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Manitoba History: Book Review: John Sutton Lutz, Makúk: A New History of Aboriginal-White Relations

by Chelsea Horton
University of British Columbia

Number 62, Winter 2009

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Makúk: A New History of Aboriginal-White Relations is an important book that strikes deep at the heart of one of British Columbia’s most enduring and loaded historical and historiographical assumptions. The concept of the “lazy Indian,” John Sutton Lutz argues, is a pervasive cultural and colonial construct that has worked to erase Aboriginal people, both rhetorically and in practice, from the arena of paid work in this province. With fresh sources and an innovative interpretive eye, Lutz demonstrates that Aboriginal people were active participants in the capitalist wage economy well into the 20th century. Aboriginal presence in the paid work force did not signal assimilation. They could not fully dictate the terms of their participation, and in a tragic twist of colonial fate Aboriginal people contributed, through their wage labour, to their own displacement. Mamook, or “work for pay” (p. 4), was subsumed to Aboriginal priorities and prerogatives and functioned as an “adjunct” to existing subsistence and prestige economies (p. 83). It was not until the 1950s, when the confluence of (re)settlement, industrialization, mechanization, and intersecting policy and legal restrictions combined to severely circumscribe Aboriginal economic opportunities, that relief and welfare were injected into this “mixed-mode” hybrid (p. 23). As with wage work, Aboriginal people incorporated state assistance into their own cultural, political, social, and economic systems. By the 1970s, however, welfare was one, if not the single, dominant feature of what Lutz terms “moditional” (at once traditional and modern) Aboriginal economies in British Columbia (p. 281). The “white problem,” Lutz argues, not “lazy Indians,” was to blame (p. 233).

This argument presents a long overdue rebuttal to Robin Fisher’s lingering assertion that Aboriginal people were ushered into irrelevance with the 1858 gold rush and subsequent (re)settlement of British Columbia. [1] Drawing on an impressive and wide-ranging evidentiary base, both qualitative and quantitative, Lutz also expands on Rolf Knight’s suggestive, if somewhat speculative, Indians at Work. [2] Lutz’s analysis is more than additive, however. Beyond illustrating Aboriginal work for pay, Lutz has something important to say about the nature of Canadian, and more specifically British Columbian, colonialism. The contested question of wage labour, Lutz argues, lies at the core of the colonial project and the Canadian model of “peaceable subordination” (p. 8). There are places, though, where he overstates the degree of self-awareness with which settlers invoked the “lazy Indian” paradigm as justification for colonial dispossession, e.g.: “Europeans had to call ‘Indians’ lazy in order to legitimate the occupation of their land” (p. 47). As Lutz’s own nuanced discussion of racialization reveals, colonialism lives and breathes as much in the taken-for-granted everyday as the machinations of formal strategy.

In some ways, Makúk’s structure lends insight into such dynamics, while in others it detracts from them. Lutz characterizes his text as an “expanded ethnohistory,” with dialogue as its “overarching methodology” (p. 16). He employs Chinook jargon, that liminal “middle ground” idiom, as an effective hook throughout. The chapter title, “Pomo Wawa: The Other Jargon,” gesturing towards his theoretical influences, is especially evocative. Makúk moves through several “levels of magnification” and layers of analysis (p. 11). The microhistories of the Lekwungen, whose territory is located in the core of what became the capital city of Victoria, and the Tsilhqot’in, located in the (not coincidentally) more remote inner reaches of what became British Columbia, function as effective counterpoints and help establish the texture of local life in the contact zone. The former welcomed opportunities for paid work early and enthusiastically, while the latter rejected them, and settlers and (re)settlement, with force. That the Lekwungen and the Tsilhqot’in, with their widely divergent engagement with wage work, faced similarly dire economic prospects by the mid to late 20th century demonstrates the pervasiveness of the “white problem” and the power of the “peaceable subordination” tool kit.

As Lutz pans out to the broader regional and national levels, we lose some of the dynamism he aims to capture with his “telescopic” structure (p. 11). Through discussion of competing tensions between the Department of Indian Affairs and fisheries and gaming offices, Lutz usefully demonstrates our inability to speak of “the state” as any single or stable entity. And he offers ample and convincing evidence of Aboriginal participation in the wage economy (although he focuses predominantly on the northwest coast, a function, he acknowledges, of extant sources). In parsing Aboriginal action and state strategy out into separate chapters, however, he diminishes the complexity of the discursive process of Aboriginal-settler interaction. The “new history of Aboriginal-white relations” signaled in his subtitle is, thus, subdued. Also absent is an explicit engagement with class as a category of analysis. And while we hear about male and female workers (a critical balance, to be sure), gender is less central.

While Makúk’s dialogic framework may not be entirely satisfying to those familiar with the politics and poetics of intercultural encounter, it stands to reach new and important audiences. The book’s expanded format, which includes maps, photographs, and excerpts from primary sources, will likely attract students and a broader nonacademic readership. Lutz’s focus is British Columbia, but his treatment of “moditional” economies, “peaceable subordination,” and the “white problem” has much broader relevance. As he argues passionately, we are still living with the stereotype of the “lazy Indian” and its very real, very harmful implications. It is only through meaningful and engaged dialogue that Aboriginal and settler societies in Canada can move forward, together, in a good way.


1. Robin Fisher, Contact and Conflict: Indian-European Relations in British Columbia, 1774-1890. (2nd edition, Vancouver: UBC Press, 1992).

2. Rolf Knight, Indians at Work: An Informal History of Native Indian Labour in British Columbia, 1858-1930 (Vancouver: New Star Books, 1978).

Page revised: 21 May 2016

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