Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Getting indigenous?

[This is a history blog, not a politics blog, mostly. We don't do foreign politics, mostly. Despite the historic resonance of events in the United States yesterday, we'll do history instead.

If you need a historian's perspective on those events, try Jerry Bannister at Borealia today]

I noted yesterday that this year's CanHist crop seems a bit thin. Then I began to think about two of the most prominent, successful books recently published by Canadians on history.

Last year, Margaret MacMillan's History's People was the Massey Lecture book, prominent in book markets and in review columns both here internationally. This year, Charlotte Gray's The Promise of Canada is a roughly equivalent book, at least in the market.

Macmillan is a professor of long experience in both scholarly and trade publishing, well connected in Canada and Britain, widely-read and well informed, and very successful with non-academic readers of history.  Gray, also with British and Canadian connections, also widely read and very successful with non-academic readers of history, comes from a background in long-form journalism rather than the academy.  Both writers have a nice accessible style, and in these books they swoop across large terrains. Macmillan ranges the world in search of the intersection between history and biography, while including quite a bit of Canadian material. Gray's topic is exclusively Canada: its 150 years since Confederation, build around chapters on a series of significant Canadians, from George-Etienne Cartier to Preston Manning (with a good leavening of non-male non-politicians inbetween!) .

In both books, I have found myself thinking about indigenous peoples and First Nations and how Canadian historians are addressing their history.

History's people, in MacMillan's hands, are mostly History's European people.  She enjoys explorers' perspectives on foreign lands from  India to Albania to New France. Writing of Champlain (and Elizabeth Simcoe), she buys into David Hackett Fischer's romantic vision of intercultural harmony and understanding, without providing much material for understanding.  Her strongest identifications seem to be with literate, well-connected diarists, from Babur of Hindustan to Victor Klemperer, who leave a record of their time,  One wonders about her own diaries.

There's a blurb from me on the back of Gray's Promise of Canada. Rereading it recently, I thought at first she was in the same vein as Macmillan: not much indigeneity.  Actually, she knows her framework works against her, writing:
"their stories began millennia before the birth of Dominion of Canada in 1867, my opening point for this book"
and acknowledging how Canadian history has marginalized indigenous matters. Her essay on Elijah Harper and his generation of First Nations activists is well done. But it's highly present-minded, hardly an illustration of how to address indigenous histories.

Reconciling indigenous history into "Canadian" history? On the evidence of two substantial, successful Canadian books on what's a pretty thin shelf these days, still a long ways to go, historians. Not saying it's easy, either.

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