Julie Cruikshank’s book Do Glaciers Listen? is one of my favourite historical studies. It is a blend of history, anthropology and geography. Cruikshank uses traditional historical sources and Aboriginal oral sources while drawing upon scientific knowledge and interweaves them seamlessly. She deftly switches from Aboriginal to European perspectives while maintaining the overall focus on the history of a glacial region. The first line notes that it is “glaciers and their intangible connections” which provide a unifying theme to the work. (3) She splits her book into three sections, one examining “local knowledge,” one exploring the glaciers’ impact on exploration and scientific knowledge, and a final section on the imposition of boundaries on the region. Cruikshank’s work reflects in part the changing nature of her field as a whole. The book represents an important shift in Aboriginal history towards a greater focus on both traditional European sources of knowledge, Aboriginal local knowledge, and an effort to combine the two.
The field of Aboriginal history has been drastically transformed in the last two decades. Many studies have charted the evolution of our conception of Aboriginal peoples within Canadian history. Bruce Trigger’s overview traces the emerging presence of native peoples in Canadian history through the works of the 1800s, to Harold Innis’ The Fur Trade in Canada, and to the 1970s and the works of Arthur Ray, Donald Freeman, Abraham Rotstein and Robin Fisher. Innis’ contribution represented the dominant discourse in the historiography and its economic focus. Aboriginal history was effectively the history of the fur trade and their role in Canadian history was rarely discussed beyond the establishment of permanent European settlement. Only with the publication of Ray’s Indians in the Fur Trade in 1974 did historians begin to address a more complete picture of Aboriginals. Ray argued that they were not simply passive in the fur trade, but actively and knowledgeably interacted with European traders and communities on a commercial level. These purely historical studies, which argued a greater Native presence, echoed the other significant trend that began in the 70s, a fusion of history and anthropology that became known as “ethnohistory.” Reflecting the movement towards social histories of minorities and gender of the 1970s, ethnohistory was in effect a social history of Aboriginals. Jennifer Brown’s Strangers in Blood and Sylvia Van Kirk’s Many Tender Ties, published in the early 1980s, represented some of the first major Canadian works that examined Aboriginal peoples outside of the traditional economic framework. By the 1990s, these social histories were no longer a new phenomenon and historians began to explore the field to an even greater depth. It is at this time when Julie Cruikshank, an anthropologist, published her pioneering work on Aboriginals in the Yukon based primarily on her oral history research with three elders in Life Lives Like a Story. Her subsequent works, such as Do Glaciers Listen? furthered her use of oral history as well as crafting a unique methodological approach to historical inquiry.
The book substantially contrasts with the work of other historians and this in part demonstrates its importance. It established a method for the use of oral histories in an academic format and it also showed a way for historians to integrate “Aboriginal methodologies” into their research and writing. For instance, in her third chapter “Listening for Different Stories,” Cruikshank uses oral histories as a “counterpoint” to the history which she had outlined in the previous chapter. (76) Her purpose is to show that local Aboriginal oral histories are part of “distinct and powerful bodies of knowledge” which, when compared to the European narrative, best display the “unique entanglement of culture and nature, humans and landscapes, objects and their makers.” (259) In effect, Cruikshank argues that the history of Aboriginals in Canada has two different sides which are still very relevant today. Aboriginals’ story cannot be explained solely from the European perspective without fundamentally harming their present-day connection to their history and place. Her work is an example of an inclusive Aboriginal history, belonging as much to the people that it studies as it does to the scholars who study them.
Cruikshank’s work does have its weaknesses. There is a careful balance between traditional historical sources and oral histories. In Glaciers this balance is expertly managed as she switches back and forth between Aboriginal and Europeans perspectives, but there are still some jarring points in the narrative. The story of Edward James Glave in Chapter 6, while interesting, is somewhat fractured. It suffers from examining both his time in the Yukon and his time in the Congo. It adds little to the overall purpose of the book, and he is hardly worthy of an entire chapter. Cruikshank may have done better in fleshing out the shifting relationship of Europeans to the north at the turn of the century as their technological advancement allowed them to explore and exploit its vastness. It was in this era that the North Pole and Antarctica were explored with great acclaim as well as the discovery of gold in the Yukon. Even as Cruikshank explores the transformed relationship of Aboriginals with their environment, she does not equally examine Europeans’ changing experience and conceptions of the “glacier.”
Do Glaciers Listen? may not be a wholly historical work in its methodology or analysis, but it is a work that deals with many of the fundamental questions of history. It explores one region’s development and the people who lived or went there. Asking about the reasons behind a perceived change or the motivations for historical actions are questions that any historian must address in their own work. While Cruikshank has different ways of asking her questions, ultimately her work delivers a clearer understanding of the history of the “glacier.” She intertwines two histories into one that proves that the two disparate sides of Aboriginal history, that of “native and newcomer,” can be brought together. Luckily for us, her work has inspired many historians to mirror her approach and the field of history is better for it.