Monday 20 August 2012

Drinking one too many on the historical playground…


Over at Active History Thomas Peace writes about his walk back in time, in two ways, at his local history museum. Apparently the tour guide not only gave them a history tour, he also was a bit of a relic himself, talking about the settlement of the area by Europeans who had come to the “savage wilderness inhabited only by Indians.”

This would be more than a bit odd – certainly if not prefaced by a comment that this was how settlers often saw the situation.

Odder, though, is that Peace goes on to say that although most academics don’t use this kind of language anymore, the language historians do use is still troublesome. He draws from an article by James Merrill in the latest issue of William and Mary Quarterly. Sadly, though, what he and Merrill argue is evidence of just how out of touch academic historians can become.

Apparently, ’[w]ords such as precontact/postcontact, discovery, and prehistory have been generally regarded as historically inappropriate for the study of Native history’. This is news to me.

Discovery is pretty obvious – though certainly one could still talk of the discovery of the Americas by Europeans. It may not have been news to those in the Americas, but it certainly was to Europeans (though when and by whom the discovery was made are still intriguing questions).

Are pre-contact and post-contact outdated? Are we now suggesting that the contact experience had no impact on aboriginal societies? Or the Europeans who came to the Americas? I’m sure Spanish historians (and surely those interested the history of the Spanish treasury) would be as baffled by this as I am.

It gets much worse, though, when you start to get to the heart of the matter.

Peace writes how ‘Merrell suggests that words and phrases like hunting territory, occupied, controlled, and settler can have implications that place Native and European societies on an unequal historical footing.’

I had to reread this a few times to make sure it really said what I thought it did. Are we really now going to circumscribe our language so as not to talk about inequality in the past? Has our desire to have everyone get along, and make sure everyone plays nicely on the historical playground gone so far that we are now going to pretend equality? I know that the major thrust in aboriginal history over the last few decades has been about emphasizing aboriginal agency, in trying to see the many ways aboriginals were not ‘only’ victims. But surely the ‘only’ part is key.

The last time I looked, Europe wasn’t colonized or settled or controlled by Iroquois traders, missionaries and adventurers. Surely there is a middle ground here between racist talk of savages and the kind of ‘head-in-the-cloud’ academic speech suggested in this post?

Peace goes on to make many more relevant and important points – notably about the problems of writing history only with a view from the present (so the troubles of writing the history of Pre-Confederation Canada as if these places that became Canada were already destined to become so).


But ultimately there really were ‘settlers’  who really did ‘colonize’ North America. The nations that were created here – including the universities that were established – really did come out of this process of colonization. So Peace’s complaint that the history of this place is written from the Atlantic seaboard  (ie from a European perspective) is off the mark. We need to recognize that aboriginals saw the history of settlement, and much else, differently. This was at the beauty of Daniel Richter’s great book, Facing East from Indian Country.

But the reality is that the societies that were created - the economy, politics and culture - really did come from the Atlantic Seaboard (speaking metaphorically as it’s not universally true geographically). Surely, that is what is at the heart of the justified aboriginal critique of their much damaged place in contemporary Canada. The clash really was, overall, between ‘unequal’ societies, and the societies that emerged were European in nature (if radically altered by the local sitaution -  pace Turner et al .). 

To try to change our history to suit contemporary politics is ludicrous and silly. Don’t rewrite the past – do something about the present.

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