Songhees Pictorial: A History of the Songhees People as Seen by Outsiders, 1790-1912
November 4, 2013
Review By John Lutz
This is a wonderful addition to the history of Aboriginal peoples in British Columbia and Canada. It is unusual because it takes images as the starting point and valuable because the people upon whom it focuses are among the least known in the written history of the region, despite being the most observed. It is also a great example of popular history: an appealing coffee table book that is original, scholarly, and authoritative.
The Songhees (also known as the Lekwungen) were the first Aboriginal group in western Canada to experience urbanization: the town of Victoria, and then the city, enveloped them within two decades of the first arrival of Europeans. Their reserve was in constant view of the city and in the direct sightline of the colonial and provincial legislative buildings. Moreover, Songhees people were frequently in the city: working, buying goods, and selling fish, game, or art work. Among the Songhees, as well as other Aboriginal visitors to their reserve, Victorians found the stereotype of the lazy, mercurial, drunken, immoral Indian. This became the story of the Songhees among the settler population, and since many of the capital’s politicians, residents, and visitors had never encountered other views of Aboriginal peoples, these images ended up, in many respects, defining the province’s “Indians.”
Ironically, anthropologists largely ignored the Songhees because they were too much like Europeans in dress, religion, work, and social (including drinking) habits, and because they intermarried extensively with other racial/ethnic groups. As a stereotype they were hyper-visible, but as a cultural group they were invisible.
Keddie’s book makes the Songhees/Lekwungen visible in a way that is not only respectful but celebratory. Each of the nearly 200 images is supported by detailed research and commentary. Keddie delves into each photo with a detective’s eye. Working with archival sources (e.g., checking cannery records for the owner of a boat with a cannery number), he identified many of the people in the images. By studying the appearance or disappearance of buildings and checking the tax rolls for their date of construction, the height of vegetation in comparison to what is depicted in other photos, and other techniques he is able to date images and, specifically, to identify activities (distinguishing, for example, the potlatch photos of 1869 from those of 1874 and those of 1895 from those of 1901). The incredibly painstaking and thorough research and description of the photos makes Songhees Pictorial outstanding.
The organization is roughly chronological, starting with brief accounts from the Spanish visits of 1790 but focusing on the period between the 1843 establishment of Fort Victoria and the 1910–11 sale of the Songhees reserve and the people’s relocation to a new reserve in the (then) suburbs of Esquimalt. There are accounts of the traditional territories of the different families who signed the Fort Victoria treaties in 1850–52; their integration into the mercantilist economy of the fur trade and the capitalist economy of the city; their often fractious relations with visiting Aboriginal groups; their escape from the devastating smallpox epidemic of 1862; major potlatches; and the series of attempts to remove them, culminating in the 1910 agreement. There are also brief sidebars with biographies and/or details about specific places, images, and photographers.
Grant Keddie is well placed to create such a book as his office overlooks the old settlement site. As curator of archaeology at the Royal British Columbia Museum (rbcm) he has been at the forefront not only of local archaeology but also of larger issues around the pre-European cultural changes of Pacific Northwest Aboriginal peoples. One of the great assets of the museum is its expansive ethnographic photographic collection, which, when combined with the rich BC Archives Collection (now being formally merged with the rbcm collection), provides the majority of images in the volume.
If the Songhees were always within clear view of Victoria, Victorians were also in clear view of the Songhees. We do not get much sense of what the Songhees thought of Victoria, but Mission Hill (on the reserve) was a great vantage point from which to take in the growing city. The collection of panoramic photographs of the city taken from the reserve between 1858 and 1912 are important contributions to the city’s history.
Songhees Pictorial is handsomely designed and the text is full of original details and descriptions, which are kept short to fit the pictorial format. In order to ensure the format’s popularity, the museum decided on a ninety-nine-page Internet supplement that provides fuller descriptions and comparisons and that includes many photos not published in the book.
Songhees Pictorial is self-consciously an outsider’s view. Its celebratory tone is an antidote to the often disparaging commentary on, or the total invisibility of, the Songhees in BC histories; however, this does make the scholarship less “critical” than it might be. Keddie’s chosen photographs and text emphasize the smiling faces, celebrations, and strong leadership of the chiefs. Critical commentary on Chief Freezie is largely absent; the secret $16,000 payment to Chief Cooper to “facilitate” the sale of the reserve and his forced resignation in 1917 go unremarked in Keddie’s gloss, which has him as chief for life, from 1902 to 1935.
It is a testimony to the book’s success that it leaves you wanting more. It would have been great to see more from Keddie and colleague Dan Savard, who contributed a short essay, on how to critically read these particular photographs; it would have been interesting to see images (or be provided with a discussion) of the Johnson Street ravine or even Johnson Street, both of which were Indian spaces in the city; and the appendix on the Songhees traditional worldview is tantalizingly short. Wilson Duff’s Songhees place names might have been included with the more detailed but narrower list of place names in one of the subfamily territories. While the photographs are meticulously documented, the textual references are not, and readers are left to wonder which of the bibliographic sources cited for each chapter is the source of specific statements.
These matters do not cloud the fact that Songhees Pictorial is a fine book. It is a novel experiment in merging popular and scholarly, print and Internet publishing. Impeccably researched, Keddie’s handsome book adds a new dimension to Aboriginal history in Canada by focusing on a previously ignored “urban” Aboriginal community and by meticulously using photographs as its central “primary” source.