Agency and Victimization: Exploring Themes in Aboriginal History

In our last post we took a brief look at the historical legacy of Canada’s founding Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, who historian James Daschuk claims instituted a policy of starvation against First Nations in an effort to “clear” prairie lands for railway construction. Aboriginal peoples were either denied food or given rotten meat and diseased animals. Thousands died as a result, but the Dominion government secured its railway and considered the policy a success. Daschuk’s widely acclaimed book Clearing the Plains is one of the more recent examples in Canadian historical literature to have employed a narrative structure that focuses on the colonial victimization of Aboriginal peoples. Today we offer a quick survey of some of the more influential works on Aboriginal history and Native-Newcomer relations, laying the foundation for a short series that explores the growth and evolution of the field.

Aboriginal leader at the 13th Annual Canadian Aboriginal Festival (image -  Sandstein)

Aboriginal leader at the 13th Annual Canadian Aboriginal Festival (image - Sandstein)

Aboriginal history in Canada emerged in the 1970s as a subfield of the broader Canadian historical scholarship. Inspired by sociocultural analysis that focused on “bottom-up” history, first wave scholars sought to relocate Aboriginal peoples as active (rather than submissive) actors in Canadian history. Partly spurred on as well by the activism of the Native rights movement and contemporary territorial land claims litigation, scholars gained access to previously unused archival evidence and moved the field forward by asking critical questions of the political, economic and cultural links between Aboriginal peoples and European newcomers and their Euro-Canadian descendants. The centrality and importance of Native-Newcomer relations to the development of the field needs to be underscored. Themes such as settlement and colonialism were prominent well into the 1990s and although perhaps cursory to wider analytical developments, contemporary scholarship still grapples with questions of agency and victimization.

Overlooked and denigrated in canonical texts of the early to mid-twentieth century, Aboriginal peoples have since been written and worked into various narrative structures, positioned at the will of the author’s argument. Early approaches to Native-Newcomer relations often categorized Aboriginal peoples as a single homogenous social group whose place in scholarship on Canada’s history was limited and peripheral. As a pioneer in the study of the Canadian North, Morris Zaslow published two books in the Canadian Centenary Series that provided a foundation for many notable studies of Aboriginal history. The Opening of the Canadian North and The Northern Expansion of Canada partly explored colonialism and assimilation, and although Zaslow gave little agency to Aboriginal peoples, his unique sociocultural approach to the Canadian North opened space for aspects of Aboriginal history denied by the main of Canadian historical scholarship.

As social and cultural analyses grew in both popularity and importance, revisionist histories in Canada challenged narrow interpretations of Aboriginal peoples. The adoption of interdisciplinary methodologies provided first wave scholars of Aboriginal history the heightened critical lens necessary to interpret previously unused archival evidence and develop the field. Some of the more prominent first wave scholars include Anthropologist Jennifer S.H. Brown, Archaeologist Bruce Trigger, Historical Geographer Arthur J. Ray, and Historian Sylvia Van Kirk. In 1989, another first wave scholar, J.R. Miller, published the first edition of Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens: A History of Indian-White Relations in Canada. The highly acclaimed book quickly became an important source of information on some of the more complex aspects of Aboriginal history. In hoping to persuade readers to come to understand that “native peoples have always been active, assertive contributors to the unfolding of Canadian history,” Miller asked critical questions of the Native-Newcomer relationship that would provide the base upon which many significant studies have since been published. He brought wide attention to the displacement and marginalization of Aboriginal peoples, two themes that remain at the core of the field, and contributed to a heightened awareness of Canada’s colonial past.

Aboriginal Leadership Opportunity Year drum featuring a symbol for First Nations, an  Inukshuk , and an infinity   symbol for  Métis people . (image -   Victoriaedwards)

Aboriginal Leadership Opportunity Year drum featuring a symbol for First Nations, an Inukshuk, and an infinity symbol for Métis people. (image - Victoriaedwards)

Having been influenced by broader political contexts and claims over individual and communal sovereignty, Canadian Aboriginal history is currently diverse and interdisciplinary. The field has evolved considerably since the publication of Miller’s first edition, in large part due to ethnohistorical and sociocultural analyses. Cognizant of trends in international scholarship, writers of Aboriginal history have made keen use of an extensive and growing methodological toolkit. Insights into Native-Newcomer relations have developed our collective understanding of both historical and historiographical trends. The “Settler myth,” which views Aboriginal peoples as obstacles to European hegemony, is now understood to be the by-product of a historiography that has simultaneously marginalized Aboriginal peoples and overrepresented the “real” history of non-Indigenous peoples. Historians have employed a variety of investigative techniques to explore and debunk such myths but many questions central to Miller’s work remain paramount in the field, perhaps none more than agency and victimization. As Historian Whitney Lackenbauer argues, “the generational thrust of the historiography in Native-Newcomer relations … reinforces a teleology of unbroken oppression and dispossession.” Lackenbauer is amongst those who have suggested that rigid methodological and theoretical frameworks built on concepts of agency and victimization marginalize complexity in Aboriginal history and Native-Newcomer relations.

There is certainly much more to Aboriginal history than a series of binary themes and yet the most recent and widely known scholarship in the field remains fixated on the colonial victimization of Aboriginal peoples in Canada, as is perhaps most evident with Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains. His study broadly argues that First Nations were systematically assaulted in Canada through trade and treaty policies meant to exploit and decimate Aboriginal lands, resources and cultures in regions now known as western Canada. Although the temporal focus of Daschuck’s work predates the twentieth century, his study is grounded in issues that strike at the core of historical works on modern Canada. The colonial victimization of Aboriginal peoples is especially prevalent in recent scholarship about the history of science and medicine in postwar Canada. Once again positioning Aboriginal peoples as submissive actors in Canadian history, studies such as Ian Mosby’s work on biomedical and nutrition research (“Administering Colonial Science”) or Karen Stote’s investigation of coercive sterilization practices (An Act of Genocide) have provided potent examples of federal ignorance and neglect for the treatment of Aboriginal peoples and communities.

End Violence Against Aboriginal Women (image -   Grant Neufeld)

End Violence Against Aboriginal Women (image - Grant Neufeld)

A survey of the field suggests that history has not served well the interests of Aboriginal peoples and while differing conclusions have emerged, victimization as a theme continues to dominate the historiography. Binary narrative structures are so deeply rooted in the scholarship on Native-Newcomer relations that an Indigenous/White dichotomy has been produced. Historians (both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal) are well aware of this and have made important strides to move beyond any narrative restraints of the field. The next post in this series will take a more in-depth look at some of the most recent research techniques employed by historians of Aboriginal history.