Indigenous-Settler Relations

Reviewed by Sarah MacKenzie

Tethered by a deep investment in Indigenous issues in Canada—contemporary and historical—the three texts under review make timely and poignant contributions to the growing archive pertaining to Indigeneity in North America. First published in Saint John’s Amaranth magazine in 1842, Maritime writer Douglass Smith Huyghue’s novel Argimou is the first Canadian-authored narrativization of the eighteenth-century decline of New Brunswick’s Fort Beauséjour and the displacement of the Acadians in 1755. The book gives readers a glimpse into the hardship and suffering caused by colonialist expansion. In the new edition from Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Gwendolyn Davies’ afterword makes it clear that the novel, set in the rugged New Brunswick landscape, employs historical fiction techniques reminiscent of those used by Sir Walter Scott. However, even if read as a captivating adventure story, Argimou is nonetheless a forthright denunciation of the ongoing disenfranchisement of Indigenous peoples following European contact.

Secwépemc People, Land, and Laws similarly reminds readers of the impact of colonialism on Indigenous communities, but the book is, importantly, also a reminder of the perseverance and endurance of Indigenous cultures despite trying circumstances and a legacy of cultural diminishment. The text, representing more than thirty years of research, engages with the history of the Interior Plateau Secwépemc peoples, addressing socio-cultural and environmental developments over the past ten thousand years.

Co-authored by Dr. Marianne Ignace, a professor of linguistics and First Nations Studies at Simon Fraser University, and Chief Ronald E. Ignace, a storyteller, politician, Secwépemc historian, and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University, the beautifully illustrated and impressively well-researched text also includes contributions from archaeologist Mike K. Rousseau, ethnobotanist Nancy J. Turner, and geographer Ken Favrholdt. Drawing upon the knowledge of Indigenous elders and storytellers, Secwépemc People, Land, and Laws adeptly merges traditional Secwépemc historical narratives with academic research and is, ultimately, an adept integration of contemporary Western scholarship and oral history. In a collaborative manner, the book emphasizes the ongoing persistence of the Secwépemc people, who have, through cultural upheaval, maintained a deep connection to their laws, traditions, and, perhaps most significantly, language.

Tolly Bradford and Chelsea Horton’s new collection, Mixed Blessings: Indigenous Encounters with Christianity, addresses the relationship between Christianity and Indigenous cultures and communities after contact. The book is, of course, especially timely given the 2015 release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Final Report, which raised public awareness of the role of the Anglican and Catholic churches in the genocidal abuse and neglect that characterized the government-mandated residential school system. Taken together, the diverse and engaging essays in the collection suggest that the role of Christianity in Indigenous life is both intricate and extremely variable, hinging on historical circumstances, and thus that it cannot be categorized as simply malignant. The text is composed of nine chronologically ordered essays divided into three sections: “Communities in Encounter,” “Individuals in Encounter,” and “Contemporary Encounters.” Each essay reveals the significance of Christianity in Indigenous cultures, including those that highlight the role of Christian churches in colonialist imperialism and racialized violence.

The three essays in the first section demonstrate the manner in which some Indigenous groups relate Christianity directly to political power. Timothy Pearson’s opening chapter explores colonialist missionary involvement in northeastern Canada, suggesting that French settlers used religiosity and ritual for negotiation across cultural difference and that, interestingly, Indigenous groups employed a similar strategy. Elizabeth Elbourne’s “Managing Alliance, Negotiating Christianity,” in turn, discusses the way that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Haudenosaunee communities associated Anglicanism with British imperialism, while Amanda Fehr’s essay discusses the twentieth-century erection of a Christian monument by a coastal Salish community as a means of demanding territorial rights.

The essays in the middle section personalize the collection, detailing specific life narratives that emphasize the fraught relationship between Indigeneity and Christianity in North America. Cecilia Morgan’s contribution relates the story of Eliza Field Jones, a British woman who married a missionary and became an advocate for the Mississauga community. In the following essay, Jean-François Bélisle and Nicole St-Onge consider the story of Métis leader Louis Riel, dynamically suggesting that the 1885 Métis Rebellion involved Riel’s engagement with a conservative Catholic sect known as ultramontanism. Tasha Beeds’ outstanding essay, “Rethinking Edward Ahenakew’s Intellectual Legacy,” provides an intriguing reconsideration of the twentieth-century Cree Anglican minister’s life and community involvement. Beeds demonstrates that, although he worked with settler communities, Ahenakew forever maintained a commitment to his Cree traditions.

“Contemporary Encounters” duly examines the current relationship between Christianity and Indigenous communities. Siphiwe Dube contends with the aftermath of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, which has, in many respects, rendered the churches responsible for counselling those most harmed by colonization. Denise Nadeau’s essay discusses her personal experience teaching an Indigenous Studies course in a religion department, focusing on her meaningful efforts to work in the service of reconciliation and decolonization. Carmen Lansdowne’s closing essay, “Autoethnography That Breaks Your Heart,” concerns the lack of primary sources available and advocates for further inclusion of Indigenous voices in historical scholarship. While contemporary historical scholarship has moved away from essentializing analyses of Indigenous/settler relations, Lansdowne’s piece is worthy of careful consideration. Given that it presents such a vast range of perspectives and voices concerning Indigenous/settler relations, Mixed Blessings makes a critical addition to the growing body of work relating to Indigenous histories in Canada.

This review “Indigenous-Settler Relations” originally appeared in Lost and Found Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 236 (2018): 124-126.

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