Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: February, 2017

First Nations of the Old World

The newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung has been carrying reports about a conference in Trondheim, Lapland in early February. As it happens, the topic was reindeer raising and the challenges currently faced by those who follow this traditional way of life. It seems the reindeer are affected by climate change and by energy mega-projects, even supposedly green ones like wind-farms. But there was another reason this conference was notable. It commemorated the hundredth anniversary of the original conference at which Lapps, or Sami, the ethnic group living in the far north of Scandinavia, got together to campaign for their rights, which had long been trampled underfoot by all the governments in the region.

The Lapps are an indigenous people who have been there for ten thousand years, well before the Germanic Scandinavians and even the Finns appeared on the scene. They have their own distinctive way of life based at first on hunting, then later herding reindeer. They have their own language, their own kind of clothing, and cultural peculiarities such as a kind of throat singing.

The history of the Lapps in modern times has not been a joyful one. They were repeatedly driven off their lands by government-sponsored settlers, they were the object of church missions, they had their children sent to residential schools where their language was forbidden, and now they have a problem with youth suicide. This should sound awfully familiar – to Canadians in particular.

When the white man went to the Americas and was thoroughly mean to the red man, he wasn’t just improvising. He was doing the same thing he had been doing, and was still doing, to quasi-tribal peoples in the Old World. Because there were, and there are such peoples. The Lapps would be one example. The Basques would be another. The Highland Scots would be there too – you might say all the Celtic peoples.

It may seem strange to talk about “first nations” of Europe. Yet Europeans have always had the idea that before their civilization, before the glory days of the Roman Empire bringing civilization to the barbarians, there were indigenous peoples of great antiquity in Europe; and even after the fall of the Roman Empire and the foundation of great national kingdoms, these indigenous peoples on their ancestral territories tended to be stubborn holdouts ignoring or opposing the monarch’s authority. The folklore of many European countries also contains the motif of the “wild man” hiding out in the woods, a menacing sort of giant armed with a huge club. In the New World, of course, Europeans found plenty of “wild men”, or “savages” whom they proceeded to drive away or exterminate, just as they cleared the forests for arable farmland.

Now if you are a Highland Scot, you might consider it presumptuous of someone to tell you you have common cause with the North American Indians. Yet if you read, for example, the book by historian Colin Calloway* it makes you think. Anyway, I think it is time to talk about “first nations” in Europe.

*Calloway, Colin G.: White people, Indians, and Highlanders: 
tribal peoples and colonial encounters in Scotland and America: 
Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press: 2008.

A role for aboriginal peoples?

Romeo Saganash is a Canadian parliamentarian and a James Bay Cree Indian whose ancestral lands are situated in what is now northern Quebec. A recent book by journalist  Emmanuelle Walter describes a road trip across this vast area of the Canadian north during which Saganash explained his lifelong political struggle.

Quebec is, of course, very much concerned with the issue of sovereignty, whether inside or outside the federation of Canada. When Quebec politicians talk about “being a nation”, they mean being a French-Canadian nation. Indeed, the Indians don’t seem to have a role in this narrative; although you would think that French-Canadian and Indian movements for self-determination, which started to catch fire around the same time, would somehow complement one another. In turn, the Indians have not been very sympathetic to Quebec sovereignty.

Saganash says: “I spent 20 years convincing the Cree that the Quebeckers too had the right to self-determination.” But he has an interesting take on the issue. “There has never been a country constituted with the participation of native people”, he reflects. “The sovereignty of Quebec could be such an opportunity.”

What he says is true about the countries of the New World. Whether it was the American Revolution, or the Latin-American nations inspired by Bolivar to rebel against Spain, or the more peaceful self-determination of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand – new countries were set up by the colonists sometimes with, sometimes without the blessing of the mother country, but either way the native peoples in those places never had any real say in the matter.

The native people could contribute to the constitution of a new Quebec, as Saganash says. But aboriginal peoples could contribute a lot more, wherever they live. This raises a general question: as they continue to arise from the ashes in numerous countries, do the native peoples of the world have a historic mission, and if so, what is it?

It seems to me that they could be the natural mediators in the sweeping changes that are coming to a world where the sun is setting in the West and rising in the East. They could contribute to the intercultural understanding that is needed to make a peaceful transition to the new hegemonies and population shifts that the future has in store.

Why? Because they are the Other within the Western world – those who do not fit into the monolithic structure that dominates them. Once, long ago, they ran their own affairs; then they had to make room for the expanding Western world. Now they can help the Western world learn how to make room for the East.

The native peoples are surely experts on this topic. Because they know what it feels like to wake up one day and find yourself a stranger in your own country.


The hazards of projection

There are several kinds of projection. A familiar kind is the projection of the earth’s surface onto maps, or of three-dimensional reality into the two dimensions of a picture. Projection is a psychological reality too. We see the depth in pictures by projecting it onto them; otherwise we could make no sense of either still or motion photography. Indeed, there is a sense in which we perceive all depth “out there” by projecting it out of our own three-dimensional bodies. Jean-François Billeter has described Chinese calligraphy in terms of creating an illusion of three-dimensionality on the two-dimensional surface that the viewers can project their own depth into.

Projection is also a metaphor used by psychologists since Freud: in this sense, the subject projects or transfers qualities or feelings of his own onto other people, especially those qualities or feelings he does not want to see in himself.

We are projecting all the time, in at least one of the above senses. What you are doing now – reading this text – involves projection. In order to interpret what you are reading, you need to project meaning into it, not just the word-for-word meaning, but the whole surrounding penumbra of context and connotation. You cannot see the writer – by the time you read this I will be off doing something else – so you have to guess what I am like, what sort of a mood I am in, whether I am joking or not, what my purpose is in writing, what I am really getting at.

The trouble with this kind of projection is that it is to a great extent a conjecture. We usually know from long experience of reading how to interpret what the writer means and intends; but we may get it wrong, projecting our own preoccupations onto what the other fellow is saying. There are traps for the unwary. The writer may belong to a different culture or sub-culture from us. Even without that, we may imagine he is lecturing us, or patronizing us, or insulting us; he may have intended nothing of the sort, but for some reason we were in a mood to be provoked.

This is a problem for the writer. In fact there is no bigger problem for the writer, because in writing you may have done your best to entertain and persuade and stimulate thought, and without realizing it you were waving a red rag at a bull. Now the bull is hopping mad, and it’s too late to correct the impression with soothing signals. In a moment he will charge and gore you, unless you take to your heels and jump over the barrier, hoping the maddened brute will not be able to follow you out of the arena into the stands. There – I’m gone.

The Tamils who came to stay

Recently the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg found against Switzerland in a case involving one of two Tamils who had been sent back to Sri Lanka and promptly disappeared into prison.

The civil war in Sri Lanka is long over, and there are encouraging signs of a return to some kind of normality, but many Tamils still have to be careful when they go back to visit. On the other hand, in the refugee-receiving countries in Europe, like Switzerland, there is a problem with the credibility of refugees who can and do go back to their home country on holidays.

The Sri Lanka Tamils started arriving in the 1980s during the civil war. They came to Switzerland by accident rather than design: many were aiming to settle in Germany, but found that as refugees they couldn’t work there. So they moved on to Switzerland. Then the clan connections resulted in more and more people coming.

In 1986 the Swiss were getting ready to send people back to Sri Lanka if they were turned down for refugee status, but held off due to humanitarian protests. Swiss journalist Alfred A. Häsler, who had researched the Swiss policy towards refugees from Nazi rule in the Second World War, wrote an article at the time entitled “Tamils – today’s Jews?” and wrote: “Sri Lanka is not Auschwitz… But not everything that is not as bad as Auschwitz is all right.”

The Tamils have been here ever since, about a hundred thousand of them. They must have seemed so exotic at first, when Switzerland had no tradition of immigration from outside Europe. Now you would hardly notice them. They are the dark faces in every crowd in the towns and cities of German Switzerland. They may even become a part of your personal life, as they eventually did in mine.

Regarded with suspicion at first, they now have the reputation of being “well integrated”. However, as Tamil observers themselves will tell you, this is largely an illusion. A 2008 study of the group in Switzerland found that there was “selective integration”. They fit in by behaving well and not causing trouble, but they keep to themselves otherwise, the intact clan structure allowing them to do this.

In the meantime, alcoholism was becoming a major problem among the menfolk. There were many stresses on the Tamils. As a visible minority, they couldn’t just merge in. The gulf between their Asian and the European culture was just so great. They found it hard to learn German. And without a good knowledge of the language, they could only get unskilled jobs. At the same time there were pressures from the clans at home to demonstrate success in the new country, and of course to send remittances.

The Tamil refugees’ children or their grandchildren may have an easier time of it. A 2010 study in Zurich schools found that Tamils did considerably better than other immigrant groups. This also has a negative side, however: the parents may be putting pressure on the youngsters to work hard at school, because their school success reflects on the family prestige, and there may be unrealistic ideas about future career prospects.

In general, people who emigrate tend to stay abroad and not come back. They see new things, get new ideas, and the old way of life no longer seems so obvious. All those people who will stay abroad and make the best of it in places like Switzerland will be a tremendous loss to Sri Lanka. But it could also be that they can help to draw the country out of its long isolation.