Between the Images
- Arthur J. Ray (Author)
I Have Lived Here Since the World Began: An Illustrated History of Canada's Native People. Key Porter Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Peter Geller
This new work by Arthur J. Ray is largely successful in its attempt to present a readable history of Canada’s Native Peoples. Building on several decades of new scholar- ship on Native history—which Ray has made substantial contributions to— I Have Lived Here Since the World Began reflects its author’s academic interests in the Native past, as well as a sense of the political implications of his task. In fact, as Ray tells us in his "Preface," the origins of this book came while he was acting as an expert witness during the now infamous Delgamuukw trial, in which B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Allan McEachern based his assessment of the Gitksan and Wet’suwet’en people on outmoded historical views of "primitive" societies while dismissing Native oral traditions as evidence.
Part of Ray’s task, then, is to present the Aboriginal past in a way which foregrounds the roles of Native peoples as actors in the unfolding historical drama. Taking an extremely complex and diverse subject, Ray manages to bring order to the material, all the while conveying a respect for and deep interest in the peoples and societies he writes about. While Ray never strays from the traditional historian’s role of teller and interpreter of the story, he does allow his narrative’s subjects a space within his recounting of the Aboriginal past. Each of the twenty chapters begin with a passage attributed to a Native speaker; the opening chapter, "The Land as History Book," briefly engages with questions of historical interpretation in addition to presenting the standard recounting of pre-contact societies according to the anthropological "culture area" paradigm; and "Legends of the First Encounters" draws on recorded oral traditions to present Aboriginal perspectives on the contact experience in northern North America.
For the most part however, Ray organizes his account around the economic, and secondarily, the political history of Canada’s Native peoples. This has the advantage of allowing Ray to contradict the stereotype of the Indian as victim, as he portrays Aboriginal peoples in a variety of economic roles that change over time and place. The reader is introduced to the consumer and trading practices of Native fur traders, from the earliest contact experiences to the westward advance in the eighteenth century to the modern industrial fur trade in the subarctic. Also highlighted are the pursuits of Aboriginal agriculturalists and fishers (particularly on the Pacific Coast). On the political front the changing fortunes of Native nations during the colonial era in the western interior and on the Atlantic coast are recounted, while the two concluding chapters cover the stories of Native political organization and recent land claims disputes and settlements. A major theme of the book, then, is the continuing struggle of Native Peoples to maintain their livelihood and economic base in the aftermath of non-Native settlement and population growth and the accompanying imposition of government policies regulating Native peoples.
All this of course, comes across in Ray’s written text. In which ways, then, is this an illustrated history? The text is accompanied throughout by numerous images of paintings, maps and photographs, including four sections of full colour reproductions. Although they clearly add another dimension to the book, allowing the reader to further "see" into the varied history of Native Peoples, there is virtually no attempt to contextualize or interpret the images presented. The final section of twelve examples of contemporary art presents an intriguing counterpoint to Ray’s discussion of recent political developments, as these artworks display a sense of frustration but also the creative vitality of Aboriginal artistic expression, blending the "traditional" and "modern" into new forms and images. Given that at the top of Ray’s agenda is the debunking of historical myths about Native peoples, an attention to the visual elements of this history could prove illuminating. In a sense, this absence is part of Ray’s emphasis on the material aspects of the Native past. While this strategy serves an important purpose in lending a sense of coherence to the book’s narrative, it is also proof of further stories still to be told and seen.
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MLA: Geller, Peter. Between the Images. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #157 (Summer 1998), (Thomas Raddall, Alice Munro & Aritha van Herk). (pg. 167 - 168)
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