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Review

A Missing Genocide and the Demonization of its Heroes

By Tom Swanky

January 22, 2015

Review By Chris Arnett

Tom Swanky’s self-published book A Missing Genocide and the Demonization of its Heroes brings into sharp focus the problems faced by historians steeped in a discipline that does not fully appreciate the culturally constructed limitations of its methods in an ethnically diverse place. The target of Swanky’s critique is the “mystery” dubbed “We Do Not Know His Name: Klatsassin and the Chilcotin War,” one of a series of cases on a website based at the University of Victoria entitled the “Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History” (www.canadianmysteries.ca) — a federally-funded initiative to make “Canadian” history engaging to students by presenting specific historical events as unsolved crime stories with a cast of characters and a list of primary (mostly written) colonial documents. Therein, according to Swanky, lies the glaring problem of selective documentation and missing cultural and historical contexts. Citing many particular examples, he accuses the website of using an overabundance of “colonial trivia” (31) to create a false history that omits, obscures, and conceals important evidence, is “poorly informed” (64), contains accounts of  “pure fantasy” (45), and is “blithely unconscious of the colonial outlook biasing the material, [its] own unexamined bias against indigenous culture [and] a policy decision not to disturb the colonial myths”(31). Ultimately, he claims, the website fails as a window into historical processes and, by reinforcing cultural stereotypes of the past, is “a virtual celebration of the worst features common to colonial culture” (vii).

These are serious accusations, but the evidence Swanky marshals is convincing and reminds us of the limitations of western historical method and theory in a postcolonial British Columbia. Swanky’s critique and historical timeline include Tsilhqot’in (previously Chilcotin) sources that illustrate the inconsistencies between them and the website’s selective written record. He enumerates how key actors on both sides, as well as well-documented sources in the written record, are omitted from the 200-plus records available on the website, of which only three pertain to Indigenous accounts.

Swanky cross-examines an interpretive essay by John Lutz that appears on the password-protected portion of the site (which Swanky includes in the appendix so that readers can make up their own minds), and while things seem smooth on the surface, the website’s treatment of the Tsilhqot’in side becomes more colonialist and patronizing and less inclusive as Swanky identifies the failure of the site to locate key issues of causality. The devil is in the details; the number of omissions in the written record is indeed surprising and illustrates that multi-ethnic histories of locally-specific areas are complicated and do not conform neatly with frames of reference available to western historians less familiar with the subject area or the particularities of a prior Indigenous political system and its constitution.

Swanky worked with Tsilhqot’in people for some years in the research and legal process leading up to the Canadian Supreme Court’s Tsilhqot’in decision of 2014, which recognized aboriginal rights and title in Tsilhqot’in Territory. His own study of the primary record, and his acquaintance with the people and their oral traditions, provide him with an exceptional perspective of this specific place that is only accessible to non-specialists prepared to spend time to travel on the land and learn something of the people’s history of the place. The events of 1862-1865 were about sovereignty and jurisdiction. Whether the events of these years amounted to “murders” or “war” is not the question, and websites that privilege the written (read “western”) record cannot help but replicate its “othering” gaze.

Swanky demonstrates that the Tsilhqot’in side cannot be found in the colonial archives. Without employing the methods of historical anthropology (with its scrutiny of historical accounts through an ethnographic lens), and without local indigenous historical consciousness, it is unlikely that locally specific events such as the Chilcotin War can be fully understood outside of the written documents, no matter how numerous, that privilege a non-native perspective. Written documents like letters, newspaper articles, notes, books, and websites are material culture, rendered sophisticated and intelligible only by understanding the culturally-prescribed motivations of the authors, creators, and players whose actions now, as then, are always dependent on multiple causalities that are also historically and culturally contingent.

A Missing Genocide and the Demonization of its Heroes
Tom Swanky
Burnaby, Dragon Heart, 2014. 116 pp. $18.96 paper