Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Those Wacky Inukshuks

The image on the left is one of Vancouver's more noted landmarks. It's the representation of stone monuments that the Inuits built in the arctic. It's called an inukshuk. There's a craze/fetish for these things and Vancouver used it on their official logo for the 2010 Olympics.

Not to be cynical or a snob, but Europeans were building St. Peter's 400 years ago and native cultures of North America were piling up some rocks that look like a wobbly stickman. The inukshuk is cool in a way, but why do we glorify it? Is it not a wee bit embarrassing?
In related news, International Olympic Committee Chairman Dick Pound was quoted recently:

We must not forget that 400 years ago, Canada was a land of savages, with scarcely 10,000 inhabitants of European origin, while in China, we’re talking about a 5,000-year-old civilization.” (Story)

A poor choice of words that have people up in arms. He's been called a racist and the IOC has been petitioned to sanction him. This gave Margaret Wente an idea for a column, and now she's getting the same heat at the Globe and Mail.

North American native peoples had a neolithic culture based on subsistence living and small kinship groups. They had not developed broader laws or institutions, a written language, evidence-based science, mathematics or advanced technologies. The kinship groups in which they lived were very small, simply organized and not very productive. Other kinship groups were regarded as enemies, and the homicide rate was probably rather high. Until about 30 years ago, the anthropological term for this developmental stage was “savagery.” (see full column)
What do you think? Were native cultures of the 1600's as advanced as European or Chinese?


  1. I think the inukshuk would be suitable if the Olympics were held in Nunavut or somewhere else in the arctic region, but for an event in Vancouver it is an odd choice. :P

  2. Yeah, Vancouver pretty cheaply adopted the inukshuk. It's a BC thing. Inuit carvings are a big craze as well. Retire after 20 years, guaranteed you'll get an inuit carving... No that they ever lived here or anything.

  3. You must admit that the inukshuk is fascinating. Reminiscent of Stonehenge –mysterious, enthralling, chilling … romantic! (in the true sense of the word).
    Were there sacrifices performed at its feet? Maybe there still are. Somewhere in the dark north. Or in the dark hearts of Vancouver.
    (I bet that’s not what they were going for when they picked it as their symbol.)

  4. Re: May

    I have a new appreciation for the damn thing. Bella Legosi is not dead...

  5. May –Weirdly enough your comment made me feel better about the inukshuk.
    The inukshuk made me cringe with embarrassment - has Canada not created anything mildly more impressive since its inception? the CN Tower, the Lion's Gate Bridge, or what about the fucking Canadarm we keep hearing about!!!?

    And if we had to go back to our native roots to dig out a symbol for the Olympics, it should have been the totem pole – at least that represented the western canadian indians, and depicted great craftsmanship.

    But I like the Stonehenge angle. From now on when I tell people why we incorporated it into choosing the symbol, I can make it sound sophisticated!

  6. Canadarm! LoL!
    How many times did you have to shove that fact down an American's throat? "Look there's the Maple Leaf sticker! See we're astronauts too!"
    But, so the term "savage" has become passe. No problem, drop it. This commonly happens to many cultural terms. Like the various forms of the "N" word. New awareness's evolve, people get offended, so fucking what, drop it. Does change bother you that much? Culture is dynamic. On a related note, Pinker has a great take on the evolution and acceptance of swear words:

    It's telling that there is so much discontent with modernity that you must hint at sorcery and sacrifice in your cultural symbols.

  7. About the 'savage comment' - one thing to note is that he said it in French and the connotation is a little different. It's used more in the sense of 'wild' and 'untamed'. For instance wild flowers in French is 'Fleurs Sauvage'.

    Certainly not the greatest choice of words, but by no means racist.

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  9. “Untamed" implies that some outside (Read: Western/civilized) power is needed to tame/civilize/make-right. To tame is also to domesticate in the sense of an animal being broken. I realize savage carries with it an unspeakable image of violence, but untamed seems almost worse in a sense. Must these (did these) beautiful and equally valuable people (need to) be tamed? Ham Man, noble savage that you are, did you mean to imply this?

    Shame on you all.