Contact Zones: Aboriginal and Settler Women in Canada’s Colonial Past
November 4, 2013
Review By Mary-Ellen Kelm
This is a great time to be writing Aboriginal history. A decade of productive interplay between postcolonial studies, feminist analysis, and new methods of research has opened new interpretive pathways to historians of First Nations. This collection of essays exemplifies the promise of this interdisciplinary scholarship.
Myra Rutherdale and Katie Pickles have included some of the very best scholarship on the contact zone between Aboriginal and settler women in Canada; the table of contents reads like a who’s who in feminist and Aboriginal history. The volume itself is organized into three parts around the central theme of the body as a site of colonial encounter, highlighting how dress and performance, sexuality and surveillance, and, finally, everyday encounters acted as potent points of contact, places of colonial imposition and subversion.
The articles on performance and dress are among the best in the collection. In Contact Zones, Veronica Strong-Boag and Carole Gerson extend their previous analyses of Pauline Johnson, arguing that Johnson’s work repositioned Aboriginal women to the ethical and moral centres of their own societies, highlighted their economic contributions, and offered them as models for a new Canadian consciousness. Johnson’s vividly hybrid performance further served to undermine the colonial obsession with difference even as her writing suggested the superiority of Aboriginal women. Cecilia Morgan brings an analysis of Aboriginal women as public spokespeople into the middle of the twentieth century, focusing on the work of Bernice Loft and Ethel Brant Monture. Both Loft and Monture built on Johnson’s successes but brought their own perspectives to the work of educating non-Aboriginals about Aboriginal peoples, using history and biography to counter “savage” stereotypes. Monture, in particular, stressed indigenous adaptive abilities while decrying forced assimilation. Morgan brings important insights from feminist theory to these two liminal characters, recovering with them a particular Aboriginal space in twentieth-century Canadian historiography.
Articles by Sherry Farrell Racette and, later in the volume, by Myra Rutherdale, help us to see how dress itself was a field of contact. Racette’s superb ar ticle on Métis women’s artistic production of clothing makes clear the importance of the body, style, comportment, and fashion in marking and making western Canadian masculine ideals. Rutherdale’s article exposes the conundrum faced by northern women missionaries who, on one hand, sought to demonstrate the success of assimilation by the sartorial transformation of their Inuit and Dene charges while on the other hand missionaries themselves donned parkas and snowshoes for practical and publicity purposes.
Sexual conduct and conjugal relations have long preoccupied the state, certainly since the mid-19th century. Several of this volume’s articles plot how the sexual surveillance of colonial regimes differentially impacted Aboriginal women. While Jean Barman delineates the dizzying array of behaviours that could get Aboriginal women labelled “prostitute,” Robin Brownlie and Joan Sangster demonstrate the power of the state in punishing women whose behavior was somehow disruptive to patriarchal, capitalist and colonial regimes. Sarah Carter’s chapter on the outlawing of polygamy explains the problems of eradicating what was, for the missionaries a practice considered abhorrent on moral grounds, but that had a certain unarguable social pragmatic. Adele Perry situates the rise of residential schooling in the flailing attempts of missionaries on the North Coast to transform sexual and social arrangements.
This volume, as a whole, recuperates the place of colonial relations in the formation of the Canadian nation. It is logical then to hope for a greater examination of the extent to which colonial relations were unevenly reciprocal – influencing the colonizer as well as the colonized. There are glimpses of such questions in many of the chapters. How did the performances of Aboriginal women such as Johnson, Brant, and Monture define “authenticity” in ways that prompted settler women to mimic British figures in the parades that Pickles so vividly describes? Did the women missionaries of northern Canada find themselves changed by adopting the dress of Aboriginal people just as they hoped to change Native women by altering their appearances? How were definitions of “respectable” subject to revision as groups of colonial men reaped the benefits of sexualizing Aboriginal women? Articles in this volume lay the groundwork to move analyses of the contact zone deeper both in Aboriginal and settler communities.
Ironically, perhaps, it is incisive analyses of missionary and settler women that are underdeveloped in this volume. The discourse that places religious women into the realm of psych o sexual dysfunction, as Jo-Anne Fiske shows, provides common ground for those who address the damage of residential schools and those who seek out healing and justice. It nonetheless sexual izes and homogenizes the women rel igious and resident ial school survivors, a result that Fiske might have historicized productively, situating rather than naturalizing this discourse in its contemporary context. In particular, we might ask how such discourses challenged women religious’ understandings of self, calling, and femininity. Similarly, Dianne Newell’s analysis of writing by and about three women travellers on the North Coast experiencing difference and danger in dramatically varying ways seems hesitant to take full account of the transformative effects of those encounters. Septima Collis and Emily Carr, according to Newell, were insulated from the coast, though it is hard to see how this conclusion applies to Carr. In the unfortunately titled “road kill” section on the murder of Loretta Chisholm, Newell cannot ignore the radical transformation of Chisholm’s body from schoolteacher to murder victim, but the effects of that event on living settler women of the north coast elude her. Rather, Newell dismisses Phylis Bowman’s local history of the events as “inevitably reproduc[ing] the dominant masculinist narratives of conquest.” Such conclusions indicate the clear need for more analysis on non-elite women’s writing of the contact zone.
It would be trite (and inaccurate) to suggest that settler women were subject to transformations of similar intensity to those of Aboriginal women, but clearly settler women were changed by their encounters with First Nations. Understanding further how these transformations were incorporated into the lives and societies of those experiencing them will further integrate Aboriginal and women’s history in meaningful ways. Contact Zones contributes to a general bringing together of the fragments of past intercultural encounters – fragments that by the beginning of the 21st century have been so torn asunder that we often have difficulty seeing how they were once part of a whole. This failure to realize the extent of the cross-cultural encounter in the past is a significant historical erasure that volumes such as Rutherdale and Pickles’ Contact Zones are importantly beginning to undo.