Until the 1970s, scholars demonstrated little interest in describing the history of encounter between First Nations and non-Aboriginals in Canada. When they addressed the subject at all, which was rarely, historians tended to depict Aboriginal peoples as folkloric curiosities who had quickly been overpowered. The destiny of First Nations societies, it was widely assumed, was to languish on the sidelines of the important and progressive episodes in history until such time as they would eventually be absorbed and disappear. In the 1970s, however, new kinds of histories began to re-examine earlier assumptions. No longer was it deemed acceptable, for instance, to ignore women, ethnic minorities, workers, or the common experiences of everyday life in composing the narratives of historical change. At the same time, the government's new willingness at least to hear First Nations' grievances about land and treaty issues meant that historical research was necessary to support the claims that were being presented.

Slavey

Slavey Indians Plowing at Anglican Mission Garden, Hay River Post, NT, 1925.

The failure of some Native peoples to adapt to agriculture had more to do with government agents and policies than the farmers themselves. As well, White farmers resented the competition and coveted Native treaty lands.
NAC (PA-019989, image by J. Russell).

Much of the pioneering historical work on First Nations tended to focus government policy and what was done to the First Nations by the state. In their zeal to expose the details of generations of injustice suffered by many Aboriginal peoples, some historians inadvertently contributed to an image of Native people as hapless and essentially passive victims of colonial ideologies and paternalistic legislation. Certainly these studies revealed a great deal about a history that had hitherto been almost unknown, but they demonstrated very little about how Aboriginal peoples themselves saw these events or how Aboriginal communities and individuals might have reacted to them in the past.

More recently, a growing number of historians have been interested in exactly those questions. Scholars are now learning that Aboriginal people were hardly passive in the face of the colonizing onslaught. The growing number of Aboriginal social scientists, including historians, has underlined the importance of this perspective. Their descriptions of the experiences of their own peoples and of their neighbours have served to illustrate that First Nations voices and actions have always been influential in shaping and influencing how Canada's history has unfolded. What has been emerging, therefore, is a corrective to the image as First Nations as the perennial victims of domineering newcomers. The historical literature contains a growing proliferation of work demonstrating that First Nations people reacted and resisted in a variety of ways. These efforts were sometimes successful and other times not, but they always helped shape the contours of Canadian society.

One of these studies is Sarah Carter's Lost Harvests: Prairie Indian Reserve Farmers and Government Policy. Carter examined the failure of several Plains Indian reserves to adopt an agricultural economy and demonstrated that this failure was not because the Indians lacked interest or ability. Rather, they were anxious to experiment with a new economy to replace the lost buffalo herds; Carter proposes that flaws in the policy were to blame for this failure.1 Several histories of the fur trade also began to place Native peoples as active players in the main currents of history. These include A.J. Ray's pioneering study, Indians in the Fur Trade, and Daniel Francis and Toby Morantz's Partners in Furs. Others have surveyed the histories of particular nations to argue that Native history is more than just the story of what Euro-Canadians did to them. Among these are Laura Peers's The Ojibwa of Western Canada and Kerry Abel's Drum Songs: Glimpses of Dene History.2

Very little, however, has been written on the subject of Native activism more directly. Some biographies of individual First Nations activists, including Hugh Dempsey's Big Bear, Murray Dobbin's The One-and-a-Half Men, and Jean Goodwill's John Tootoosis, have appeared. And a few short essays have been written about specific people or episodes, like Joelle Rostkowski's study of Deskaheh and the League of Nations. Another key work is Paul Tennant's history of the Indian title question in British Columbia, a book entitled Aboriginal Peoples and Politics.3 But much of what appears in this section has been put together for the first time.

Because this kind of approach is relatively new, there has been little real debate in the literature. One critique is that a focus on Native activism tends to deny the oppressive realities of colonialism and imperialism, making the author effectively an apologist for colonization. Robin Brownlie and Mary-Ellen Kelm made such an argument in "Desperately Seeking Absolution," an essay published in the Canadian Historical Review. Criticism has also been levelled that the emphasis on colonialism has downplayed the role of economic class. Rolf Knight, in Indians at Work, demonstrated that a large and neglected dimension of Native history has more to do with the experience of First Nations people in the workplace than in the crucible of relations with the government.4 In general, though, this is a field of history in which much remains to be explored and discussed.

Written By

Anthony J. Hall
Professor of Globalization Studies
University of Lethbridge

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