Last weekend, I had the great pleasure of attending the grand re-opening of Elk Island National Park’s new Visitor Centre. It was so amazing to see the space re-imagined! Previously it was a pair of pokey buildings joined together by a dark archway. Its bathrooms had ancient brown tiles that looked dirty and dusty even when freshly cleaned, and the visitor centre had only small tinted windows that looked dark and closed. The whole thing also looked a lot like a maintenance shed; there wasn’t a real sense of arrival for new visitors. In great contrast, this newly renovated building is light and airy with an exhibit space as well as an information counter, water bottle filling station, and retail space… and a separate brand new set of gender-neutral bathrooms. (You have to address Maslow’s hierarchy of needs! You can’t underestimate the value of clean and modern bathrooms to visitor experience!)
So much thought was put in to think about this space from a staff member’s perspective (to be a positive, safe, and useful place to work) as well as a visitor’s perspective. You’ll notice some excellent displays that answer some of the most common questions asked by visitors, including stuff about visitor safety (particularly how to safely observe bison) and where the bison are. The trail map on the wall behind the info desk has something new: a heat map drawn from GPS collar data from the last several years that show where bison hang out in the park most often. Staff can also draw on the map with dry-erase marker! I think that’ll get a lot of good use. I think this space head some common questions and issues off at the pass, and will be a friendly, welcoming, and informative space that’ll set the tone for one’s visit.
I understand that Elk Island worked closely with local Cree First Nations as well as Metis groups to create some of the displays. The park also worked with a group of incarcerated Indigenous women who are part of a program to gain training and job skills while at the Edmonton Institution. Among other projects at Elk Island, the women created the star blanket (made traditionally on bison hide) that is the first thing visitor see when entering the building.
Cree Elder Melaine Campiou gifted the visitor centre the name Wahkotowin, which refers to the relationship with the land and all that live on it.
I congratulate my friends and colleagues at Elk Island, particularly Kat and Cam, for all the work they’ve done carrying this project through to completion! Kat marshaled a lot of folks witch separate skills, knowledge, and expertise, to finish a wonderful project. I was involved tangentially in some of the initial research and visioning of the exhibit, plus sourced some of the images and did a quick review of the French text for accuracy. It’s amazing to see the space fully realized in person, instead of in a draft design PDF! I definitely excitedly pointed out a few historical images to my mum.
The other exciting thing for me was to see copies of my book, Through the Storm: Canada’s Bison Conservation Story* in the flesh! They were literally hot off the press, having arrived at the park the week before. It was absolutely thrilling to see them there – and to see them being purchased! I autographed a few copies, including one for a well-respected bison expert and friend Wes Olson. I also got to ask the question “Who shall I make this out to?” for the very first time.
I had to round out my visit by heading out onto the landscape spoken of in the displays. After all, the new Visitor’s Centre is meant to be only the gateway to the park experience! My mother and I hiked out into the Bison Loop on foot. It was the early afternoon (not “bison o’clock”) so as anticipated they weren’t visible from the roadway. We spotted a lot of bison signs, including the scattered bones of a bull bison. In the end, we watched a group of cow bison hanging out at the treeline over the rise: one of their favourite spots. An excellent way to end our visit!
* You can read a free digital copy of my book on Elk Island’s website. We ended up changing the title of the print edition because at the last instant we uncovered a small print run of books on bison from the 1990s with a title that was too similar. We’ll be changing the title on the website soon. Only the cover, effectively, will change, so in the meantime you can still learn all about the history of bison conservation in Canada, and admire many archival and modern images of bison. Of course you can pick up a print copy of the book in either French or English at Elk Island’s new visitor centre!
Metis interpreter Peter Erasmus lived a full and adventurous life. He travelled thousands of kilometres across the interior of the North American continent, acting as a guide and interpreter for a variety of now-famous people. He never went to Europe. At one point, Erasmus was offered the opportunity to travel to England for an education, expenses paid by Captain Palliser and Doctor Hector of the Palliser expedition, for whom Erasmus had worked as a guide. After much internal debate, Erasmus declined the offer. I found the reasoning for deciding not to go to England both tongue in cheek but also telling of the attitudes of settlers.
Perhaps I had missed an opportunity of bettering my condition. At any rate my pride soon established itself. Reading the captain’s letter of recommendation I became convinced that I had made the proper decision I would hold the respect and friendship of these two men, the better in their memories than would otherwise have been. I knew it would have been difficult to adjust myself to the attitude of a million Englishmen when, in my own environment, it took a lot of self-restraint to ignore the supercilious mannerisms of the few who found their way into my country.
Peter Erasmus, Buffalo Days and Nights, 113.
Further reading on the life and times of Peter Erasmus, interpreter extraordinaire:
The Fort Langley Journals are an amazing treasure trove of little details of life at this Hudson’s Bay Company fort in its first handful of years. (Unfortunately, unlike many other HBC posts, only the journals from 1827 – 1830 survive, despite the fact that the fort was in operation for decades more.) They record the day to day activities as well as surprising things that happened to the inhabitants of the fort during that time.
There are also a lot of accounts of the weather, particularly rain: “dirty disagreeable weather”, “raining the whole day”, “Much rain for the last three days – very little doing About the Fort”, a selection from a bare two pages of the journal.
They also discuss the holidays, in brief. During the fur trade era, while Christmas was celebrated it was largely a religious holiday. New Year’s was the real party. Here are some excerpts from the Fort Langley journals (first highlighted for me by Amandeep Johal, a dedicated longtime historical interpreter at Fort Langley National Historic Site):
Tuesday 1st January 1828. New Year’s Day.
Every one in high glee, Jean Bte. considerably elevated, and as a matter of course displaying his manhood.
Yes, you read that right, this is a historical account of someone flashing other people.
Wednesday 2d [January, 1828]
The men still enjoying themselves, tho’ the effervescence of Spirits has in a great measure subsided.
Thursday January 1st, 1829
At an early hour, received the usual Compliments of the day from our men, and in his turn each was Regaled with a pint Rum, 3 lb. Flour – 1/2 lb. Grease and each House 1/2 Gall Pease – a quarter of Elk meat & a whole Beaver, with which to make merry rest of the day . . . . Our people, with the exception of one no wise irregular, were allowed lights and the use of a House to enjoy themselves at a dance this evening – mean time the watch was mounted, who discovered early in the night that the drunken Sot Delannis had Contrived to haule [sic] one of the Quaitline [Kwantlen First Nation] damsels up by a port hole in one of the Bastions – At first we apprehended there were no more than one in the Complo. But no. And even him, there being no irons at the place am at a loss what to do with him.
Friday January 1st, 1830
The new year was ushered in with the usual Compliments: after a Salute from all the Guns of the garrison the men and in Succession the women were received into the Hall & treated with just enough of the “Oh be joyful” – precaution however was taken that there Should be no excess of drinking to day, So that we could all again meet in the evening with propriety.
As was intended, our people with their fair ones met in the Hall yesterday evening: and the amusement went off very well without any indecent frolic: but to day the fellows are at it tooth & nail.
Some Glee going on among our Champions. Very little relaxation in the drinking way.
After a debauch of three days we tried the people’s disposition to renew their Contracts… Our people being Still disposed to keep up the Spirit of the day, we Seized the opportunity of Calling them to renew their Engagements.
The men of the company traditionally renewed their contracts in the New Year. The journal goes on to note that several of them signed on with reduced wages – I wonder if that had anything to do with the fact that they were signing their contracts “After a debauch of three days”? Recall, too, that the HBC didn’t sell booze at this time, and the workers of the fort only officially got a hold of alcohol in the holiday season. That would have certainly made for a proper “frolic”!
Happy New Year, everyone, and I hope that in 2019 all of your research dreams come true!
MacLachlan, Morag, ed. The Fort Langley Journals: 1827 – 30. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1993 (2000).
The West Coast “winter” has really hit, meaning that more often than not my weekend days involve chilly, torrential rain. As a result, I have almost no excuses to go visit museums in the Vancouver area. This past week, I visited the Museum of Vancouver, and I wanted to highlight a few powerful panels in their new permanent exhibition that I really appreciated. The curators of c̓əsnaʔəm: City Before the Citywillingly acknowledged the damaging colonial past (and present): not just the role of the city in dispossessing Indigenous people of their land but the role that the people employed by the museum have played in furthering damaging narratives.
The panels were refreshingly blunt. Museums have a moral responsibility to combat damaging misinformation and should be able to acknowledge difficult stories of the past and how they continue to impact people in the present. I loved this panel at the doorway to the exhibit, asking visitors to mentally hang their existing misconceptions on this nail to leave them at the door, entering with an open mind.
When you first enter the exhibit, you see arrays of beautiful but practical historical artifacts and videos of modern Indigenous people sharing stories of the objects and their cultural significance. The exhibit did a good job making what could have been relatively sterile artifacts interesting and meaningful. (I have indeed seen many a museum display arrowheads and other archaeological finds in a way that only seems interesting to archaeologists and makes my eyes glaze – and I’m actually interested in the subject.)
Around the back of one of the big signs, not immediately visible upon entry, is this bit, which really struck me as a historian used to casting a critical eye on museum exhibits:
In a fascinating bit of design, this section uses historical artifacts created by anthropologists in a more racist time and displays them in a way that they are obscured by text condemning them. It doesn’t sweep that past under the rug. Instead, it forces the visitor to confront that chapter of 20th century colonialism, in which museums used their academic authority to actively promote the theft of cultural artifacts and ancestral remains, and used them to tell racist narratives and viewpoints (which weren’t even always accepted by professional scientists of the time).
It would be too easy for a museum about the history of a city to call pre-Vancouver history out of scope, but these hard-hitting histories are essential to understanding how the city of Vancouver came to be shaped over time – how it came to be the way it is today. Kudos to the curators and the work that went into consulting with Indigenous peoples and taking steps to do things right, or at least better than before.
If you are in the Vancouver area, particularly if you are a resident, I highly encourage you to visit the museum’s c̓əsnaʔəm: City Before the City exhibit and its temporary exhibit Haida Now and admire all of the beautiful objects and stories I didn’t have time to write about in this post. Most of these are best experienced in person!
James Douglas was born in Demerara in modern Guyana. He was the son of a Scottish sugar merchant and a free black woman. In his lifetime, he was schooled in Scotland, then headed to the west coast of North America, working for the North-West Company, then the Hudson’s Bay Company, and ending up as the Governor of the newly formed colony of British Columbia.
Douglas didn’t often speak of his racial background; in fact, his daughter told a biographer in the 1920s that he was born in Scotland. (Whether or not she genuinely believed that or just said so to protect the memory of her father is an interesting question.) Douglas became the governor of British Columbia in 1858. At that same time, across the continent, tensions were rising in the United States over questions of slavery. That conflict would eventually erupt in the American Civil War. In the States, a single metaphorical drop of African blood would mark you as a second class citizen. Yet, here, at the edge of an empire, a man like Douglas could rise to an incredibly powerful position. I find this time and place fascinating.
Historian Adele Perry (whose article I list below was a major source for this blog post) has argued that it would be a mistake to think of Douglas in simplified terms from solely an American racial perspective. That black/white dichotomy is not an entirely useful lens out in what would become Western Canada. As Perry wrote:
“Douglas lived nineteenth-century blackness in different circumstances, one where black-white hierarchies were not the only or principal racial cleavage, and where geographic distance and limited communication facilitated a degree of self-invention . . . . The disconnects between different colonial spaces allowed a man of African-Caribbean origin to serve as the highest representative of the British empire in a northern North American colony….”
Now, don’t get me wrong: 19th century British Columbia was not a perfect post-racial utopia where all lived in harmony. Douglas did downplay his background, and that of his wife and children. (More on that in a moment.) There was interracial conflict, tensions, and hypocrisy. But there were also interesting relationships between and among emerging diverse communities.
To understand the history of what is now Western Canada, you’ve got to know about the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), and you’ve got to know about “country wives”. Despite the beautifully simple maps you see in history textbooks where all of Rupert’s Land is painted in one solid colour as “Hudson’s Bay Company Territory” or even “British Territory”, in reality, the HBC only ever controlled the land within the shadow of the walls of their forts. The company relied a lot on the goodwill of local Indigenous people: their customers and economic partners. Forts thrived and profited when there were good relationships. By the early 1800s, it became increasingly common for company employees to marry into local Indigenous groups. These marriages were not blessed by the church. Missionaries were discouraged by the HBC – they were dead weight in the cargo boats and only caused trouble with the locals. Instead, these marriages were according to the “custom of the country”. That usually meant an amalgam of local traditions of marriage and at times a legal ceremony by the chief trader or chief factor of an HBC post. These Indigenous women provided essential and largely unpaid labour that kept these forts going: from interpreting to tanning the hides coming in to tending to the farms that grew their provisions to keeping the staff fed and clothed. Over time, their children – the emerging Métis Nation – became the next generation of company employees, and wives for incoming company men.
After the governor of the HBC, Sir George Simpson, turned away his country wives to marry his 16 year old white cousin Frances Simpson, there was a vogue among company officers to have European wives. This influx of white women, particularly in places like Red River, caused racial tensions, as these newcomers (many from more humble classes that married up) and the high-ranking “fur trade aristocracy” (largely Métis people) both condescended each other. (See: the Foss-Pelley Scandal of 1850 for an engrossing account of the viciousness and pettiness this war of words and morals.)
All that is to say that viewing Douglas’ situation purely through a black/white racial lens removes a lot of fascinating nuance.
Douglas, like many officers of his rank at that time, did marry a Métis woman, Amelia Connolley, the mixed-blood daughter of one of his superiors (an Irishman) and his Cree country wife. Douglas also kept her as a wife even after some high-ranking officials abandoned their “country wives” in favour of imported white “exotics.” Times were changing and by the 1850s views of race and class became increasingly fraught in the region. Many of these Indigenous country wives, while not having been married in a church, were treated by fur trade society as genuine, lawfully wedded and respectable wives. Newcomers, however, saw things differently. Douglas defended the country wives against their detractors who held them to moral standards from elsewhere in the empire:
“The woman who is not sensible of violating any law, who lived chastely with the husband of her love, in a state approved by friends and sanctioned by immemorial custom, which she believes highly honourable, should not be reduced to the level of the disgraced creature who voluntarily plunges into promiscuous vice . . . who lives a disgrace to her friends, and an outcast from society.”
There is a famous story about Amelia Connolley saving the life of her husband when he was working up at Fort St. James in the 1820s. It is said that she and a female interpreter called Nancy Boucher successfully begged Chief Kwah for Douglas’s life… after she’d come at the man holding her husband at dagger point with a dagger of her own and had been disarmed. Connolley used her knowledge of Carrier (or Dakelh) customs to negotiate a peaceful solution where her husband was helpless.
Connolley was a successful figure in her lifetime because she could both navigate conflict between Indigenous groups and her husband’s company, but also could navigate high-class British colonial society. Remember, when her husband was knighted and induced into the Order of the Bath, she simultaneously became a title Lady. She, a mixed-blood woman, was the highest-ranking lady in Victoria, BC, for years.
For all that, though, the North-West Coast was changing. The question of race was an increasingly weighty one. Douglas did “pass” for white, as did his wife. In his writing, tended to shy away from mentioning his own racial background or that of his mixed-blood children children. He once advised one of his daughters in a letter she could share Cree legends with her new school friends in Wimbledon but only if she hid the fact that she knew them from her mother. Despite the fact that they’d had their marriage sanctified by a missionary in 1838, some newcomers still viewed Douglas’ marriage to Connolley (and any other marriages like theirs) as suspect. Connolley, too, was not always at ease with high society in Victoria. Though she looked remarkably European, it is said that she was far more comfortable speaking French and Cree than English, which was described as “hesitant.”
All that is to say, the question of race and class in the mid-1800s on the North West Coast is not a simple black and white one, if you’ll forgive the pun.
Douglas remains a controversial figure in some circles today, as he was the one who initially laid out the reserve system in British Columbia which still has ramifications for massive land claims today. The reserves he laid out were, to be fair, intended to provide First Nations with enough land to both practice their traditional lifestyles as well as adopt European farming practices, but were reduced by 92% by his political successor. Nevertheless, the fact remains that British Columbia is largely comprised of unceded Indigenous land and he was the first to lay out reservations alienating First Nations from the bulk of their traditional territory.
I’ll be showing off a satchel purportedly owned by Douglas at work on Sunday, November 18th, 2018, at Fort Langley National Historic Site. If you’re in the Vancouver area and you’re a history nerd, come and see me!
I drew the majority of my content for this post from Adele Perry’s article “‘Is your Garden in England, Sir’: James Douglas’s Archive and the Politics of Home.” History Workshop Journal, issue 70 (2010): 67 – 85.
To learn more about race, gender, and the evolving nature of fur trade marriages and the emergence of the Métis people, I recommend a pairing of the following two books, in this order:
Sylvia Van Kirk. Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670 – 1870. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980.
Sarah Carter. The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation-Building in Western Canada to 1915. Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press, 2008. (Free downloadable PDF ebook available on the publisher’s website!)
To learn more about the People of the River (First Nations of the region near modern Fort Langley), and their relationship to the land over time, see: Keith Thor Carlson (Ed.). A Stó:lō Coast Salish Historical Atlas. Vancouver and Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 2001.
Moving from working from a national park in Saskatchewan to a historic site in British Columbia, I stopped by to visit friends and family for a few days in Edmonton, Alberta. One old friend with a new face that I couldn’t miss visiting while there was, of course, the new Royal Alberta Museum. Here are my impressions.
Honestly, while I know that some people aren’t fussed by the new museum, my overall impressions were generally positive. The Royal Alberta Museum had to both build on the expectations of previous loyal visitors while still doing something innovative. I think some people are up in arms along the lines of “you spent HOW much and you didn’t even include HOLOGRAMS?? THIS IS 2018?!?!” I disagree with such sentiments. A lot of folks in the museum world are moving away from big multimedia spectaculars, because a) they cost a lot to create and maintain, and b) a lot of the feedback from the average visitors show that there is a desire from visitors for more artifacts, more of “the real thing” … AKA things you can’t get except in person at a museum. The Royal Alberta did that. They had displays of interesting artifacts that drew out parts of Alberta’s history that I didn’t know, or don’t know enough about, or things I do know a lot about but the average non-historian doesn’t. That being said, I do buy some of the critiques that there wasn’t an overall clear theme of answering the question of “what makes Alberta special?” My feeling is that they did a good job of showing individual narratives, but some of the overall narrative was a bit lost for me. Nothing is ever perfect, but I did think they highlighted a lot of messages that personally resonated with me, and I think it’s very clear that they did a good job of both consulting with Indigenous communities in what is now Alberta and incorporating that content throughout the exhibits. Kudos, too, for the use of Indigenous languages throughout the exhibits, where appropriate! They chose some truly excellent artifacts and people to tell Alberta’s history.
Let’s delve into some of the displays, shall we? I for one was really excited to see things like:
August 10th, 2018, marks the 90th anniversary of the opening of Prince Albert National Park. To honour the occasion today, I drank some delicious home-made lemonade at the Waskesiu Heritage Museum (as was served on opening day to visitors 90 years ago) and went to track down some historical photographs of the park. Here are a handful of postcards I found:
Then Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie King came to dedicate Prince Albert National Park on August 10th and stayed in a rustic log cabin made especially for him (still standing on Prospect Point in Waskesiu). In his speeches, King spoke on the importance of nature and national parks to the well-being of the country:
“In the building of Canadian national life and in the moulding of our national character, it is of the utmost importance that we should cultivate an appreciation of all that is beautiful in our physical environment. In a young country so amply endowed with material resources there is always a danger that we may turn to the gods of the market place and sacrifice the beautiful on the altar of utility. . . It is indeed cause for deep satisfaction that Canada in her youth has learned the wisdom of conservation.”
Prime Minister Mackenzie King, quoted by Bill Waiser in Saskatchewan’s Playground: A History of Prince Albert National Park, 32.
I recently visited the Cypress Hills: a gorgeous landscape full of history. It’s also the site of the infamous Cypress Hills Massacre. This event and the early history of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) are commemorated at Fort Walsh National Historic Site.
Overall I was very impressed with my visit. In the dynamic, newly redesigned displays of the interpretive centre, they clearly made an effort to add nuance and empathy to the story of the Cypress Hills Massacre, in which over 70 Nakoda people, mainly women and children, were killed by Americans who falsely blamed them for horse thefts. This horrific event was one of the catalysts for the formation of the now famous Mounties. This police force was sent West to impose Canadian law for the first time in the territory. The new exhibits made a point of using Indigenous languages throughout. I was particularly impressed by a display which had audio recordings of accounts of the massacre from the Nakoda perspective (from both oral histories and contemporary depositions). They were available in three languages: English and French (as required by the official languages act) and Nakoda. I thought this was proper and respectful.
The site has a reproduction of the Fort itself as well as a Métis camp and trading post which interprets late fur trade history. As someone who is more used to fur trade history from a generation before (1820s – 1850s), I found the little differences from the 1870s fascinating. They had early canned goods! They also had three costumed staff there, on a weekday, interpreting Métis history, and the interpreter that showed us around was very engaging and knowledgeable. I think it would be too easy to present the Métis and First Nations history as peripheral at this site, but they did a decent job at interpreting the stories not just on the Mounties but the other folks who were living out there already. I recognize this effort particularly because I believe that it represents a shift in trying to tell a broader narrative than a narrow focus on just the Mounties.
My partner and I went on a tour of the fort itself right after we arrived. We had to skip the exhibit until afterwards, doing it out of the intended order. Luckily, we already knew some of the context of this site’s history! The tour guide was an excellent speaker and was very dynamic in their presentation style. I walked away with a clear sense of the day to day life of these men in the fort. Our favourite part of the tour was a mock trial of several troublemakers pulled from the audience. Aside from being an interesting snapshot into the kinds of crimes that were common during that period, the interpreter’s comedic timing was on point! I’m also particularly fascinated by material culture so I really appreciated, for instance, explanations about what kinds of saddles were used when and why by the Mounties. Practicality is paramount! As a whole, I was pleased with the tour and what I learned.
However, there were a few offhand remarks made by the guide that really got me thinking about the narratives Canadians tell about their history, and whose perspectives are highlighted and whose brushed aside. This isn’t a critique of our guide in particular, but of the common narratives around the history of the Mounties in Canada. Namely, one often hears about the early history of the Mounties without contextualizing a very messy history of a decade of abrupt transition from a buffalo economy to control by the British/Canadian colonial state. The guide did talk a bit about Indigenous relations throughout the tour, particularly in the introduction, but several comments really brought home to me how glossed over some of the more problematic aspects of the relationship between the Mounties and Indigenous people has been, not only at this site but whenever a triumphalist Canadian history narrative is told.
One of the key messages the interpreter had was that the relationship between the first Mounties and local Indigenous people at that time was based off of mutual respect but also intimidation. That seems contradictory to me: it can’t have been a relationship on equal footing when the Mounties were continuously doing manoeuvres with their field guns as a show of force. Mounties were also imposing a very specific worldview on the West and punished those who did not fit into that mold, criminalizing some acts that hadn’t been crimes before. I’m thinking particularly of the restriction of free movement in ancestral territories and the imposition of American and Canadian nationalities upon local people who didn’t define themselves by an invisible line (the border at the 49th parallel). Individual Mounties may have had decent and relatively respectful working relationships with some First Nations leaders, but the tour glossed over several points for me. Namely, we were laughing about arresting horse thieves at the mock trial, but who were these horse thieves? I would be shocked if they were all Euro-Americans or Euro-Canadians. Differing cultural views of what horse stealing was all about clashed in this time period and a lot of First Nations were viewed as inherent criminals because of their traditions of horse theft.
Reproduction Treaty medal at Fort Walsh National Historic Site.
Maybe this was a slip of the tongue on the part of the guide (though part of the history section of the website uses similar wording), but I think the following example really brings home the need to think critically about the narratives we’ve all been told and have told about Mounties during this time period. Namely, the guide was describing the Lakota Refugee Crisis; Chief Sitting Bull and others were fleeing conflict in what is now the US after the Battle of Little Big Horn but were refused entry into “Canadian” territory by the NWMP because, quote, “they were American.”
No, they weren’t. Sitting Bull and his people were at war with the Americans. The Americans were an invading force who had drawn an invisible line on a map from thousands of kilometres away and sought to claim Sitting Bull’s territory for the United States. Sitting Bull was not an American. He was not a Native American. He was a Lakota man at war with Americans. It is true to say that the British/Canadians at the time considered Sitting Bull to be American, or at least an American problem, and that is why they took the actions they did. But perceptions are not reality. Explaining historical perspectives is fine, but if you are speaking as an interpreter out of character, in third person, you are able to make these distinctions in a way that a person interpreting in character (in first person) cannot. I would argue that interpreters have a duty to do so, to give nuance to a story that we may understand better in hindsight with greater context than in the limited views at the time.
The decades of the 1870s and 1880s are a fascinating time of transition and conflict in the West. The near-annihilation of the buffalo changed everything on the prairies. The arrival of the Mounties and the delineation and enforcement of the border at the 49th parallel wasn’t inevitable as it is often portrayed to be. It would have been hard at that place and at that time to see the larger picture that was taking shape and just how much and how rapidly things were changing. This time of uncertain politics and culture clash is incredibly fascinating to me because it isn’t as straightforward as is often portrayed in textbooks, high school classrooms, or museum exhibits. I’ve written before about NWMP encounters with people accused of being wendigos or wendigo killers. Too often we’re told the history of this messy period from the perspective of those writing the documents: the lawmen, who were too often new to to the region and had little understanding of the cultural context in which these “crimes” (according to the state) were committed. If you killed a suspected wendigo, were you a person doing what was necessary to save your community from a monster who might kill and eat people, or were you a murderer who killed a mentally ill person, sometimes at their own request? I find those messy narratives even more interesting than the misleadingly straightforward, triumphant one we often hear about: the simple narrative of the men in red uniforms coming in and imposing “peace, order, and good government” upon a lawless West.
I find it useful sometimes to think of this time period as a post-apocalyptic landscape. The Mounties arrived at a time of great disruption, after waves of disease, warfare, and the displacement of people. The near-destruction of the great bison herds wasn’t just the loss of an essential food source, but something much more profound. LeRoy Little Bear, an elder of the Kainai First Nation, has described it this way: “If you’re a Christian, imagine what would happen if all the crosses and corner churches disappeared … you still have your beliefs and ideas, but there’s no external connection to it anymore.” Imagine that every cultural institution (churches, museums), plus every shopping mall, grocery store, hardware store, and even Tim Hortons, all closed down within a single lifetime. Imagine the disruption to your life. That is the situation the Mounties were walking into.
So in summary, delve deeper into the history of the 1870s and 1880s in the West. Challenge the dominant narratives and think of how things could have been different. Seek out perspectives told by Indigenous people (yes, contemporary accounts also exist). Be fascinated, as I am, with the messy complexities and contradictions of this time period. The Mounties came in to combat the destructive whiskey trade and to stop some of the violence being committed against Indigenous people by settlers. Yes, celebrate the stories of the good things the police did, and tell the stories of early respect between NWMP and Indigenous leaders, but don’t lose sight of the wider colonial role and context of the Mounties.
Those who know me well know that I am always eager to share stories of bison history. Like Distant Thunder gathers together stories of bison conservation in what is now Canada, with a focus on the origins of the herds now protected by Parks Canada. These are tales full of twists and turns, successes and mistakes, and of course people with amazing names.
Much has been said about individual bison herds like Yellowstone, but I feel the stories north of the Medicine Line haven’t been told nearly as much. The story of wood bison in particular, the lesser-known but larger of the two subspecies of North American bison, is hardly discussed by historians. I’ve also come to learn a lot about what came to be known as the Pablo-Allard herd and its importance. An estimated 80% of plains bison today are descended from Pablo-Allard stock via either Elk Island or the National Bison Range in the US. Elk Island National Park has played an important role in bringing back both plains bison and wood bison from the brink of extinction. If you’ve seen a bison in Canada today, odds are they had an ancestor who passed through Elk Island. What came to be known as the Pablo-Allard herd initially began with the capture of a small number of bison calves by Indigenous men (Samuel Walking Coyote, or possibly/probably Peregrine Falcon Robe) in what is now Montana. These bison were raised by Metis men (Michel Pablo and Charles Allard), who expanded the herd until it was the largest and most genetically diverse bison herd in all of North America. Since 1907 they have been protected by Canadian national park staff. Getting these bison to Canada? Well, that’s an exciting story that deserves to be its own movie.
While studying at Carleton University I became particularly interested in the history of photography and the use (and misuse) of images of the past. Because of that, I was very conscious of my choice of images to illustrate this text. I’d like to draw your attention to the following images:
Photographs taken after one of the last buffalo chases of the 1880s, right at the cusp of the collapse of bison populations. I reproduce one photo of an absolutely massive bull shows buffalo running horses in the background. The fact that it’s in black and white disguises the fact that the snow is stained by blood until you go looking for it. The image is so crisp you can see the texture of the fur on his hump.
One of the things I find most fascinating about the history of bison conservation is how very nearly it came to failure on multiple occasions. All bison herds today (plains and wood bison) are descended from about 7 discrete populations: wild-caught and raised herds (Bedson/McKay, Buffalo Jones, Goodnight, Pablo-Allard, a handful of others) and wild herds that had national parks formed around them (Wood Buffalo National Park and Yellowstone National Park). When we say that bison were on “the brink of extinction”, we really mean it. It’s only due to a lot of hard work that bison still live in the world today.
I also wanted to highlight the continuous role of Indigenous people in bison conservation all the way through to today. Too often textbooks only speak of First Nations in their introductions and first chapters. From Walking Coyote to Michel Pablo to signatories of the Buffalo Treaty, Indigenous people have continued to protect bison through to the present day. The importance of bison to different Indigenous cultures isn’t a thing of the past; it’s an ongoing relationship that still informs the activism and actions of people today.
When I speak about this history in brief with visitors, I often say that many people know a little bit about the history of bison. They know that bison were important to First Nations people, that there used to be a lot of them, and that bison nearly went extinct. What I want to do with this work and in my interpretation is to fill in a bit of detail in that picture, but also to tell the sequel to the story that people kind of half know: what’s happened to bison since their historic lows of the 1890s, and how they came to be here on the landscape today.
Like Distant Thunder has been published by Parks Canada. Because it’s a government of Canada publication, it is of course available in both official languages. It was expertly translated into French by Claudine Cyr from the Translation Bureau. I swear some of the passages are even more evocative in French than in my English! If you are a French reader I highly encourage you to read that version as well.
We currently an to print Like Distant Thunder in the fall, but digital versions are currently available for free on Elk Island National Park’s website. Below are the download links. I recommend the PDF version on desktop computers and tablets, for printing, and to admire the beautiful layout. The PDF versions are how I intended this book to be read. There are also HTML versions, which are for accessibility: good for visually impaired folks using readers, or if you are reading it on your phone and would find HTML easier to read.
When Peter Erasmus (1833 – 1931) was an “old timer” in the 1920s, he dictated the story of his life to a man named Henry Thompson. The manuscript of the first half of his life was eventually published as Buffalo Days and Nights. I consider it one of the single most fascinating books about the fur trade era and the time of transition and trauma that led to the destruction of the great bison herds, rebellion, and settlement.
Peter Erasmus was well-known in his time as a Metis interpreter between Indigenous languages such as Plains Cree and English. He translated for missionaries, traders, and Indian agents as well as, most famously, on behalf of Chiefs Mistawasis (Big Child) and Ah-tah-ka-koop (Star Blanket) at the Treaty 6 negotiations. Eramus’s account is the only (?) first-hand written account of the treaty negotiation process that reported on the discussions happening in the Cree camp, not only in the British governor’s tents. He quotes Chief Poundmaker powerfully arguing: “This is our land. It isn’t a piece of pemmican to be cut off and given in little pieces back to us. It is ours and we will take what we want.”(244)
The introduction in my copy by Irene Spry recounts this story about Erasmus’s linguistic prowess. He spoke Swampy Cree, Plains Cree, Ojibway, English, Blackfoot, and Stoney (Assiniboine), and could also read Greek besides. She quotes another author, George Gooderham, who tells the story of two travellers to the West coming across a mysterious sign on a telegraph pole, covered in “funny characters.”
“Just then Peter Erasmus appeared, seemingly an old Indian. In signs and Pigeon English the drummers asked him about the notice. Coming forward with a smile, he stated it was no foreign language though the characters were not unlike Greek; they were actually Cree syllabic characters and the notice said it was unlawful to buy intoxicating liquor and the supplier would be penalized by fine or imprisonment, or both.” (xxiii)
One of the things I find most fascinating about his book Buffalo Days and Nights is the role language plays in it. The book is written in English and the words that other figures speak are transcribed or paraphrased in English too. Erasmus doesn’t always explicitly state what language the people are speaking. However, it becomes very apparent very quickly how much Cree is being spoken all the time by Erasmus and the people around him. Here are a few examples that jumped out at me:
When a young and inexperienced Erasmus crosses a river with a horse and nearly drowns, in that emergency situation a man named Sam yelled instructions to him in Cree. (29)
During the Palliser Expedition, Erasmus works with a Stony man nicknamed Nimrod. His words are transcribed in the book as being in simple but grammatically correct English, but there are several mentions of Erasmus interpreting between Nimrod and other members of the expedition. I suspect that they were using Cree as a way to communicate, with Cree being Nimrod’s second language. Erasmus is said to have later known the Stony language, but in this early chapter in his life Nimrod is the one who communicates exclusively with any Stony the expedition encounters and the paraphrasing instead of quoting implies that Erasmus didn’t understand them at that time. So what language were Erasmus and Nimrod using to communicate? My bet is Cree. (74-85)
At the Christmas of 1863, Erasmus helps coordinate the appearance of a Father Christmas for the children of the mission at Smoking Lake (now Smoky Lake), with the help of a volunteer and a bunch of white horsehair to form a beard. “When Santa gave them an address of welcome in the Swampy Cree language, the elders gazed in astonishment. I had to speak to them in Cree and explain that the man could speak in all languages for he visited all countries over the Big Water.” (170)
Peter’s first wife Charlotte Jackson, a Metis woman, didn’t speak a word of English when they first married, only Cree, and had her husband teach her so she could thank the missionary family the McDougalls for their help at the wedding and in the early days of their marriage. (177)
Erasmus makes mention of an HBC clerk called Harrison Stevens Young who could understand “some Cree but not enough to carry on a conversation.”(286) Even though he was an Englishman, Cree was something one had to learn out West to be useful.
Interestingly, none of the Indigenous characters in Erasmus’s work speak with broken English as they are often transcribed in other contemporary sources. The only people written as speaking bad English are French people and one black man. Indigenous people are written as eloquent speakers because they were speaking to Erasmus in their native language, which Erasmus understood.
We now think of what is now western Canada as being overwhelmingly Anglophone (English-speaking). Many people assume that because the region is now majority English-speaking, it has been so since the first Europeans arrived. That was not the case. The documents written by the Hudson’s Bay Company, which are often cited by historians of this time period, were in English, but that’s because they were written by clerks who were writing for bosses in Fort Garry and London, England. It was an English company so the documents were written in English. Monolingual historians don’t always think of seeking out documents in other languages. Sometimes it’s not that the documents aren’t there, it’s that many historians can’t read them.
I’m always pleasantly surprised when Erasmus mentions people with what I see as European names speaking Cree too; it wasn’t just Indigenous people speaking the language. It was a true lingua franca in the West, at least until the time of the second Riel Resistance. Erasmus recounted a time when his Cree speaking worked against him in 1885. Hudson’s Bay Company stores had been raided by rebels, and Erasmus’s family had fled. He returned late at night to a friend’s place on a strange horse, and was confronted by someone he doesn’t know and was held up at gunpoint:
“It was very dark and I was startled by a voice behind me, ‘Stand fast and give me your first name.’
‘Peter,’ I snapped out. I was getting tired of having guns pointed at me.
‘All right,’ the man ordered. ‘Walk straight ahead to the house. Knock three times on the door when you get here. You have the right word but the wrong horse. Umla will know if you’re the right man.”
. . . .
‘Give your last name and the name of the man you were with today,’ the voice spoke out of the darkness.
‘Damn it, man, I’m Peter Erasmus, the man was Young and you’re Umla with the two bear skins.’
The man spoke up behind me. ‘He’s riding a different horse. I’ll keep a gun on him while you get a light.’
[Peter Erasmus’ face is revealed by the light.]
‘Go to that table, your supper is waiting. If you had spoken English instead of Cree all [this] time, you might have been eating some time ago. There are lots of big men like you in this area but very few can talk English like you do.'”
In this scenario, this final line makes clear that this whole conversation was happening in Cree, and that speaking good English even as late as 1885 was a distinguishing enough characteristic that would have identified Erasmus on the spot because it was so unusual.
One of the main things historians do is think critically about the sources of their information. However, too often we look at sources in translation, in our own native languages, or the only sources available are contemporary transcriptions of translations of varying and unverifiable accuracy. We need to remember that what is now Western Canada has always been home to dozens of different languages and different world views, and we need to seek out sources that represent that. By reading English-only sources, we’re getting a clouded and second-hand view of events. The story of Peter Erasmus’s life reminds us that despite what our documents imply, English wasn’t the most useful language in the West in the 1800s: Cree was.
Buffalo Days and Nights by Peter Erasmus, as told to Henry Thompson.