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Manitoba History: Review: Alison K. Brown, First Nations, Museums, Narrations: Stories of the 1929 Franklin Motor Expedition to the Canadian Prairies

by Maureen Matthews
Manitoba Museum

Number 77, Winter 2015

Alison K. Brown, First Nations, Museums, Narrations: Stories of the 1929 Franklin Motor Expedition to the Canadian Prairies. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2014, 328 pages. ISBN 9780774827263, $34.95 (paperback)

With the publication of this book, Alison Brown has provided two valuable new prairie narratives. One details the compelling history of the Franklin Motor Expedition, a remarkably successful 1929 museum collecting expedition to the Canadian plains. The second provides a timely history of museums on the prairies and of Plains First Nations collections in international museums. Brown’s insightful analysis of the expedition is set in the context of the relatively neglected history of collecting on the Canadian plains [1]—a time when, as Brown shows, First Nations people were actively prevented from expressing their culture through performance, dress or language and were subject to government-sponsored forced assimilation programs.

The Franklin Motor Expedition was sponsored by Cambridge University’s Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology (MAA) and personally funded by MAA Curator, Louis C. G. Clarke. The expedition was initiated by one of Clarke’s students, Australian Robert Rymill, and included his brother John Rymill and an experienced American adventurer and collector, Donald A. Cadzow. It was Cadzow who secured the car: a new 1928 air-cooled series 12B four-door and seven-seat sedan from the H. H. Franklin Motor Company. The only written report on the expedition is a paean to the virtues of this stout vehicle. Written by Cadzow and entitled Air-Cooled Adventure among the Aborigines, [2] its message of technological triumph over wilderness and adversity (published by the manufacturer of the car) is only slightly undermined by additional photos Brown discovered which show the vehicle using chains to crawl through the prairie gumbo they encountered.

The expedition followed a slightly zig-zag course across three provinces. The three men met up in Winnipeg, Manitoba and set out first for Long Plain and Swan Lake, Anishinaabe communities, then crossed into Saskatchewan to visit the Cree communities of the File Hills, went north beyond Prince Albert to visit Dakota people at Wahpeton, and then west to the Cree at Poundmaker reserve near North Battleford. They drove on to Alberta, visiting the Edmonton area and Banff before dropping down into Blackfoot country, collecting artefacts at Tsuu T’ina, Siksika, and Piikani before driving into the United States and parting company. This unlikely trio in their fine car eventually collected and shipped to Cambridge the largest single collection of prairie First Nations heritage items housed in any British museum.

Brown’s fieldwork took her to all the above-mentioned communities. She used a model of photographic repatriation involving still photos of the Rymill Collection at the MAA, photos of the trip itself, and several short movies in the archives of the Rymill family. While not as immediate as the objects themselves, photographs of the artefacts played a powerful mnemonic role in evoking stories. Expedition photographer John Rymill’s photos of the communities led Brown to First Nations individuals who remembered the visit and the visitors very well indeed. One of the great strengths of the book is that Brown details the variety of First Nations responses to the images, resisting the temptation to generalize across cultural groups or even within communities. Her fieldwork was thorough and conducted with sensitivity to changing local and personal reactions. These reactions ranged from great interest and gratitude to revulsion and complete lack of desire to see who of their forbearers might have been involved in the sale of cultural patrimony. Knowing this provides the reader with a very sound base of understanding for the excellent final chapter of the book on how museums might move toward more positive relationships with First Nations communities.

The second great strength of this publication is Brown’s thorough contextualization of the expedition, including a broad historical survey of collecting on the prairies. It should come as no surprise that support for collecting in 1929 was provided by the Department of Indian Affairs, which was simultaneously crushing First Nations cultural expression and encouraging the removal of ceremonial items. But, at the same time, Brown shows the many ways that collecting was controlled by First Nations people and how collectors like the Rymills were used by elders to protect endangered objects. As Brown shows, there was a great deal of collecting on the prairies at this time which was driven by salvage ethnological convictions and competition between museums for the last few examples of “authentic” First Nations culture. The production of cultural material to fill this market provided resources to First Nations families at a time of severe financial pressure and was, as Ruth Phillips (1998) suggests, [3] a way of sustaining identity and preserving traditional art forms in the face of the pressure to assimilate. The bulk of this collecting was undertaken by museums in the US, the UK and Europe. It was interesting to learn that Canadian museum curators—their hands tied by lack of resources—favoured collectors associated with British Museums (as was the Franklin Motor Expedition) and were rather wary of the ambitions of American Museums.

The task of reconnecting international First Nations collections and local First Nations communities—which were so profoundly disconnected by the events of the early 20th century—is a difficult one, but Brown has provided an excellent model. The story of her research and discoveries will give heart to any Museum curator or First Nations community wishing to reunite families, communities, and their material histories.

Notes

1. An exception would be Katherine Pettipas’ study: Severing the Ties that Bind: Government Repression of Indigenous Religious Ceremonies on the Prairies, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1994.

2. Cadzow, Donald A. Air-Cooled Adventure among the Aborigines, Syracuse, NY: H. H. Franklin Manufacturing Company, n.d.

3. Phillips, Ruth B. Trading Identities: The Souvenir in Native North American Art from the Northeast 1700-1900, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998.

Page revised: 19 November 2015

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