Legends of Myself 31

Posted on November 11, 2011


Continued from Legends of Myself 30

 31.  Century Sam

I first met Century Sam on Skid Road, and—perhaps because propaganda reaches street-level (and thus kid-level) most efficiently in an urban setting—it’s only there that I actually remember him: button nose and fringe beard, a vest, red-checked shirt, ragged hat and gumboots.  That season he was a prospector; on St. Patrick’s Day, a shirt of green and buckle on his hat remade him as a leprechaun.

British Columbia had adopted Sam as the mascot for the 1958 Centennial.  As a commercial icon—like the Nabob genie or the Campbell Soup kids—Century Sam was both a product and a worldview.

The Campbell kids—like Dick, Jane, Sally, Spot and Puff—lived in Neighbourhood Normal.  In Disney’s Peter Pan, the (White) children ask, “Why is the Red Man red?”[1]—Because not being White requires explanation, of course.

The Nabob genie represents the Other—by custom in costume.  Otherwise:  hula skirts, harem pants, fezzes, feathers, turbans, kilts, kimonos, sandals, slippers with upcurled toes.  The Other is never real, always ethnic, shamelessly anachronistic.  Indians have bows and arrows; the Chinese have pigtails; Mexicans take naps under giant sombreros.

See children.  Look children.

(Full-body tattoos, bent and bone-pierced noses, buck and filed teeth, spears, blow guns, hookahs, totem poles, missionary-sized cooking pots.)

The Other is a sideshow for the normal.

Of course when Teddy met Century Sam—like many another person he met on Skid Road—he didn’t really question him.  Human children aren’t designed for that.

Scientists handed out a test for children and chimpanzees.  Taught each to get candy from the box.  Tap this.  Push that.  Pull out that drawer there.  Some instructions helped open the box.  Others were wasted motion.  Which were which became obvious when the mystery boxes were replaced with other boxes, identical to the first except transparent.

The chimps quickly discarded the wasted motions.  The children continued to use them.

In human children (including Teddy) socialization trumps rationality.

They caught it on film.

So what was Century Sam teaching his loyal, impressionable human child?  What motions was Teddy learning to do?

One view of the world says that British Columbia entered the human story perhaps 17,000 years ago, when the Americas were first settled.  Off-shore British Columbia was the corridor to the Americas and the people who lived there shared a shoreline with Brother Noah.

The melting of the continental ice sheets would eventually inundate every salt coast on Earth, and over many generations shrink the continents to their present sizes.  People came to British Columbia before that happened.

They were present to watch the ice sheets leave, to know the valleys before there were rivers in them and to taste the rivers before there were salmon in them.  They were present to witness the cedar forests as they claimed the mountainsides, and to dig in the first clam beds which colonized the new shorelines.  There were human habitations raised in the territory before the glaciers left and human songs echoing in the hills before the first deer were hunted there.

The tale began with perhaps a few dozen people.  After millennia and many changes and many people passing through, there were 150 thousand, speaking more than 30 different languages, pursuing lifeways more diverse than all of Europe, knowing the names of every plant, stream, mountain, landmark and …

If you leave that part out (which Sam did) the history of British Columbia began in 1858 and had its Centennial in 1958.  Sam’s view, as you understand, is a very special view of history—successfully sold, widely believed—and it’s what I meant earlier about Century Sam representing a worldview.  Uh huh.

Sam in particular was selling a date.

It could have been 1846-1946, if you wanted to celebrate the time when British Columbia’s borders were essentially set in the Oregon Border Treaty.

It could have been 1849-1949, if you wanted to celebrate the first arrival of colonial status to a part of the territory—Vancouver Island.

It could have been 1866-1966, if you wanted to celebrate whenVancouver Island and the mainland colony were politically joined.

But 1858-1958 was significant in celebrating the appointment of the mainland as a colony of its own, in the selection of the name for that colony by QueenVictoria, and in the sudden arrival in British Columbia of tens of thousands of Californian gold-seekers, the unexpectedness of which triggered the official actions.

When 1858 began, the capital of Vancouver Island,Victoria, had a population of about 500 and the total, ethnically-European population of all British Columbia was less than a thousand.  Then Governor Douglas sent some gold ore to San Francisco to be assayed and it returned with 30,000 prospectors in its wake.

There’s a reason why Century Sam dressed the way he did.  The prospectors who arrived so unexpectedly in 1858 were who he was meant to commemorate.

The California Gold Rush had been ongoing since 1848 but had gradually and inevitably fallen into the hands of larger operators.  Thus the gold-seekers in California were hungry for new fields.  At other times, with other news, some of them crossed the Pacific to Australia.  In 1858, in one of the most spectacular human migrations ever, they came to British Columbia.  They brought a little or a lot of California culture with them.  And in those days that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

The California gold fields, you see, were infamous as killing fields.  Perhaps 60,000 Aboriginal people were slaughtered by gold miners during the gold rush.  Not for any evident reason.  No one was actually at war.  It was a notable genocide in a century, and on a continent, quite familiar with genocide.

And arguably it had a long price.

Great crimes require strong excuses.  For those who committed the crimes.  For those who looked away.  And often excuses outlive the crimes.  The idea of race and racial superiority got early traction in California.  The idea of interning the Japanese during the Second World War blossomed there.  Of the 60,000 American citizens sterilized because of the fake science of eugenics, 30,000 were sterilized in California.

And similarly, and suggestively, anti-Asian laws and anti-Asian feelings were strongest in British Columbia of all Canadian provinces, and the Indian reserves there were  the smallest.

Did the California killing fields seed the history of racism in British Columbia?  I don’t know.  There is no doubt, though, that Century Sam—cute and bland as a button—had blood on his hands, and that gives reason to suspect he brought his excuses with him too.

Along with his special view of history, perhaps.


[1] Disney Red Men are as red as Paleface sunburns.


Continued @ Legends of Myself 32

Posted in: autobiography