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Review

Dark Storm Moving West

By Barbara Belyea

November 4, 2013

Review By Matt Dyce

“The trouble with narrative – telling stories, making histories,” Australian ethnohistorian Greg Dening says, “is that it is so easy, but thinking about it is so hard” (Performances, 1996). I suspect Barbara Belyea would agree, because Dark Storm Moving West is a wonderfully hard book to think about. It is in many ways the culmination of Belyea’s long career thinking against the grain of how stories are told and arguments are constructed. The six essays comprising this volume all focus on the early period of Euro-American exploration and mapping of northwestern America. They do not seek to disrupt the way histories of the Northwest are generally constructed, and many readers will recognize familiar protagonists here – James Cook, George Vancouver, Peter Fidler, David Thompson, Lewis and Clark. So too, we find them doing exactly what they are known for – gradually recording with sextant and survey grid the labyrinthine inland waterways west of Hudson’s Bay. Gains and mistakes are made, the HBC and NWC battle for economic control, and personal ambition feeds into myth-making about ideal river systems linking the rich inland fur districts to Hudson Bay or the Pacific Ocean. Rather than rendering early explorers as benign peripheral figures set against the structural power of the fur trade, however, Belyea argues that their work represents the “early stage of a total revolution” that was the Euro-American domination of the Aboriginal west. The storm clouds moving westward are really the spatial and epistemological changes that prefigured colonization, and may serve well as an apt metaphor for the methodologies Belyea employs to analyze these developments. 

The shifting optics she employs in addressing these changes make her book challenging and innovative, as it deals with the conflation of myth and science in the navigational hypotheses of British officers in the Pacific North-west (Chapter 1), the personal and institutional framing of David Thompson’s authority as a surveyor (Chapter 2), or the attempts of Lewis and Clark to conWgure their observations made on the Missouri River exploration between their Native informants and the HBC maps (Chapter 3). As explorers move from oceans and bays deeper into the river networks of western North America, the arc of Belyea’s first three chapters reveals the contrast between Native and non-Native understandings of space and landscape. The result is an engaging central essay that attempts to reconstruct Amerindian spatial conventions by questioning why “Native maps look so diVerent from European ones” (53). Two sets of records provide the basis for this examination: the pictorial depictions created by Native artists (many produced in captivity) mimicking the European tradition; and maps (largely created by Peter Fidler) that copy or incorporate Native originals. European maps and drawings are structured by a “principle of spatial equivalence” that establishes a relation between representation and reality. Co-ordinates on the map and co-ordinates on the earth therefore relate in a standard fashion – an inch on the map represents a mile on the ground, for instance – just as every blank space corresponds to an equal amount of “uncharted” territory on the earth. In analyzing Native cartography, Belyea recognizes that it cannot be collapsed into the look of the Western tradition. Here it is important to understand that “the surface on which the Native map is drawn is insignificant” (53) and that “blank” spaces are therefore devoid of meaning, contrary to the European tradition, where “unmapped” space is replete with significance. Viewing the maps’ edges as bounded space, and the cartographic signs within as proportionally equivalent, obscures both the history of a complex Native spatial storytelling convention and evidence of the resistance to Western vision the cartographic record contains. Belyea equates the erosion of this resistance with the “warrior-artists” in captivity conforming eventually to European spatial perspective. 

Throughout the volume, Belyea’s main focus is on graphic maps. She is less interested in the uses and “social lives” of maps and their meanings than in the internal formations they express or conceal. This close focus on the material practice of cartography affords a new way of examining what may be a “contact zone” where Native and newcomer cultures overlap and are hybridized. Indeed, Belyea shows how explorers like Fidler and Samuel Hearne began to incorporate Native representational devices into their own maps and journals. Yet on this point, Belyea is clear: “There is no ‘common ground’: European and Amerindian conceptions of space are essentially different and remain incapable of merged contribution” (73). The same logic guides the final two essays of the book. In “The Silent Past Is Made to Speak” (Chapter 5), the meaning invested in “blank” spaces on European maps is equated with the way fur trade historians reconstruct the social dynamics of the trade, often by projecting contemporary political ideas into the gaps and “silences” that appear in the incomplete archive. Readers will find compelling – if somewhat dated – critiques questioning Sylvia Van Kirk and Jennifer Brown’s early work on women’s agency in exchange relations, and of Edith Burley’s class interpretation of fur post social structures. Belyea’s agenda is not to make history familiar to the present, which she charges these authors with doing, but to insist that “the line between past and present is a hazardous intellectual frontier. The job of historians is to guide the bounds of a foreign country, and to let us wonder at its strangeness and variety” (107). The Wnal chapter in Dark Storm Moving West represents Belyea’s most recent effort to apply these paradigms to ethnohistory. “Outside the Circle” is a reflective essay on the problem of “fixing” Aboriginal oral tradition and performance in textual form. Belyea interprets anthropologists’ attempts to cross the boundaries of cul-ture as moving Native tradition from inside (performative-oral-fluid) to out-side (interpretive-textual-static) the circle. Weaving parallels between contemporary practice, nineteenth-century salvage anthropology, and Peter Fidler’s experiences overwintering on the North Saskatchewan with a group of Pikani in 1792, this chapter offers a broad critique of ethnographic writing from “outside the circle” as an arrant type of neo-colonialism. It is marred by Belyea’s reinscription of a universal European world “outside” and a hermetically sealed and isolated Native cosmology within, a schematic postcolonial studies has sought to dismantle. Readers will also wonder whether Belyea’s volume might have benefited from a more direct engagement with spatial history, visual culture, hybridity, and especially more recent writing on the fur trade and histories of exploration.

At a glance this large unassuming volume, complete with glossy black and white reproductions of the images and maps discussed by the author, conceals the critical impact her essays are intended to have. Belyea’s close familiarity with the fur trade’s archival and cartographic legacy is more evident than the theoretical and methodological lineages that guide her study. A professor of English at the University of Calgary, Belyea’s long engagement with French post-structuralist thought and her further investigation into ethnography and the history of cartography permeate the book from beginning to end, though never in a consistent manner. She eschews an explicit thesis and narrative structure, but to say that the chapters “are not bound by a central theme; instead they glance off one another, each commenting on the rest by its difference and divergence” (xiii) is not enough. A seventh essay is lacking where Belyea would expand her thoughts on historical practice and develop what she believes the lines connecting these divergent stories may be. Dark Storm Moving West is a valuable and challenging contribution to western Canadian historical and geographical study, engagingly written by a scholar with a keen mind for critique.