Alan Kirker

Story

August 31st, 2022 by

According to anthropologist David Graeber and archeologist David Wengrow in their book “The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity” (2021), Indigenous North Americans were known for their powers of eloquence and rhetoric as observed by the Jesuit and European settlers who, in spite of their genocidal campaigns, could be “reduced to tears” by the Natives’ persuasiveness, logical argumentation, and appeals to sentiment using metaphor, myth, and humour. Rational and skeptical conversational approaches formed the basis of an “indigenous critique” of European culture that viewed these settlers as “continually squabbling for advantage” with corresponding disorders observed “as being occasioned by money” and which, the authors propose, then informed much discourse of the concurrent European Enlightenment. Graeber and Wengrow further suggest that the guidance provided by the Indigenous critics, including Wendat statesman Kondiaronk, today helps enable a tracing much further back in time to see what initially made the emergence of kings, priests, and overseers possible, and thus provides a new lens through which to interpret historical evidence (2021, p. 52, 76).

It was largely the speakers of Iroquoian languages such as the Wendat, or the five Haudenosaunee nations to their south, who appear to have placed such weight on reasoned debate – even finding it a form of pleasurable entertainment in its own right. This fact alone had major historical repercussions. Because it appears to have been exactly this form of debate – rational, skeptical, empirical, conversational in tone – which came to be identified with the European Enlightenment as well. And, like the Jesuits, Enlightenment thinkers and democratic revolutionaries saw it as intrinsically connected with the rejection of arbitrary authority, particularly which had long been assumed by the clergy” (2021, p. 46).

In an essay titled “Strangers in a Not So Strange Land” (2021), Indigenous playwright and author Drew Hayden Taylor suggests Native storytelling, rich with metaphor and insight and comprising much new writing in the evocative science fiction genre, can help elucidate their struggles. Modern Indigenous science fiction has become popular, according to Taylor, as it enables us to envision not what is, but what could be, while also often portraying us “as survivors, regardless of what’s happening”. “It’s only recently that we’ve put our storytelling moccasins on again and are carving out our place around the campfire” (2021, p. 152).

In humorous irony, Taylor recalls being a youngster watching the Star Trek television episode “The Paradise Syndrome” where the Enterprise crew arrives on a doomed planet populated by Native North Americans: “Threatened by an approaching asteroid, they do what all Indians did at that time: they waited for a white saviour to rescue them. And this time, his name was Kirk” (2021, p. 154).

Everybody loves a good metaphor. And let’s face it, what people in North America have a better understanding of a strange, exotic race suddenly showing up out of nowhere with different technology and basically taking everything over? I have it on good authority that it’s happened before” (2021, p. 153).

Beneath storytelling is often interesting social science. In her book, “Stranger and Friend: The Way of an Anthropologist” (1966), Hortense Powdermaker states:

To understand a strange society, the anthropologist has traditionally immersed himself in it, learning, as far as possible, to think, see, feel, and sometimes act as a member of its culture and at the same time as a trained anthropologist from another culture. This is the heart of the participant observation method – involvement and detachment… Involvement is necessary to understand the psychological realities of a culture, that is, its meanings for the indigenous members” (1966, p. 9).

Could we flip the narrative and consider that many hundreds or thousands of years ago, our Native brothers and sisters were perhaps themselves commissioned as anthropologists from some distant star and given the task of “participant observation” in this planet’s unfolding civilizations? What might their analyses indicate about our history and current state of affairs?


Graeber, D. & Wengrow, D. (2021) The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. Toronto, Canada: Signal – McClelland & Stewart – Penguin Random House Canada

Powdermaker, H. (1966) Stranger and Friend: The Way of an Anthropologist. New York, United States: W. W. Norton & Company Inc.

Taylor, D. H. (2021), Strangers in a Not So Strange Land, in Me Tomorrow: Indigenous Views on the Future, Taylor, D. H., ed., (2021) (pp. 149 – 166). Madeira Park, Canada: Douglas and McIntyre (2013) Ltd.

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