Idle No More: The Myth of the Lazy Indian (Part 1)

Not that many weeks back, I wrote about some of the myths about North American Indians that continue to prevail in this day and age. One of those myths is the one that alleges that Aboriginals don’t work, implying that they’re lazy and unmotivated.

As readers learned back in June, self-employed Aboriginals can be found across the country, with 23% of Aboriginals in Ontario, 22% of Aboriginals in British Columbia (22%) and 18% of Aboriginals in Alberta choosing the entrepreneurial life. In Quebec and Manitoba, it’s 10% with Saskatchewan at 8%, the Atlantic provinces in at 5% and the Territories at 3%. Adding to those impressive figures is the fact that 51% of those entrepreneurial businesses were launched by Aboriginal women.

What’s more, even though Canada has been in a recession for years, 6 out of 10 Aboriginal owned and operated businesses reported a profit in 2010 (the most recent year that statistics were available from the government of Canada). Even better, 29% of those businesses do not, and have not, accessed government programs in the start-up or maintenance phases of their business.

In other words, if you’re Aboriginal, it’s highly unlikely that you’re less motivated to be successful in your career than any other cultural group. But you know, it’s really difficult to knock down stereotypes when they’re so deeply ingrained that 77% of employers stated in a 1995 survey that they didn’t hire non-Native people to work for them for three reasons: communication problems, difficulty understanding Indigenous culture, and the grossly inaccurate stereotypes held about Aboriginals in general.

Some readers contacted me about what I had written in this article, pointing out that at the heart of every stereotype, there’s a grain of truth. After careful consideration of the possibility, I delved deeper into past generations to see how and where these stereotypes developed. What I learned only made for a wider chasm.

You see, in reading the 1890 report to the government of Canada (which included letters from various Indian agents), much of what was written talked of the industrious nature of the Native population. And what sorts of things were written?

In Fredericton:

During the past winter forty or more of the young land able-bodied men were engaged in the woods, stream driving, rafting and running rafts from Tobique to Fredericton; for this they generally receive wages ranging from $1.50 to $2 per day and board included. Another profitable employment from which they receive good wages is their acting as guides for the hunting and sporting class. Those who remain at home and take no part in the above employment give their attention to the manufacture of Indian wares, which are readily sold on either side of the line at profitable prices.

In Caledonia, NS:

They earn considerable money at fishing, hunting and coopering. The women do, their share in supporting their families by making baskets, & c.

From Moose Mountain Indian Agency in Treaty #4:

The amount earned by individual Indians  [in the previous year] was $360.96, and nearly all of it was spent in the purchase of lumber for flooring their houses, cooking stoves and clothing.

The yearly amount per individual Indian was $360.96 in 1890?  I did some financial planning research (coming across this  website) and it determined that if you purchased $360.96 worth of goods in 2012, you would have only forked over $14.65 back in 1890.

So what could $14.65 buy a family back in 1890?

According to MeasuringWorth.com (a project funded by the University of Illinois at Chicago), $14.65 in 1890 had the buying power of $364.00 in 2012. This means that $360.96 back in 1890 had the buying power of $28,246.40 today. In other words, earning $360.96 back in 1890 was a decent annual income in 2012 terms.

In other words, even by government standards, First Nations peoples were invested in earning a living rather than scraping by with what they could glean from others. And in addition to earning a living wage throughout the year, they made the most of hunting and fishing to further subsidize their incomes.

This industriousness was documented in a number of government documents including one from the Indian Agent responsible for the Nipigon band.  He wrote:

A number who give their attention to farming are fairly prosperous: others have moved to Deseronto, where they find ready employment in the mills of the Rathbun Company, and thereby obtain a comfortable living. The crop recently harvested was good.

Elsewhere on Manitoulin island, it was reported:

They own a reserve at Lake Wanapitae, but live on Manitoulin Island. The children attend school at Wikwemikong and West Bay. They are farmers and fishermen, and prosperous and doing well … … the earnings of the Indians from the various sources from which they derive their maintenance have been above the average.

But obviously something happened between 1890 and 2013, and somewhere between 1890 and 2012, a mess of ugly stereotypes took root among non-Native people. Still, it’s hard to believe that a segment of society that was both industrious and prosperous should lay waste to this sort of stereotype, don’t you think?

Later this month, I’ll take a look at what happened between 1890 and 2013 in search of answers … factual answers.

Elyse Bruce

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2 Responses to “Idle No More: The Myth of the Lazy Indian (Part 1)”

  1. Idle No More: The Myth of the Lazy Indian (Part 2) | Elyse Bruce Says:

    […] this month, I took on the myth of the lazy Indian. To recap, the question posed was this: If a Native was earning $364 year in 1890 (the equivalent […]


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