Manitoba History: Reviews: Five Lukewarm Books on a Hot Topic
by George A. Schultz
A historian may not be the best person to undertake a review essay on books that do not come under the general rubric of History. Authored by a literary scholar, a political anthropologist, an applied anthropologist, and a professional educator, these volumes do have one thing in common however: they tell us something about the history of Canadian Indians, a subject which recently has been almost as hot as computers.
The white man’s images of the Indians have long fascinated scholars as much as the actual history of these peoples.. The images vary from “good” to “bad,” although undoubtedly Indians worry less about this than whether “good” or “bad” books are written about them by whites. In a recent highly acclaimed book on the white man’s Indian, Robert Berkhofer demonstrates how in history, science, religion, art, philosophy, and government policy Americans have fabricated images of “their Indians.” In the first extensive treatment of Canadian attitudes, Leslie Monkman surveys images and stereotypes imposed on Indians in Canadian literature in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. No single stereotype emerges. The Indian is noble, savage, free, innocent, bad, and brutal.
In less than 200 pages, Monkman presents a study of a wide range of material covering major and minor authors. He makes a mass of material manageable by employing a thematic approach. The first theme is the Indian as antagonist, not in a physical or historical sense, but as savage, the antagonist of an ordained mission to bring civilization to the new world. Early writers condemn Indians who resist Christianity as decisively as those who resist white territorial ambitions. They reserve their praise for the achievements of white explorers and pioneers. In the works of later authors such as Catherine Parr Traill and Ralph Connor, the images of savagery associated with Indians become common to all men. With T. R. Scott, red and white societies reveal equal capacities for civilization and savagery.
Monkman moves easily and smoothly through two hundred years to describe the evolution of other themes such as Indian alternatives, death of the Indian, and Indian heroes. As much as anything the writers reveal their own life and times, finding the Indians highly useful in defining and establishing Canadian nationality and identity. Brant and Tecumseh were handy ploys for nineteenth-century anti-American writers, although Indian heroes presented a real problem. It was decided that they were savages, but the best of savages. By the time of Rudy Wiebe’s The Temptations of Big Bear, the Indian had come to possess spiritual integrity nowhere evident in white culture.
Monkman’s gifts are organizational and descriptive. He is neither revisionist nor controversial. He touches on many areas which suggest further study and research, particularly in comparative literature.
Sally Weaver’s book focuses upon the formation of one government Indian policy, the 1969 White Paper. The day that Pierre Trudeau’s government introduced the bill in Parliament is now commonly regarded as a day of infamy, a Pearl Harbor for the native people. The White Paper proposed to terminate all special rights incorporated in the Indian Act and in treaties. The object was “equality,” not an entirely ignoble goal. This was, after all, the time of the Just Society, when there would be no more need for special status. The rhetoric of the White Paper is similar to that of papers and bills which proposed termination in the United States in the 1950s. The word on that disastrous policy was in by 1969. The bureaucrats in Ottawa must have been unaware of it or thought it irrelevant to the Canadian scene.
Weaver organizes her book chronologically, almost poetically, into Summer, the season for strategy; Fall, the season for review; Winter, the season for dramatic change; Spring, the season for rationalization; and Early Summer, the season for final decisions. In Summer, Weaver attempts a profile of Trudeau’s personal philosophy, hoping to provide insights into the formation of Indian policy. In the larger context, she looks for clues in the liberal ideology of the governing Liberal party. None of this is as convincing as Weaver’s careful analyses of how policy was developed behind closed doors by conflicting bureaucracies. She conducted her research through personal interviews in the halls of power, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Privy Council Office, and the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.
In clear prose, without resort to jargon, using charts and tables, Weaver unravels the complex processes of decision making. She identifies the tensions between shifting alliances, the personalities, the inconsistencies, and the failures. All the while it was assumed that there would be Indian participation in the process, but it never happened. The White Paper, ironically, was white.
Indian leaders had long been critical of some aspects of the Indian Act and often openly prayed forthe demise of the Indian Affairs agencies. But they did recognize that the Indian Act enshrined some charter rights. Although the notion of termination had long been mooted in Ottawa, the new policy advocated by the White Paper would be a radical departure from past practice. When its proposals became public, the Indians quickly and unitedly declined what was described as an opportunity to throw off colonial chains and join the mainstream. Native protests were loud and vehement. Government leaders were startled by the extent of the opposition and so retracted the paper. They simply had not established that they were capable of bargaining in good faith. Indian suspicions were not allayed with the retraction, and there continued to exist the fear that the White Paper was still the hidden agenda. In retrospect, most of the politicians and bureaucrats Weaver interviewed felt that the policy of equality was the correct one and could have been made acceptable to the Indians if only the policy-making process had worked out differently.
The focus of the book is narrow, but it is the best of the five volumes considered here, and it would be surprising if its insights and conclusions could not inform the whole field of public policy. It is also reassuring to know that determined and resourceful research can still penetrate the fog in the nation’s capital.
John Price is a versatile anthropologist and a prolific writer with roots in Canada and the United States. Of his two books reviewed here, Indians of Canada: Cultural Dynamics is more successful in what it purports to do than the comparative Native Studies: American and Canadian Indians.
In the opening chapters of Indians of Canada, Price does what all anthropologists must do apparently. He provides a survey of prehistory based on physical evidence and a description of the diversity and complexity of native languages. He then sets up the theoretical framework centered in the concept of cultural dynamics. Then the going gets tough. Cultural dynamics or cultural evolutionthey are interchangeableis the key to understanding traditional cultures as well as current problems facing native societies. To this layman, Price’s definition of cultural evolution is confusing. “History is the sequence of events within tradition and evolution is the change of tradition itself.” Most historians would be uncomfortable with this definition. In the end, a straight-forward analysis of historical, economic, and geographical factors might well have provided a clearer understanding of native societies than what flows from the author’s perspective of cultural dynamics.
The core of the book involves case studies of five traditional societies that inhabited different regions. The five are the Inuit, Northern Algonquins, Huron and Iroquois, Blackfoot, and Kuakiutl. One might quibble that these do not represent all cultural regions, but they certainly do represent the main ones.
The book is generally not revisionist, but Price does enter the Indian-as-conservationist debate. He argues rather convincingly that the buffalo hunters at least were not conservationists. The horse and new technology allowed slaughter with considerable ease, and this led to rising wealth and population. An ecological equilibrium was not established. By the nineteenth century herds had been reduced to a quarter of the size of what they had been in the time of pedestrian hunters. Whites, of course, were the major contributor to the final overkill.
Price concludes his study with a chapter on modern issues such as racism and urbanization. Here it is difficult to find the link to the central thesis of cultural evolution, if in fact the linkage is present at all.
The stated goals of Native Studies are as ambitious as they are laudable. The author reaches for a multidisciplinary ideal, informed by anthropological theory used in a disinterested way for socially relevant ends. Price labels this humanistic science. Historians would probably settle for “the usable past.”
The geographical scope of the book is the United States and Canada which happens to be the natural sphere of movement of about 375 identifiable and often complex aboriginal societies. The ultimate purpose is to provide a survey of the history, culture, language, and religion of these societies as well as to define the whole field of native studies as an academic discipline. Add to this the effort to study modern problems of urbanization and institutionalization, communication and stereotyping, and the project becomes formidable even though it is to be but a preliminary survey.
Despite all disclaimers, the book attempts too much, and inevitably tends toward superficiality. As its worst it is a grab bag of information and unsubstantiated generalizations. Successful, if more limited, syntheses have been accomplished. Wilcomb E. Washburn, in the Indian of America achieves a fine blending of the anthropological and historical crafts.
Whatever the weaknesses of the preceding books, they are minimal compared to the problems of John W. Friesen’s, Peoples, Culture and Learning. This is a strange book, as any book is liable to be that compares Canada’s Indian people, Hutterites, and Mennonites. Its central thesis is that a significant factor in the phenomenon of culture is that student and teacher meet in a special environment created by the unique culture of each. Friesen makes a familiar plea for multiculturalism.
Part One is labelled Theoretical Components, made from the perspective of social science. Mostly it is a list of things. Two interpretations of democracy, three proposals for conflict reduction, four specific issues that represent experiential components mingled with research data available from a variety of sources but not necessarily found in standard texts, five characteristics of minority groups, six areas of general sociological concern, and seven faulty premises for solution building and the lists go on. It makes one uneasy. What if there are actually three interpretations of democracy and only five faulty premises for solution building? Part Two consists of case studies in the intercultural education of Indians, Mennonites, and Hutterites. Again there are lists. Perhaps this is a useful technique in teacher training, which presumably is the intent of the book. There is little that commends itself to other purposes or to a larger readership.
Taken together these books make their most important contribution in understanding specific areas of Indian-white relations. All reflect present day concerns in our larger Canadian society which determine our views of the Indian past. Unfortunately, not one meets the desperate need for general texts suitable for the classroom.
Page revised: 27 October 2012Back to top of page