How the Protestant Work Ethic Injures the Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island

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Timothy R Maton


This paper explores the structure of knowledge embodied in work-based measurements of personhood on the northwestern plains. It traces the development of work-based measurements of personhood from the Victorian age into the present and shows that the ideological meaning of labour ought to be regarded as essential to the settler colonial project. I show that ideological attitudes towards work have always been a definitive aspect of legal and policy-based racism against Indigenous peoples, and, may in fact be its most important ideological trait. 

During the Victorian age, the Anglo Saxon race was depicted by the government as an energetic and innovative worker; conversely, Indigenous people were factitiously described as 'idle' primitives. During that era, Anglo Saxons were described as ox- like, because oxen are considered the hardworking engine capable of domesticating the earth. Conversely, the Indigenous have been equated to the buffalo, and because of the nature of its and their relationship to the land, has been regarded as an impediment to progress and development. This bestial dialectic is an apt descriptor of the ideology structuring settler colonial attitudes towards work.  

In section I and II of the essay I use the analogy of the ox to demonstrate where the government’s apostolic and religious notion of work came from. In Section III and Conclusion, I show how the religious framework runs parallel to the contemporary qualification of personhood and social status, as products of labour and property ownership. 

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