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The Power of Place, the Problem of Time: Aboriginal Identity and Historical Consciousness in the Cauldron of Colonialism

By Keith Thor Carlson

Review By Madeline Knickerbocker

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 172 Winter 2011-2012  | p. 128-9

Keith Thor Carlson’s book focuses on the relationship between history and identity among the Stó:lō people of the Lower Fraser River between 1780 and 1906. He examines specific events and broad trends to demonstrate how Stó:lō collective identities can be both fluid and fixed, and how the passage of time leaves space for the reinterpretation of those identities. Influenced particularly by Marshall Sahlins, Carlson seeks to study “change in continuity” by combining a long historical view with a micro-ethnohistorical lens in his examination of Coast Salish identity formation (27). This approach allows Carlson to develop his argument that Stó:lō identity is constituted by both long-term relational social structures and particular, transformative events. 

In his well organized and clearly written book, Carlson focuses on how Stó:lō people used historical consciousness of transformed ancestors and social affiliations based on rivers or watersheds to understand and mitigate the effects of smallpox and fur trade incursions during the eighteenth century. Later, he argues, Stó:lō people drew on these histories to (re)create a series of nesting identities that would allow simultaneous identification with an individual ancestor, local tribe, regional nation, and provincial collective. Carlson points to the late nineteenth century as the era of gradual assertion of Stó:lō collective political identity, which, he argues, was made manifest in the Stó:lō reserve redress petition of 1874; in the refusal to participate in the Queen’s birthday celebrations the following year; and, especially, in the eruption of fierce political dialogue following the lynching of Louie Sam, a Stó:lō youth, by American vigilantes in 1884. Carlson concludes that, as shown in the 1906 Aboriginal political delegation to King Edward VII, the trend towards supratribal identity was firmly established by the early twentieth century – not as a product of colonialism but in spite of divisive colonial policies. 

Carlson’s engagement with the historiographical material on his subject is profound. He makes extensive use of oral history interviews and relies on Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal archives, manuscript collections, and other source material (such as unpublished field notes) to tease out conclusions that he then contextualizes through the work of other Aboriginal historians. Like many of his colleagues, Carlson insists on a more nuanced view of Aboriginal-newcomer relations than the oft-expounded idea that the metanarrative of cooperation in the contact era gave way to racialized conflict in the settlement era. This stance helps him identify exploitation and collaboration when and where the phenomena occur in the historical record instead of in correspondence to the dictates of outdated periodization. 

While Carlson acknowledges (indeed, explores) aspects of the legacy of trauma left by colonialism, he avoids two problematic tendencies in Aboriginal historiography: (1) the common apologetics of researchers who still cling to white guilt and (2) the hypersensitive avoidance of any critique of Aboriginal issues. Instead, Carlson’s thoughtful contribution assesses the historical events that contributed to the making and remaking of Stó:lō identities without relying on an insecure substructure of negative racial self-consciousness. 

Carlson’s book is especially useful as an example of well-executed ethnohistorical research. As Sonny McHalsie expresses in the foreword, Carlson’s long-term friendships and professional relationships with Stó:lō people, his commitment to Stó:lō histories, and his sincere involvement in ongoing cross-cultural dialogue are good lessons for practitioners and students of ethnohistory, and they add interest and texture for the general reader of BC history. 

Ultimately, Carlson argues that, although colonialism may have altered the context of events in Stó:lō histories, it could not erode Stó:lō historical consciousness and so did not significantly change the foundations of Stó:lō identities. This thesis – that change during the colonial period was not necessarily colonial in nature – dovetails with Carlson’s assertion that Aboriginal history can be studied on its own terms, and it suggests that Aboriginally centred histories can be written without emphasizing either the drastic effects of colonialism or the over-used tropes of Aboriginal agency and resistance. Carlson’s work thus represents an innovative avenue towards the further decolonizing of Aboriginal history, and this, combined with his concern for contemporary Aboriginal political issues, heightens the relevance of the book and marks his claims as being significant both in and beyond the academy.

The Power of Place, the Problem of Time: Aboriginal Identity and Historical Consciousness in the Cauldron of Colonialism

By Keith Thor Carlson
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010. 368 pp. $32.95 paper