Land, Culture, Property
- Cole Harris (Author)
Making Native Space: Colonialism, Resistance, and Reserves in British Columbia. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Miriam Clavir (Author)
Preserving What is Valued: Museums, Conservation and First Nations. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sophie McCall
Debates over land and cultural property continue to play a significant role in First Nations studies, and two recent books published by UBC Press confront these contentious issues. Harris’s Making Native Space constructs a historical narrative of the making of British Columbia’s reserves, the size of which were calculated by hasty bureaucratic decisions. Clavir’s Preserving What is Valued discusses the deep divisions that can arise between museums and First Nations on how to preserve First Nations’ material culture. Each book seeks to confront the past, in which Aboriginal perspectives on land and culture were ignored, with a view towards accommodating urgent demands for change in the future.
Making Native Space begins with a Nuu-chah-nulth chief ’s premonition in 1860: “they say . . . we shall be placed on a little spot.” The story of confinement is the quintessential story of colonial takeover; in Frantz Fanon’s words, colonialism creates “a world divided into compartments.” The cutting up of space in British Columbia, “a vastly one-sided colonial construction,” remains Harris’s focus. While Harris clearly demonstrates the deep inequalities embedded in the colonial encounter, he is also quick to point out that there is more to the story than “conquest.” The story of colonial subjugation is “not wrong” but “too simple.” It ignores how colonial discourse is made up of debates, disagreements and compromises, as well as sustained Native responses of protest. Harris’s book is par- ticularly valuable in showing the great variety of opinion embedded in colonialism. The allocation of reserves was a rapid and ad hoc process, engineered by a handful of colonial officials in the second half of the nineteenth century. These individuals made choices that may have seemed practical and expedient at the time, but whose underlying theoretical assumptions became the basis of Native land policy for decades to come.
Though Harris refrains from condemning or praising land administrators who denied or recognized Native land title out of historical context, in his narrative Gilbert Sproat becomes the “hero” (in a deeply flawed way), while Peter O’Reilly becomes the “villain” (though not unequivocally). Harris dedicates the book to Sproat not for his successes as a defender of Native rights (he failed quite spectacularly), but for his sheer perseverance in “struggl[ing] to come to terms with the colonial dispossession of which he was part.” Sproat became an outspoken critic of the provincial government’s attempts to expropriate Native land without the “intelligent consent” of its inhabitants. In contrast to his superiors, Sproat believed that Native peoples held rights to land, water, timber and fisheries, and that the Crown had a responsibility to provide for them. His persistent criticisms of the province’s land banditry were met with stony silence, outright dismissal or ad hominem attacks: “Sproat is wholly unfit for anything but verbose, voluminous, tiresome correspondence,” complained Premier George Walkem. Eventually, Sproat resigned and many of his land allocations were overturned. His replacement, the efficient and economical Peter O’Reilly, maintained cordial relations with his bosses and ped difficult issues the province did not find palatable. During his long career (1880-98), O’Reilly laid out hundreds of small, dispersed reserves in British Columbia and is largely responsible for the map of the province as we know it today.
Native people used every opportunity to register their dissent about unfair practices of allocating land; alongside his analyses of the letters, memos and reports of colonial officials, Harris also examines transcribed speeches, petitions, and correspondence by Native spokespeople. Native groups rarely had the power to assert their demands, and their speeches, filtered through translations and values of the day, are not easily interpreted. Harris is realistic about these limitations; nevertheless, I do wish he could have conveyed, as he does with the colonial administrators, the potential disagreements among the Native respondents.
The last chapter, “Towards a Postcolonial Land Policy,” brilliantly links the past with the present and makes a compelling case for the ethical imperative of redressing land injustices. Learning history becomes a way to make a better future: “I tell this story with current debates and opportunities in mind” so that “a new geography of Native-non-Native relations in British Columbia may be built.” Harris puts the responsibility for change squarely on the shoulders of non-Native readers: “I do not know whether the settler society of British Columbia will be willing to redress some of the damage that has been a by-product of its own achievements.” Change, if it comes, depends upon British Columbians’ political will.
Preserving What is Valued also identifies changing settler attitudes as a first step towards improving Native-non-Native relations. Vast cultural differences about what constitutes “preservation,” “use,” “ownership” and “value” continue to shape, and at times impede, communication between museums and First Nations groups. Clavir realized the need for the book in the early 1980s, while she was working as a conserva-tor at the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) at the University of British Columbia. The museum received a number of requests from First Nations groups to borrow artifacts for use in community events. Clavir found herself caught between the code of ethics of her profession, which holds as its highest purpose to maintain the physical integrity of the objects, and her sense of moral responsibility to First Nations to whom the objects arguably “belong” (though this is a sticky point of discussion). At the same time, heated controversies over repatriating cultural materials added urgency to her self-reflection about her role as conservator. Fundamental questions about whose interests the museum was supposed to serve created, at times, deep wedges between MOA and local First Nations artists and community workers.
In Part 1 Clavir explains that museum conservation, which solidified itself as a discipline in the nineteenth century during the hey-day of “salvage” anthropology, is a profoundly Eurocentric discourse which nevertheless presumes to be a neutral “science.” This presumption of neutrality renders the discipline ill-equipped to respond to First Nations’ loan requests. Part 2 is largely made up of personal narratives from First Nations students, docents, artists, cultural practioners, elders, and conservators who articulate their thoughts on the museum’s role. Clavir discovers some major points of divergence between museums and First Nations contributors: while museums seek to preserve inert objects from the past, decontextualized in an impartial setting, First Nations’ interviewees view the objects as living, as bridges between the past, present, and future and as points of connection between people and the environment. Though Clavir repeatedly rehearses these persistent binary oppositions, most of the First Nations contributors suggest the need to revise rigidly oppositional agendas. Clavir takes heart in Kwakwaka’wakw conservator Gloria Cranmer Webster’s gesture of collaboration: “Your job is to preserve those ‘things.’ It’s our job to preserve the culture that those ‘things’ have meaning in.”
Although Clavir describes exciting new collaborative initiatives between museums and First Nations artists, elders and teachers, the sharp contrast between Parts 1 and 2, as Clavir herself admits, potentially contributes to the oppositionality of the discourse. Though she frequently comments upon the diversity of Aboriginal peoples, many of whom are of mixed cultural descent, these disclaimers risk sounding hollow, since so much of the book dramatizes a blunt Aboriginal / non-Aboriginal cleavage. Both Harris and Clavir juxtapose long block quotations from Native spokespeople one after the other, refraining from commenting on them in detail. The writers risk attributing a false sense of unanimity to the Native voice, despite their insistent avowals to the contrary. The politics of land and cultural property remain crucial touchstones for analysing Native-non-Native relations in this country, and both books confront these difficult issues with courage and insight.
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MLA: McCall, Sophie. Land, Culture, Property. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #183 (Winter 2004), Writers Talking. (pg. 134 - 136)
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