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An Ethnohistorian in Rupert’s Land

Copyright © 2017 Jennifer S. H. Brown

Published by AU Press, Athabasca University
1200, 10011 – 109 Street, Edmonton, AB T5J 3S8

ISBN 978-1-77199-171-1 (pbk.) ISBN 978-1-77199-172-8 (PDF)
ISBN 978-1-77199-173-5 (epub) DOI: 10.15215/aupress/9781771991711.01

Cover design by Martyn Schmoll
Interior design by Sergiy Kozakov
Cover image: “White Trader with Indian Trappers,” artist unknown, with permission of the Royal Ontario Museum © ROM
Printed and bound in Canada by Friesens

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Brown, Jennifer S. H., 1940–, author

     An ethnohistorian in Rupert’s Land: unfinished conversations /
Jennifer S. H. Brown.

Includes bibliographical references and index.
Issued in print and electronic formats.

     1. Hudson’s Bay Company—History. 2. Indians of North America—Northwest, Canadian—History. 3. Indians of North America—First contact with Europeans—Northwest, Canadian. 4. Fur trade—Northwest, Canadian—History. 5. Fur traders—Northwest, Canadian—History. 6. Ethnohistory—Northwest, Canadian. 7. Rupert’s Land—History. I. Title.

FC3206.B78 2017        971.2’01        C2017-901052-2


Athabasca University Press acknowledges the assistance provided by the Government of Alberta, Alberta Media Fund. We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund for our publishing activities.


Please contact AU Press, Athabasca University at aupress@athabascau.ca for permissions and copyright information.




PART I  Finding Words and Remembering

1 Rupert’s Land, Nituskeenan, Our Land: Cree and European Naming and Claiming Around the Dirty Sea

2 Linguistic Solitudes and Changing Social Categories

3 The Blind Men and the Elephant: Touching the Fur Trade

PART II  “We Married the Fur Trade”: Close Encounters and Their Consequences

 4 A Demographic Transition in the Fur Trade: Family Sizes of Company Officers and Country Wives, ca. 1750–1850

 5 Challenging the Custom of the Country: James Hargrave, His Colleagues, and “the Sex”

 6 Partial Truths: A Closer Look at Fur Trade Marriage

PART III  Families and Kinship, the Old and the Young

  7 Older Persons in Cree and Ojibwe Stories: Gender, Power, and Survival

  8 Kinship Shock for Fur Traders and Missionaries: The Cross-Cousin Challenge

  9 Fur Trade Children in Montréal: The St. Gabriel Street Church Baptisms, 1796–1825

PART IV  Recollecting: Women’s Stories of the Fur Trade and Beyond

10 “Mrs. Thompson Was a Model Housewife”: Finding Charlotte Small

11 “All These Stories About Women”: “Many Tender Ties” and a New Fur Trade History

12 Aaniskotaapaan: Generations and Successions

PART V  Cree and Ojibwe Prophets and Preachers: Braided Streams

13 The Wasitay Religion: Prophecy, Oral Literacy, and Belief on Hudson Bay

14 “I Wish to Be as I See You”: An Ojibwe-Methodist Encounter in Fur Trade Country, 1854–55

15 James Settee and His Cree Tradition: “An Indian Camp at the Mouth of Nelson River Hudsons Bay 1823”

PART VI  Chiefs, Medicine Men, and Newcomers on the Berens River: Unfinished Conversations

16 “As for Me and My House”: Zhaawanaash and Methodism at Berens River, 1874–83

17 Fair Wind: Medicine and Consolation on the Berens River

18 Fields of Dreams: A. Irving Hallowell and the Berens River Ojibwe

Publication Credits



This collection of essays became a book thanks to the warm support and encouragement afforded to me by Athabasca University Press, and particularly by Pamela MacFarland Holway, senior editor, and Megan Hall, acting director of the press. Their interest in the project was manifest in the assistance they rendered with converting my older texts into digital form through optical character recognition treatment, since several articles predated the computer age or were in outdated formats. Their consistent help, good advice, and enthusiasm have been deeply appreciated throughout the project. I am grateful also to the publishers and editors who responded promptly and cordially with permission to reprint those articles for which they held copyright; publication credits and copyright information appear at the end of this volume. My warm thanks also to Joyce Hildebrand, a most meticulous copy editor; to Weldon Hiebert, who produced the maps of Rupert’s Land and of places mentioned in the text; and to Renée Fossett, who provided the comprehensive index for the book.

The articles gathered here came into being with the help and support of professors, friends, colleagues, and, in many cases, peer reviewers, across the decades from the 1960s onward. Several are cited and thanked in the introduction or in specific chapters, and I will not try to name them all here. Some of them, however, have contributed in one way or another to more than one chapter and to my work over a period of years. Patricia McCormack had important roles in helping chapters 3, 4, and 5 see the light of day. Chapters 4 and 5 first appeared in 1976 in the Western Canadian Journal of Anthropology, a small journal that Pat edited as a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Alberta. As a graduate student myself at the time, I was happy to bring out two of my first fur trade writings in that venue, while completing my dissertation, which found publication four years later (Brown 1980). Then in 1988, as co-organizer of the Fort Chipewyan and Fort Vermilion Bicentennial Conference, she invited me to be a plenary speaker—an opportunity that led to the writing of “The Blind Men and the Elephant” (chapter 3). Sylvia Van Kirk, early in our respective careers, was another important player, both as a colleague and as the scholar who first discovered the remarkable papers of fur trader George Nelson in the Metropolitan Public Library of Toronto. Even as we followed rather different paths, her work had a formative influence that may be seen in chapter 6 (with its focus on Nelson) and in the story of our friendship (chapter 11) dating back to the 1970s.

In the 1990s, my research on A. Irving Hallowell and the Berens River Ojbwe was much facilitated by working collaboratively with Maureen Matthews, whose CBC Radio documentary projects took us to several Berens River communities to gather stories and memories. Chapters 17 and 18 build, in part, on that collaboration and owe much to her journalistic skills, experience, and dedication. The Canada Research Chair that I held at the University of Winnipeg from 2004 until my retirement in 2011 provided critical research support in those years, including the means to support the research activities of my CRC associate, Susan Elaine Gray, and Anne Lindsay, my research assistant, both in collaboration with my projects and to aid some of their own scholarly undertakings. I am grateful for all their contributions to the work on Hallowell and Chief William Berens and for their research in other spheres as well. The Centre for Rupert’s Land Studies in the university library was my valued home base for a good many years of scholarly work, teaching, and relationships with a wide network of people whose conversations and exchanges of ideas and information have been an immeasurable resource and inspiration.

As ever, my family has been a source of affectionate support and encouragement. My father, Harcourt Brown, set me on an academic path through his example, good practice, and confidence that I would succeed; chapter 12 says more about him. Wilson Brown, my husband, knew what he was getting into over fifty years ago when we got engaged. He and our son, Matthew, have been fellow travellers and pillars of support throughout.

An Ethnohistorian in Rupert’s Land



This book brings together eighteen essays that were written for varied audiences and appeared in scattered places over a span of forty years. Its chapters explore diverse topics, events, and interactions among Indigenous inhabitants, fur traders, and, in later periods, missionaries and anthropologists. Yet they are connected in several ways. Geographically, they all relate to the region formerly known as Rupert’s Land, the territory chartered to the Hudson’s Bay Company by King Charles II of England in 1670. Encompassing the lands whose waters drained into Hudson Bay, Rupert’s Land endured as a curious fur-trade-based colony for two hundred years until its annexation to Canada in 1870. The essays I have selected relate mainly to those years, with excursions back into the early 1600s (chapter 1) and into the century after Rupert’s Land became part of Canada (chapters 16–18).

Some chapters highlight stories about, and sometimes told by, Cree and Ojibwe people whose homelands from Hudson Bay to the eastern plains were unilaterally declared by Charles II to be “one of our Plantacions or Colonyes in America.” Others feature traders and missionaries who, like the people they met, sometimes tried and often failed to communicate across linguistic, cultural, and social divides and (in part 6) introduce an anthropologist, A. Irving Hallowell, who did better than most of them. The stories come to us through documents, memories, and sometimes retellings by different people from different angles. Some of them emerge in fragments through close study of place names, kinship terms, and the shifting or contested labels that people gave to themselves or to others in different times and places; others survive as whole cloth (such as Settee’s Cree tradition, in chapter 15). Taken together, they offer insights into the dynamics of people’s lives, their world views, their means of survival and adaptation in northern climes, and their complex and evolving ways of relating to one another across the centuries.


The flow of these relationships over time brings to mind the image of a braided river in motion. Northern rivers sometimes flow in deep valleys and sometimes in meanders, like the Red River in Manitoba. But some waters flow in shifting, complicated channels, sometimes parallel, sometimes intersecting and merging, sometimes separated by islands and sandbars, with the channels varying in speed and in the weight of sediments they carry. The human history of Rupert’s Land flowed through time in similar fashion. Scholars have drawn static lines on maps to mark borders between language groups, tribes, and confederacies, but the people never stayed still or entirely apart from one another; they might remain for a long time in distinct channels isolated from one another by islands and sandbars, but then some of them would meet again, sometimes conversing peacefully, sometimes absorbing others, sometimes clashing in conflict, just as braided rivers mingle or divide, varying in their power and intensity.1

When newcomers began to arrive in the 1600s, they came first as small tributaries, swallowed up in the larger flows. Then they formed new channels, both separate and merging, adding to the mix their own increasingly weighty sediments—cultural and material baggage—as well as their cross-currents of influence, their eddies and diversions. The braided rivers of Rupert’s Land history were animate, casting diverse peoples into midstream or into side channels, sometimes forming barriers, sometimes merging the waters, for better or worse.

Sometimes, the rivers themselves underwent more drastic changes. In the 1870s, the Saskatchewan River near Cumberland House experienced an avulsion, a sudden shifting of much of the river’s flow from its old track into a huge floodplain with an area of more than five hundred square kilometres, forming a complicated belt of small channels, lakes, and other features.2 Then, in the next hundred years, hydroelectric developments irrevocably changed many northern waterscapes as well as the lives of the people who relied on them.3 These cataclysms could stand as a riverine metaphor for what happened to Rupert’s Land and its Indigenous peoples after 1870—their annexation to Canada, the hiving off of old homelands into ceded treaty areas and reserves, and the influx of Indian agents and the powerful new structures of governance that came with them, all creating an avulsion in the region’s history, yet one that left some areas (such as the upper Berens River Ojibwe homeland—see chapters 17 and 18) in relative peace for decades to come.


The chapters in this book are tied together by some long threads of interest and concern. They come from one source, an author whose perspectives have evolved over the decades yet who finds, looking over her shoulder, that her work has also exhibited a certain consistency. They share a focus on the close study of texts—a word that derives from the old Latin verb texere, to weave, and the related noun textus: literally, that which is woven, a web (Oxford English Dictionary). I have always been interested in weavings of words—particularly, original and edited writings that have been generated by encounters between Indigenous peoples and outsiders. For me, texts also include spoken words, images, artifacts, and other cultural expressions that may be “read” for their content and that require a scope that stretches the mind beyond the confines of any one discipline. In short, what I have been doing all these years is best described as ethnohistory.

Several practitioners have tried to define the somewhat nebulous term ethnohistory, even though the uses and value of the field emerge more in the doing of it than in bookish definitions. Pauline T. Strong recently offered a succinct description: “Ethnohistory is an interdisciplinary approach to indigenous, colonial, and postcolonial culture and history. . . . [It] encompasses both particularistic and comparative scholarship and embodies productive tensions among historical, anthropological, and indigenous perspectives on cultural and historical processes” (2015, 192). Raymond J. DeMallie, reflecting on his doing of Sioux ethnohistory, defines it more personally, based on long experience:

I developed the habit of thinking ethnohistorically by bringing together diverse material: documents, some written in the distant past that were gleaned from archives, others written more recently, such as the field notes of anthropologists who preceded me, and even my own field notes, which . . . should be treated like any other historical documents: books; newspapers; drawings, paintings, photographs; sound recordings; artifacts; and linguistic data. My preoccupation has been looking for connections among them, how one thing explains or contextualizes another, always with the goal of understanding the past.

By thinking ethnohistorically it is possible to see in the record of the past the evidence of social structures, of cultural symbols, of linguistic patterns. (2013, 234)

In 1989–90, I had the privilege of being president of the American Society for Ethnohistory for a year. One of my duties was to give a presidential address, which our journal published the following spring. In “Ethnohistorians: Strange Bedfellows, Kindred Spirits” (1991), I didn’t try to define the field, since I was talking to converts, but I think my discussion of the challenges, opportunities, and rewards of doing ethnohistory offered an implicit definition. I took the occasion to recount how I got into this line of work, thanks to the distinguished Andean scholar John V. Murra. Murra was working in Peru in 1963–64 when my husband and I arrived—he to do research for his dissertation and I to learn what I could about Peruvian archaeology.4 In Lima, however, Murra offered me a new opportunity, enlisting me to assist with transcribing and analyzing Spanish documents concerning the Quechua and Aymara people in the sixteenth century. I had been quite well schooled in history and in Latin and Greek literature, but, as I recalled in 1991, “I had never learned to study and see through historical texts, to read between the lines, in the way that Murra taught me. The originality of his questions, his way of opening up worlds beyond the conscious or explicit intent of these old Spanish writers, the revelation of the ways that their records could illuminate domains and people whom they scarcely knew—these discoveries gave me a new direction” (1991, 114). The interdisciplinarity of his work was also exciting—the attention to language and the need to understand both sixteenth-century Spanish words and categories and the handwriting of the time. I gave myself a crash course in palaeography. Just as challenging was the need to interpret the indigenous terms that kept turning up in the documents. Archaeology was a necessary handmaiden to these projects, one of many tools I could now see as serving a larger purpose—but I had discovered the joys of working with primary documents.5

The Peruvian experience also taught me that ethnohistory, at its best, involves making connections among different fields, assembling a varied toolkit to approach texts and other sources of information, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, critically and from different angles. It is all about “the crossing of boundaries, of time and space, of discipline and department, and of perspective, whether ethnic, cultural, social, or gender-based.” As we work to understand and to tell the stories of “others” who lacked the means, power, and privilege to write down their own histories, “we have a heightened sense of being outsiders ourselves. . . . We become (I hope) very conscious of reading those others largely through the words of outsiders of another era—a kind of triple jeopardy in which we need all the help we can get” (Brown 1991, 117).

Ethnohistory is not just a congeries of research tools or methods. It also, as I argued in 1991, affords a common ground where kindred spirits can meet and communicate, not only to share findings but also to sharpen our understandings and interpretations by asking new questions that we might never think of if we were confined within a particular discipline or if we conducted our research without attending to Indigenous perspectives and knowledge. Anthropologist Bernard Cohn took the notion of common ground seriously with reference to his work on British colonial India. He believed that researchers combining anthropology and history should go beyond teamwork or consultations among specialists and opt, where possible, for “biculturality—that is, a thorough immersion in the culture and work ways of another discipline” (Cohn 1987, quoted in Brown 1991, 118). His approach influenced my own. In 1970, on the strong recommendation of John Murra, I entered the doctoral program in anthropology at the University of Chicago, where Bernard Cohn and George W. Stocking, Jr., became two of my principal advisors. Living examples of Cohn’s biculturality, they both held cross-appointments in anthropology and history. They helped prepare me, unwittingly, for my twenty-eight years (1983 to 2011) of teaching in the Department of History at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba.

The Winnipeg offer was unexpected but attractive, given the university’s downtown location three blocks from the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, in the Archives of Manitoba. The department wanted me mainly to teach about the fur trade and to handle a course that in 1983 was still called “Indians of Canada”; I was also sometimes called upon to teach Canadian history survey courses. Of special appeal for me was the opportunity to teach honours- and master’s-level seminars that met in the HBC Archives and to take on the supervision of master’s theses and, later, several doctoral dissertations at the University of Manitoba.

The move to Winnipeg began a new adventure. As I had never taken courses in any of the subjects I was now expected to teach, the learning curve was steep but instructive. I was also somewhat unprepared for university settings in which departmental and disciplinary boundaries were taken fairly seriously. When the University of Winnipeg historians hired me, their chair got a message from the chair of the anthropology department asking them if they realized that they were hiring an anthropologist, but they went ahead with my appointment anyway. Later, my proposals to cross-list certain of my courses with (unsurprisingly) substantial ethnohistorical content remained on hold until some personnel changes occurred. When supervising several master’s theses in the Joint Masters Program run by the history departments at the universities of Winnipeg and Manitoba, I drew a few raised eyebrows when I urged students to read anthropological as well as historical source materials and to think across disciplines. Having welcomed the cross-fertilization of ideas and methods that ethnohistory offered, I was bemused to find that there seemed to be some concern about contamination—hence my reference to “strange bedfellows” (from Shakespeare’s The Tempest) in the title of my 1991 presidential talk.6

Meanwhile, I greatly enjoyed historicizing anthropology and merging the disciplines. In the late 1980s, I began work on the papers of anthropologist A. Irving Hallowell, who spent several summers in the 1930s with Ojibwe communities along the Berens River, from Lake Winnipeg to northwestern Ontario.7 In 1992, I had the pleasure of bringing into print his long-lost monograph, The Ojibwa of Berens River, Manitoba, and took the liberty of adding my own subtitle: Ethnography into History (Hallowell 1992). The anthropologist himself became part of the historical record, just as he held a place in the oral histories of Berens River people who, sixty years later, well remembered him and Chief William Berens, the interlocutor who made his work possible. History and anthropology came together as I worked with documents of all sorts—Hallowell’s research files and photographs at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, the holdings of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, and the United Church of Canada archives in Winnipeg and Toronto. Fur trade and mission sources complemented those of Hallowell, since their authors were often writing about the same people, or their relatives. The work became multidimensional in the early 1990s, when CBC Radio journalist Maureen Matthews and I made several trips to Berens River Ojibwe communities, meeting with elders who still remembered Hallowell, Berens, and Fair Wind (Naamiwan), an old man whose drum ceremony was famous across the region (see chapters 17 and 18). In Winnipeg, we discovered that a remarkable collection of artifacts from Fair Wind’s community was housed in my own university’s anthropology museum, and we worked to reconnect those materials with the people from whom an archaeologist had purchased them in the early 1970s.8 This sort of triangulation—bringing together documentary, material, and Indigenous oral sources, each demanding its own methodology and skill set—is endlessly challenging and rewarding and lies at the heart of ethnohistory.


As noted earlier, one of the threads that winds through these essays concerns the close reading of texts—looking not only at the pages before our eyes and the often thorny question of authorship but also at how texts journey from conversations to writing to copying, editing, and publishing, if they go that far, while attending to what is lost in the different stages and why. Close reading involves, at base, engaging with such practical matters as comparing and evaluating different versions of oral, archival, and published texts and deciphering obscure and historically specific words and categories. Two other threads, woven together with close reading, have to do with issues of voice and power.

In 1991, I had the chance to weave these threads together in a talk to the Champlain Society, Canada’s venerable publisher of a long series of documentary volumes. In “Documentary Editing: Whose Voices?” (Brown 1992), I explored the roles, activities, and powers of editors of such works. Documentary publications in older times typically presented and annotated the papers of great men of the past, increasing the attention that they received, while the editors themselves, who made the books possible, lingered on the sidelines. J. M. Bumsted once described documentary editors as “the poor stepchildren of Clio.” Their work is “always useful and often essential,” but involves “long hours out of sight in the scullery. . . . To edit—even brilliantly—a lengthy manuscript or a collection of papers is regarded by most followers of the Muse as uncreative hackwork” (1980, quoted in Brown 1992, 8). Yet editors hold unheralded power over their deceased subjects. They are arbiters at least as much as mediators, making critical decisions about what to publish (or not). They clarify or interpret texts; they may silently modernize style and spelling, if allowed—and some editors read more attentively than others. Their introductions and annotations set the stage for how their subject will be viewed and which facets of his (or, more rarely, her) life and character may be spotlighted.

Issues of close reading, voice, and power arise in all documentary editing, but as I noted in my talk, some voices have been almost absent from the Champlain volumes—those of “women and Indians.”9 Margaret Arnett MacLeod’s editing of The Letters of Letitia Hargrave (1947), a Scottish HBC wife at York Factory in the 1840s, stands out like a red petticoat. As for “Indian” authors, the sole example is The Journal of Major John Norton, edited by Carl F. Klinck and James J. Talman for the society in 1970; Norton, sometimes known as “Teyoninhokarawen, the Mohawk Chief,” was the son of a Cherokee and a Scotswoman and was adopted as a nephew by the Mohawk leader Joseph Brant. In fairness, the editors of several Champlain Society volumes—on Father Joseph-François Lafitau, Pierre-Esprit Radisson, Champlain, and a few others—have paid close attention to the Indigenous people with whom their subjects interacted. But to find documentary texts that present the words and stories of Indigenous people, we must turn mainly to the works of anthropologists—whose efforts, however, sometimes pose their own problems.

In 1988, H. David Brumble III catalogued over five hundred American Indian “autobiographies,” most of which had been published since the late 1800s. Most came from anthropologists working with non-literate or semi-literate subjects or with scribal texts recorded by others from persons since deceased. The original speakers, if living, were often monolingual in their own language and often far away; they were rarely available to review these texts—even if those who recorded them wished they could do so. Brumble also noted another important issue: the genre of autobiography is itself a Western literary convention. Indigenous storytellers usually describe their life experiences in episodes, not necessarily connected or in chronological order. When editors (anthropologists or sometimes literary folk) rework such texts, they commonly adapt them to European-based literate conventions about how such narratives should be constructed—linear, chronological, beginning with childhood, with gaps filled in from other data—to fulfill Western readers’ expectations. In doing so, they position themselves, whether unthinkingly or deliberately, as what Brumble calls “Absent Editors,” editing “in such a way as to create the fiction that the narrative is all the Indian’s own” (1988, 75). They present to unsuspecting readers an elder’s words as if they were direct quotations, despite challenges of transcription and translation. The best known example may be poet John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks (1932)—a text rendering the words of a famed Lakota Sioux elder as his own—which stood unchallenged and poorly understood until Raymond DeMallie’s careful exegesis in The Sixth Grandfather (1984). Through DeMallie’s meticulous research and his attention to language and translation, Black Elk’s original stories became more intelligible and the contexts of his narratives and his life are now far more deeply understood.

DeMallie’s work and that of several other distinguished scholars—Julie Cruikshank (1990) and Keith Basso (1996) among them—set standards that I and fellow editors kept in mind as we published the oral traditions and memories of Cree storyteller Louis Bird (Bird 2005), and Ojibwe chief William Berens (Berens 2009). Their approaches and concerns with voice and power also have relevance for the editing of texts by non-Indigenous authors, and I have worked with both. In the mid-1980s, the Hudson’s Bay Company withdrew support for its Hudson’s Bay Record Society series, which, beginning in 1938, had published thirty-three volumes of HBC records distinguished by careful research, editing, and annotation. I and others saw a need to revive the series in some form—with a wider scope including both North West Company documents and Indigenous texts. In 1990, the Centre for Rupert’s Land Studies at the University of Winnipeg co-published with McGill-Queen’s University Press the first book in what is, to date, a fourteen-volume documentary series on fur trade and Indigenous history, under my general editorship. Four of the volumes focus entirely on Cree and Ojibwe stories and memoirs that range in time from the late nineteenth century to recent decades, and the other books pay close attention to the newcomers’ relations with Indigenous people.10

The Rupert’s Land volumes have been useful for scholars and advanced students, but for the growing numbers of undergraduates enrolling in Indigenous history courses, something more was needed. In 1996, Elizabeth Vibert, of the University of Victoria, and I published a collection of original writings, Reading Beyond Words: Contexts for Native History, by scholars who shared our interest in these matters; a second revised edition appeared in 2003. We looked for authors who were making original contributions to knowledge and understanding by using a full range of sources—textual, oral, and other—and who would also communicate concerns with language and epistemology: How do we know what we think we know? Writing for students and general readers, authors analyzed a variety of Indigenous-European encounters and interactions as case studies that offered both substance and tools for inquiry, to encourage students towards making their own critical investigations and analyses. Our title invited readers to go beyond words on pages, no matter how authoritative they seemed.11 Our subtitle, Contexts for Native History, opened another door for discussion. “Contexts, like rivers,” we wrote, “are always in motion, always diverse and differently witnessed.”

Documents and authors exist in multiple contexts, even when they don’t cross cultural borders or survive through long periods. Their viewers define and interpret those contexts differently: some widely, some narrowly, some with an emphasis on cultural factors, others nonsocial, political, or economic ones. In doing so, observers cannot help but refract their lines of sight through their own context, and through the lens of contemporary concerns and priorities. (Brown and Vibert 1996, xix)

Scholars write about the contexts of documents (broadly defined) based on their syntheses of research and evidence. But contexts are always imperfectly known, often assumed, and may be badly misunderstood, even by ethnographers who were “there,” as Johannes Fabian (1996) discovered from his own experience. Descriptions of contexts are themselves constructed and must be critically assessed. Yet we have to try to write about them too, and then subject them to close study. As Fabian notes, “mistakes can in turn be communicated only when they have been turned into texts” (1996, 44)—which can then be shared in new and sometimes corrective contexts. Feedback is critical; closure gets us nowhere.


In preparing this book, I looked back over several dozen articles that I had published over four decades in a wide variety of venues, as well as the texts of some talks I had given. The eighteen selected for inclusion are those that have retained the greatest interest and use, not only for me but for others who have requested them. Several were long out of print, not available on the Internet or in most libraries. I have worked through them with an editorial eye and a concern to update and recast where appropriate. The texts, then, remain largely in their original forms, but they are not simply reprints. Seven of the essays first appeared in published conference proceedings; seven began life as invited chapters published in multiauthor books, some in the United States and some in Canada; and three derive from small or defunct journals. Chapter 10, “Mrs. Thompson Was a Model Housewife,” is a new addition, exploring the life of Charlotte Small, the Cree fur trade wife of explorer and mapmaker David Thompson, who in 2007 was recognized by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada as a person of national historic significance. A list of publication credits and copyright information for the chapters appears at the end of this book.

Some essays were written for anthropological venues and others for historians; accordingly, both styles of referencing appear. The terminology that they employ also varies, reflecting changing usages across the decades and also the fact that a few were written for American publishers and audiences.12 Some ethnonyms widely used in recent decades in Canada (Aboriginal, First Nations) are not in the American lexicon, while, in contrast to Canadians, American writers (including American Indians) freely use the term “Indian.” I have adapted my usages with a view to considering conventions and sensibilities on both sides of the border. Whenever a group can be precisely identified, I use its specific name. In my most recent writing, when a general term is called for, I have shifted towards using “Indigenous” (or “indigenous,” in the sense of “autochthonous”). Ethnic terms, however, are always in motion. They need to be situated historically (as discussed in chapter 2) and evaluated, but they cannot be dictated for all.

Each of the six parts of the book begins with a short summary of the chapters therein, including their themes and how they are connected. While the chapters, overall, appear in linear and more or less chronological sequence, they encompass several cross-cutting themes. Historiographic issues arise in all the essays, inviting readers to think in different ways about approaches to research as we search not only for answers but for questions that we may have failed to ask in the first place. Attention to words and language is a feature of part 1, but it recurs in chapters comparing Cree and Ojibwe kinship and generational terms with those of anglophone newcomers (chapters 8 and 12). A focus on the complex familial and marital relations that developed between fur traders and Algonquian women and on some of the implications and consequences of those relations runs through both parts 2 and 3.

Part 4 focuses particularly on women. Chapter 10 tells about Charlotte Small and her long life in the shadow of trader-mapmaker David Thompson, and chapters 11 and 12 recount the trajectories of two scholars who began to uncover the stories of such women and their families and experiences—the parallel yet often intersecting tracks of Sylvia Van Kirk and myself. Reflecting on our work over the years, I am reminded of the life stories of a good many women scholars I have known; we began our work in a period when women professors were as rare as hens’ teeth and when women, named or otherwise, scarcely appeared in the pages or indexes of scholarly books about the fur trade or anything else. Even though we, like Oliver, still ask for more, the shifts that have occurred over two generations have been quite remarkable.

Parts 5 and 6 shift their focus to Cree and Ojibwe people themselves, reflecting trends in my main interests as well as research openings that have come my way. Opportunities to work in the HBC Archives, in the archives of the United Church of Canada in Toronto and Winnipeg, and with the papers of Methodist missionary Egerton R. Young and his family allowed me to trace the stories of Cree and Ojibwe individuals through a variety of records. My research into the A. Irving Hallowell papers in Philadelphia and with Berens River people who remembered him was marked by a succession of turning points. The opportunities to work with Cree and Ojibwe linguists and storytellers such as Louis Bird, Keith Goulet, and Roger Roulette allowed me to read further beyond the words in fur trade and mission documents than I had before.

In recent years, as these chapters show, I have tended away from fur trade studies and have become, if anything, more of an ethnohistorian: Indigenous stories, memories, and voices in the documents are my principal interests these days. I and a good many colleagues (Indigenous or not) are taking the multiple Indigenous sides of the stories seriously, along with the others, and finding new meaning and significance in historical records of all kinds—written, oral, and material. Just as Rupert’s Land history may be visualized as a braided river, so too the flow of our research and scholarship involves shifting currents of understanding and perspective—parallel, diverging, merging, always fresh and challenging. Along the way, communication and sharing bring renewed energy and life as the currents eddy and shift. Hence the subtitle of this book—“Unfinished Conversations”—borrowed from Paul Sullivan’s powerful study of Mayas and foreigners across a century (1989).


Basso, Keith H. 1996. Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

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Finding Words and Remembering

The three essays in part 1 have to do with matters of language, translation, and terms and names and their meanings. Chapter 1, “Rupert’s Land, Nituskeenan, Our Land: Cree and European Naming and Claiming Around the Dirty Sea,” looks at first encounters between Cree people and English and French visitors in Hudson and James Bay during the 1600s. Europeans, through their writing and publishing, have long dominated discourse about their explorations. Captain Thomas James, for one, penned a vivid account of searching for the Northwest Passage to the “South Sea” and Japan, getting thoroughly lost, and wintering in “James his Baye,” as he named it on his map. European sailors and mapmakers created their own universe of place names, surrounding what they called Hudson Bay with names that memorialized themselves or their homelands or that honoured royal patrons and other memorable individuals—names that have endured for four hundred years. Yet unbeknownst to the intruders, Cree people maintained a far older parallel universe of names that echoed a very different world view; their sense of place was grounded in stories and descriptions of geographical features that carried memories and told travellers what they needed to know. The juxtaposition of European documents and Cree names and stories reveals the roots of centuries of misunderstanding on several fronts—the use and ownership of land, notions about trade protocol, means of surviving in the subarctic environment, and, not least, the contrasting linguistic structures that set Algonquian and European languages so far apart that accurate translations could not be achieved for a great many years.1

Chapter 2, “Linguistic Solitudes and Changing Social Categories,” is broader in scope, looking at words and labels in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Rupert’s Land from the Hudson Bay Lowlands to the Red River region. By the late 1700s, a good many fur traders had formed unions with Indigenous women, and the numbers of their children were growing. The written records of the times reveal shifts and variability in terminology as traders and others looked for ways to describe these new relationships and the emerging groups of people of mixed descent, whom they labelled and categorized with borrowed and invented terms. This essay began life as a paper for the third North American Fur Trade Conference in Winnipeg in 1978. Like chapter 1, it reflects my long-term interest in the broader subject of ethnonyms—the evolving and revealing words that groups, whether Indigenous or European, have used to describe both themselves and others.

“The Blind Men and the Elephant: Touching the Fur Trade” (chapter 3) reflects on the varied angles from which scholars and others have approached the fur trade. The questions we ask and the answers we seek are directed by our preconceptions, our different disciplinary backgrounds, and the particular research resources that come our way, just as the blind men “read” the elephant differently if they first grab the trunk, tail, tusks, or other parts. No single person can objectively encompass the whole. This old Asian story teaches us that we do well to recognize and acknowledge our limitations; we always approach our subjects from particular angles. Focusing on one part, we may miss others and fail to grasp the whole beast. The text first took form as a plenary session talk for the Fort Chipewyan and Fort Vermilion Bicentennial Conference held in Edmonton in September 1988.

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