This greeting comes from the Chinook language, an international language crafted between Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest long before contact. It was subsequently appended with words from English, French, Cree, and Hawaiian. It was widely spoken even among settlers in the late nineteenth century and it survives — a few words here and there — in the vocabulary of British Columbians and Washingtonians. It reflects centuries of efforts at understanding one another. So, welcome to Histories of Indigenous Peoples and Canada.
Like all History textbooks, this one deals with what happened in the past. It also deals with how we know what happened in the past. It is a combined study, then, of knowledge and the nature of knowledge. Since the 18th century the historical study of “Indians,” “Natives,” and “Aboriginals” in universities and colleges was contextualized within the story of colonization and growing European influence. Whatever justification might be mustered for that practice, it had real and dire effects: Canadians – including many Indigenous people – came to understand Indigenous histories as tangential, small, unimportant, and even a blind alley. This kind of thinking enabled Canadian authorities and citizens to regard Indigenous communities as being “without history,” as in, outside of history. And no one outside of history is going to fare very well.
The times in which we now live have raised the profile of Indigenous experiences and perspectives to levels unseen in the ‘mainstream’ for ten generations or more. We — all of us — are those Canadians invited to engage in the Truth and Reconciliation process. Some truths are unknowable but what we can know, what truths we can distill from the past will be essential to the long hard climb toward reconciliation. This is an urgent necessity.
At the outset it must be said that a single history of Indigenous peoples – in the sense of a comprehensive textbook – would be impossible. Nations such as the Wuikinuxv (a.k.a. Oowekeeno), Tahltan, and many other peoples in what is now British Columbia, a great variety of peoples of the sub-arctic like the Tutchone, Kaska Dena, and Sahtú, and virtually all of the many distinct Inuit communities are barely mentioned and some are not mentioned at all. These are vast territories, there are so many communities and nations, and there are simply too many experiences to contain in one survey text. Another feature that must be acknowledged here is that the topics covered in the textbook reflect some of the contours of Canadian history generally: Part 1 starts on the east coast; the histories of conflict covered in Part 2 also begin in the east and move westward over a period of four hundred years. As you might imagine, it was difficult to totally escape the trajectories of colonialism in building this resource, not just because some of those narratives are familiar and thus easily – though not slavishly – followed, but because this is where the greatest amount of research has been done. These structures and conditions, then, simultaneously gave shape to our approach and resulted in some nations getting more of the spotlight and others getting none. It is regrettable…but not irretrievable! One of the opportunities presented by an open textbook is that shortcomings can be rectified by users, be they instructors, students, or communities.
This Preface introduces you to some of the practices and challenges of Indigenous history, focusing on the nature and quality of sources, innovative historical methodologies, and the leading historiographical trends (that is, what historians are thinking very broadly and what they have studied in the last decade or four). It turns, then, to histories of Indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere before ca. 1500. The twelve chapters that follow are arranged under three headings: Commerce and Allies, Engaging Colonialism, and Culture Crisis Change Challenge. And there is a thirteenth chapter that brings us deep enough into the twenty-first century to allow a visit with two of the most important recent developments in Canadian civic life: Idle No More and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Both of these processes arose from the failures of colonialism and the resilience of Indigenous communities; they reveal, therefore, as much about the history of Canada as they do of the historical experiences of Indigenous peoples.
An exploration of the sources of knowledge about Indigenous histories reveals not only the raw materials of the historian’s craft but some of those colonial biases that have conditioned public and specialist understandings of the past. And that is to what we will now turn.