Crisis? What Crisis?

  • Keith Thor Carlson, John Sutton Lutz, David M. Schaepe and Naxaxalhts’i (Albert “Sonny” McHalsie)
    Towards a New Ethnohistory: Community Engaged Scholarship among the People of the River. University of Manitoba Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Madeleine Reddon

Towards a New Ethnohistory is a refreshing departure from the current Canadian literary crisis beleaguering my colleagues. Some scholars have entered a paralytic state in the wake of the exposure of CanLit’s ideological motivations. This is not the case with the early-career scholars presented in this uplifting and rigorous volume edited by Keith Thor Carlson, John Sutton Lutz, David M. Schaepe, and Naxaxalhts’i. Settler scholars working on Indigenous anthropology and ethnography have had to reckon with the colonial investments of their fields much earlier than scholars in literary studies. Towards a New Ethnohistory is an illustrative example of criticism that demonstrates the complexity and stickiness of wrangling with colonial desire and epistemological difference. It also proves that the rewards for doing so are great. This collection models the ways in which research can provide a way to establish respectful and reciprocal relationships between different cultural communities. In the context of global climate change and resurgent fascisms, the benefits of creating positive and long-lasting relations among Indigenous and settler communities cannot be understated.

This anthology contains ten essays from the New Ethnohistorical school and offers research on Stó:lō naming and memorial practices, boxing, fishing, and logging identities, contested sites of memory within Indigenous territories, language revitalization initiatives, and food preparation and harvesting, as well as a chapter on the inter-tribal communities formed within Indian hospitals. The New Ethnohistorical school is an emerging body of interdisciplinary criticism that traverses literary studies, anthropology, history, political science, and ethnography. Key to this anthology is a comparative method, which understands Western thought to be determined by theology or mythology as much as Indigenous epistemologies are. Grounded in Stó:lō territory, the collection begins with a prologue by Naxaxalhts’i that situates the scholarship in relation to a Stó:lō ethos of humility: “There are certain kinds of work we can (and should) do ourselves, and then there are the sorts of work where we have to humble ourselves and reach out and ask other respected people to do the work for us. That is an ancient and deeply held tradition in Stó:lō society.” Naxaxalhts’i suggests the centrality of this practice to the Stó:lō through an example: when it comes time to clean their cemeteries, Stó:lō families cannot tend their kin’s gravesites. To do so would be to touch a history that is “too close” and “too strong.” Instead, they ask someone else to do this task for them. This anthology performs similar labour. Undertaken at the request of the community, it offers careful scholarly engagements with intimate histories and traditions in accordance with Stó:lō teachings, objectives, and aesthetic practices.

The introduction by Carlson, Lutz, and Schaepe provides a wonderful, in-depth account of the Stó:lō’s efforts to determine the shape of scholarship on their people through a detailed account of cultural revitalization, research development, and language advocacy efforts in the community. The introduction also patiently attends to those scholars and texts from the early period of West Coast anthropology that can be read as a nascent thread of progressivism in the critical literature. Accounts that overlook or dismiss traces of solidarity in the archive tend to elide both the particularities of colonial violence and the complexities of the historical record, often erasing Indigenous agency in the process. To hold up Indigenous agency in its many forms, while demonstrating the capacity for settlers to have reparative and respectful relations, is sadly still uncommon in the criticism. For this reason, Towards a New Ethnohistory is a significant piece of scholarship that should not be overlooked as mere “regional field study.”

To echo the New Ethnohistorians, I note that, for many Indigenous communities, it is not just the end research product that matters. Upholding good knowledge practices is a process of working with and for others. When this ethic is upheld, a community can come together. When the academy veils its ideological investments—when it masks who and what it works for—the knowledge it produces can neither repair injured relations nor support a community composed of many cultural identities. These scholars have chosen a very different path, which, I think, is open to others to follow. Settler scholars concerned with disciplinary crises need look no further than this excellent anthology for models of respectful intercommunity engagement, radical methodology and pedagogy, and a paradigm for solidarity work that chooses to develop respectful relationships over moribund agonizing.

This review “Crisis? What Crisis?” originally appeared in Rescaling CanLit: Global Readings Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 238 (2019): 134-135.

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