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Revealing Indigenous History Transcript
Well thank you everyone for being here I'm really excited to be sharing the afternoon with you and hearing all sorts of really interesting things from from colleagues and and some of the overlap in our areas.
I was also really thankful to hear a bunch of territorial acknowledgments, which is always really important. I'd like to also acknowledge just my place in these territories so I'm a visitor here, a complicated visitor, so I am a Secwépemc transplant from British Columbia moving to, I live in Treaty 6 and the Metis Homelands in Saskatoon. So I'd like to I think it's important to kind of recognize these complex territorial and historical entanglements in my place within them.
So like my final fellow panelists I was asked to come here today and share my experiences "researching and revealing Indigenous history," which is a pretty tall order in a lot of ways. This is something that's been on my mind fairly constantly. For the past, I was thinking about it, the past 10 years or so which dates me a little bit but that's okay. As I wonder how particularly as an Indigenous academic working in a Western institution I can truly reveal these histories without perpetuating the same colonial mentalities that erase them from mainstream Canadian consciousness in the first place.
In other words: how can we "do" Indigenous history without marginalizing the very voices we're trying to uncover?
Seems like a straightforward question, but I haven't found a simple solution, and that's because, in my view, "revealing Indigenous histories" and what that entails has to be interpreted in a very specific way from the outset.
In my opinion, "revealing" can't simply be distilled down to learning about Indigenous peoples, their histories and cultures and ways of life This transforms Indigenous peoples into "content" that can then be discovered and consumed, often for the benefit of the consumer and not the consumed. It assumes that Indigenous peoples exist to be known to others and this is something that the brilliant Audra Simpson refers to as ethnographic entrapment and it follows that once Indigenous people are "known" (because they are infinitely knowable) more equalized relationships aren't necessarily going to follow.
I don't believe that this is the case because it doesn't fundamentally change or challenge historically unequal relationships, and further, this approach assumes that Indigenous peoples can only be the subject of research, they can't conduct research themselves and they can't control research relationships. And this is something we've heard a little bit about already today, so they can be "known" but they can't be knowers and a lot of the existing historical narratives really reflect these assumptions.
So, with this in mind, I believe that "researching and revealing Indigenous histories" has to be first about altering our understandings of what Indigenous history should look like including who's in control of research whose voices count and how those voices can best be heard. This, in my opinion, necessitates reshaping our understanding of Indigenous history, not just as content, but also as a negotiated process of social relationships. This transforms Indigenous research away from, “research on” to “research with” Indigenous peoples.
So how do we do this as indigenous and non-indigenous researchers? And here is probably a good place to say that just because I'm an Indigenous person, I'm not immune to doing irresponsible or ineffective or problematic research. In other words, Indigenous researchers aren't the de facto solution here. Many scholars like myself have been trained in Western institutions to understand research processes in ways that are not always conducive to de-colonial and anti-racist practices. And so like others I've struggled to reveal meaningful histories in responsible ways.
But to return to my question: how do we do this? I think it's first about changing our perspectives on research and then it's about incorporating Indigenous voices through alternate sources and in this case I'm thinking of including oral histories.
So when I began researching 20th century political activism in in British Columbia and I found that most of the historical accounts relied on settler produced archival evidence and this presented narratives from settler, rather than indigenous perspectives. And this makes sense, of course, because there is a lot of settler produced records out there and these are readily available for consultation typically in museums and archives. And this isn't a new thing, so these institutions have traditionally been colonial sites which house colonial records. They've been places where colonial narratives of discovery and settlement and state expansion and progress are told - in writing - from settler perspectives. When indigenous peoples and Indigenous histories did appear they were often mediated through these sites and these sources.
This meant that, for generations we learned about Indigenous people's engagement in the fur trade for example through the written records of European traders; we also learned about Indigenous cultures through museum displays which often contain cultural artifacts stolen or appropriated by non-Indigenous ethnographers and collectors and this was particularly true in the 19th century. And curation was often done by non-Indigenous experts who may have lacked the appropriate knowledge to talk about these items.
The reality is that quite often academics have written Indigenous histories in a variety of contexts without incorporating Indigenous voices. This was true for these early histories I just reference but it was actually also true for the literature on the 20th century so, 20th century BC politics. Indigenous voices were largely silent or perhaps put more accurately they were silenced.
So I wanted to reveal Indigenous histories that privileged Indigenous peoples own understandings of their lives and experiences, not others' interpretations and there are many ways to go about doing this in culturally respectful in decolonial ways including using settler produce sources in innovative ways something that many historians do very successfully.
For this project though I decided that I would spend the bulk of my time engaging with Indigenous politico's through oral history interviews. I felt this would help me to reveal an Indigenized and decolonized (though far from simplistic or perfect) history. And for me this turn towards oral history was made easier because of the time frame I was working in. So one benefit of doing 20th century history is that your research partners are often still alive so you actually can go and talk to people. So I had the ability and opportunity to talk to people who lived through the events that I was interested in.
And then it turned out, perhaps not surprisingly, that Indigenous peoples who were politically active in this time period often had a different perspective on the history they experienced than the literature reflected. And in fact I encountered a number of unexpected historical interpretations throughout my fieldwork.
So for instance, a few years ago I met with Musqueam elder and former Chief Guerin, Delbert Guerin, to talk about BC Indigenous politics and I was mostly interested in his involvement in a particular Chiefs' organization in the 1960s, but he talked about politics more generally through our discussion he told me a little bit about the Native Brotherhood of BC. And this is a coastal political organization created in 1931 and still operating in a various capacity today, and it was mostly concerned with protecting Indigenous fishing rights. I found this organization interesting because it was actually created during a time when Indigenous political organizing was banned by the federal government, and then therefore when most other political organizations were just being dismantled or being driven underground. So when I asked Guerin about this and how the organization could operate despite the legal ban he told me something that I had never encountered or heard before.
He explained that the meetings were always held in a local church where participants would begin and close each gathering with a hymn. He said that they would keep their political papers hidden Bibles and that any time the Indian agent would come by they'd make sure that they were doing very religious, religiousy things. Activists would meet under the guise of a religious group which was legal, rather than a political group which was not.
Through my archival research I've learned that the Native Brotherhood was able to operate in part because was only concerned about fishing and the federal government was mostly concerned about land but I'd never encountered this specific history of strategic resistance. By talking with this man who is there and who experienced this history, I learned something I might not have known otherwise. So this oral interview not only complicated the existing historical narrative but reflected an Indigenous man's understanding of history he was a part of rather than providing an outsider's view.
But sometimes when were armed with what seems like an ironclad plan our attempts to reveal Indigenous histories can sometimes obscure more than they expose that's because talking with people about the past is complicated. It's complicated in part because we're often taught that historical narratives and historical sources are supposed to follow certain rules. They're supposed to have a linear chronology, they're supposed to be built on facts that are non-negotiable and non-interpretive, they're supposed to be objective and unbiased, they're supposed to present a fairly straightforward narrative of what happened and not be vulnerable to fickle things like human memory, but of course history has never worked that way despite our attempts to make it look like that.
In many ways, then, in addition to exposing unexpected histories Indigenous oral history interviews can uncover the reality of lived experience, the contradictions, the gaps in collective memories, the multiple positions and interpretations of people. All the things really that make life pretty interesting, right? And these are all valuable in their own ways, if not to provide new understandings of what happened from an Indigenous perspective then to help us understand why it matters or what it means so by looking at the processes of oral history interviews which have been duly marginalized, the deeply negotiated richness of memory and people situated responses and priorities are uncovered.
For instance, many of my interviews showed me the ways in which historical narratives are deeply negotiated. In fact, the interviews I conducted were not a political sources of information but political spaces people came to the interview space with their own agendas and assumptions and identities and histories and these shape the interaction and the outcome.
This is something that oral historians know but this is more apparent when speaking with explicitly political actors like Indigenous leaders in a context where political outcomes like Indigenous rights and title still matter.
These were people who have spent their lives dedicated to a political cause and had a clear vested interest in the historical narrative that was going to be produced through their oral history interview so this meant that many didn't want to risk having the wrong narrative or damaging narrative recorded.
Knowing that I was interviewing a number of activists many chose to use their individual interview to do more than just tell me the history of Indigenous politics from their own perspective. They also overtly use the space to speak in a kind of sub dialogue to other activists that they knew and they did this to produce and debate and shape the historical account sometimes activists would talk about political rivals using their interview to counter the narratives they thought their rival would tell.
In these moments the interview space was not only about these competing histories but also competing activists at times it could be just more about interpersonal conflict. So this was about the past but also the continued relevance of political issues and competing personalities and then determining whose voices counted here was particularly challenging.
In terms of telling me what happened some of these oral interviews were not altogether useful, they not only produced competing histories I often couldn't verify, but they sometimes created toxic political narratives that I didn't feel comfortable engaging with.
Ultimately though these competing oral histories and the complex relationships that produce them showed me the benefit of Indigenous led histories as well as the fragmented nature of history. I was able to engage with an alternative to a straightforward historical narrative and to see the value in oral histories as a process not a product. These also showed me how oral histories can be used to decolonize history by challenging our expectations of what historical sources and voices should look like.
So just to conclude I want to emphasize oral history interviews as a strategy for researching and revealing indigenous histories isn't straightforward and not without challenges or pitfalls. It also isn't the de facto answer to colonizing scholarship even when it's done by Indigenous peoples. But it has potential for helping to navigate the complexities and reshaping our understanding of Indigenous histories.
Here we can start to avoid Indigenous history as content-based by seeking Indigenous perspectives and directives in research.