Eurocentrism in Aboriginal Studies: A Review of Issues and Conceptual Problems

By Hedican, Edward J. | The Canadian Journal of Native Studies, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Eurocentrism in Aboriginal Studies: A Review of Issues and Conceptual Problems


Hedican, Edward J., The Canadian Journal of Native Studies


Introduction

"Eurocentrism" has been described as "the imaginative and institutional context that informs contemporary scholarship, opinion, and law. As a theory, it postulates the superiority of Europeans over nonEuropeans. It is built on a set of assumptions and beliefs that educated and usually unprejudiced Europeans and North Americans habitually accept as true, as supported by 'the facts', or as 'reality'" (Battiste and Henderson 2011: 11). Not surprisingly, anthropology has taken the brunt of this sort of criticism, although other areas of study such as history and legal studies have also been seen as culpable in this regard. The goal of this paper is therefore to examine the issue of Eurocentrism in such manner as to widen the dialogue concerning the impact of this issue in Aboriginal studies.

Eurocentric Perspectives

The problem with "Eurocentrism" pertains to issues of perspective in terms of the manner in which Indigenous societies are portrayed in anthropology and Western social sciences more generally. This problem is attributable, as Alfred (2011: 3) suggests, to "Euroamerican arrogance." Eurocentrism, according to Battiste and Henderson (2011: 12-18), has its roots in a belief in European superiority, in the idea of progress, which has made modern scholarship unable to grasp the crisis of understanding and perceptions of the natural world. Anthropology has been a focus of criticism for the biases and weaknesses of Eurocentric thought: "Contemporary anthropologists have focussed on developing a critique of ethnocentrism in both academic theory and popular culture. They have sought to develop participatory and collaborative research methodologies based on the assumption that anthropological texts are the product of dialogues between researchers and research subjects, rather than the authoritative, objective accounts of individual experts" (Battiste and Henderson 2011:18). In other words, there have been attempts at increasing the participation of Indigenous peoples in anthropological research, but there is still the problem of who controls the research agenda, and which party makes the important decisions about perspective, interpretation of results, and final conclusions.

In fact, one of the greatest criticisms of North American anthropology in terms of a Eurocentric perspective is that it has failed to adequately portray the effects of the external changes forced upon Indigenous societies by Western industrialized nations, especially in terms of the damage that European societies have inflicted on Indigenous societies. Centuries of suppression by Western colonial powers have had many deleterious effects on Aboriginal societies, such as the undermining of their ability to feed themselves, the forced removal from ancestral homelands, and the removal of vast tracts of land from Aboriginal control by treaties and other land deals. Some Aboriginal communities were herded into isolated backwaters, and hidden away in areas bereft of resources. Left largely to their own devices in these locations, health and nutritional problems became ever more exacerbated by a limited land base. What anthropologists tended not to study were the harmful effects that treaties and government policies had in undermining the infrastructure of Aboriginal societies.

Anthropology has therefore come to show its paternalistic side, professing on the one hand to represent the special interests of First Nations people while on the other hand working to find ways for them to fit into the dominant mainstream society of the United States and Canada. When anthropologists visited these Aboriginal communities to conduct ethnographic studies, they were not apt to report on the extant poverty, or the colonial suppression of government legislation and agents. If they were not interested in salvaging cultural materials for museum collections, researchers focused for many decades on acculturation studies. Whether intentional or not, the image conveyed was that of a dying Indian culture, or at least one vastly transformed from a seemingly "noble savage" existence of the past. …

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