Srugoonch’uu hah tro’oonjıı: Visions of Social Equality and Respect in Canada’s Future

Having just arrived on Prince Edward Island to attend the highly anticipated A Bold Vision, I share with you my vision for Canada. This is published in A Bold Vision‘s conference anthology, available for purchase on Friday, September 23, 2014.

Fish camp teaches many lessons. My own family’s fish camp is along the Nagwichoonjik (Mackenzie River), on traditional Gwich’in and Treaty 11 territory. Fish camp serves as a highly charged space for contemplating philosophical queries, engaging in cultural reproduction through fishing, actively protesting the historical removal of Indigenous peoples land by simply being on the land, and learning about healthy relationships with neighbours (human or otherwise). Chief among these lessons that I have learned from my Gwich’in family is the notion of acceptance, but not simply acceptance: srugoonch’uu hah tro’oonjıı is the ability to embrace acceptance with happiness. I contend that by embracing the concept of srugoonch’uu hah tro’oonjıı, we, as Canadians, will be obtain a more balanced society in the aim of achieving social equality and respect for all cultures.

In December 2012, a woman of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation and Thunder Bay community was walking to a local grocery store. Two Caucasian men approached her, forced her into their vehicle, and took her to a remote location where they sexually assaulted, strangled, and beat her while using racial slurs, telling her “You Indians deserve to lose your treaty rights.”[1] The assault occurred at a highly politicized time in Canada. Just one month earlier, the grassroots movement Idle No More kicked off on the Canadian Plains responding to the ideological nature of Bill C-45, an omnibus bill that sought to alter environmental legislation in Canada, among other things. In the thick of peaceful and nationwide Idle No More demonstrations, Chief Theresa Spence initiated a hunger strike with the goal of meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to improve the housing crisis on the Attawapiskat reserve in Ontario.

Idle No More provided new opportunities for Canadians to debate a wide variety of issues relating to colonialism, Indigenous dispossession, and the responsibility of settler Canadians. But the assault of the Thunder Bay woman – at once horrific and frighteningly common – indicates that despite a pan-Canadian rhetoric of tolerance and multiculturalism, the larger socio-political context of Canadian-Indigenous relations is deeply embedded in notions of racism, patriarchy, and social inequality.[2] My vision for Canada over the next 150 years is to educate Canadians, encourage critical dialogue, and foster new understandings of equality for Canada’s Indigenous peoples, especially for Indigenous women. In doing so, I want to I discuss three points to foster new dialogue between Canadians, academics, politicians, and leaders.

Indigenous peoples have maintained a strong presence on Turtle Island (North America) since time immemorial. Indigenous men and women were keepers of the land, savvy politicians and negotiators, and the producers of knowledge and practices. With the arrival of European newcomers, people entered into new relationships and agreements. Indigenous peoples were invaluable to the success and wellbeing of early missionaries, fur traders, and settlers, providing them with information about the land, navigational routes, and food stores. A number of factors, however, changed relationships between early settler populations and Indigenous communities. The outcome of the War of 1812 meant that Indigenous peoples were no longer desired as military allies. The formation of the Canadian nation-state led to the implementation of draconian colonial policies, such as the Indian Act of 1876. The perceived threats of the Frog Lake Massacre and Riel Rebellion, both in 1885, resulted in public executions of Indigenous people and served to fuel rhetoric based on stereotypical fears about “savage Indians.” The dwindling supply of bison on the Plains, the expansion of agricultural settlement, and the establishment of poorly serviced reserves led to the imminent threat of starvation and disease among many Indigenous communities in northwestern Canada during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There are many other developments of the same era that significantly impacted the role of Indigenous peoples in Canada: residential schools, the Pass System on the western Canadian Plains, the criminalization of Indigenous cultural expressions (such as sundances and potlatches), the implementation of new economic structures (namely capitalism), and the policy of Enfranchisement through which “Indians” lost their status and were forced to move off-reserve and away from their communities. Through these policies, and others, the Canadian and provincial governments sought to almost completely dispossess and further debilitate vulnerable communities.

Although Indigenous women were and are often less visible than their male counterparts in the telling of these events, they are undoubtedly present and active in in all aspects of life, both in the past and present. A large body of literature examines the histories of Indigenous peoples. Academic researchers investigated the histories of Indigenous women in terms of “pre” and “post” contact, theories of social and progressive evolution, and the plight of Indigenous women in their own communities. As historians Mary-Ellen Kelm and Lorna Townsend note, many Indigenous women found these research agendas “unsatisfying and homogenizing.” Scholars went on to question how ‘official’ historical records effectively silence Indigenous voices and are instead embracing oral histories while probing imperial and colonial settings as gendered phenomena. Kelm and Townsend write that “good women’s history will change the way we see society, will illuminate the relations of power, [and] will challenge our assumptions about ‘how things are.’”[3]

A critical part of A Bold Vision is to question hegemonic ideals of “how things are” by challenging existing narratives about Indigenous women, perceptions of what it means to be Canadian, and what the fabric of our nation might look like over the course of the next century. Understanding how Indigenous women have been historically constructed and pointing to the ways in which Indigenous women in Canada are currently leading our country into new conversations about Indigeneity and colonialism will starkly demonstrate how the nation-state and larger settler Canadian populations seek to further silence Indigenous peoples. We need to move beyond these marginalizing narratives.

Historians such as Sarah Carter and Adele Perry show how negative images of Indigenous women became intrinsically embedded in the consciousness of settler Canadians as early as the nineteenth century.[4] Since then, the bodies of Indigenous women have been overtly sexualized, criminalized, and served as objects of polarized rhetoric about Indigenous people. Other historians, such as Joan Sangster and Robin Brownlie, demonstrate that state policies, often executed by Indian Agents, were used to marginalize Indigenous peoples, especially women, in the twentieth century.[5] For instance, Indigenous women lost their Indian Status, as regulated by the federal legislation of the Indian Act, when they married non-Indigenous men. Ironically, white women gained Indian Status by marrying Indigenous men. In 1985, the federal government passed Bill C-31, allowing women to retain their Indian Status regardless of whom they marry. Despite this, there continues to be gender inequality in the Indian Act.

Through times of epidemic, residential schools, political oppression, and cultural alienation, Indigenous women have remained steadfast in their efforts to protect their families, communities, culture, and beliefs. The era of the mid twentieth century spurred a change in Canadian politics. During the post-war decades, Indigenous people secured the right to vote in Canada and the Civil Rights Movement fuelled new questions about equality and freedom. The White Paper of 1969 politicized Indigenous people in new ways and Canadians witnessed the rise of Indigenous political groups seeking meaningful and lasting social, political, and economic change. Canadians, in more recent decades, have witnessed the furthering of Indigenous issues through the debates over Calder v. British Columbia (1971), the failed Meech Lake Accord (1990), and the events that transpired near the Town of Oka and the Mohawk community of Kanesatake (commonly referred to as “the Oka Crisis” of 1990).

Although there have been important self-determination and sovereignty milestones for Indigenous peoples since the 1960s, the marginalization of Indigenous women continues. In May 2014, The Royal Canadian Mounted Police released a report confirming the documented cases of nearly twelve hundred missing or murdered Indigenous women in Canada between the years of 1980 and 2012. From British Columbia’s Highway of Tears, to the highly publicized 1990s Vancouver murders, to the unsympathetic streets of Saskatoon that Christine Welsh shows in her film Finding Dawn, Indigenous women in Canada continue to be victims of colonization, racism, and patriarchy. Successive Canadian governments, both Liberal and Conservative, have failed to prioritize this important issue. The current Canadian government continues to reject the idea of a national inquiry for missing and murdered Indigenous women and has worsened the situation by ceasing funding for projects and programs designed to support women in national and international contexts. In doing so, it continues to demonstrate the patriarchal and oppressive nature of the Canadian state.

How can lasting and meaningful change be implemented in Canadian society? How can settler Canadians engage in nuanced conversations about Indigenous peoples when the intergenerational effects of colonialism continue to emerge and reinforce stereotypical images of Indigenous communities? How can Indigenous communities flourish and find solace in a twenty-first century Canada that continues to openly oppress them through rhetoric, state policy, and the ongoing intergenerational effects of residential schools?

First, the multiple and varied histories of Indigenous peoples must be taught both in school and to the general public. As Canadians, it is our responsibility to make an attempt to understand our nation’s past. Currently, primary and secondary school teachers are recognizing this need by implementing new curricula that include Indigenous histories, the history of the nation-state, and the impact of residential schools on both Indigenous and settler Canadian populations. For example, new curricula was implemented in the Northwest Territories in 2011 focusing on the history of residential schools. While there are questions surrounding who should teach this material and what kinds of historical debates should be shared with children, changes are being made, though at a relatively slow rate. By understanding our colonial history of oppression, Canadians will be better equipped to comprehend how issues like residential schools and forced Indigenous relocation are directly linked to current day social developments and the status of Indigenous women in Canada.

Second, although some people argue that colonialism and oppressive state policies are elements of the past, there is an urgent need for settler Canadians need to recognize that their histories are present in the continued dispossession and marginalization of Indigenous peoples. Without provoking guilt or ascribing personal blame, historian Paige Raibmon asserts that settler Canadians should seek to understand how their lives are embedded in colonial narratives and a achieve a deepened understanding of their current responsibilities in the effort to subvert the mundane practices of colonialism.[6] Some Canadians are contributing to new understandings of what it means to be settler Canadian on “Indian land.” Recently the City of Vancouver formally acknowledged that it rests on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. Indigenous peoples themselves are also contributing to these exciting new conversations. Canada is witnessing a generation of youth who are highly politicized and immersed in many of the current debates of what it means to be Indigenous and what it means to be Canadian. In late 2013, a Saskatchewan Cree student wore a hoodie to her local school that read: “Got land? Thank an Indian.”[7] This statement sparked spirited debates about land ownership and treaty rights across Canada. A key part of making Indigenous peoples equal players, once again, in Canadian society includes encouraging youth, women, and other marginalized groups of people to spark conversations and engage in meaningful dialogue, controversial or otherwise.

Third, and finally, Canadians must build political momentum and insist that the federal government take Indigenous politicians, political bodies, and socio-political movements, such as Idle No More, seriously. In December 2012, as tens of thousands of people engaged in peaceful protest at public events, and more quietly in their homes, online, and on the land, Prime Minister Harper and his government addressed the nation through silence and disregard. His and their silence erodes the very fabric of a supposedly democratic nation. Meanwhile, the Conservative government continues to demonstrate a blatant disregard for Treaty agreements, inherent land rights, Indigenous-environmental concerns, and the socio-economic status of Indigenous people. But there are other concerns too, such as the vexed and uncertain course of events initiated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as demonstrated by the question of what to do with confidential personal testimonies, if financial compensation has actually helped survivors, and the question of how to engage in further healing practices once the Commission comes to an end in 2015.

There are many unresolved land issues initiated by First Peoples nationwide. Calls for an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women continue to be unheeded. Further, while a growing number of Indigenous people, and especially women, pursue post-secondary education, we continue to represent a very small minority of graduates. The fields of academia, healthcare, policy studies, law, politics, and social work (to name a few) are in desperate need of an influx of Indigenous academics and content. And support is needed for these endeavours at local, provincial/territorial, and national levels. Until Indigenous people have our own people working on our behalf, identifying our own goals, and utilizing our own practices and methodologies, few benefits will be gained. As the fate of Bill C-33, the proposed First Nations Education Act demonstrates, in-depth and wide understandings of Indigenous debates are necessary.

The assault on one Nishnawbe Aski Nation woman in Thunder Bay in December 2012 is not unique. The safety and flourishing of Indigenous women and Indigenous peoples is an onerous task. We must tackle the ongoing effects of colonization and patriarchy in a society that was built on racial discourses, social inequalities, and oppression. By engaging with Indigenous peoples themselves through critical dialogue and a heightened awareness of historical and contemporary colonial developments, perhaps Canadians can achieve srugoonch’uu hah tro’oonjıı – a happy acceptance of not only Indigenous people, but of all Canadians. It is my vision that Canadians, in the next 150 years, will make an effort to learn about our nation’s past, embrace expressions of cultural respect, and engage in conversations that contribute to the resilience of Indigenous communities and Canada’s First Peoples. Although not all Canadians will be familiar with “fish camp,” I am optimistic that they are capable of understanding the fundamental essence of srugoonch’uu hah tro’oonjıı.

[1] Tanya Kappo, “Hate Crime Against First Nations Woman in Thunder Bay: Family Urges Idle No More Movement to Remain Peaceful.” www.media.knet.ca

[2] Indigenous women and 3.5 times more likely to experience violence than non-Indigenous women. Native Women’s Association of Canada, “Fact Sheet: Violence Against Aboriginal Women” (Ottawa, 2010).

[3] Mary-Ellen Kelm and Lorna Townsend, eds. In The Days of Our Grandmothers (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), 5, 7-8.

[4] Sarah Carter, “Categories and Terrains of Exclusion: Constructing the ‘Indian Woman’ in the Early Settlement Era,” in In the Days of Our Grandmothers: A Reader in Aboriginal Women’s History in Canada, Kelm, Mary-Ellen and Lorna Townsend, eds. (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2006); Adele Perry, On the Edge of Empire: Gender, Race, and the Making of British Columbia, 1849-1871 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001).

[5] Joan Sangster, “Domesticating Girls: The Sexual Regulation of Aboriginal and Working-Class Girls in Twentieth-Century Canada,” in Contact Zones: Aboriginal and Settler Women in Canada’s Colonial Past (Myra Rutherdale and Katie Pickles, eds. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2005); Robin Brownlie, “Intimate Surveillance: Indian Affairs, Colonization, and the Regulation of Aboriginal Women’s Sexuality,” in Contact Zones.

[6] Paige Raibmon, “Unmaking Native Space: A Genealogy of Indian Policy, Settler Practice, and the Micro Techniques of Dispossession,” in The Power of Promises: Rethinking Indian Treaties in the Pacific Northwest, Alexandra Harmon, ed. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008), 57, 77.

[7] Joana Draghici, “First Nation Teen Told Not to Wear ‘Got Land?’ Shirt at School,” Tuesday, January 14, 2014. www.cbc/news/canada.ca

Gwich’in Identities In a Fraught Twenty-First Century

These are turbulent times for Gwich’in people. We are suffering from the loss of our President, mentor, and community member who passed away in June. I continue to think of the Alexie family and others as they mourn RAJ. But we are now faced with major political changes that are happening at the Gwich’in Tribal Council. I have tried my very best to understand these changes – I’ve read federal legislation, our 1992 Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement, Treaty 11 (1921), and other documents that have been made available to me. I still do not understand why these changes are being made and the arguments put forth do not seem logical or in our best interest. In fact, the changes being made go against our democratic structures, against the well-being of the Gwich’in people, and against the objectives of our 1992 Land Claim Agreement – a document that our leaders endlessly contributed to and poured over to ensure our rights would be protected.

If non-Gwich’in Settlement Area individuals lose our right to vote in our leaders, then what will be next? What other democratic structures will slowly erode? How will the GTC be accountable, transparent, and fulfill their goal of working in our best interest? The GTC was literally created to manage OUR money – OUR land – OUR rights. I am very puzzled by all of this.

This is not to say that I have lost faith in our leaders. This is not a personal attack on anyone. I am expressing my inability to understand these complex issues. In doing so, I can only hope that our leaders will believe in consultation, fair elections, and the strength of Gwich’in communities to determine what is right for our future.

I, like many others, still consider the North my home. I have spent time in Tsiigehtchic, Inuvik, Aklavik, Fort McPherson, and on the land in recent years. My family still uses our traditional fish camps at Tree River and Diighe’tr’aajil. I have had the pleasure of going hunting for caribou. My Grandmother and Grandfather are buried in Inuvik. My Diduu is buried in Tsiigehtchic. I am Gwich’in and what I do every single day – day in and day out – contributes to this identity, regardless of where I live. I care about what happens in my home communities and therefore I vote in elections, stay in touch with my DGO, consult with individuals, and cherish familial relationships. I have spent the last decade positioning myself to contribute to historical and contemporary understandings of our communities and our neighbourhoods. For a political entity to try and dictate the terms of my identity through my inherent political rights is misguided. This issue is directly related to colonial political relations, the lived effects of the Indian Act, and how our leaders understand our place in a fraught twenty-first century.

I will not stand by without being heard. I will continue, with the guidance of my community, to understand colonial processes in the north. And I will continue to exercise my freedom of speech and insist on political transparency, at all levels. This is not right and we need to stand up for what we believe in. Hai choo.

Resistance & Reality

Standing in Calgary’s downtown on Wednesday, I felt the unfamiliar and nostalgic presence of spring as the wind whipped around me and the rays of sunshine crept through concrete crevasses. I held my protesting sign tight and gazed at the tall, grey buildings in the skyline, while also detecting the politically charged atmosphere of the morning. After a quick, but steady scan, I observed an eccentric – yet effective – fusion of people. Supporting the Yinka Dene Alliance (consisting of five Dakelh and Sekani communities – Nadleh Whut’en, Nak’azdli Whut’en, Saik’uz First Nation, Takla Lake First Nation, and Wet’suwet’en) in their fight to stop an unauthorized Enbridge pipeline from invading their traditional territories, an assortment of First Nation activists (including Yinka Dene Aliiance, Cree, Tsay Keh Dene, and Gwich’in – to name a few), along with feminists, environmentalists, anti-tar sands activists, business people, and the passive curious gathered to stand up against oil companies, against big business, against government, and against earth-damaging practices.

The Yinka Dene Alliance is the next group of Aboriginal peoples to be entangled in the complex and disturbing saga of Canadian oil development and extraction. They oppose the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline proposal that, if approved, will run through the interiors of Alberta and British Columbia, affecting the land and livelihoods of communities, as well the Fraser River and other important waterways. These challenges are familiar to First Nation communities. Battles over land rights and resources, indeed, have been and are at the crux of colonialism in Canada. Today’s events were a poignant expression of how historical forces come into play and materialize in very tangible, unambiguous ways.

The ownership of land was essential to all that Canada desired – immigration and settlement, the development of railways, and a prosperous economy. Treaties were signed beginning in 1871 between some First Nation groups and the Dominion Government of Canada – only if and when necessary. The federal government has in many ways failed to live up to the true spirit of the treaties and scholars generally agree that agreements were made based on misconceptions and deceit, with First Nation groups receiving the brunt end of the deal.

The Indian Act of 1876, and its many amendments, further impaired the ability of First Nations to equally engage in the economy and undermined key cultural traditions. The Indian Act was largely based on nineteenth-century racist assumptions about the role of so-called ‘Indians’ and their relationship to the British (who were thought to be morally and culturally superior). The Indian Act lives on today, ensuring the legacy of oppression. Other factors, as a result of newcomer relations, led to the deterioration of First Nation communities, such as disappearance of the buffalo, widespread disease and epidemic, and the creation of reserves, which hindered First Nation mobility and traditional ways. Residential schools and heightened levels of cultural genocide brought other devastating challenges.

If we fast-forward several decades into the mid-twentieth century, things began to turn around for Canada’s First Peoples, but only after years of hardship and despair. Cultural expressions are no longer outlawed – communities can freely practice the potlatch and sundance without the fear of incarceration. Aboriginal peoples are now able to hire legal counsel – a right they had not previously enjoyed, and thus were unable to file suits against the government about a variety of issues, such as land conflicts and the position and treatment of their children in residential schools. They are now allowed to vote. These small successes were followed by other positive changes – historic legal cases that recognized Aboriginal land title and the reinstatement of Indian Status to those who had lost their rights based upon unconstitutional terms. But with the rise of consumerism and a new emphasis on oil and resource extraction, First Nation communities found themselves embroiled in new struggles.

These struggles are familiar to many of Canada’s First Peoples – just ask the Dene and the Inuvialuit of the Northwest Territories, as the memories of the Berger Inquiry and the recently approved Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Project linger. Or how about the Lubicon Cree and their recent struggles for fair treatment and justice on their traditional lands? And in light of pipeline that spilled 4.5 million litres of oil in northern Alberta – a pipeline owned by Plains Midstream Canada – one must ask how this tragic event further complicates and supports the First Nation stand against aggressive and irresponsible oil development? Similar challenges are evident throughout the vast country of Canada.

I was honoured to be a part of today’s protest. On my way home to Morinville this afternoon, mesmerized by the beauty of the prairies and blazing sun, I reflected on my trip to Calgary and my participation in today’s events. I pondered the ways in which I am connected to oil, to resource extraction, and to our capitalist economy – a personal exercise that all Canadians ought to undergo. While it is widely recognized that our dependence on oil products is embedded in modern Canadian society, there must be a better way of doing things, a better way to interact with Canadians, Aboriginal or not. Powerful historical forces and post-colonial attitudes based on capitalist ideals are clearly at play. But change is possible. And while changes have been made, environmental policies remain wanting. On May 2, Canada’s political leaders asked Canadians to consider what kind of Canada they desired, what kinds of ideals our country should be based on. I end my discussion asking the same question: what kind of Canada do you want? What are you willing to live with or without? Are you willing to be an active participant in seeking fair and just treatment for your fellow Canadians? Or will you settle for the passive role of silence, for silence is the voice of complicity.

I Love My Job

Hi All,
It is been a while since I have blogged. But I am back! I finished my MA at the University of Victoria and I am now writing from the University of Alberta. I am pleased to be in the thick of a new program, a new academic year, and a new set of goals. I have missed the crisp smell of an Alberta fall and the prospect of an October snowfall. Being in Edmonton also means not having to board a plane to reconnnect with my partner, Charlie, which is the best deal that the U of A offered me.
October is proposal time. Impending application deadlines for grants, scholarships, and bursaries invade my daily life. I am constantly thinking about what it is that I “do.” Unfortunately, this changes on a regular (sometimes daily) basis. Regardless of the shifting nature of my studies, I love my job. Love it. And writing proposals allows me to rearticulate my interests, sometimes discover new interests, put my thoughts into words. It is an exhaustive process, but well worth it. So I have decided to share my latest proposal, carefully crafted for the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Scholarship. If my proposal is accepted by the History Department, it will be sent to the Faculty of Grad Studies and Research, here at the U of A. If I make it through that round of cuts, my application will be sent onto Ottawa for further consideration. A long and drawn out process, I will find out in May of next year if I will be granted the award. Comments and feedback are welcomed.

“I Still Think Often, Almost Everyday of My Husband”: Intimate Relationships and Practices Among the Gwich’in People, 1850-1950.

In 2004, Gwich’in elder Irwin Linklater described how young Gwich’in women selected life-partners in the distant past. “When a woman was going to marry a man, they used to hang their pants out on poles,” he remarked. A woman could tell hard-working men from the less motivated by the wrinkles in their pants. “Here it was the pants of a hardworking man. This young man, he did more work than all the other men.” (Smith 2009) In a culture that depended on skilled labour and physical tasks, a man with wrinkled pants was desirable. My proposed doctoral research examines intimate relationships and practices among Gwich’in people living in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Anthropologist Ann Stoler defines intimacy as sex, sentiment, domestic arrangement, and child rearing. (Stoler 2001) Other scholars have expanded this category to wider topics, such as friendship. (Brickell 2008) I investigate the intimate details of Gwich’in sexual relationships and practices, while briefly considering the intimate features of life after marriage, such as childbirth. How have intimate relationships changed between 1850 and 1950? In order to answer this question, I will consider Gwich’in relationships in the years leading up to 1850. After 1850, I question the impact of newcomers and other twentieth-century developments. I ask how and why the introduction of the church and secular political structures, treaty developments, and the new emphasis on wage labour influenced Gwich’in intimacy. My study is motivated by a feminist commitment to women’s history, but I recognise that gender studies must include both men and women. I will explore intimate relationships and practices between and among Gwich’in men and women and the new settler population.

My study begins in the 1850s because intimate relationships and customs were changing. By 1850, the Gwich’in had well-established connections with fur traders. But polygamous, temporary, and arranged relationships were fading as foreign ideas were prescribed. The first missionaries arrived in 1858. Oblate Father Henry Grollier and Anglican priest James Hunter preached new ideas, which were based on European gender assumptions. The first Residential School to have a direct impact on the Gwich’in opened in Fort McPherson in 1898. Children were separated from their parents, Christian values were instilled, and physical separation was tarred by mistreatment and sexual abuse. Acculturation was the order of the day. Nap Norbert explained that when “they went over there, they were Loucheux [Gwich’in]. When they left there and came back, they were French.” (Heine et. al 2007) Intimate relationships were reworked in light of these new ‘opportunities.’ The Royal Northwest Mounted Police (RNMP), the new representatives of the state authority and sovereignty, brought socio-political change in 1903. A new level of surveillance and state regulation was at work. As the Gwich’in adjusted to these new challenges, oil was discovered in Norman Wells in 1919, triggering a new emphasis on resource extraction and settlement. In light of this, the Dene peoples signed Treaty 11 in 1921 as a way to ensure that “the traditional way of life would be protected,” or so they thought. (Heine et. al 2007) The interwar years brought other changes, which affected intimate relationships. The introduction of airplanes and radios reunited and divided families, while Gwich’in men and women were relocated due to an increased emphasis on wage labour. The implementation of new economic structures necessitated the arrival of settlers, a group of people who were largely men. My analysis will hinge on the critical examination of missionary work (including residential schools), the new legal regime of the RNMP, the changes brought about by Treaty 11, and the impact of increased non-Aboriginal settlement in a new economic environment. By focusing on these themes, I will track a change over time, identifing and analysing how and why these changes occurred, and what they meant for society in the north.

Katie Pickles and Myra Rutherdale argue that “women and bodies mattered and were bound up in creating and perpetuating an often hidden, complex, contradictory, and fraught history.” (Pickles and Rutherdale 2005) Women are integral in understanding the colonial experience. By shedding new light on this topic, a better understanding of colonisation in the north will be achieved. My study will add to regional and national histories and to larger studies of Empire. Intimacies are key in understanding the colonial encounter, since the “intimate is a strategic site of colonial governance” and “a charged space of colonial tensions.” (Stoler 2001) My study will provide a better understanding of gender relations. Existing studies of the north embrace the analysis of newcomers, focusing on European women. (Kelcey 2001; Rutherdale 2002; Sangster 2008) Gender relations with and among Dene peoples remain unconsidered. Studies tend to focus on the colonisation of Aboriginal women and their relationships with non-Aboriginal men. (Van Kirk 1980; Smith 1991; Perry 2001; Barman 2006) I consider the women’s relationships with both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal men. Aboriginal men, like women, were active players in this new north. My study will revise older, Eurocentric interpretations. (Innis 1930; Zaslow 1971) Other scholars have done this in different regions. (Carter 1997; Barman 2006; Jasen 2002) Gender relations must be redefined in ways that challenge existing misconceptions. (Fiske 2000)  In 2008, Mary-Ellen Kelm and Lorna Townsend wrote that “good women’s history (and good gender history) will change the way we see society, will illuminate relations of power, will challenge our assumptions about ‘how things are.’” (Kelm & Townsend 2008) My study will provide a critical contribution to the call for “good women’s history.” I am Gwich’in and was raised in a northern Gwich’in environment. My experiences, my family, and identity play a role in my interest in and commitment to this project. Through the support of my family and community, I will have access to different types of knowledge that other studies lack. As Canadians grapple with issues surrounding arctic sovereignty, oil and gas development, and mineral extraction, newer and more accurate representations of Aboriginal peoples and their relationships are needed. (Weist 1983; Carter 1988)

Key sources include Hudson’s Bay Company records at the Provincial Archives of Manitoba, as well as Oblate and Anglican sources at the Roman Catholic Diocesan Archives in Edmonton, Archives Deschâtelets in Ottawa, and the Provincial Archives of Alberta. The Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute in Tsiigehtchic (NWT) houses an abundance of fundamental primary and secondary sources. I have also contacted the NWT Archives in Yellowknife and the Yukon Archives in Whitehorse where municipal and territorial records are housed. Government and state documents must be considered; Indian and Northern Affairs Canada has an abundance of texts. Oral histories are among the most valuable of Gwich’in sources and will provide us with the opportunity to investigate “the construction of women’s historical memory.” (Sangster 2002) With proper ethics approval, I will interview Gwich’in women, adding to the already existing collection of Gwich’in oral histories. (Heine et. al 2007; Smith 2009) Oral histories, a key component of my study, will provide me with new insights into intimate relationships and practices. Unpublished oral sources from local communities are also of interest.

My proposed doctoral research stems from my MA thesis: “Cultural Perplexities: Non-Aboriginal Representations of Dene Women in the Late Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” which I completed the University of Victoria under the supervision of Elizabeth Vibert. I questioned the representations of Dene women, as recorded in the journals and travel narratives of four British men. I found that these texts represented the complex ways in which these men reshaped powerful ideas that were based on long-standing cultural assumptions of the ‘other,’ ideas that pivoted on sharp binaries between civilisation and savagery, as well as entrenched ideas about proper womanhood and the roles to which women should aspire and conform. My doctoral research will add to my findings in different, but equally valuable ways. Having researched outsiders’ representations of Gwich’in women, I am now in a favourable position to reconstruct representations that are more accurate and less ethnocentric. I am currently working with Sarah Carter of the University of Alberta, a Western Canadian historian of the Prairies, First Nations, and women. Other specialists who will be valuable to my program include Brenda Parlee, who focuses on the cultural history of the Gwich’in, Liza Piper, who considers northern regions, and Val Napoleon, who has done extensive work with oral histories. Course work in Canadian social history, gender studies, and cultural theory will provide the necessary background for this study.

 

The Persistence of Stereotypes

Last night, I had an enjoyable experience at the Harbour House, a restaurant here in Victoria. Atmosphere: good. Food: satisfactory. Company: unexpected and thought-provoking.

About half way through my dinner, I had the pleasure of meeting another patron. Let us call her Kate. Kate has lived in Victoria for over twenty years and considers herself to be very knowledgeable about the area. And, in her words, she is “open to all cultures”, since British Columbia is “very multicultural.” Good.

We chatted about all the things that strangers usually chat about: weather, news, the sports, etc. But then Kate asked me what I do. So I told her that I study Canadian Aboriginal history. She nodded and seemed interested.

Kate and I chatted about the First Nation presence in Victoria, maintaining a fairly light conversation. Then our dialogue took an interesting turn. She said, “Well, what about all those Indian kids who huff gas?”

Hmm, I thought to myself. How do I do this? Educate someone who perhaps holds a fuzzy view of Aboriginal history, maintain a pleasant and light conversation, and encourage her to reconsider her views, if only for a moment. I was not entirely sure that I was up to the challenge, as it was the end of a long week.

So I just listened, smiled, and nodded. I listened to everything she had to say, trying to absorb it all, while trying to hash out in my head some kind of diplomatic response. Although Kate was a stranger, I feared how this conversation would end. So I did my best. I told her that she seemed very concerned, which she clearly was. Kate appreciated that. And then I asked her to consider a few historical details that have displaced (some) Aboriginal groups. Kate listened to me, seemingly intrigued. I also asked her to consider the group of non-Aboriginal children that “huff gas.” She was shocked! Kate had never thought of that before; she was simply engaging with stereotypes. I could see something in her expression – she was deep in thought, questioning her own beliefs. I sensed her discomfort with the topic. Discomfort in the sense that I made her think outside the box. I think, I hope.

I challenge everyone to think about ideas, issues, and problems in new ways. They do not necessarily have to be topics that relate to Aboriginal peoples, but ideas in general. I find it works best if you choose something in the news – you can relate to it, other people will have opinions on it, and it is a part of your present political world. Consider your view on the topic. And by consider, I mean really think about it. What would the counter-argument be to your assertion? If I met you at the Harbour House and made you think in new ways, what would I say? Perhaps this will make you think about stereotypes, perhaps not. But considering other views and values is a fruitful exercise.

Stereotypes are emotional, damaging, and often wrong. Not everyone, of course, relies on stereotypes to makes sense of their world. But I think if we dig deep, and think outside the box, it quickly becomes apparent that stereotypes are alive and well.

Identity as a Menace?

I’ve been thinking a lot about identity lately. Someone recently said to me that “identity” has become so cliché. We use it so often that we fail to problematize it. Everyone probably hasn’t read Stuart Hall and his thoughts on identity, so fair enough I suppose.

But what about identity in an Indigenous context? And a non-Indigenous context? Do we have the right to speak for each other? Keeping these questions in mind, I am rethinking my own identity. The fact that we categorize scholars by their race or ethnicity is a problem. For instance, I would call myself an academic of Indigenous ancestry. Yet by making such a statement, I am virtually alienating myself from a whole academic community that has non-Indigenous heritages. Why is the binary necessary? One could easily reverse the question and argue that “we” Indigenous historians alienate non-Indigenous historians from our clique.

But must we be neatly divided into these racial categories? For when you explore these categories, it quickly becomes apparent that, after all, they are not so neat and orderly. I identify as an Indigenous academic, yet many of my life experiences have been in a so-called “white” world. While I am very grateful for the lessons I learned and experiences I had with my Aboriginal family, there was a time when I lived apart from them – with my “white” family. And I did not self-identify as Indigenous at all.

How do those experiences undermine or strengthen my “Indigenous-ness”? There is no essential facet of Indigenous-ness, of course. There are many, for culture and tradition are never static. But what is it that makes me identify with Indigenous communities, as opposed to non-Indigenous ones? Good question – a question that is undoubtedly lodged in colonial discourse (ok, “neo”-colonial discourse, if you insist). Food for thought.

Hello Bloggers

So I went to a workshop in Vancouver yesterday, hosted by UBC and NiCHE, called “Reaching a Popular Audience”. It was good fun and very informative. One of the presentations focused on the advantages of blogging. Blogging. I hadn’t really given it much thought. Blogs were something that other people wrote. Not me.

Why would I? I probably don’t have much to say. No one’s probably interested. And who has time time for that? As a graduate student, time has become a very valuable aspect of life – the other contender being money. Anyway, before listening to this presentation, I did not see myself as a blogger. At all.

And yet here I am. Blogging. Good for me (patting self on the back). I have finally gone beyond FaceBook and email (still resisting Twitter). So hello world, hello bloggers, hello blog-readers, and hello blog-commenters. I will do my best to blog on a regular basis; once a week, I think, is probably a good commitment for me at this point. As everything else that is currently consuming my life, my posts will likely be academic in nature or dealing with academic related questions, queries, and thoughts.