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What Wente Wrote was Really Dumb – and also Racist

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Section: Opinion Geography: Canada Topics: Indigenous

October 26, 2008

What Wente Wrote was Really Dumb – and also Racist

Globe and Mail columnist stepped over the line

by Ben Powless

Not normally known for pulling punches, the controversial columnist Margaret Wente today provided an apology and justification for Olympic Committee member Dick Pound's assertions that "Canada was a country of savages" a few hundred years ago.

In her article, titled What Dick Pound said was really dumb – and also true, Wente goes on the offensive against all those who were offended by Pound's comments, and makes the case that Natives were indeed savages, and that's why Canada should continue its plans to erase their "neolithic culture".

"North American native peoples had a neolithic culture [sic] based on subsistence living and small kinship groups... They had not developed broader laws or institutions ..., evidence based science ..., or advanced technologies... Until about 30 years ago, the anthropological term for this developmental stage was 'savagery'," she writes.

Until about 30 years ago, the technical term for this would be ignorance. Today, it is just plain racism to argue cultural inferiority and pretend that all Native peoples are the same. Apparently Aboriginal problems today can be explained by the fact that we have a "relatively simple neolithic kinship-based culture" trying to make it in a world too complex for us. Broken treaties, residential schools, police discrimination? Not a problem!

Wente attempts to de-romanticize Indigenous cultures. She argues that modern drugs have no relation to Native medicines. Maybe Wente should take an aspirin, a medicine derived from willow bark, a traditional medicine. This is beyond the point. She could do her homework, but she has other motives.

Wente feels it is wrong for Canadian society to feel collective guilt, since Native peoples had "absurd" spiritual beliefs, weren't ecologically sensitive, and basically were good-for-nothing. And this guilt is what's pushing us to try and protect Aboriginal cultures – effectively dooming them.

"[A] neolithic culture cannot possibly give them a future. And it's time for us to face that." She's a brave one, concerned for poor little Indians, calling for us to accept racist policies like the ones that resulted in residential schools and Native leaders in jail. No, Margaret Wente's town isn't big enough for more than one culture, unless it's based on White values.

This kind of thinking and writing is unacceptable today. Dick Pound may have made some unsavoury remarks that he regretted, but this is just appalling. Within one day, a Facebook group was created. It already has over one hundred members, calling for Ms. Wente to be fired.

Margaret Wente should not be allowed to keep her position at the Globe and Mail, publishing such virulent lies, while Mr. Pound should resign his Olympic Committee position and McGill Chancellorship. The newspaper should distance itself from her remarks and work instead to build understanding of different cultures.

I am urging people everywhere to write letters to the editors, to Wente, and to her boss, letting them know you're not buying the paper.

We have to stop allowing such racism to go unchallenged in our society. We must demand respect and understanding for all.

Ben Powless is Mohawk from Six Nations. He is currently studying Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa.

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This article = win. Wente's

This article = win. Wente's points are wrong based on the mass of archaeological evidence that demonstrates a) - one of these Native cultures is NOT like the other! b) - 'neolithic' does NOT equal 'stupid' or 'backward' or even "homogeneous, AND all backward, all the same way" which is the sense she's using it. It just means stone-aged, and refers to the technology. If Ms Wente had paid attention in grade 9 social studies, she'd know that. Last I checked, the Ohio and Mississippi earthworks, many times larger than the Egyptian pyramids AND (from what we can gather) built with the intention of geography, astronomy, calendar, and mathematics in mind... were made by FIRST NATIONS cultures AND with stone age technology, AND better than our modern bobcats have done in trying to imitate them!

Excellent article, I'll be writing in to her boss - maybe I'll inscribe my message on a stone tablet!


I can't believe she can get away with this crap...a long-term, stable culture is hardly "savagery".

Right on target!

Thanks for writing this, it is very much on target. People who presume to speak of an "Aboriginal industry" conveniently obscure the much older, much bigger, better financed Aboriginal-Hating Industry. Wente does herself a gigantic disservice: with this writing of hers she has displaced herself, rendered herself more foreign than ever, more of a colonial settler than ever, writing like an old invader and usurper driven by an ignorance of a land and peoples she wishes to usurp. How appropriate that she should be published in the Globe & Mail.

Good job

Good job Ben! Some really great insights. I am surprised how such professionalism is accepted in the Globe and Mail, although that does speak for the paper as a whole. Good job!

Exposing racism to the light of day

Thanks for writing this Ben, it's a great start to a longer discussion about racism and freedom of speech and opinion. I've always believed that the racism that is exposed to the light of day is the racism that will whither under scrutiny and resistance and therefore it is better to have it "out in the open" than lurking in the recesses of minds. That said, national columnists and opinion-shapers have a responsibility to the collective they speak to and to those the speak about. This is not the first time Wente has shown herself to be a vicious and ignorant bigot and in fact I wrote a letter in 2004 letting the Globe and Mail that for the rest of my natural born life I would not be purchasing another copy of the paper unless they got rid of Wente. But despite the odd letter and cancellation, Wente helps the paper stay relevant - that is, has people talking about it, so they see that as selling copies undoubtedly. A concerted effort/campaign to have her fired that reaches thousands may do the trick however, and I'm glad the Dominion is leading us along that path.

However, the political-moral debate over racism and free speech is an interesting one that I'd love to see explored more in the face of this issue.

ENough Wente!

Please read the article

Please read the article please point out what the article says that is racist. Look up the meanings of the word savage. After doing so then how can you possibly say that margaret is racist.

There are multiple meanings for words you and others automatically assume the worse use.

One meaning of savage: uncivilized
Civilized: having an advanced or humane culture, society, etc.
Culture: the quality in a person or society that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellent in arts, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc.

Now one can easily argue that in the 1600's Europe was more 'civilized' than native North Americans. Need I remind everyone of the European Renaissance, arguably the most culturally advanced societies of the time.


The definition of civilized, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Natives were a very civilized society, with some rules that society should be so bold as to enact today.

1) They had their own religious beliefs, they just called God by a different name than we do...so we made that one of the reasons to starve, beat, rape, re-educate to our lower standards...and ultimately murder should our other treatments fail, if they didn't accept our "superior, civilized ways".

2) Their systems were far more humane than ours are - hundreds of years later. They took what they needed when they needed it, and nothing more. They wasted nothing of what they killed...and shared the kill among their tribe members. We're still not THAT advanced, and with our "holier than thou" attitudes - we never will be.

3) That anyone could think they had no culture is laughable if you're going to apply it to the "arts." Why is Native Art so sought after today? Because it's not worthy? It's not Art?

4) Scholarly pursuits? While we breed and educate scholars our world is going to hell in a handbasket. Native scholarly pursuits included study of plants and healing (among other studies whose levels we're still working to understand) with an understanding of natures medicines that TODAYS medical establishments stand in awe of. As a matter of fact, medicine is now returning to Native ways because it works. Without the nasty side effects of "our" medicines.

The European Renaissance hmmmm? Is that the same renaissance that saw hundreds of thousands of people murdered for not adhering to the correct religion? The same one that is only now admitting that perhaps Galileo was right after all, so let's change our version of history to reflect that?

No thanks, you can keep today's "culture, and civilization"...I'll consider myself fortunate indeed to have Native culture to look to for a guide. It was honest, hard working, and above all - loving...until we taught them what "our" version of love really meant.

Pays de sauvage means wild country

I can't believe how lame this paper is getting. In french, the statement 'Pays de sauvage' has nothing to do with aboriginals. It means 'wild country'. It has more to do with the natural and unfettered state of this continent 400 years ago (thanks to the aboriginal land lords). Half of this paper is dedicated to getting closer to that state (or diverging from it more slowly at least).

As for Wente's article, take away what you will. It doesn't really matter. She is distracted by thinking the statement has something to do with aboriginals and racism, the same as you all.

Wente: Until about 30 years ago, the anthropological term for this developmental stage was “savagery.”

Me: But Margaret, sauvage in that context it was used means WILD not savage. Why are you talking about savagery and savages. You should be talking about wind swept hills and plains full of buffaloes and horses (okay, no horses 400 years ago). At least most educated people wouldn't assume it means savages. Why are you talking about savage people or savagery?

Wente lost it in the translation. This continent WAS wild 400 years ago, by anyone's standards. It doesn't mean the people here were bad or less important than the people across the Atlantic or the Pacific. It's a statement based on a frame of reference that writing down your history makes you less savage. The Americans have been writing down their history for a couple hundred years, yet their treatment of the South Americas has been nothing less than savage. Hell, Europe lost its history because of religion in the dark ages (my opinion). So we all have our lows now don't we :)

Focus on real issues is all I am saying. This is a non-issue. A lot of the dominion is dedicated to non-issues or presents a bias equally as skewed US news, just in the opposite direction.

I need to find some good reporting.... It's doesn't seem to be here.

''Pays de sauvages'' does not mean ''wild country''

Hi pmrush,

If Mr. Pound had said «pays sauvage», literally «wild country», then your comment would be right on.

But I think you'll have to brush up on your French, because what Mr. Pound said was «pays de sauvages», which means «nation of savages».

Just though you should know.

Best regards,


You had me right up until...

"No, Margaret Wente's town isn't big enough for more than one culture, unless it's based on White values.

I absolutely agree that Wente's article can be fairly characterized as racist. Like this one that portrays aboriginal people as incapable and disinterested in their own success. Yet you can't shoot the messenger in the way you have proposed. She supported her journalism with a book reference. She rallied behind an elite. She submitted her work for publication to a major media portal. These are the aspects to criticize. Once you make your points carefully and respectfully against the offending circumstance you will get much further.

I came to this site for a different perspective. Yet I find I'm reading the same old same old! Politicization of the issues tends to close them to more informed discourse. It shifts your language also, to where you start sounding like them. I must say, I reject your assertion that there is a 'White' culture. It's racist and it hurts me. You are trying put Margaret Wente with a power group so you can politicize her actions toward having greater control over her, and you are using me to do it! It's not fair and I don't like it.


I will assume pmrush's comments were an attempt at constructive criticism, though those seem like harsh words for a paper's staff who largely work out of the kindness of their hearts. However, pmrush's grasp of history leaves me looking for others who are more qualified to criticize. "This continent WAS wild 400 years ago, by anyone's standards." Not so. Before Europeans, native people were busy managers of natural resources. Whether it's clam gardens on the west coast, controlled fires on the prairies (which result in grasses that big game like), or cultivated nut trees and other valuable plants on the east coast (or countless other examples), this continent was in fact far from wild.

During my Native Studies

During my Native Studies class at my local secondary school, my teacher handed out the article "What Dick Pound said was really dumb – and also true". After reading the article and having a long conversation about our feelings towards the article, we all felt OFFENDED. So we did some research on Margaret Wente and found out that this isn't the first time she has twisted the truth and said something like this. I got all the kids in my class to write letters to the Globe and Mail !

Hii Bennnnnnn :)

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