Histories of Contact
- Myra Rutherdale (Editor) and Katie Pickles (Editor)
Contact Zones: Aboriginal and Settler Women in Canadaâs Colonial Past. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Janice Fiamengo
In recent decades, feminist social historians have been turning their attention to a variety of new sources of research to create a more sophisticated picture of relations of gender and race in Canadian colonial life. Using documents that include reports by Indian Affairs agents, missionaries’ diaries, court records, social workers’ notes, newspaper reports of murder trials, and accounts of Victoria Day pageants, Contact Zones: Aboriginal and Settler Women in Canada’s Colonial Post aims to present a nuanced account of the material practices and social relations through which colonialism was embodied and resisted in Canada’s distant and more recent pasts. Citing Mary Louise Pratt’s influential idea of the “contact zone,” the editors define the colonial arena as a diverse social terrain: not only the site where colonial rule was imposed, though that is always kept in view, but also a fluid space in which peoples encountered one another and, despite radical asymmetries of power, were mutually changed. The emphasis, then, is on interaction, negotiation, and adaptation by variously positioned individuals in a shifting border zone. Such is the salutary, though unevenly practised, emphasis of the collection.
The most interesting work in these essays examines how historical abstractions such as colonial authority, discourses of normalcy, racism, and resistance are embodied in particular relationships, choices, articulations, and practices: we find attention to particularity in Sherry Farrell Racette’s examination of records of economic transactions demonstrating the central contributions of Indigenous and mixed-race women to the fur trade; these women not only adjusted to new economic realities but also left a lasting mark on the region through their skill at dressing the men who travelled and traded in the West; in Jean Barman’s study of the furor over dance halls in Victoria, BC, where transient groups of miners consorted with local Aboriginal women, the emphasis is not only on public attitudes to Aboriginal women but on the women’s claims to public space; Myra Rutherdale’s analysis of the letters and reports of missionaries and public health nurses in the Arctic demonstrates their ongoing preoccupation not only with physical hygiene but with clothing style as well, stressing “conversion” to Western dress as material evidence of spiritual transformation; in turn, the peoples they sought to convert had their own responses to the inculcation of modern hygiene and clothing. The number and variety of documents consulted in all of these essays enable the construction of rich and multi-layered historical accounts.
I found particularly engaging those essays that focus on individual lives, as in Cecilia Morgan’s examination, through letters and newspaper reports, of two Mohawk women who, from the 1930s to the 1960s, managed the anxieties and opportunities of public exposure and performance to raise white audience awareness of the history and modern situation of Aboriginal people in Ontario. Morgan’s attention to the personal letters of her subjects, Bernice Loft and Ethel Brant Monture, make for compelling, illuminating reading. And I was not surprised to enjoy, and learn from, Veronica Strong-Boag and Carole Gerson’s always readable and subtle analysis of Pauline Johnson’s texts and public image. I was also impressed by Jo-Anne Fiske’s examination of conflicting accounts of residential schools, an analysis focusing on the metaphor of motherlessness that is often employed to explain both the sacrifice of the Catholic devout who left families to teach in the schools and the pain of Aboriginal children torn from their homes to be educated there. In her nuanced and provocative reading, Fiske shows how this metaphor can sometimes link and sometimes irreparably separate the experiences of teachers and students, and it enables Fiske to explore, without apology or shrillness, the incommensurate meanings of this central cultural symbol.
The less successful essays are those that approach their sources with an argument already formulated, in each case the rather unsurprising verdict that the colonial project sought to impose white, middle class values of sexual chastity, faithful monogamy, domesticity, and the work ethic on Aboriginal, poor, and immigrant families. What this often seems to have amounted to in practice was social workers’, missionaries’, and government agencies’ belief that families were happier and more productive, and children better off, in homes where the parents were married, did not drink, and kept the house clean. It’s hard to find such assumptions particularly reprehensible, and these essays fail to prove that their application was consistently biased, heartless, or hypocritical. Sometimes the evidence actually contradicts the framing argument. So convinced is Joan Sangster of the innately punitive and coercive nature of all state regulation that even expressions of concern and sympathy are read negatively. In one of numerous questionable interpretations, she quotes from a 1950s juvenile court file stating of a delinquent girl that “she admits . . . she has been promiscuous with different boys . . . and was apprehended for having intercourse with men behind the dance hall . . . she can hardly be blamed for taking sex intercourse as a matter of indifference . . . she was apparently initiated at a young age by her brother.” Despite the explicitly non-judgemental phrasing in the report, Sangster’s sole comment on the passage is that, “As in other cases, incest was assumed to be her moral problem” [emphasis in the original]. Such sweeping and, in this case, inaccurate assessments of the evidence seriously undermine the essay, which pays only lip service to the “specificity, complexities and contradictions” it names in its introductory discussion.
Unfortunately a number of the essays on moral regulation are similarly dogmatic, failing to argue carefully or attempt scholarly objectivity. Jean Barman’s assertion that missionaries’ and other reformers’ concerns about the degradation of Native women in Victoria amounted to “moral rape”—a coercive stripping of their agency and dignity to justify reformers’ presence—is considerably overstated and under-supported. Of the very few clergymen quoted, the most damning evidence she provides is a Methodist minister’s comment that the women who frequent dance halls “are the lowest order of the pagan community around us, degraded by vices unknown among them before the advent of their present white associates,” a statement that blames white men at least as much as Indigenous women and hardly merits Barman’s outraged response. The repeated suggestion in these essays that no good ever came from moral or social regulation and that resistance to such regulation was always “bravely and creatively negotiated” is not systematically defended, and relies on a binary logic as simple as those it claims to contest. In such cases, ideological commitment overshadows scholarly rigour.
- Arctic and Human Remains by Renée Hulan
Books reviewed: Lobsticks and Stone Cairns: Human Landmarks in the Arctic by Richard C. Davis, A Long Way from Home: The Tuberculosis Epidemic among the Inuit by Pat Sandiford Grygier, and Confessions of an Igloo Dweller by James Houston
- No Escape from the Past by Suzanne James
Books reviewed: Unsettling Narratives: Postcolonial Readings of Children's Literature by Clare Bradford
- Women of the North by Susanna Egan
Books reviewed: Saqiyuq: Stories from the Lives of Three Inuit Women by Apphia Agalakti Awa, Sandra Pikujak Katsak, Rhoda Kaukjak Katsak, and Nancy Wachowich
- True and Not So True by Karen Charleson
Books reviewed: As Long as the Rivers Flow by James Bartleman, Grandpère by Janet Romain, and Northern Kids by Linda Goyette
- (Re)presenting Cultures by Suzanne James
Books reviewed: Ancient Thunder by Leo Yerxa, Napi Goes to the Mountain by Elisa Amado and Antonio Ramárez, and Tarde de invierno/Winter Afternoon by Elisa Amado, Jorge Lujàn, and Mandana Sadat
MLA: Fiamengo, Janice. Histories of Contact. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #192 (Spring 2007), Gabrielle Roy contemporaine/The Contemporary Gabrielle Roy. (pg. 143 - 145)
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