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Review

Makuk: A New History of Aboriginal-White Relations

By John Sutton Lutz

October 29, 2013

Review By Margaret Anderson

Makúk: A New History of Aboriginal-White Relations is a thorough treatment of a significant subject in BC history. Lutz has examined the history of exchanges of things, labour, and ideas between Aboriginal peoples and immigrants and how Aboriginal peoples were displaced from their land and resources in the province while, at the same time, providing the labour to build it – at least prior to their labour becoming marginalized and denigrated, and their communities impoverished and “vanished.”  The book moves from an abstract, rather sweeping theoretical discussion of perspectives on exchange and postmodernism to detailed histories of two specific Aboriginal groups: the Lekwungen and the Tsilhqot’in. Lekwungen territory was located around present-day Victoria, and it experienced rapid white settlement. The Lekwungen were, “of all the Aboriginal Peoples in British Columbia and western Canada[,] … the best positioned to succeed within the European, capitalist economy” (50). The Tsilhqot’in, in contrast, were located in one of the most remote parts of the province and engaged in a lengthy struggle to keep settlers out of their territory in the interior plateau. Despite these differences, the current situations of these two groups are not dissimilar. Lutz does a thorough job of laying out how this came to be.

Much of the book is taken up by Lutz’s discussion of Aboriginal workers, and this is an excellent addition to the literature; he delves deeply into the subject and provides both a clear overview and detailed examples of Aboriginal contributions in specific industries such as fishing, logging, and agriculture. He has built on the work of earlier scholars (such as Rolf Knight, Dianne Newell, Douglas Harris, and numerous others) and provides quotations, from both the scholarly literature and from Aboriginal people, drawn from archives, correspondence with government departments, and contemporary interviews. Of equal importance to his history of Aboriginal labour in various industries is Lutz’s analysis of the history of the current welfare system and how it has altered Aboriginal communities; he provides a detailed picture of the genesis of the welfare system in reluctant and racist relief policies through to the trap in which many Aboriginal communities now find themselves. The final chapter discusses developments over the period from 1970 to 2007, including the impact of recent court cases that seem to indicate that Aboriginal voices are perhaps being understood to a greater degree than in the past and that there may yet be the possibility of productive dialogue. A postscript crystallizes the main thrust of the book, encouraging serious listening and real dialogue: “So long as we keep the silence, so long as we continue to ‘vanish,’ or in literary scholar Renée Bergland’s words, ‘ghost’ Indians, we will continue to be doomed to revisit the site of our haunting – the history of aboriginal/non-aboriginal encounters – over and over again” (308).

One aspect of Makúk that I would like to note especially is the extensive use of sidebars and illustrations of the people mentioned in the text, along with relevant quotations. These range from early drawings from the Cook expedition through to photographs of contemporary leaders and also include some of the theoreticians, such as Edward Said, upon whose work Lutz draws. The least successful aspect of the book, for me, is the attempt to frame it within a discussion of Chinook jargon, which Lutz characterizes as “a language amorphous enough that each [group] could interpret it in a way that made sense within its own cultural framework. It was a language of deliberate ambiguity” (xi), “a language whose very construction guaranteed misunderstandings” (xii). Lutz uses this characterization of Chinook jargon as a metaphor for the miscommunications that often characterized relations between settlers and Aboriginal peoples in the history of the province, but the metaphor seems to me to be unconvincing and the discussion of the language extraneous to the main thrust of the book. Creating the chapter title “Pomo Wawa” (postmodernist vocabulary) as ersatz Chinook jargon for the discussion of the theoretical underpinnings of Lutz’s analysis was more irksome than enlightening, at least for this reader

Makúk: A New History of Aboriginal-White Relations is theoretically sophisticated and richly detailed, and it will be valued as a reference for researchers in several fields as well as by Aboriginal people. This book will become a standard resource for research on BC history. I expect that, for the next decade, it will fill the place in the literature that Robin Fisher’s Contact and Conflict held during previous decades. The book exemplifies the best of contemporary research on British Columbia’s history, and it will be an inspiration to future researchers.

BC Studies, no. 163, Autumn 2009.