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Review

Where Happiness Dwells: A History of the Dane-zaa First Nations

By Robin Ridington and Jillian Ridington

November 4, 2013

Review By Daniel Sims

“He expects the listener to be familiar with that part of the story, in the same way that Homer expected ancient Greeks to know about the Trojan horse and didn’t include it in The Iliad” (125). This quote beautifully explains the rationale behind Robin Ridington and Jillian Ridington’s history of the Dane-zaa, Where Happiness Dwells. That is to say, they have attempted to provide cultural and historical context to the numerous oral histories found in the book, rather than rework or paraphrase the histories themselves. In doing so, the Ridingtons treat oral histories on their own integrity and merit, and not merely as supplementary information to enrich the written record. As with Luise White’s book on colonial Tanganyika, Speaking with Vampires (2000), or more recently, The Power of Place, the Problem of Time (2010) by Keith Thor Carlson on the Stó:lõ, this approach means working with concepts and histories that do not easily fit into the traditional European academic discourse: Europeans as vampires in the case of White, and Europeans grappling with the mystical tunnels of the Stó:lõ, in the case of Carlson. And yet, as with these two works, this book benefits from treating oral histories as histories in their own right and not just as evidence.

Putting aside the obvious concerns some readers might have with pre-contact history found in the first four chapters, one area sure to cause concern among some readers, and I argue one of the book’s greatest strengths, is the Dane-zaa lack of concern for colonial categorizations. This is most notably seen in the complex relationship of the Dane-zaa to the Tsegennu (Tsekene, aka Tse Keh Nay) found throughout the book, in the Dane-zaa view of the Alberta-British Columbia border and its general lack of importance to them (212), and in the overarching Dane-zaa view of the world as consisting of numerous familial relations (202). As John Lutz points out in Makúk (2008), cultural categorizations are mere constructs and in no way inherent (31-33). For example, many people treat the Tse Keh Nay and Dane-zaa as two completely different and distinct categories of First Nations. But in the case of the Dane-zaa relationship to the Tse Keh Nay, I have been told by elders in my home community of Tsay Keh Dene that I should learn our language thoroughly, so that if I am linguistically tested by our people in Fort St. John (the Ridingtons’ Dane-zaa), I can pass.

Another potential area of concern is with the intended audience. The Doig River chief and council commissioned the book with the intended goal of providing the Dane-zaa with a written version of their collected oral histories (1-2). Because of this, the Ridingtons avoid overly complicated language and non-Dane-zaa theory (2). If you are looking for overtly anthropological theory, I would recommend looking elsewhere. Even here, however, the Ridingtons have you covered, for the entire sixteenth chapter consists of recommended works by academics you can consult for further information. Furthermore, where the book is lacking in non-Dane-zaa theory, it does contain numerous explanatory passages explaining Dane-zaa worldviews, theories, and concepts. And because Doig River and Blueberry River were legally the Fort St. John Beaver Band before 1977, and because prior to that individuals could move from nation to nation, Where Happiness Dwells naturally includes the history of the Dane-zaa in general (xi).  So if you want to know more about these, this book is an excellent source of information.

Robin Ridington has been working with the Dane-zaa since the 1960s (2). This alone is a testament to his ability to work with the community. He was in the vanguard of academics willing to form relationships with the First Nations they were working with, rather than simply taking information and leaving; or worse, merely using the work of others and never actually talking to the Nation in question. This book is a fine example of what such a relationship can produce. Where Happiness Dwells provides an excellent history of the Dane-zaa from earliest times to the present and stands as an example of the abiding power of oral history.

Where Happiness Dwells: A History of the Dane-zaa First Nations
By Robin Ridington and Jillian Ridington 
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013. 420 pp. $34.95 paper