- Robert McGhee (Author)
Ancient People of the Arctic. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Marybelle Mitchell (Author)
From Talking Chiefs to a Native Corporate Elite : The Birth of Class and Nationalism Among Canadian Inuit. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Renée Hulan
From Talking Chiefs to a Native Corporate Elite is a cogent, articulate addition to northern studies that sets out "to analyze the transformation of Inuit relationships from relatively egalitarian, apolitical, family-based units to ethnoregional collectivities in which class distinctions are becoming an important line of affiliation." As a journalist for publications such as Inuit Art Quarterly, Marybelle (Myers) Mitchell brings the knowledge gained from first-hand experience, including "ten years of involvement with the arctic co-operative movement," as well as academic training in sociology to the inquiry. Her richly documented and detailed study of class and nation in Inuit societies includes previously unpublished information, translations of speeches by community elders,
and personal communications with prominent Inuit leaders.
The opening review of literature is somewhat dry reading, but, in it, Mitchell demonstrates the originality of her work by critiquing the "articulationist" and "dependency" models of sociological inquiry. According to Mitchell, the dependency model concentrates on relations of exchange between nations rather than on production relations and relies too heavily on external rather than internal factors. In contrast, although articulationism’s attempts to differentiate between different "modes of production" render the topic too abstract, Mitchell concludes that it is a better option. Arguing for the existence of two modes, "a capitalist and a communal version, with transitional variations," Mitchell focuses on the conditions allowing the indigenous mode of production to serve capitalist interests. From this perspective, the Inuit co-operative movement accommodates indigenous production of art within the capitalist mode while it allows the Canadian state to contain ethnoregional politics.
In providing the background to this history, Mitchell moves quickly through the early period of contact, claiming that European explorers were not particularly interested in the Inuit. While this may be true, even those explorers who had only slight contact with Inuit, such as Samuel Hearne, described them in their journals. In this case, Mitchell relies too heavily on Wendell Oswalt’s study Eskimos and Explorers (1979) rather than her own reading of the texts. However, her point is that social transformation was not a mere product of the encounter with Europeans; rather, it developed from the rapid increase in certain economic activities. The study gives an impressive history of the co-operative movement and how it contributed to the emergence of class distinctions and national identification among the Inuit in which Mitchell presents the results of research on an astonishing range of documents from government, co-operative, and media sources. In it, she describes the mistaken, somewhat romantic notion that co-operative movements continue and extend pre-contact sharing in Inuit communities. In her research on the indigenous mode of production, Mitchell found that, while pre-contact Inuit societies were not egalitarian, existing inequalities were not institutionalized, except in the case of certain angakoqs (shamans), and disparities resulted from the exercise of influence rather than class affiliations. The absence of class in pre-contact Inuit societies does not constitute a proto-communist state, Mitchell argues, as the indigenous mode of production combined communal and competitive practices. While Mitchell describes pre-contact Inuit society as not entirely communal, she also notes the disappearance of what collective practices there were.
Contact helped to institutionalize inequality by creating distinctions between Inuit. The class of "talking chiefs" who facilitated the early arrival of missionaries, traders, and police became employees and bosses in the co-operative movement and later executives in development corporations such as Makivik. Yet, the "corporate elite" resulting from this history remains marginal by virtue of its racial identity and dependence on state funding. Because it possesses no capital, it cannot be a ruling class in the capitalist sense. Where equality has been denied on the basis of race, resistance tends to emerge from racial solidarity, hence ethnic nationalism. Mitchell goes on to provide an account of recent political action, including the formation of Nunavut, and suggests that the Inuit history of co-operation with newcomers is gradually turning into forms of resistance.
From Talking Chiefs to a Native Corporate Elite appears at a moment when the Canadian public is in need of information and analysis of Aboriginal issues. As a contribution to this public discourse, Mitchell’s work offers several important insights, among them: that Inuit people are agents of their own history, one that is more complex than the idea of cultural contamination allows; and that government involvement in Inuit affairs serves the interests of the state. These insights can only help to promote a sophisticated approach to the position of the Inuit in Canada.
Ancient People of the Arctic makes a very different contribution as the companion to the Museum of Civilization’s "Lost Visions, Forgotten Dreams: Life and Art of an Ancient People," an exhibit that opened on November 14, 1996 and that will eventually make its way across Canada. A beautifully designed book, illustrated with photographs, drawings, maps, charts, and colour plates of the artifacts in the exhibit, its style is accessible to a wide audience. The author, Robert McGhee, an experi- enced archaeologist and curator, synthesizes and compares the results of research on the Palaeo-Eskimos, giving a history of the archaeology of Palaeo-Eskimo material culture as well as conclusions resulting from that study.
McGhee describes archaeology as the study of "fossilized ideas," the remains of civilizations past. If the echo of Al Purdy’s "Lament for the Dorsets," which elegizes one of the groups McGhee describes, was not already unmistakable, McGhee’s depiction of the archaeologist meditating on "a tiny but powerful carving representing a magical creature from the mind of an ancient craftsman" makes it so. Like Purdy’s speaker who imagines the artist carving the ivory swan that is now an artifact, McGhee evokes the romance of studying the past by contemplating the meaning of art. Yet, while he often muses on the possible spiritual relevance or cultural value of art to the Dorsets in particular,McGhee settles on material significance, indicating that the art objects have value primarily as artifacts. The cold, dry Arctic climate preserves artifacts from thousands of years ago exactly where they were left by their owners.
While McGhee articulately conveys the wonder finding such a scene inspires, he also walks the reader through the reasoning process that takes place as evidence is considered. What can be reasonably concluded from sparse archaeological findings is impressive. Radiocarbon dating shows Palaeo-Eskimo sites to date from 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, much earlier than was previously thought, and comparisons of tools and dwellings reveal important similarities between Palaeo-Eskimos and Euroasians, particularly in Siberia, suggest that Palaeo- Eskimos were not, as originally thought, an inland North American people who moved north but "the most northern of a sequence of rich maritime economies that developed over the past few millennia along the coasts of the North Pacific Rim from Japan to British Columbia."
Another startling discovery points to the extent of Palaeo-Eskimo economic activities. When "a small copper coin, minted in Norway during the late eleventh century AD" was excavated from an Indian village in Maine, it was at first taken as a sign of early Norse presence. Further excavation, however, revealed several other artifacts made of a stone used by Palaeo-Eskimo people. In the absence of other European evidence, this discovery points to trade linking the Palaeo-Eskimo and archaic North American Indians.
While McGhee is careful to distinguish between ancient Arctic people and modern Inuit, suggesting that knowledge of the ancient way of life should not lead to assumptions concerning the way modern Inuit should live, he frequently bases speculation about ancient social practices on the ethnography of later cultures. For example, he presents the division of labour as strictly gendered, an assumption about pre-contact Inuit that is now disputed by anthropologists including Jean Briggs. The analysis of archaeological evidence is somewhat speculative, but it is grounded in demonstrable proof and rational explanation whereas more detailed images of daily life among the Palaeo-Eskimo peoples are not.
Such passages add colour, but McGhee might have expressed his vision of "lives lived richly and joyfully amid the dangers and insecurities that are beyond the imagination of the present world" by sticking to the explanation of evidence and without including details of imaginary events. Or, rather than include fictionalized accounts of Palaeo-Eskimo life, he might have explored the evidence offered by Inuit oral tradition in greater depth. One of the innovative parts of the text is McGhee’s use of Inuit stories of the Tunit and his conclusion "that the Tunit legends are historical accounts referring to the final generations of the Palaeo-Eskimos." Although it is presumed that the Dorsets were overrun by the arrival of the Thule, the story of their demise remains an intriguing mystery. McGhee argues that traces of Dorset culture remain in details of material culture dating from the time when the Thule culture would have encountered the Dorsets, and he believes the Dorsets could not have become extinct as marriage, adoption, and abduction would no doubt have occurred between the Dorset and Thule. If, as he believes, the Palaeo-Eskimo are part of the cultural and biological heritage of modern Inuit, perhaps more than the "ivory thought is still warm."
- Voices of Hope by Brenda Payne
Books reviewed: How to Paint by Chris Harris and bloodriver woman by Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm
- No Escape from the Past by Suzanne James
Books reviewed: Unsettling Narratives: Postcolonial Readings of Children's Literature by Clare Bradford
- Telling Our Stories by Sherrill Grace
Books reviewed: If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories?: Finding Common Ground by J. Edward Chamberlin, Playing Dead: A Contemplation Concerning the Arctic by Rudy Wiebe, and Colours in the Storm by Jim Betts
- 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
- Identity Narratives by Maryann Tjart Jantzen
Books reviewed: Women and Narrative Identity: Rewriting the Quebec National Text by Mary Jean Green
MLA: Hulan, Renée. Ivory Thoughts. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 8 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #156 (Spring 1998). (pg. 151 - 154)
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