too....

One of the blessings, it seems to me, of being in real community is the acceptance of each others' differences. Paul said something of the same thing, telling the foot to be good at its footishness instead of trying to be a hand, for no two souls are truly alike and we all have our gifts differing. I tend to be pretty good at intuition, for example, while being lousy on detail. If you're the other way around, we should rejoice in the way we complement each other instead of hammering each other for being wrongly constructed.

There's something soothing about a nice, simple monoculture; it's easy to live with, there's no uncertainty, nobody gets threatened or has to fight or defend his or her opinions. But monocultures are not only as bland as cornstarch; they lack the strength and resilience that come from diversity. We like uniformity, but we need diversity: one group to push the accelerator, another carefully handling the brakes, one group looking long-term, one group concerned with the here-and-now. Yes, this means having to live in tension sometimes. But it is often in tension that we do our best growing.

This country's history is scarred by what we did to the people who made these haunting, beautiful objects--our efforts to hammer them into being inferior white folk instead of perfectly fine Gwichin or Tlingit. In the name of "doing good", we did deep evil. In our efforts to bring greater health, we brought great sickness--not because we didn't have gifts they might be happy to accept, Christianity among them, but because we acted with such arrogance, so little understanding or respect for those not like ourselves.

There was new stuff among the exhibits: great mythic-looking sculptures, prints and hangings. The fact that I don't know what artistic language this is--what this figure means, or that--doesn't mean that it's gibberish; it just means that I don't know the language. But I can hear the music in it; I can see the shapeliness, the meaningfulness, in these pieces new and old.

The most famous new piece of Aboriginal art is vast: a huge dome painting, arching over a great staircase. I found a seat where I could lean back and stare upwards at its complex swirl of jewel-colours. It is strong and lively and graceful, deeply satisfying to look at. Even if its language isn't one I know, I can tell that what it's talking about is rich with meaning and emotion. The spirit hangs in there, even through oppression, and can regrow into something astounding. Thanks be to God. k

Copyright © 1999 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 30 Oct 1999
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