In the Days of Our Grandmothers: A Reader in Aboriginal Women’s History in Canada
November 4, 2013
Review By Chelsea Horton
The issue of voice, its recuperation and responsible representation, has long ranked among Aboriginal history’s central concerns. In the Days of Our Grandmothers: A Reader in Aboriginal Women’s History in Canada shares this commitment. Refuting the so-called “myth of silence,” this collection works to foreground Aboriginal women’s voices in all their diversity (4). In the Days of Our Grandmothers does not feature new research; rather, it brings together those recent publications that editors Mary-Ellen Kelm and Lorna Townsend deem at once “the most provocative” and “the most accessible” (407). Organized roughly chronologically and featuring scholars from a range of disciplines, this volume displays broad thematic and temporal reach as it explores Aboriginal women’s historical intersections with the fur trade (chapters by Susan Sleeper- Smith and Bruce M. White), religious encounter (Nancy Shoemaker and Carol Williams), colonial settlement (Sarah Carter and Sylvia Van Kirk), labour (Hetty Jo Brumbach, Robert Jarvenpa, and John Lutz), sexuality and reproduction (Mary C. Wright and Jean Barman), law and the state (Joan Sangster and Jo-Anne Fiske), and writing and the politics of representation (Veronica Strong-Boag and Emma LaRocque). A select bibliography with suggestions for further reading rounds out the collection.
Kelm and Townsend position this reader explicitly within a feminist politics of collaboration. While dedicated to the democratization of the historical record and a spirit of discursive cross-cultural engagement, the editors are similarly attuned to the all-too-real relations of power that continue to undergird contemporary sites and processes of academic knowledge production. Their inclusion of Aboriginal poet and Native studies professor Emma LaRocque’s potent “The Colonization of a Native Woman Scholar” works forcefully to underscore this deeply politicized con text. So, too, does it highlight the firmly interdisciplinary nature of Aboriginal women’s scholarship. As poststructual and postcolonial theory has taught, and as Kelm and Townsend readily acknowledge, history is not a straightforward redemptive project of liberating subaltern voices from the colonial archive. In addition to “epistemic humility” (6), Aboriginal women’s history demands a creative methodological tool kit for reading against the grain those colonial sources that, due to the combined historical forces of racism and sexism, inevitably serve as (partial) evidence.
Thus, we see Mary C. Wright revisiting the work of ethnographer James Teit for the insight he affords into the role of the woman’s lodge in the construction of Aboriginal femininity on the nineteenth-century Pacific Northwest plateau. And, in chapters by Carol Williams and Sylvia Van Kirk, we see the novel use of the photographic record as a lens into Aboriginal women’s nineteenthcentury engagements with Methodism (Williams) and the newly founded Victoria (Van Kirk). Oral history figures also in this reader, although the seminal work of Julie Cruikshank, recognized in the introduction, is notably absent. Combining the methods and materials of archaeology, anthropology, and, to a lesser (and less satisfying) degree, history, Hetty Jo Brumbach and Robert Jarvenpa’s “Woman the Hunter: Ethnoarchaeological Lessons from Chipewyan Life-Cycle Dynamics” reminds us that, despite claims to ethnohistory as a shared project, disciplinary distinctions do indeed persist.
In the Days of Our Grandmothers explores thematic terrain both welland less-trodden. More familiar are characterizations of Aboriginal women as liminal agents of cultural mediation and adaptation in the realms of the fur trade and religious encounter (Sleeper Smith and White, and Shoemaker and Williams, respectively). Most provocative are those theoretically informed pieces that critically interrogate the social construction of the very categories “Aboriginal” and “woman.” Chapters by Sarah Carter and Jean Barman cogently expose how settler society’s twin imagery of the sexualized Aboriginal “squaw” worked, and continues to function, to underwrite Canadian colonialism. Other pieces, such as Joan Sangster’s “Native Women, Sexuality, and the Law” implicitly serve to destabilize Canada itself. As Kelm and Townsend productively suggest in their introduction, Aboriginal women’s history encourages a reconceptualization of Canada as a project of rule, or, following Ian McKay’s proposed reconnaissance, as “liberal order framework” (Canadian Historical Review 81, 4 ). Reconceived thus, national borders are blurred, as displayed in the fur trade and plateau region histories included here, and nationalist narratives disrupted, as borne out in Veronica Strong- Boag’s trenchant chapter “‘A Red Girl’s Reasoning’: E. Pauline Johnson Constructs the New Nation.”
If this collection illustrates fruitful avenues of recent inquiry, it likewise points to gaps in the field. Although its firm western, and, more specifically, British Columbian, focus renders In the Days of Our Grandmothers of particular relevance to readers of this journal, it also reveals regional imbalance. And, while In the Days is admittedly a women’s history reader, Aboriginal men, and the construction of Aboriginal masculinity, are nevertheless conspicuously absent. Chapters by Bruce White and John Lutz are notable for their efforts to explore the experiences of Aboriginal women and men in concert; however, in restricting their analyses to the delineation of respective gender “roles,” they do not significantly inform or advance intersectional gender analysis in this field. Equally lacking is sustained discussion of Aboriginal women’s political philosophy and action, particularly in the twentieth century. A chapter by Jo-Anne Fiske gestures towards this goal, but through its sweeping temporal and spatial gaze loses sight of the specificity of Aboriginal women’s political action and agency. Kelm and Townsend’s introduction likewise hints at such key issues as Aboriginal women’s contested relations with feminism(s) and their status as so-called “bearers of tradition” (10) without fleshing them out in sufficient depth.
Such contextual gloss diminishes this reader’s pedagogic potential. To be sure, bringing these pieces to gether in a single volume is in itself a useful contribution. However, a more thorough introduction and more explicit organizational rationale – one that assumes less fluency in the field – would have enhanced the collection’s value as a teaching tool, particularly at the undergraduate level. The copy-editing errors peppered throughout the text will likely prove distracting to readers of all levels. Such quibbles notwithstanding, however, In the Days of Our Grandmothers is a timely “progress report,” indicating strides made and challenges remaining for the intersecting interdisciplinary fields of Aboriginal, Canadian, and women’s history.