Tuesday, June 19, 2018

šxʷƛ̓exən Xwtl'a7shn!

This is not directly about music, though I suppose it is music-adjacent. The CBC reports that two prominent plazas in Vancouver, the one on the north side of the Vancouver Art Gallery and the one adjacent to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, are going to be renamed. The former will now be known as šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl'e7énḵ Square and the latter as šxʷƛ̓exən Xwtl'a7shn. Say it with me! Well, ok, they have a little video clip showing how each is pronounced:

Best of luck with the voiceless velar fricatives! This is just another in a long line of examples of multicultural virtue-signalling, but a particularly striking example. These names are from the Indigenous languages of the region from the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations. Indigenous groups are no longer referred to as "tribes" but as "nations." It always seems to come down to labels, names, designations. Perhaps we can next look forward to the theatre also being re-named. A while back they re-named the Queen Charlotte Islands "Haida Gwaii." Rather hilariously, Wikipedia says that the "nickname" for the islands is the Queen Charlottes. Perhaps the whole province of British Columbia needs to be re-named, referring as it does to the hated imperialist oppressors, the British, and that other hated oppressor Christopher Columbus.

I think that this kind of thing is just a symptom of the hollowing out of culture. First history and culture are either emptied of meaning or reinterpreted according to cultural Marxist theory. Then the fragments are re-labeled giving place to designated oppressed groups. I'm beyond being surprised at how long this can go on before everyone rises up en masse and says "hell, no!" But I hope it is soon. As a small act of personal rebellion I will not be using the designated names for the two public spaces. Instead I will just refer to them as "Plaza of the Hated Oppressor Number One" and "Plaza of the Hated Oppressor Number Two."

As suitable envoi, let's have some music of the Indigenous peoples of the region. This is "Victory Song" from the album Nootka: Indian Music of the Pacific North-West Coast, collected by Ida Halpern.


Patrick said...

What a diliberately provocative post. OK, I’ll bite. It seems to me the oppressors (and coming and taking people’s land and enslaving them qualifies as oppresors) want their cake and the ability to eat it guilt free. The sooner the sad history is acknowledged and some kind of reparations are made (starting with renaming public places, perhaps) the better off everyone will be.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Patrick! Yes, it was provocative. I believe that you have stated the assumptions behind public acts like this quite fairly. Let me make two responses. First, yes, you could make the argument that the colonization of British Columbia (the local newspaper in Victoria is still called the "Times/Colonist") was the act of an oppressor and if this were unique or even fairly unusual in human history that would be noteworthy. But, as a matter of historical fact, all peoples on earth have invaded their neighbor's territory on a regular basis for as long as humans have existed. And yes, this includes the Indigenous peoples of North and South America. However it is undoubtedly easier and certainly more politically expedient to simply ignore all this and just do the politically correct thing.

Second, there is a technical reason why this is an absurd policy. Just look at the new names. Is it at all feasible for these to be used as names for these public spaces? Virtually no-one other than trained and specialized linguists can pronounce (or spell!) these names. Therefore they are of absolutely no utility whatsoever as public labels. This undoubtedly increases their value in terms of virtue-signalling however.

Nathaniel Garbutt said...

Two year olds have been hitting each other since time immemorial, however, if one of my two year olds hits someone I still expect him to apologise.


Did you expect these squares to always be named as they were and never be renamed? If so, why? Landmarks often get renamed. For instance, a number of years ago here in Melbourne Australia, they renamed a large prominent train station in the CBD from Spencer Street Station to Southern Cross Station. Is this a problem? What about if they renamed Queen Elizabeth Plaza to King Charles Plaza?

The second paragraph just comes across as a really lazy justification for not using native names. Your whole blog can be summarised as an encouragement for people to extend themselves a little to learn a little about music so they can start to appreciate historical musics a bit more. This is much harder and much more work than learning to pronounce and write two names from an unfamiliar language. Why is it a problem to expect people to learn a little about the culture they now co-exist with?

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for your comment, Nathaniel. Let me just respond to one criticism. You call my citing of a technical reason why this renaming is a bad idea a "really lazy justification." I disagree with that. Let me flesh out my objection a bit. You imply that writing and pronouncing two names in an unfamiliar language is not terribly difficult. That all depends, of course! In this case we are confronted with this orthography: šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl'e7énḵ Square. These symbols are not from the normal alphabet, of course, but from a specialized version of the International Phonetic Alphabet, used by linguists. I briefly studied linguistics at university and, back then at least, had a bit of familiarity with the IPA. It is used by linguists because it is able to notate sounds that are not present in English or other European languages. The general population is not familiar with the IPA as it is used only by professional linguists. And I am pretty sure that it is not very easy for most people to learn how to pronounce some of the sounds found in Indigenous languages. After all, a lot of English-speaking Canadians struggle with the pronunciation of French!

What is transparently obvious here is that a progressive intelligentsia have decided to impose their virtue-signalling on the general populace by insisting that they use names that are both unreadable and unpronounceable by ordinary people. This is appallingly tone-deaf! And, of course these new names will not be used because they are unreadable and unpronounceable. People will continue to call these two areas by their previous names.

British Columbia, by the way, has had many, many places with Indigenous names. Just south of Vancouver and the site of a major ferry terminal is the community of Tsawassen (from sc̓əwaθən, meaning "facing the ocean"). Indeed there are hundreds upon hundreds of Indigenous place names in British Columbia as you can see if you follow this link to the Wikipedia article:


These names use the normal alphabet and have been used, without controversy, for as long as British Columbia has been in existence. If you read the CBC article I linked to, the virtue-signalling is obvious, as is the condescension.

Now, of course the government of British Columbia historically treated the native peoples very badly. One striking example was the prohibition of many elements of native culture, such as the potlatch, well into the mid-20th century. But it is just a bit hypocritical to think that re-naming a couple of plazas helps to make up for that.

Will Wilkin said...

When I was a graduate student in history, at the time of my oral exam for my Master's degree I was offered financial aid to enroll in the doctoral program, which I declined, saying I'd rather make history anonymously than write about it as a professor. And so I went to work in various unionized factories as a political assignment of the revolutionary marxist party I had joined, in order to agitate for the communist revolution that would supposedly end the exploitation of the working class and the imperialist wars that exploitation required. In the next 5 years as a devoted party member, I studied the works of Marx, Engels, Trotsky, Lenin and others, and attempted with my comrades to apply those ideas through organized party activities.

Although my thinking has changed deeply in the decades since, one thing has remained constant: always I have tried to do what I felt and believed is most just and respectful of all people. In many ways today I have morphed into a paleo-conservative, though of my own definition and probably not exactly what that label would define in popular discourse.

Hopefully that political confession gives me standing to say that no matter how immersed in marxism I was, whether in action or theory, never would I have recognized the term "cultural marxism." To me, that is truly an academic idea, divorced from the authentic content of Marx's ideas, which were about political economy, and which I would argue were surprisingly free of moral condemnation of the cultures and events that had been "historically determined" by the level of economic and historical development on which events and ideas of any time and place are based.

Regarding the matter at hand, ie, the proclamation of now-alien "indigenous" names (and "spelling") of certain public squares in Canada, I can only agree with you Bryan that these gestures, however well-intentioned, amount to "virtue-signaling" because they are a hollow substitute for a genuine returning of the lands to the indigenous peoples, which would be even more absurd due to the sheer demographic reality that has developed over the intervening centuries, not to mention how any such "reparations" would be truly unprecedented in the history of humanity. As you indicated, the history of ANY nation (ex: the Mayan "Mexica" of the Mexican Valley in the century before Cortez) was built on the conquest of those peoples who had previously occupied the land, a constant antagonism that goes back deeply into paleolithic times of competitiveness between even small bands before tribes and then nations even existed.

Bryan Townsend said...

That's a very interesting comment, Will! There was a time when I casually referred to myself as a Marxist as well, a long time ago. Jordan Peterson has described, IIRC, "cultural Marxism" as the transformation European Marxism underwent when, in the 70s, it started to become obvious that Marxism as an economic plan just wasn't working out. So they modified the endeavor into the taking over of cultural institutions in society. I believe that the Italian Gramsci was influential in this project. What the two projects have in common are the need to control the thinking and behaviour of society as a whole. This is, I believe, the motivation behind things like the re-naming of public plazas in such a way as to point out the superiority of the progressive intelligentsia over the ordinary citizens.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

since one of the primary engines of economic activity in the PNW Indian tribes was a slavery system I'm hesitant to endorse a retroactive narrative of whites oppressing Native Americans not so much because that didn't happen (it surely did) but because all too often the implicit narrative behind such a narrative was that the Native Americans were not oppressive, or not oppressive in the same way. That's not necessarily a provable claim. That all the tribes in the PNW practiced slavery has been the subject of a couple of monographs over the last twenty years, none of which are especially easy reading more for stylistic reasons that just content. Since half my ancestry is PNW native I hope that there's a way to address the bad treatment of PNW native people without scrubbing out practices that we can be glad are no longer in place. For folks who want to read a couple of books on the topic.

Indian Slavery in the Pacific Northwest (Northwest Historical Series XVII)
Robert H Ruby and John A Brown
The Arthur H Clark Company, Spokane, Washington
copyright (c) 1993 by Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown
ISBN 0-87062-225-0

Aboriginal Slavery on the Northwest Coast of North America
Leland Donald (Author)
Hardcover, 375 pages
ISBN: 9780520206168
August 1997

Given how inhumane the slavery practices of the PNW tribes were across the board I just don't see that making everyone recognize places by the names used by now marginalized tribes is really a "win" in human rights terms. Just because people who self-identify as being "left" don't usually care to know how callous the PNW slavery systems were before they got outlawed (ineffectually) and eventually discarded (in response to regional market activity) doesn't mean it wasn't the reality of PNW tribal life.

If a grand total of fifty to even three hundred (or even 3,000) people speak a language it makes no sense to expect 30,000 to 300,000 people to start calling a place by the name of the linguistic minority. The PNW tribes were not exactly in a "better" place compared to the oppressors with white skin in the slavery department here in the PNW.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Mr. Hatchet, for providing the references and context that I was ignorant of. I was quite aware of the brutality of intertribal conflict in the Americas pre-Columbus, but was not specifically aware of the practice of slavery in the Pacific Northwest. Just 180 miles south of where I sit writing this, in the Great Temple in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) they practiced continual human sacrifice and displayed the skulls of the victims in great towers. Archaeologists are excavating this site right now. So please, let's have a little less of the nonsense that Europeans were the greatest oppressors in human history. It was Europeans, specifically the British, who were the first to put an end to the age-old practice of slavery.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

btw, thanks for linking to recordings of PNW tribal music. I've been going through Thomas Commuck's Indian Melodies, a hymnal in the shape-note tradition regarded by some scholars as the first published musical work by a Native American composer (tunes by Commuck, harmonized for SATB by Thomas Hastings). It's like any hymnal where half the tunes are a bit clunky but about half of them are solid and several of the melodies are wonderful. It ... doesn't fit a narrative probably preferred by new left advocates that the first Native American musical work published in the U.S. would be a hymnal for Methodist Episcopal Native Americans but so it goes. You can find Indian Melodies over at IMSLP and archive.org. It's something Yale is working on realizing in performance lately so thought I'd pass that along, too.

Bryan Townsend said...

I didn't know about the music of Thomas Commuck! Thanks for letting us know.