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Manitoba History: Review: Barbara Belyea, Dark Storm Moving West

by I. S. MacLaren
Department of History and Classics, and Department of English and Film Studies, University of Alberta

Number 57, February 2008

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Dark Storm Moving West by Barbara Belyea Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2007, 202 pages. ISBN 9781552381991, $49.95 (paperback).

A brinkman, Barbara Belyea prefers polarization: rather than build on foregoing work, Dark Storm sweeps it aside to make room for her disagreements with historians and ethnographers in five imbricated essays that combine archival research and castigations of received historical interpretations. They identify errors and then precede less to debate the work of others than to correct it. Frequently uncollegial, their judgemental tone imparts an ominous sense that the titular dark storm is a barely repressed charge of dishonesty, or at least disingenuousness, by historians and ethnographers of western North America.

Of the unnumbered essays, some of which have appeared before in earlier forms, “Myth as Science: The Northwest Passage” traces how historians’ uncritical acceptance of Captain Cook’s appeal to the empirical inaccurately and simplistically sets him over against both the explorer John Meares and the cartographer Alexander Dalrymple. “David Thompson: HBC Surveyor” argues that the uncareful acceptance of Thompson’s decision to switch to the North West Company has disinclined historians from a more complex understanding of him in the context of contemporary Hudson’s Bay Company writers. “Decision at the Marias” counts the cost of an insufficient scrutiny of the mandate and achievement of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark by historians who see their success in terms of the values of the culture that they represented and not, as Belyea sees it, as the successful result of their grudging reliance on Native intelligence. “Mapping west of the Bay” impugns received historical interpretation for its failure to understand Native maps as anything more than “early stages of an evolution towards the scientific accuracy of modern European maps” (53). “The Silent Past is made to Speak” censures historians who ask us “to believe that family life was the norm [in the HBC fur trade] although posts continued to be built and run as if it were not” (96), and to think that the work of the HBC trade was regulated by order, not by class. And “Outside the Circle” upbraids ethnographers for standing outside the circle of Native cultures but arrogating to themselves an authority that claims the understanding of those inside the circles.

Space does not permit any one review to address Belyea’s plethora of arguments. They merit attention because of their detailed, if not impartial, discussions. Of course, Belyea’s own arguments are not immune to shortcomings and errors. One arresting oversight comes in the final two essays. “The Silent Past is made to Speak” treats the representation of fur trade life by historians who, in Belyea’s view, have inferred aspects of that life when archival records fall silent. She predicates her position on the authority of official Hudson’s Bay Company journals and correspondence alone. Allowance is made for no other sources or genres of written records, or of non-written evidence from the “test” decade of 1792-1802 (what about personal letters, North West Company sources, and artefacts in museum collections?). The last essay, “Outside the Circle,” treats the limitations and perversions of ethnographers’ written representations of oral cultures. Written ethnographies are deemed partial and inaccurate for understanding Native cultures; fur trade journals are deemed sufficient and reliable for understanding fur trade culture. So, while historians are chastened for interpreting or imagining beyond what some official HBC writings tell us, ethnographers are castigated for reducing cultures to writing (although the work of one of them offers Belyea the occasion [124] to indulge in just the sort of imaginative interpretation that, in the previous essay, she denounces in the work of historians). If ethnographies pervert cultures, why do some of the business records of one company not do likewise, emphasizing some details to the exclusion of others, as all writing does?

In the deficient presentation Dark Storm, the University of Calgary Press has done the author a disservice. Despite the book’s foot-long width, most of the maps are reproduced at too small a scale to readily illuminate the text’s arguments. (As well, the quality of reproduction is inferior to that in Ruggles’s A Country So Interesting [1991]; compare, for example, reproductions of the same map in Ruggles, Pl. 14 and Belyea [79]. As they ought to have been, maps are not cross-referenced to A Country, which has become the standard published source, and either Ruggles’ titles for the maps should have been adopted or a reason ought to have been given for introducing a variant.) Because alternatives, including fold-out maps and a complementary website on which a zoom feature could be introduced, were not adopted, many points of discussion can be assessed only by readers willing to persevere with a magnifying glass.

Of greater concern is the deplorable difficulty one encounters in determining which of the many maps and illustrations discussed in the text and endnotes are reproduced and which are not. Readers are denied the courtesy of parenthetical references to figures or plates, which would have rendered a softcover book with awkward dimensions less difficult physically to hold, read, and consult. (Further on the matter of dimensions, which presumably were adopted—unsuccessfully—so that the maps could be reproduced on a legible scale, footnotes rather than endnotes ought to have been deployed: the floppy width of the softcover discourages routine flipping from text to endnotes, many of which are discursive and not only citational.) Meanwhile, too little information about the maps and illustrations appears in their captions; Belyea does not note their dimensions (problematical when the text makes an issue of “scale” as a concept of the representation of space), their media (the text sometimes offers this information by mentioning “ink” and “paper” in passing), or their use or not of colouring (that the map on page 56 is coloured is clear only because a colour version of it appears on the inside front and back covers, but this case is unique). These deficiencies are lamentable especially because Belyea directs readers to dwell on the materiality of mapping, reporting, storytelling, inscribing, and the like. How the author could decry sins of commission by historians and ethnographers and yet overlook these sins of omission is a question.

The bibliography is good, as far as it goes (why does it list no archival sources?), although some absences are inexcusable: the essay on Thompson fails to discuss Jack Nisbet’s The Mapmaker’s Eye (2005); Bruce Greenfield’s essay on the problem of the authority of Lewis and Clark (1991) raises issues germane to “Decision at the Marias”; failure to consider John Philip Reid’s Patterns of Vengeance (1999) and Contested Empire (2002) leaves incomplete Belyea’s case against Edith Burley’s Servants of the Honorable Company (1997); a consideration of Murray and Rice’s edition, Talking on the Page: Editing Aboriginal Oral Texts (1999), could have helped steer the discussion in “Outside the Circle” beyond rather worn-out criticisms of ethnographical practice (did Maps and Dreams [1981], Hugh Brody’s unmentioned book, not implicitly penetrate the matter well enough?); and, in the same vein, it is surprising indeed that the Delgamuukw case finds no place in a discussion about the different relationships that obtain between teller and hearer and between writer and reader.

Because the book’s aim and tone — correction, judgemental — discourage debate, because its focus widens more than once implicitly or explicitly to lecture its readers on the “job of historians” (57, 107) and ethnographers, because its title advertises a western progression while, by awkward contrast, the essays start at the Pacific and move inland, because Belyea refuses to offer a sustained argument, and because its physical qualities render this softcover unwieldy, Dark Storm Moving West will be easy to ignore, but, somewhat like the efforts of gadflies, its arguments ought disinterestedly to be weighed for the sake, where warranted, of advancing the understandings and practices of the disciplines it confronts.

Page revised: 8 June 2014

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