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Reserve Memories: The Power of the Past in a Chilcotin Community

By David Dinwoodie

Review By Jo-Anne Fiske

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 144 Winter 2004-2005  | p. 129-31

THE CURRENT POLITICAL climate in British Columbia is one that seeks to resolve Aboriginal legal entitlements and treaty rights through verification of precolonial practices and residency. Since 2000, when the so-called modern-day treaty process was initiated, the focus of provincial-Aboriginal relations has centred on negotiated settlements that, potentially, will create an economic climate that simultaneously provides for large-scale corporate investment as well as clarity and security for First Nations through stipulating the scope of the latter’s rights over traditional territories, natural resources, and federal government benefits. Integral to this process are emerging discourses of First Nation identities grounded in narratives of cultural truths, historic events, and mythic traditions. As Dinwoodie states in Reserve Memories, these narratives form a core identity from which First Nations “are creating history by dynamically applying several variations of traditional narrative … to the circumstances of contemporary reserve life” (1). 

In order to understand the contemporary application of traditional narratives, Dinwoodie turns to an ethnography of speaking. In doing this, he seeks to challenge the established assumptions of an existing synchronicity between the communicative and material aspects of life by applying Marshall Sahlins’s conceptualization of “the structure of conjunction” or, in Dinwoodie’s words, the “arena in which history is meaningfully assembled. It is [here that] coherent frames of the past are brought to bear on the ambiguities and general lack of fit of the present” (8). Drawing on a complex array of discourse theories, structuralism, and ethnopoetics, Dinwoodie situates traditional and contemporary narratives within a historical, cultural, and political mileux in order to illuminate “how vernacular history is practiced in small communities today” (107). 

Reserve Memories is a reworked version of Dinwoodie’s doctoral thesis enriched by subsequent ethnographic work with the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation (referred to throughout as the Nemiah Valley Indian Band or the Chilcotin people of the Nemiah Indian Reserve community) that continued through the 1990s to 2000. The book is organized into five chapters: (1) a general introduction to method and theory, (2) the ethnographic context, (3) the interpretation of historic narrative, (4) contemporary myth, and (5) the “new” discourse of public politics. In Chapter 1 the emphasis is on the ethnohistoric emergence of the contemporary Chilcotin speech community, now one in which English is dominant even though the vernacular retains considerable loyalty, while in Chapter 2 social organization is depicted as predicated on kinship relations, although now tempered by government politics. In Chapter 3 Dinwoodie goes on to present historical narratives from two perspectives: as events that are narrated and as narrative events. This dual approach allows him to explore the interactions between narration and narrator through a social-textual approach called entextualization/ contextualization. He finds that historical narratives offer a structural template for representing historical change. Not only do they relate specific events but they also “exhibit Chilcotin cultural perspectives on how to go about addressing new situations” (57). Historical narratives, moreover, link past and present genealogical relationships that give further meaning and coherence to past events. 

From historical narratives Dinwoodie turns, in Chapter 4, to contemporary myths, which he distinguishes from the former on the basis of formal patterning and the felt gravity of the situations within which they are narrated. Like historical narratives, contemporary myths bridge experienced disjunctures; they are context-relevant and critical to what M.M. Bahktin calls the “individual’s ideological becoming” (80). In the concluding chapter, characteristics of the “new” discourse of public politics are explicated through a multi-perspective interpretation of a text known to the community as “the declaration.” Written in English by a committee and a lawyer in order to protect traditional territory from clear-cut logging, the text was translated by a second group of community members literate in both languages. While the English text has appropriated a discourse of nationalism, the Chilcotin text, Dinwoodie concludes, “represents nothing less than one community’s attempt to encompass the modern political present within the framework of the traditional culture” (83). 

Given Dinwoodie’s concentration on the nature of narratives, it is not surprising that Reserve Memories is constituted through a blend of narrated events and scholarly analysis; each chapter is structured in roughly the same manner. Descriptive anecdotes of his personal encounters with Chilcotin individuals, which provide the context for understanding the text and its form, open the chapters. These narratives offer glimpses into the interpersonal relations Dinwoodie established during his work as well as into the flow of community life in the 1990s. They provide some cultural and historical context for Dinwoodie’s theoretical interpretations and serve the reader’s need for material information essential to understanding ethnohistorical forces that have shaped narrative form and content. Brief literature reviews follow, setting out the selection of appropriate theoretical and methodological perspectives, which are then applied to the narratives complete with bilingual illustrations. 

Reserve Memories is a welcome addition to a growing body of literature addressing the contemporary politics of First Nations of British Columbia. It will appeal to a wide audience: socio-linguists, anthropologists, historians, and discourse theorists will all find something of interest. Although the work is brief and does not explore the political ramifications of the “new” public politics discourse in any depth, it does offer insights into the political culture that gives meaning to the concurrent discourses of “land claims” and “modern-day treaties.” Its structure is such that it is suitable for use in undergraduate classes without losing its appeal to graduate students and scholars.