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Review

Gathering Places: Aboriginal and Fur Trade Histories

By Carolyn Podruchny and Laura Peers, Editors

November 4, 2013

Review By Scott Stephen

Academic publishers seem to be shying away from festschriften these days, but there are good reasons for UBC Press to buck that trend with this book. The long-standing academic tradition of a scholar’s colleagues and former students contributing essays to a volume in their honour illustrates the web of personal and intellectual relationships that are integral to the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. For thirty years, Jennifer S.H. Brown has fostered such relationships without regard to age, academic training, or disciplinary boundaries: all who have wanted to travel the path of critical inquiry have been welcome. And it is appropriate that this volume should be published by UBC Press, which originally published and recently reprinted Brown’s now classic work, Strangers in Blood.

The essays collected here seek a balance between the fine details of everyday life and the broader brush strokes of the “big picture.” The articulation and negotiation of identities are examined through the meanings and uses of partially-denuded trees known as lobsticks (Carolyn Podruchny, Frederic W. Gleach, and Roger Roulette), and through burial dress and grave goods (Cory Willmott and Kevin Brownlee). Heidi Bohaker examines the social and political meanings of Anishinaabe totemic signatures on treaties, while Elizabeth Vibert explores the many meanings of food. Germaine Warkentin outlines former fur trader John McDonald of Garth’s 1857 proposal for an independent federal union of First Nations in western North America.

The second half of the volume addresses even more directly two issues that have been key to the scholarship of Jennifer Brown and of many of her students. How do we know what we know (or what we think we know) about Aboriginal peoples? And how do we represent those peoples, both in the past and in the present? Heather Devine and Susan Gray discuss issues of subjectivity and personal relationships in research; while Theresa Schenk, David Miller, Laura Peers, and Bob Coutts examine representations of Aboriginal peoples in personal and governmental identification, in ethnographic writing, and in public commemoration. In all of these discussions, the boundaries between identities, between nations, and between categories or disciplines emerge as complex but often quite arbitrary. Brown makes the same observation in her fascinating afterword, in which she muses on her “academic ancestors.”

Only Vibert’s essay on food and identity in the fur trade deals explicitly with the region now known as British Columbia; about half of the essays focus on the Anishinaabe/ Ojibwa/ Chippewa. However, all of the pieces have much to offer readers beyond their specific subject matter. The contributors use many kinds of “documents” – archival fonds, archaeological retrievals, traditional knowledge, landscapes, material culture, etc. — to address many kinds of questions. Thanks in part to recent efforts to place Aboriginal peoples at the centre of scholarly inquiry, we now “read” such evidence with greater awareness of cultural and cross-cultural meanings, of issues of power (past and present), and of the complex forms and functions of language. The sophisticated and subtle — sometimes even intimate — ways in which the authors approach their topics illustrate the opportunities for analysis and storytelling which these very complex issues have to offer.

Gathering Places: Aboriginal and Fur Trade Histories
Carolyn Podruchny and Laura Peers, editors 
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010. 344 pp, $34.95 paper