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Recollecting: Lives of Aboriginal Women of the Canadian Northwest and Borderlands

By Sarah Carter and Patricia McCormack, Editors

Review By Susan Neylan

May 20, 2015

BC Studies no. 189 Spring 2016  | p. 159-160

This multiple award-winning collection considers Aboriginal women through a regional approach. Its essays contribute to several intersecting historiographies: women’s and gender histories, Aboriginal women’s history, and biography. Beyond these, the works are unified through their methodologies, which apply the best practices of feminist scholarship to understand, among other things, the female side of the “contact zones” of Indigenous-Settler relationships.

Two works directly address British Columbia history through women of mixed heritage in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Maureen Atkinson studies North Coast cultural mediator Odille Quintal Morison. Atkinson calls her a bi-cultural woman (Tsimshian/French Canadian) who drew upon her Tsimshian upbringing, marriage to an Englishman, and life-long commitment to the Anglican Church “to move between cultures, with varying degrees of fluidity and grace” (135). Atkinson focuses on two formative periods in Morison’s life. The first, through fragmentary source material, contemplates her youth as she entered the orbit of missionary William Duncan at Metlakatla. The second period explores Morison’s adulthood when she most demonstratively came into her own as a cultural intermediary during a time of tremendous political, social, and economic upheaval. Highly proficient in languages, Morison was regularly called upon to translate and interpret for her family, community, church officials (including what she self-identified as her most significant achievement, translating religious texts into Sm’álgyax or Coast Tsimshian language), government representatives, visiting dignitaries, and scholars, including acting as ethnographic consultant and collector for anthropologist Franz Boas. By emphasizing two moments in one woman’s life, Atkinson shows readers how hybridity, while a fluid identity, was also affected deeply by the choices and skills of the individual.

Jean Barman explores the extraordinary Sophie Morigeau, another woman of mixed heritage whose hybridity defies simplistic categorization. Barman gives readers a preview of a socio-economic world she would come to flesh out in her recent French Canadians, Furs, and Indigenous Women in the Making of the Pacific Northwest (UBC Press, 2014), set in the borderlands of southeastern BC and Washington, Idaho, and Montana. As a freight-operator, free trader, entrepreneur, and rancher, “few women whose life stories have survived,” writes Barman, “succeeded with such aplomb, living as Sophie did, between countries, races, and among men” (176). Barman evaluates Morigeau’s identity formation through familial fluidity, occupational flexibility, and racial stereotyping, structures that infused fur trade families like hers. Yet Morigeau was in every sense a strong willed, free woman, whose colourful personality and determination set the course of her own history. Born into the itinerant world of free traders in the Kootenay region and raised on a farm near a Catholic mission and the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Colville at the Columbia River’s Kettle Falls some 400 kilometres to the south, Morigeau grew to reject the dominant society’s gender expectations for marriage and motherhood to instead chart a course of self-sufficiency. A shrewd trader and savvy businesswoman, she supplied miners and railway crews, homesteaded (something rare for a woman at this time), and owned her own trading post. Well into old age and on both sides of the forty-ninth parallel, she utilized familial networks (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) to facilitate favourable economic and social opportunities.

More than emphasizing an active role for Aboriginal women in history Atkinson, Barman, and indeed their fellow contributors collectively, offer highly readable biographies showcasing hybridity, resiliency, contradictory historical experiences, and above all, the diversity of Aboriginal women’s identities.

Recollecting: Lives of Aboriginal Women of the Canadian Northwest and Borderlands
Sarah Carter and Patricia McCormack, editors
Edmonton: Athabasca University Press: 2011. 432 pp. $29.95 paper