Population, Rhetoric, The Spanish, The Haida and Darmok and Jalad.


“We began this unit by discussing assumptions and differences that we carry into our class. In “First Contact as Spiritual Performance,” Lutz makes an assumption about his readers (Lutz, “First Contact” 32). He asks us to begin with the assumption that comprehending the performances of the Indigenous participants is “one of the most obvious difficulties.” He explains that this is so because “one must of necessity enter a world that is distant in time and alien in culture, attempting to perceive indigenous performance through their eyes as well as those of the Europeans.” Here, Lutz is assuming either that his readers belong to the European tradition, or he is assuming that it is more difficult for a European to understand Indigenous performances – than the other way around. What do you make of this reading? Am I being fair when I point to this assumption? If so, is Lutz being fair when he makes this assumption?”


It is an interesting topic, why we make assumptions the way we do.  In our particular case, Lutz is writing for a specific audience in First Contact as a Spiritual Performance, Encounters on the North American West Coast. His assumption that the reader will be more familiar with European tradition than First Nation tradition, is a rhetorical choice. It is one he employs to make it easier for the reader to understand how Europeans made first contact and how challenging it may have been. By understanding the challenges of first contact through the lens of a familiar tradition, he asks us then to “attempt to perceive indigenous performance through their eyes, as well as those of the Europeans” (Lutz, 32.)

By stating that understanding First Nation’s performance is “one of the most obvious difficulties” (First contact as a Spiritual Performance 32), his implication comes in two parts. Firstly,  that the reader will be more familiar European tradition than First Nation tradition, and secondly that it will be more challenging for the reader to understand First Nations’ performance than European performance.

It is not an unfounded rhetorical decision to assume that the reader will have an easier time understanding European performance than First Nation’s performance. According to a United Nation’s Live population tracker, Canada has a population of 37,152,262 people as of today February 8th 2019.  The last religious survey conducted was back in 2011. The population at that time was 32,852,320 people. I grant that population has changed drastically since 2011 and our religious survey information is out of date. However, working within the available information, we see that their were a total of 22,102,745 confirmed christian practicers, while there were only 64,935 confirmed who identified themselves to believing in a “traditional (aboriginal) spirituality.” There is a massive difference in number of people who would be more familiar with traditional christian stories than traditional First Nation stories.  We can also assume that people of Muslim faith and of Jewish faith, both being Abarahmic religions with a long history of trade and contact with Christian society, would have a much similar understanding of christian tradition than First Nation tradition. There were in 2011, 329,495 confirmed Jewish practitioners in Canada and at that time there were 1,053,945 Muslim practitioners. 

Due to population alone (in 2011) we can see his choice was probably most likely a wise choice, if his intention was was educate about the challenges of first contact.

The other implication our prompt question has us consider is that  “he is assuming that it is more difficult for a European to understand Indigenous performances – than the other way around.” I do not believe this is an assumption that Lutz makes and it is unfair to imply that he is making it.  Lutz assumes we will be familiar with the technology and the spiritual beliefs of the Spanish during First Contact with the Haida, because “we have insufficient distance from our own and our ancestor’s view” (Lutz 32). He then makes a special case to inform his reader how First Nation’s people may have had extreme difficulty understanding European culture as well. Lutz details a possible First Contact scenario involving First Nations rationals and spiritual practices appear quite reasonable when applied to the context of spiritual belief. The use of “dousing oneself in urine” to ward off spirts makes sense, if that was a embedded cultural belief. “being afraid of eating maggots” and seeing “skulls with rope running through their sockets” would terrify anyone if the sight was misunderstood.

It is difficult to understand anything without context. This is his Lutz overall point in the article. Because he assumes we have context regarding the European, Christian mythology, he uses this context as a way to help the reader understand why First Contact happened the way it did by providing spiritual context from the Haida perspective.  The implication that it is more difficult for one party to understand the other is an invalid point. Lutz shows quite clearly that both parties had a great deal of difficulty understanding each other.

There is a wonderful Star Trek the Next Generation episode dealing with exactly this topic. In the show Captain Picard is working to establish first contact with a race of aliens whose language is comprised of only references to their historical and mythological histories. The Universal translator had been destroyed and both Captain Picard and the Captain of the alien vessel became lost on an deserted planet awaiting rescue. Each Captain had to try to understand, not only language, but mythic history as well in order to understand each other and survive until rescue. The captain of the alien vessel kept drawing attention to a mythical first counter between two of his people called “Darmok” and “Jalad” at a place called “Tanagra”. Picard first has no idea who Darmok” and his compatriot “Jalad” was; however after considerable faith, understanding and patience Picard eventually learns that the people of this planet are not hostile and peace can be established through understanding of the repeated phrase “Shaka, when the walls fell.”


Picard and Alien Captain

It is this understanding or misunderstanding of context and the willingness or unwillingness to accommodate beliefs that allow for peaceful or violent interactions between the Spanish and the Haida. It is Lutz’s point that context is everything and in our particular case religious context was vital.

Works Cited

Canadian Demographics At A Glance, Second Edition”. Www150.Statcan.Gc.Ca, 2019, https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/91-003-x/2014001/section03/33-eng.htm.

“Canada Population (2019) – Worldometers”. Worldometers.Info, 2019, http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/canada-population/.

Star Trek the Next Generation, Season 5 Episode 2, “Darmok” “The Hollow”, September 30th 1991.





This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Population, Rhetoric, The Spanish, The Haida and Darmok and Jalad.

  1. Cassie Lumsden says:

    Hi Sean,
    I find your view on this topic quite interesting and that your inclusion of the Next Gen episode really speaks to your ideas on how context can make or break cross-cultural understanding. What I am curious about however, is your stance on the second prompt regarding the assumption that it is more difficult for a European to understand Indigenous performances than the other way around. I noticed you took Lutz’s comments from a historical stand, referring directly to how both the European party and Indigenous party would have an equally difficult time understanding each other’s “performance”. I totally agree with this view, however, I am wondering, if you looked at this prompt from a more present view rather than a historical one, would your answer to the prompt change? Do you think that current Indigenous people would have an easier time understanding European performance than European Canadians have understanding Indigenous performance?

    • SeanDyer says:

      Hey Cassie.

      Very good question. Coming at the topic from a modern standpoint is not something that I had taken into account.

      I think we are still in a First Contact phase. I think European and First Nation’s people are still “battling” each other because we, as people who have predominantly European heritage, have not bothered to adequately immerse ourselves in First Nation culture on a national level. This leads to disputes regarding land, title, and law.

      I think because we have a greater population and had technological advances it has been easy for us to simply aggressively domination our First Nation’s Neighbors.

      I think it is difficult for First Nations people to understand vicious Canadian law, and I think it is equally difficult for Canadians (in power) to understand First Nation’s cultural law the concept of claim. We simply have not spent the time trying to understand and be inclusive.

      I think this is beginning to change. 2018 marked the worlds first
      World’s first Indigenous law degree. It is in it’s first year at UVIC. I am happy to see this kind of program being funded and produced.

      I think effort in understanding needs to take a greater priority. This course and the indigenous law degrees are excellent steps in that.

      I hope that makes sense and that I answered your question. If not, let me know.

  2. AndreaMelton says:

    Hi Sean, great that you included a Star Trek reference—I hear those all the time because my husband is a Trekker. He’ll be so proud of me when I say I need to watch that episode—for academic purposes, of course!

    You say, “I do not believe this is an assumption that Lutz makes and it is unfair to imply that he is making it” which I appreciate because you based that on population statistics and the importance of context. Your point that both parties had a great deal of difficulty understanding each other is so true, and I like your examples. Reading Lutz’s article, he also says words like “re-thinking,” “re-examining,” and “reinterpreting” which is another point he seems to be trying to make—that we need to examine it from the Indigenous point of view, and how they integrated the spirituality of Europeans during the “contact zone” (like he said, it wasn’t so black and white—the two parties did not have a spiritual view of each other at one moment and a rational view the next). What did you find the most interesting about the way Indigenous peoples tried to understand the spirituality of Europeans?

    • SeanDyer says:

      Hey Andrea.

      I think its a wonderful topic to discuss and think about. I am agnostic personally and so my own spirituality is confusing. I think it is very interesting to think that because both parties had mythos of their own and incorporated the new comers into that mythos, confusion or misunderstandings were bound to happen.

      I think it is equally interesting that if you approach first contact, not from a spiritual view, like in the star trek episode, you can still have an equal amount of mistrust and confusion. I think the context of culture is vital, regardless if people believe each other come from a spirit realm or not. Communication will be difficult anyway.

      I think it is the effort one puts into understand that context that is where European settlers have traditionally lacked. They had the population, they had technical advantage, so it was easy for them to dominate First Nation’s peoples and attempt to assimilate them into their society. The problem is some 150 years later, we have not bothered to educate ourselves on the context of First Nation’s practice in an adequate enough level to discuss meaningful solutions.

      I think that is beginning to change. As i just mentioned in Cassie’s reply, Uvic now has the world’s first indigenous aw degree which started 2018 and of course we are all taking this course.

      I hope that helps.

  3. Hi Sean,
    I really enjoyed reading your blog post and your overall analysis regarding why we make assumptions and the importance of understanding and misunderstanding – in relation to Lutz. I thought that your connection regarding Star Trek was very well thought out as well.
    I am curious to know you if you can think of any other examples of present day issues of understanding versus misunderstanding and why they are significant?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.