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Spirits of the Rockies: Reasserting an Indigenous Presence in Banff National Park

By Courtney Mason

Review By Jonathan Clapperton

April 16, 2016

BC Studies no. 191 Autumn 2016  | p. 160-162

The history of Indigenous peoples and parks — notably their exclusion from such places — is a field of study that has blossomed over the past two decades. Courtney Mason’s Spirits of the Rockies: Reasserting an Indigenous Presence in Banff National Park adds to this literature by focussing specifically on the Banff-Bow Valley region. The book’s title is slightly misleading because the work is primarily about reasserting a specifically Nakoda (Stoney) history in the region; other, neighbouring Indigenous communities receive passing reference but are not extensively considered. Mason’s intent is to restore Nakoda history to the dominant discourse of Banff National Park, from which it was often excised entirely or severely truncated and emplotted within a settler colonial narrative, and to allow a more historically accurate narrative that includes Nakoda perspectives. Drawing heavily upon post-structuralist theorists, especially Foucault, and on post-colonial theory — frameworks that focus on power as a productive force rather than just a repressive mechanism — Mason argues that popular and academic histories of Banff National Park have largely failed to recognize the previous and ongoing Indigenous presence in the Banff-Bow Valley region.

Mason’s book consists of six chapters plus an introduction and a foreword. Chapters Two through Six are meant to centre “on the experiences of Nakoda peoples in their interactions with the colonial bureaucracy and later with tourism industries” (145-6). The analysis proceeds chronologically, beginning in Chapter Two with Nakoda experiences in the second half of the nineteenth century, notably Treaty 7, before moving, in Chapter Three, to the creation of Rocky Mountains (Banff) National Park and the gradual curtailment of Nakoda activity beyond their reserves. Chapter Four turns to the emergence of the tourist economy in the region and Nakoda participation therein, while Chapter Five focuses specifically on Banff Indian Days.

While Mason writes that in Chapter One he “establish[es] the theoretical lens that shaped [his] interpretations of local history, and colonial contexts,” (10) subsequent chapters are also infused with sophisticated theoretical discussions and examples of similar historical processes and events regarding Indigenous peoples elsewhere. Engaging with a rich body of scholarship, Mason situates Nakoda experience in the broader North American context of Indigenous peoples and colonialism, tourism, and conservation, and at the same time assesses the applicability of theoretical insights offered by Foucault and others to Aboriginal history. However, I would have liked, in Chapters Two, Three, and Four, to see more Nakoda (or other Indigenous) voices, drawn either from the interviews Mason conducted or from the archival records that he consulted. A similar point was raised in the book’s Foreword by Rolland Rollinmud (Chiniki Nation) and Ian Getty (research director with the Stoney Nakoda Nation), who note that the application of theory interrupts the narrative flow (xii).

One of Spirits of the Rockies’ contributions, and perhaps the most useful aspect of the book for those who study British Columbia — which forms the western boundary of Banff National Park — is that it is a product of long-term collaboration with the Nakoda. Mason’s introduction describes the process of building and maintaining relationships with the Nakoda community, and his conclusion includes a thoughtful reflection on the implications of a Euro-Canadian male writing Aboriginal history. He also provides some Nakoda responses to this topic. Further, an Appendix describes how certain knowledge gained through personal interviews was excluded from the book in order to protect culturally and politically sensitive information. I resoundingly endorse Mason’s call for academics working with Indigenous communities to establish collaborative relationships and to privilege their perspectives.

Spirits of the Rockies: Reasserting an Indigenous Presence in Banff National Park
Courtney Mason
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014, 195pp. $27.95 paper