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The Archive of Place: Unearthing the Pasts of the Chilcotin Plateau

By William J. Turkel

November 4, 2013

Review By Cole Harris

William Turkel grew up in central British Columbia; studied linguistics and psychology before undertaking doctoral studies in history, anthropology, and the Science, Technology and Society Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and now teaches environmental history at the University of Western Ontario. He brings this diverse, interdisciplinary background to the Chilcotin Plateau with the intention, he says, of understanding the ways and conditions “in which people interpret material traces to construct past events” (xix). He is interested in the “physical traces of the past” and in their various intersections with memory. To this end, he has organized his book around three topics situated in different chronological scales. The first topic is mining and the scale is geological. Turkel treats the long geological evolution of the Chilcotin Plateau, and then his arguments focus on a protracted, expensive, and much-contested attempt by Taseko Mines Limited to develop a world-class copper and gold mine. The second topic concerns Mackenzie’s exploration westward from the Fraser in 1793 and the Tsilhqot’in people he encountered along the way. Turkel considers arguments about and interpretations of Mackenzie’s route, and then provides a history (extending over thousands of years) of the Tsilhqot’in people as well as a description of some of their ways. The third topic, which has a much narrower historical register than do the preceding two, describes the “Chilcotin War” of 1864 and its legacies in immigrant and Native memories. It then goes on to examine the very different accounts, and the protracted legal-political aftermath, of the death in 1972 of a Native man in police custody. Such is the diverse ground that Turkel attempts to cover with, to my mind, quite varying degrees of success. 

In general, I think, the parts of Turkel’s book are more successful than the whole. The account of Taseko Mines’ attempt to develop a mine in the face of government regulations, the protests of environmentalists, Tsilhqot’in land claims, and decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada is a fascinating example of the challenges and politics associated with resource development in contemporary British Columbia. The failed attempt to turn Mackenzie’s route across the Chilcotin into a national symbol – a mari usque ad mare – is a powerful reminder, among so many others over the years, of the difficulty of imposing a unitary symbolic vocabulary on the diversity of Canada. The case of Fred Quilt, the Tsilhqot’in man who died in police custody, is a poignant evocation of the racial bias built so long, and until recently so seamlessly, into provincial law enforcement. Even parts of the book that are entirely derivative – the account of the Tsilhqot’in for example – are competent, useful précis of current understandings. 

But Turkel is interested in much more than parts. He wants to show how the Chilcotin is threaded together as place and in memory, and how the “archive of place,” and particularly the material components of that archive, contribute to this threading. He does establish connections across reaches of time – Taseko Mines’ proving up a copper-gold deposit created tens of millions of years ago; an early Holocene waterfall’s blocking entrance to a lake, thereby allowing its rainbow trout to remain genetically distinct (a discovery that strengthened the environmental case against the mine) – but all mines have long geological roots and many natural circumstances create isolated breeding populations. He does show that memories reach back variously into the Chilcotin past. Mackenzie’s passage, as Turkel shows, is differently remembered. The Chilcotin War, and particularly the hanging of five Tsilhqot’in men, is also differently remembered, and different memories feed different ideologies and conceptions of history. Turkel makes these claims and he is right, but is that surprising? The point is familiar even in the Chilcotin; elsewhere, it underlies many of the world’s most intractable conflicts and innumerable studies of them. 

For all of Turkel’s professed interest in “the materiality of place,” the actual physical land of the Chilcotin hardly figures in this book. There are a few trails, an ore deposit, a lake, a mine site, a Miocene lava flow, a few very general, very sketchy maps, but not a great deal more. The archive Turkel has consulted is not the land but written records in various depositories. To be sure, the land is notoriously difficult to read. Footprints disappear or are overlain with complexities. But in a book that claims to explore the archive of place and insists on the importance of the physical traces of the past, the omission is remarkable. Turkel has written an environmental history without the environment; instead, he has a set of stories, all set in the Chilcotin, two of them having some environmental referent. It is as if the ground shifted during the writing of this book, as if an initial plan to engage the land turned into something quite other. Perhaps, from where he was writing, the Chilcotin was simply too far away, perhaps the context in which he was writing (the Science, Technology and Society Program at mit) was more persuasive than the land he was writing about. That would be consistent with his conclusion that “the different ways a place is imagined do as much to shape the understanding of what happened there in the past as any physical trace ever could” (227). 

In many ways, this is less a book about the land of the Chilcotin, or even about some stories set in the Chilcotin, than it is about the means by which knowledge is constructed. It shows that knowledge is not so much given as contested and that different contexts beget different memories and understandings. But who (in the scholarly community) now seriously disputes this? How many demonstrations of the increasingly taken-for-granted do we need? 

Beyond Turkel’s account is the book he somewhat proposed but did not write. Turkel certainly has the ability to write it, but he would have to take the Chilcotin seriously. In so doing, he would need to reach much farther into the various ways in which the Tsilhqot’in and others have lived in this beautiful, isolated land somewhat detached from the main thrust of settler colonialism.