Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry

Isolation from economic processes has meant that a number of neolithic cultural features, including undisciplined work habits, tribal forms of political identification, animistic beliefs, and difficulties in developing abstract reasoning, persist despite hundreds of years of contact

This gem is from the book Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation by Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard. This book was written in 2008; it’s well-written, published by a respected academic press, and very comprehensive.

However, this book is pretty terrible to read. I was shaking my head (#smdh) within 5 pages. The authors start with a story about traditional knowledge and how it’s being used in an emperor’s new clothes kind of way: you can’t possibly understand traditional knowledge because it’s mired in cultural context. They struggle with that. If we can’t understand it, how can we provide a solution?

The authors are very clear about positionality from the start: before they lived in the North, they couldn’t be bothered to worry about Aboriginal concerns – these are limited to the isolated reserves or behind boardroom doors. But in the North – hey! – natives everywhere, and suddenly they have to deal with them on a daily basis.

Native people who have successfully integrated into modern society are lauded in a cartoonish way: see! They can be civilized, as though this isn’t assimilation and the horror of residential school wasn’t founded on the same civilizing condescension.  The problem of the Aboriginal Industry is discussed, and the authors are all in favour of getting rid of the industry so that the real problems can be dealt with. They want to find solutions. That’s their overarching question: how do we find a solution to all these Indian problems?, or as the conclusion is titled: “What is to be done?”

There’s an unbelievable amount of privilege seeping from the page. When I was reading the discussion about traditional knowledge and how it can’t be understood by certain people, it struck me: for these authors who have lived with unconscious privilege their entire lives, here they are, in a situation where they are being told “I don’t think you can understand,” and it wounds them. They try and make concessions that will allow this knowledge to be shaped into a framework or structure that makes sense to them. Yet the knowledge exists in an indigenous context that, perhaps for the first time, puts them in a new position, stripped of privilege. This is the experience of many indigenous people daily: our experiences are not given the weight of white experiences.

This book is well-intentioned. It’s trying to push past the bureaucracies and red tape and mysticism that makes dealing with these issues (like consultation, land rights, etc) so problematic and lengthy. Yes! I agree! I’m all for figuring out a way to standarize the categorizations of traditional knowledge – I’m a librarian! – but I think that it has to come from the source. Otherwise, the paternalism that has characterized non-native and native people just continues and we have books that speak about my people as though we all have “difficulties in developing abstract reasoning.”


I’m not the only Aboriginal person to shake my damn head at this book: Media Indigena has a discussion of this misguided book called “An Ink Stained Response to ‘Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry'”  by Niigonwedom James Sinclair.

Here are the two parts:

Part 1 and Part 2


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