Bison are full of tasty, tasty meat. However, in an age before refrigerators, even killing a single bison could net you hundreds of pounds of meat which would soon spoil. If you were hunting bison en masse with buffalo jumps or buffalo pounds, you and your entire community could have enough meat to lasts months… if you could prevent it from spoiling. One of the main means of preserving meat was by turning it into pemmican.
What was pemmican? At it’s heart, it’s two, perhaps three ingredients: dried meat (usually bison, but it could be the flesh of moose, elk, deer, or even fish) combined with melted and rendered fat, and sometimes berries.
Paul Kane, an Irish-Canadian artist who travelled to the prairie west in the 1840s, described the process of making what he called “pimmi-kon”:
“The thin slices of dried meat are pounded between two stones until the fibres separate; about 50lbs. of this are put into a bag of buffalo skin with about 40lbs. of melted fat, and mixed together while hot, and sewed up, forming a hard and compact mass; hence its name in the Cree language, pimmi signifying meat, and kon, fat. Each cart brings home ten of these bags, and all that the half-breeds do not require for themselves is eagerly bought by the Company, for the purpose of sending to the more distant posts, where food is scarce. One pound of this is considered equal to four pounds of ordinary meat, and the pimmi-kon keeps for years perfectly good exposed to any weather.”
Pemmican was essential to survival on the prairies for First Nations peoples and fur trade company employees alike. Blood was shed over control of the pemmican trade. During the nineteenth century, it was being industrially produced in such large quantities that shovels had to be used to stir the ingredients. Pemmican was packed into bison hide bags and sewn together in packets weighing 100 lbs or 45 kg: the standard packet size for portaging. It was recorded that to produce one of these bags of pemmican, you needed the dried meat from one and a half bison cows.
While it was a great source of protein and lasted an incredibly long time, not everyone was enamoured with its taste or texture. For fur traders on the boats eating pemmican day in and day out, pemmican became exhaustively monotonous. Company boatmen, like William Gladstone, tried preparing pemmican in every variation they could imagine, trying to make it slightly more interesting to eat: mixing it with flour and frying it, re-hydrating it with other ingredients to make soup, or just eating it straight. Gladstone, bemoaning eating pemmican decades later, said that:
“We used to call it rab-a-bo at breakfast, bo-a-rab at dinner and rab-bo-a at supper, but in spite of the change of name, the food used to taste much the same at each meal.”
Brock Silversides, Fort de Prairies: The Story of Fort Edmonton (Victoria; Calgary; Vancouver Heritage House Publishing Company Ltd., 2005), 29.
Recently, I found an incredibly evocative description of pemmican from someone who was clearly not a fan. This description was quoted by Garrett Wilson in his book Frontier Farewell: The 1870s and the End of the Old West and was written by a Hudson’s Bay Company employee at Fort Garry in 1879.
“Take the scrapings from the driest outside corner of a very stale piece of cold roast-beef, add to it lumps of tallowy, rancid fat, then garnish all with long human hairs, on which string pieces, like beads upon a necklace, and short hairs of dogs or oxen, or both, and you have a fair imitation of common pemmican. Indeed, the presence of hairs in the food has suggested the inquiry whether the hair on the buffaloes from which the pemmican is made does not grow on the inside of the skin. The abundance of small stones or pebbles in pemmican also indicates the discovery of a new buffalo diet heretofore unknown to naturalists….
The flavor of pemmican depends much on the fancy of the person eating it. There is no article of food that bears the slightest resemblance to it, and as a consequence it is difficult to define its peculiar flavor by comparison. It may be prepared for the table in many different ways, the consumer being at full liberty to decide which is the least objectionable. The method largely in vogue among the voyageurs is that known as ‘pemmican straight,’ that is, uncooked. But there are several ways of cooking which improve its flavour to the civilized palate. There is rubeiboo, which is a composition of potatoes, onions, or other esculents, and pemmican, boiled up together, and, when properly seasoned, very palatable. In the form of richot, however, pemmican is best liked by persons who use it, and by the voyageurs. Mixed with a little flour and fried in a pan, pemmican in this form can be eaten, provided the appetite be sharp, and there is nothing else to be had. The last consideration is, however, of importance.”
Garrett Wilson, Frontier Farewell: The 1870s and the End of the Old West (Regina, SK: University of Regina Press, 2007; 2014), 263-5.
I’m not sure I’d like my pemmican filled with pebbles or hair, but properly prepared pemmican will get you through the time between bison hunts. This simple food – dried meat, melted fat, and berries – fed the West.
Sometimes, when you’re scrolling through online archival entries or flipping through dusty boxes of otherwise banal documents, you spot something that sticks out: something alarming. These documents are all the more tantalizing because of a lack of context – or just enough context to leave you wondering.
A few weeks back, I was prepping a powerpoint presentation on the natural and cultural history of the Beaver Hills east of Edmonton (as I have been known to do) and I was searching for images of local Cree people from the nineteenth century. I wasn’t having much luck so I had literally plugged in the word “Cree” into Library and Archive Canada’s image database and was trolling through the hundreds of images there. Then I ran across this one:
The focus of the image is what appears to be a First Nations man wearing a dark coat, mocassins, and holding a chain on a ring. Standing next to him is a man who, judging from his hat and uniform, is a member of the North-West Mounted Police: an early Mountie. I almost scrolled past it, but then I saw the arresting image title: “Cree cannibal executed at Fort Saskatchewan.”
I had in fact sort of achieved my research goal: I had found a photograph of a Cree man taken in the local area. Fort Saskatchewan (at that time a NWMP post and prison), after all, lies between the Beaver Hills (where Elk Island National Park is) and Edmonton. However, I had stumbled upon a much more fascinating story than the one I had initially set out to tell… albeit one with minimal available details.
What information I could find in the LAC database entry on this case is slim. The photo is apparently from 1879-1880, and taken by a person called George M. Dawson. From the accession number, this photo was acquired by the LAC in 1969. In the entry for the photographed of the chained man, under “additional information”, reads this tantalizing phrase: “ate his family.” According to the photograph title, this man was executed as a cannibal. Other files with the same accession number show images from the Canadian Geological survey, mostly from the 1890s onwards, of viewscapes and travelling scenes. Here, for instance, is a lovely undated photo of a train of horses at Jasper Lake. There appear to be thousands of these along a similar vein.
I did find another photograph, also taken by the same photographer, which I suspect to be from the same case as it is from the same year: “Indian Bones, victims of Cree Cannibal, brought in as evidence by the Mounted Police. 1879.”
Again, very little information accompanies this gruesome image, especially not the reason why a photographer who apparently accompanies geological surveys would be in a position to take a picture like this. I can only speculate as to why these photographs were taken – it’s unlikely it was for a newspaper and too early to be put on a picture postcard for the ghoulish. (People did send postcards with morbid subjects, because human beings are terrible, but the popularity of photographic postcards didn’t take off until 1900 or so.) I do know that crime scene photography wasn’t really yet a thing, and anyway these bones look like they were retrieved and put on display.
So at this point in my research, I still didn’t know much of anything about this specific case or the people involved beyond the captions provided by the LAC. I still didn’t know the name of the accused “cannibal” in the photograph. It was not uncommon for everyone in a photograph to be named except First Nations people, who were almost invariably labelled “Indian” or by their nation; white photographers didn’t often bother to find out the names of these peope as their racial identity was apparently enough of an identifier.
What I do know is that there were multiple cannibal scares in what is now Northern Alberta in the last few decades of the nineteenth century. In this area fear of the Wendigo (cannibal monster) was very, very real, and people did die. What I found absolutely fascinating while conducting this research was the confluence of supernatural Indigenous explanations for gruesome behaviour like cannibalism (due to famine or insanity or both) and the newly imposed Canadian law by North-West Mounted Police.
In short, in the late nineteenth century you had the unusual situation of Mounties arresting bogeymen and putting them on trial for murder.
A Wendigo (or “wîhtikôw” in Cree) is a cannibal spirit that can take over a person and compel them to eat other people. According to my friend and fellow scholar Caitlin Elm, who is Tall Cree, when she was young she was told wendigos are so famished that they eat their own lips so they always look like they’re baring their teeth. Once they have tasted human flesh, there is no going back.
Historian Nathan Carlson describes Wendigos in this way:
“Wîhtikôw was regarded by the Native people as a type of supernatural or spiritual condition that compelled its sufferers to bouts of rage, insanity, and— if the condition went unchecked— homicide and cannibalism. Moreover, it was oftentimes believed that the only way to stop wîhtikôw, if cures were unsuccessful, was to execute the sufferers by beheading them and then burning their hearts over a funeral pyre.”
There was a spate of Wendigo incidents reported in newspapers in Western Canada throughout the 1890s. In 1897, two women from Whitefish Lake were brought to a missionary for treatment after one of them had a dream of her brother (who had been dead for four years) who offered her human flesh to eat in a bowl of ice, and both women subsequently became sick and were thought to be wendigos. Both of them ultimately recovered and they never consumed human flesh. In 1899, two men at Cat Lake were arrested and put on trial for murdering a man who had been overtaken by the wendigo spirit. The afflicted man had asked them to kill him before he killed others, and they had done so. A contemporary newspaper article on the 1896 Trout Lake Wendigo (an incident described in detail in an article by Nathan Carlson in Recollecting: Lives of Aboriginal Women of the Canadian Northwest and Borderlands; you can read the article in full on the publisher’s website here) describes the justification for disposing of the wendigo in this way:
“The reason that an axe was used was that there is a belief amongst the Indians that a bullet will not pierce a “wendigo” or man eater. The body was burned and large trees felled over the grave to prevent the possibility of a re-apperance of the “wendigo.” Some days after the death of the man the people of the settlement were terror stricken, believing that he might reappear and destroy them. His murder is justified on the ground that unless he was killed he would have killed others, and that it is the custom of the country.”
In the 1890s, people were being killed and eaten by wendigos, but other people were being charged by Candian lawmen for murdering those possessed by the cannibal spirit (sometimes before the monster could even kill anybody). At least one man – or wendigo – was executed in Fort Saskatchewan for his actions: the one photographed above.
Now, I am not saying that the man in the first photograph was possessed by the Wendigo spirit. I’m also not saying that he wasn’t, or that others didn’t see him that way.
After having written all of the above and trolled through as many photos as I could at Library and Archives Canada, I did a Google search and ran across an article from the Edmonton Journal with a copy of the above photograph. It had much more written detail than I was able to uncover, from documents held at the Provincial Archives of Alberta, including trial records. According to the article, the man in the photograph was named Swift Runner or Ka-Ki-Si-Kutchin and he was the first man hanged in Fort Saskatchewan. He was convicted and executed for the “murder and cannibalism of wife, mother, brother, and six children.” His wife is the only named victim: Charlotte.
Swift Runner was hanged for his actions on December 20th, 1879, at 7:30 in the morning.
We like to think of the past in convenient little time packets: the Victorian Era and the 1920s were completely distinct eras, right? Just look at how fashion changed dramatically during that time! Likewise, between 1812 and 1882, technology advanced, photography was invented, the interior of North America was mapped in detail, railroads were stretching far and wide… and yet one can still be startled by photographs like the one above of men who fought during the War of 1812.
I believe that we in the twenty-first century have a tendency to over-emphasize the uniqueness and discreteness of each era and forget that, well, people often live for a long time. Decades, even! There were many people still alive well into the twentieth century who were born in the nineteenth. Dr. Mary Walker, for instance, was a openly female doctor who served during the American Civil War and lived until 1919 to promote rational dress reform. In the 1930s and 1940s, elderly people who had been enslaved until 1865 could still be interviewed in the United States about their childhood experiences of bondage. In 1949, the world had seen the invention of the automobile, the airplane, and the atomic bomb… and people who were born under the conditions of American chattel slavery still lived. Sometimes I like to examine photographs from the 1960s and imagine what the world would have been like in the youths of some of the elderly people pictured. That older woman with the unfashionable hairstyle in a photograph from the 1980s may have been born during the Edwardian era and grew up in the 1920s.
In the Canadian West, around the turn of the twentieth century, settler communities began to look back at their past in a celebratory manner. Frequent figures in parades and newspapers were those that they called “Old-Timers,” who were often seen as living relics of the past: remnants of the “pioneer times” not too far off. In many newspapers there were not only obituaries but actual columns written by Old Timers reminiscing about the often romanticized past when they were young. They spoke of a time before railroads and radios, often in a truly evocative way. These Old Timers were portrayed as storytellers, always sharing just one more shenanigan-filled tale of early life in the West. Those of the new generation who had come to live in these new cities were fascinated by the way these men embodied living elements of the past. They were the long term memory of the new settlements.
My favourite example of a newspaper article about Old Timers appeared in the Crag & Canyon, Banff’s newspaper, on December 15th, 1900 (page 4). It described a Banquet in honour of the retirement of the elderly Constable Jarvis of the North West Mounted Police. After describing the festivities and the notable attendees, the final paragraph of the article read:
A unique feature of the evening was the substitution of Cree for English, which since nearly all present were old timers, proved a happy inovation [sic], and helped to recall to many present, reminiscences of their former abodes.
These men had long lived and worked in the West during a time when Cree was a far more useful and more widely spoken lingua franca than English, and it was pleasantly surprising to read that Cree was still spoken with such zeal by older white men of Scottish origin – who, the article concludes, “dispersed in the ‘wee sma” hours, after singing Auld Lang Sine and the national anthem.” After that last generation was gone – those who had moved West from Scotland or Eastern Canada during the height of the fur trade during the early- to mid-nineteenth century – Cree would never be so widely spoken by Euro-Canadians.
Old Timers straddled time periods – and the line between the lived reality of the recent past and the romanticized retellings of historical events that came with distance (temporal, physical, and emotional). Even then, generic pioneer narratives – the trope of the brave (European, male) immigrant leaving a land of poverty and striking out for a new and better life in the West where farmland was plentiful – was taking over. Even today, few remember or know that for a time, newcomers to the West found Cree more useful than English. As “Old Timers” passed on, so did the popular knowledge of their life experiences.
Working as an interpreter at Elk Island National Park this summer (obligatory disclaimer: I am in no way an official spokesperson for EINP, merely a passionate employee who wants to talk a lot about historical bison), I have been conducting a tremendous amount of research into the history of bison extirpation and conservation. As a historian keenly interested in the history of Western Canada, I have been reading and rereading some of the same sources I’ve known about for a while – the journals of explorers and fur traders, postcards of the first conservation herds, etc. – but I am looking at them with a new eye. Why? Because I interact with these iconic animals every day.
When I read some of these historical sources, I find myself nodding along. Suddenly, certain passages make much more sense than they did only months ago as I read them in my grad student office in Ottawa. Jack Brink, in his work Imagining Head-Smashed-In (PDF on publisher’s website linked below), wrote of one unfortunate explorer’s experience with the massive bison herds in the West:
“In 1820, Edwin James provided the most harrowing account when, struck by a torrential thunderstorm on the Plains, the river rose and ‘was soon covered with such a quantity of bison’s dung, suddenly washed in from the declivities of the mountains and the plains at its base, that the water could scarcely be seen.’ Dinner that night, made with brown river water, tasted like a ‘cow-yard’ and was thrown away.”
When you have on more than one occasion found yourself tripping over a dry pattie on a hike or toeing apart the layers of the spiralled winter dung of a bison before the horrified gazes of city raised fifth graders, you come to realize that bison poop is a fact of life in the park. If a mere 900 or so individual animals can produce enough dung for me to encounter dozens of examples every day, what must it have been like for those people on the prairies at a time when an estimated 60 million bison roamed the continent?
“I am conscious that with many, I run the risk of being thought to indulge in romance, in consequence of this account: but with those who are informed of the astonishing number of the buffaloe, it will not be considered incredible. . . On the hills in every direction they appeared by thousands. Late in the evening we saw an immense herd in motion along the sides of the hill, at full speed: their appearance had something in it, which, without incurring ridicule, I might call sublime – the sound of their footsteps, even at the distance of two miles, resembled the rumbling of distant thunder.”
– H.M. Brackenridge, 1811, travelling up the Missouri river, cited by Brink in Imagining Head-Smashed-In
What ecological effect did removing 60 million megafauna from the ecosystem have? Prairie fires were one unexpected result. I read that from about 1880, when bison numbers had dropped to an inconsequential and shocking few thousand head, to about 1920, when most of the land in the west was under cultivation, terrible and destructive prairie fires swept through the western prairies. Why? Because bison were no longer keeping those prairie grasses trimmed and so they were growing as high as a person’s waist or more. A single spark in those long grasses could cause devastating fire that would spread quickly. (Having had to mow the lawn in front of my staff residence in the park on many an occasion I can definitely tell you that grass can easily grow higher than my head at great speed if not kept trimmed.)
Bison also maintained the grassland by keeping aspen trees from establishing themselves by trampling seedlings. Many forested areas – including Elk Island National Park – were once grassland, over a century ago when the bison roamed the area. You can’t understand the current ecology of the region without an understanding of the impact of the bison and of their removal.
When it comes to other primary sources, I reexamine them with incredulity and ask myself whether they ever actually saw a real bison. Here, for example, is a painting by George Catlin of a “Buffalo Hunt,” cited by Jack Brink in his book Imagining Head-Smashed-In. What’s so strange about it? I can now easily see that this is a sizable bison bull. Bison cows were hunted 10:1 to bulls because bull meat has less fat, is tougher, and tastes rank. But bulls sure do look impressive for painters, right?
To conclude: bison may have played a huge part in the past in the North American West, and while their numbers have been mindbogglingly reduced, they certainly aren’t yet history. Elk Island has played a huge role in bison conservation over the last century, and while I am occasionally late for work because bison tend to cross the road at their convenience and not mine, I marvel at the fact that I get to have these encounters nearly every day. At least I can observe the bison and reflect on their historical and current presence from the safety of my metal vehicle.
A quick post to prove to you that I am not dead, merely buried under a large pile of books and papers, in the final stretch before completing my final major research project for my Master’s degree in Public History at Carleton. I have been staring at hundreds of postcards of First Nations people over the past year. I would be hard pressed to point to the ones I find the post intriguing (though the privately produced “Calf Robes Resisting Capture” series I’ve written about before may come close). The main thrust of my MA project is in the analysis of postcards not as neutral photographic representations of the past (which has of course been thoroughly debunked by many a historian of photography) but in the very “biases”/incorrect assumptions about Aboriginal people written on postcards in the captions and the handwritten messages. I examine the way that the textual elements of postcards reveal how such images were interpreted in the first three decades of the twentieth century and therefore how the photographic subjects were understood by white settler communities and tourists. Picture postcards served as interesting platforms for the spread of a certain rhetoric about “Indians” in circulation in the Prairie West. I’m interested in the ways that postcard messages, even “lighthearted” ones with (often racist) jokes, reflected and propagated usually damaging depictions of Aboriginal people.
Heavy thoughts for such small objects.
At the moment, I thought I would leave you with a postcard that I did not discuss in my thesis, mainly because it was not sent through the mail and has no handwritten message on the reverse. I chose to post this example here because of how visually striking the composition of the image is – and because it reminds us that whatever American Wild West films say about “cowboy versus Indians,” First Nations people have also historically been cowboys.
Postcards were not always mass produced. In the early twentieth century, one could print Kodaked images onto postcard stock and create one’s own unique postcard to mail off to friends and relations. The University of Alberta Archive’s Peel’s Prairie Provinces has just recently doubled its collection of early Western Canadian postcards to nearly 30,000 examples, some entirely unique. I had the opportunity last summer to examine some of the ones that weren’t yet digitized. Among the picture postcards of Banff’s main street, parades at the Calgary Stampede, European pioneers in Saskatoon, and everything in between, I ran across a series of privately produced postcard images that I find incredibly intriguing. They are a set of photographic postcards that have been cut from a photo album – the backs are blank, glued to pieces of black paper from the album sheets. The same people appear in multiple images, but aside from a few telling details and a few names which may or may not be jokes or pop culture references I cannot understand over a century later, these images are now relatively anonymous. This photoset may not even be complete. I confess I was scanning them alongside about 300 other images over the course of a single day and I only noticed that they were from the same grouping later on when I began looking at them more deeply for my major research essay. I also only examined a few boxes of cards which had been separated out by the archivist for having explicitly Aboriginal subjects, so it is possible that there are other postcards from these photographers in the Peel’s Prairie Provinces Collection, yet to be digitized. I was initially hoping to incorporate them into my major research project, but they have far more in common with anonymous photo album pages than they do postcards, as fascinating as they are. Ah, well, a project for another time!
I have placed these images in an order that made sense to me, placing them either in what amounts to a sequence, or beside images that share the same photographic subjects for ease of comparison. Do not ascribe meaning to the order as it was imposed by me. I now invite you to consider these photographs for yourself. I have included a few preliminary observations, but I welcome any further commentary from my readers. Maybe we’ll find the proverbial smoking gun that identifies these people. Please click the images to enlarge them and see my annotations. (Note: The strings of numbers beginning in “PC” (“post card”) are their Peel’s Prairie Provinces call numbers, so you may cite them or look them up when they finally become digitized.)
PC030189 – “Accepting Friendship” The man on the right appears in multiple photographs, as does the man on the left, identified as “Calf Robes” in another image. Notice the ax on the ground between them – perhaps a reference to the expression “burying the hatchet”?
PC030240 – “The blow almost killed Father” A family man, eh? This implies that the author of the messages on these images – possibly the photographer – is that man’s daughter or son, or that the image was sent to the children of the “Father” and so the author of the note is writing from the children’s perspective, their potential audience. This image may also be playing to “Indian” stereotypes – fighting with tomahawks. It’s interesting that the “Sarcee”(?) man on the left (Calf Robes?) is a full participant in these photographic vignettes. He also appears to be wearing dancing/ceremonial regalia – the war bonnet, the beaded jacket and moccasins and the bells(?) on his belt are not everyday wear.
PC030238 – “A original Hair Cut” A faux depiction of scalping. The posing of this scene may be influenced by popular images of missionary martyrs… or “Father” is just praying prior to his “death”.
PC030247 – “Calf Robes resisting capture” Because this is from the 1920s at the latest, I’m going to assume that that’s a real gun. Calf Robes does seem to be holding his own, though. Is “Calf Robes” his real name? Or is he playing a character just as much as the other men in the scene are? These first four photographs all seem to have been taken on the same day with the same backdrop (tent, light snow on the ground).
PC030250 – “Good bye sweet day” The tables have turned. That doesn’t seem to be “Calf Robes” holding the gun, though. He appears in multiple following images. The man cheering in the background with the ribbed bone bead work on his shirt is also a recurring figure.
PC030242 – “Gone but not forgotten” Apparently the man didn’t escape. The man holding the rifle in this shot is not the same man holding the gun in the previous “Good bye sweet day” image, but the cheering man.
PC030237. This man appears in multiple images, as does his beaded robe/blanket.
PC030195 – “Tis only the “Brave” that deserve the fair.” I suspect that this caption is a quotation from some poem or song (I think “None but the brave deserve the fair” is an expression), and that they are creating a pun. The writer put “Brave” in quotation marks, drawing attention to the play on words: brave as in courageous but also “brave” as in “native warrior.”
PC030191 – “Spencer & Kipp” Once again, are “Spencer and Kipp their real names? Or is this another reference I don’t understand? These two figures appear in several other images, as does that distinctively beaded robe.
PC030246 These are the two men from previous images – whom I have called “Father” and “the Scot”, wearing the feather headdresses and the robes of the Aboriginal participants. They may also be striking stoic portrait poses from paintings of “Indians.”
PC030251 – “Black + White or A scot in Indian garb.” This image may have been taken immediately after the previous one, and definitely on the same occasion. (Whose leg is that on the left? Possibly “Father’s”.) It is possible that these two images were taken with two separate cameras, considering the quality of some of the images (some more grey in tone, like this one, and others lighter and more sepia) and the fact that several other photographs show “Father” holding a brownie camera, meaning that there were two cameras present.
PC030276 These two ladies wear what look to me like very Edwardian outfits, particularly the very large hats which were only popular for about a decade until 1914 or so. As a side note, I would like to point out the fact that all three people in this portrait are wearing feathers on their heads. The man in the middle is definitely wearing ceremonial/dancing regalia: bells are not worn on a daily basis.
PC030194 – “Mrs. Mayfield’s Baby” Note the two ladies from the previous image having their photograph taken in the background, likely taken on the same occasion because they are wearing the same outfits. This photograph also confirms that there were two cameras at play. This photo series may only be the results of one of those Kodak Brownies, though. Note that cameras were not held to the eye – you looked through the viewfinder from up above and hold the camera at waist height.
PC030241. This image really set the tone for me as I looked at the rest of the photographs in the series. These two men are having fun, being ridiculous and out of place.
PC030244. This wagon also appears in the previous photograph. That man with the ribbed bone shirt also appears in earlier photographs (“Good bye sweet day” and “Gone but not forgotten.”) I also have to ask myself what they are doing there – and where “there” is. Are they tourists just out on the town, wanting to be photographed with some “real Indians”? The posture of the man with the pipe (“Father”) makes me uneasy, especially with the other man standing behind the child and turning his attention to the baby, holding his or her hand for support.
PC030190 – “Mr & Mrs Muski” I am unsure if “Muski” is an Edwardian pop culture reference, or the woman’s name. If the latter, the “joke” is likely to be found in identifying the man as her husband. Note that the man on the right holds a Kodak Brownie camera under his left arm.
PC030199 – “Susie” The fact that this woman is named leads me to believe that these “tourists” knew some of the people in these photographs, but I could be mistaken. This photograph also made me quite excited because she is standing next to a window with a newspaper prominently displayed. I hoped to use it to date the image. It says: – “LANDSLIDE , Saturday February 25th, 9am.” I haven’t been able to find which newspaper this is; unfortunately, the name of the paper is not in frame. I was hoping that the landslide it refers to was the infamous Frank Slide, but that happened in April, not February. However, there were only four years between 1895 and 1920 in which February 25th fell on a Saturday, so this particular photograph could have been taken in 1899,1905, 1911, or 1922, though judging by what the white women were wearing in other photos in this series I’d say that the middle two dates were most likely. As a side note, I also find the shadow of the photographer in this image slightly eerie. Who/what is Susie looking at?
PC030200 – “Susie’s blind husband” Again, these photographs were taken on at least two separate occasions: Susie is pictured again here, but in a completely different outfit, though possibly wearing the same beaded belt. I am intrigued by the fact that Susie appears to be standing arm in arm with the white man in the centre. I believe that the caption is correct and the man on the left is blind, judging by the way his gaze does not meet the camera. If he is blind, it is entirely possible that he would have been a distinctive enough individual to record. How many blind men lived on the prairies circa 1910? Susie also appears to be wearing dress moccasins (heavily beaded, unlike in the prior image of her taken in town) and what may be (judging by the texture) a beaded shirt. She holds her plaid blanket in one hand instead of using it as a shawl as she did in the prior image. Perhaps this photograph was taken when she was dressed for a special occasion.
PC030248 – “The toiler?” That question mark is very telling and may be playing into stereotypes of “Indians” as inherently lazy, despite all of the evidence to the contrary. Some of these photographs were evidently taken in a small town, perhaps the one visible in the background of several other shots (with the grain elevator). Maybe this photograph was even taken later in the day from the first “Susie” photograph, judging by the location and the length of the shadows.
PC030193 – “Age 93 Bull Head’s Squaw Chief of the Sarcees” Many postcards depict exceptional individuals, particularly the elderly. I do find it disturbing that we cannot see her face, even though the lighting in the image would otherwise indicate that we could.
So, in summary: these photographs were taken on at least two occasions, as evidenced by the same figures appearing at least twice in different outfits and the presence/lack of snow on the ground. These photographs were likely taken South of Calgary, as one of the figures is identified as “Sarcee” (Tsuu T’ina); that is, of course, if the writer identified the band correctly. The photographs likely date from circa 1899-1922, but are more likely from 1905 or 1912, when gigantic Merry Widow hats were popular. There were two photographers present, but these photographs may have only come from one of their cameras. I am unsure of the relationship between the people in the photographs. Why do “Calf Robes” and the others play along in staging scenes of violence? Is “Susie” truly on a first name basis with the photographer and the man she stands arm-in-arm with? Are these white folks tourists, locals visiting Tsuu T’ina friends, or the family of an Indian agent with political power over these people? Furthermore, if these photographs were all taken by the same person, there may be a (sixth?) person in the party who is never pictured because they are always behind the camera and not in front of it.
If you are under the age of thirty and went through the Canadian school system, you were probably taught not to use the word “Indian” when referring to the indigenous peoples of Canada or the United States. “Indians” are people from South Asia, and using the word “Indian” here in North America, and Canada in particular, seems outdated and conjures to mind the historic uses of harmful stereotypes. It’s happened a few times in front of me: older folks – often Americans but not always – visiting historic sites or attending conferences here in Canada will casually use the term “Indian” … and you can see a bunch of the Canadians in the room, particularly those of the younger generation, hold back their flinches and look awkwardly at each other. However, while I wish it were as straightforward as simply saying “don’t call them Indians!”, it isn’t easy to find an alternative – and some people don’t want to, for both good and bad reasons.
Words are loaded with meaning and implications, and even the idea of having an overarching term that purports to refer to indigenous peoples of the Americas as a whole is incredibly problematic. Here is a roundup of all of the common questions I have heard asked about choices of terminology and what I believe are issues you need to be aware of before you use any of them. Many of these are questions and discussions I have had at museums with visitors, with undergraduate students, with young collège students in France, with friends, with visiting scholars, and so on. As is usually the case with thorny issues, there is no simple answer.
Disclaimer: I am a relatively young Canadian woman who identifies as being of European descent: i.e., I am a young(ish) white Canadian woman. Take everything I say with a grain of salt as I am someone speaking from a settler community about people I respect but cannot speak for. I welcome any questions, corrections, expansions, and opinions.
“What’s wrong with the word ‘Indian’? They use it all the time in movies!”
“Indian”, at its root, is based on a misconception. In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, etc., etc., ad nauseam, thought he had stumbled across India when in fact he had landed in the Caribbean, killed a bunch of people, left chaos in his wake, and went on to serve as a “heroic” symbol for European exploration and the discovery of a “New World” … which had already been “discovered” and occupied by millions of people before him but who apparently just don’t count.
Early European explorers and settlers thought that these non-European people needed to be given a name. Their own names were apparently no good: that would involve talking to them, acknowledging them, and attempting to pronounce non-European words! It really was just easier for explorers and settlers to refer to and think of them as a homogenized group: they are essentially the same people. Over time (and I acknowledge that I am generalizing here), “the Indian” grew in the imaginations of Europeans and European settlers into a very specific being – who wore a feathered headdress, smoked “peace pipes” but was a fierce and savage warrior. “The Indian” probably rode horses, screeching and whooping, and only spoke broken English if he spoke at all. The word “Indian” is inextricably tied to these stereotypes in the minds of many people even today.
Just because a word has cultural currency (i.e., you hear it in common use) doesn’t make it inoffensive. Case in point: the once common “n-word”, which I dare not even type, was once used quite frequently throughout the United States and likely elsewhere but is now incredibly considered inflammatory, blatantly racist, and offensive. Was the “n-word” ever used in a non-derogatory manner? I doubt it, but it is definitely not a word fit for polite or even impolite society today. My point is that simply because a word was heard all of the time doesn’t mean it isn’t disrespectful.
Nevertheless, the word “Indian” is still in common use throughout the United States in particular. American scholars still use it, apparently unselfconsciously, though it is very unlikely that you will see Canadian publications use the term without clarifying or identifying it as a quotation from a historical text. The Smithsonian Institution seems to favour the term “American Indian“, but as far as I am aware most Canadian scholars eschew the term, and recent works like Daniel Francis’ The Imaginary Indian, Paige Raibmon’s Authentic Indians, or Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian only use these terms after defining them not as reflections of actual people but as an idea that others hold about them. If the word “Indian” appears at all in these works, they appear in historical quotations or between scare quotes and refer to a specific concept and rarely if ever to refer to a group as old “Cowboy and Indian” Westerns once did.
Great. So why do many people, including respected American historical institutions and government bodies, continue to use the word “Indian”? I can’t tell you for sure. The thing you have to remember when using these terms is that these debates are also generally happening among Euro-Canadians and Euro-Americans. Deciding unilaterally that “Native American” is a better term than “Indian” because it makes white people feel better and trying to impose that word without the consent of the people it actually applies to also isn’t cool. I have heard some older folks say that they’ve been called an “Indian” all of their lives and they identify with it and prefer it – nobody can take that identity away from them. There is a lesson in here somewhere.
Edit: I should also mention that “Indian” is also a legal term in both the United States and Canada, designating a certain status in relation to the state. For more information on this rather convoluted legal concept and the differences between the two countries, see Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian.
“Isn’t this just political correctness run amok? Aren’t there better things to worry about?”
No. Well, yes, there are other issues to worry about. However, names have power. They are important. What you are called by others and what you call yourself are elements of your identity. Having control over what you are called is incredibly important and these terms do have certain implications – and in the case of the term “Indian”, many negative connotations are evoked. These words are not all synonyms. “Indians”, for example, are seen as relics of the past or even mythical creatures; the endless debates (that many are shocked are still happening in 2013) over the inappropriate and racist nature of “Indian” Hallowe’en costumes confirms this view. The stereotypical “Indian”, as a dead or mythological being from the past, is not perceived as being able to co-exist with the modern present and is thus frequently invisible to the wider North American society; if you aren’t a part of modern Canada/America and/or are mythological, you cannot agitate for rights.
Yes, there are other important issues yet to be tackled in these communities today, but that doesn’t diminish the necessity of little changes.May I also direct you to a very articulate explanation of why the “little things” people need to just “get over” are in fact hurtful and extremely harmful, courtesy of blogger Adrienne K. at Native Appropriations?
“Okay. What else can I call them? What about ‘aboriginal’?”
This is a term that gets thrown around a lot and is generally considered acceptable but not ideal. It simply means “original to a place,” which sounds about right. However, it is still an incredibly general term. Often, conscious of the fact that “Indian” is a less acceptable word now, people will simply use “Aboriginal” in the same way that the word “Indian” was used previously, without thinking more deeply about the subject. Generalized words are useful for making sweeping statements and discussing broad policies. They have their uses, but are also incredibly problematic because using the word “Aboriginal” (or “Indian” or other terms discussed below) assume that there actually is one large group that have enough in common to be referred to with one word, which many have argued is not the case. Having one word ignores huge differences in language, culture, and history in the Americas, and negates historical divisions and conflicts between the groups encompassed by this word. There may be far bigger cultural, linguistic, and historical differences between, say, the Inuit in Nunavut and the Iroquois near New York, than between Castillians in Spain and Muscovites in Russia. In the latter case, is it still useful to refer to both as “white”/”European” without troubling the terms a bit? What, specifically, do they have in common?
However, some “Aboriginal” people do see a political advantage to be had in solidarity, and that one of the things that “Aboriginal” peoples have in common is the fact that they have been discriminated against for generations under the collective term “Indian”. Because they have suffered under a collective term, they can perhaps find some usefulness in mobilizing under a collective term as well.
As a side note, “aboriginal” is awfully close to “aborigine”, which has been used pejoratively in Australia for many years and I am told is on par with the “n-word” in the States… so if you use it with an Australian present you may get some funny looks, if not worse.
(Edit: It has also been drawn to my attention that “Aboriginal” is also used as a collective umbrella term by some Canadian organizations to refer to, collectively, First Nations, the Inuit, and the Métis.)
“What about ‘indigenous’?”
Some people use this term to refer to native peoples of a region in many colonial states across the globe, and is essentially defined as a person (or animal, or thing) that is native or born of an area. This term is not limited to North America and is often used to contrast those who are native to a region from European settlers or colonizers. It can be a useful term, but often is used to define contrasts and can gloss over differences in radically different historical and cultural situations. Usually, when you use the word “indigenous”, it is because they are being discussed in contrast with European colonists, so you are almost defining people by what they are not. Why not call them what they call themselves? Nevertheless, it can be a useful, if general term. Be conscious of your purpose in using it.
“What about ‘Amerindian’?”
This portmanteau (“American” + “Indian”) is interesting, but I don’t hear it terribly often in Canada. I hear it more in French (“Amerindien“). At the root of it, it still has the “Indian” assumption. I believe that the “Ameri-” prefix was added mainly to distinguish between “East Indians” from India and those native to North America, which is a problem that shouldn’t even exist in the first place because these are very different peoples. Furthermore, while “American” can be a descriptor, it is far from a neutral one. It also has political implications for those nations that are resisting the hegemony of the American (or Canadian) governments – e.g., the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) on the border between Ontario and New York that issue their own passports. I am unsure of the acceptability of this term, so I would proceed with caution and perhaps look at alternatives.
“What about ‘natives’ or ‘Native Americans’?“
The term “Native American” has been in use for far longer than the age of political correctness, and used to refer to anybody, including those from settler communities, that were born in North America. “Native” distinguished them from those Americans (or Canadians) from those who were born in Europe and immigrated later. It enjoys a lot of currency in the United States as an alternative to “Indian”, but it isn’t without its detractors… and of course the term “Native American” doesn’t work terribly well in Canada because while the Canadian government doesn’t have the best track record with indigenous relations, those North of the Medicine Line would probably not want to be considered American either.
“What about the word ‘squaw’? That just means ‘woman’ in an Indian language, right?”
Uh… no. Well, maybe it did at some point (and remember, etymology is not destiny), but its pronunciation has probably been corrupted by English mouths and probably sounds very different from what the word originally sounded like. “Squaw” has been a pejorative (insulting or belittling) word for over a century, and has connotations with prostitution. It has also been associated with dehumanization; racist protesters have waved signs at rallies against treaty fishing rights saying things like “Save a fish, spear a squaw.” This is not appropriate language. As far as my circle of friends and acquaintances goes, I have never heard a woman identify herself as a “squaw”.
“Papoose”, too, is a word that has been appropriated into the English language. I believe it originally came from one of the Algonquin languages on the Eastern seaboard, but it entered English vocabulary at a very early date and has likely lost a few syllables and such over time. I don’t want to enter into the “prescriptive” versus “descriptive” language debate, as this word has been in use for several centuries in English with less belittling connotations than other words. Nevertheless, I feel that it is rarely used (in North America, at least) to refer to non-indigenous children, and so is a marker of difference. Anglophones who use this term without having a firm definition of what exactly a “papoose” is: an infant? An infant wrapped in a moss bag? A toddler? In the UK, it can even be used to refer to a kind of backpack, I think. (Brits, can you clarify this for me? What springs to mind when you hear the word “papoose”?)
Even if it does not have as many dangerous or sexist connotations as the word “squaw”, and may have indeed originated from an indigenous language in the East, applying the word “papoose” to, say, Cree children in cradle boards on the plains or to Inuit children in the North or Haida infants on the North-West Coast assumes that the children in these diverse cultures and languages are essentially the same when they are not. I would avoid it unless you hear them use the term. Ask yourself: why is there a specific term for a woman or child of a separate race? Are they not also women and children?
Furthermore, if you cannot identify which”Indian language” the word came from and are not entirely certain of the word’s definition or connotations, I would hesitate to use it until you find out more information.
“But it’s traditional! Why do we have to change the names of our mountains and stuff?”
Traditional according to whom? “Squaw Peak” or “Dead Indian Valley” probably had a different name for far longer before it got given that moniker by Europeans, Euro-Americans, or Euro-Canadians.
(Also: “your” mountains? By what right do you/we claim ownership? )
Let’s take a slightly less racist case in point. The Queen Charlotte Islands off of the coast of British Columbia held that name for over a century on European maps, but its name was recently changed back to Haida Gwaii: the Islands of the Haida. The imposition of European names upon places that were already known by different names by peoples native to the area is a whole other kettle of fish that could be addressed in a different blog post.
“Francophones in Canada use ‘Autochtone.’ What’s the deal with that?”
Apparently, at its root, it simply means “the originals.” Aside from “Premières Nations“, this was the term I heard most often in my French immersion classes in elementary, junior high, and high school. It appears to be used in the names of a few organizations – e.g., l’Alliance Autochtone du Québec. Other websites appear to use it as a synonym for “indigenous”, so as a word it may not be limited to North American peoples. As an anglophone, I am not up to date on the most common terminology in use among Francophones in Canada. I would be very interested to hear from Canadian Francophones on this subject.
(Incidentally, “autochtone” does not register as a word with either the teachers nor the students of the junior high schools (collèges) I taught at in Normandy (France) in 2011/2012. In France they were still using the term “Indiens“, which I tried to disabuse them of. My British and German friends were also much less sensitive to nuances of racialized words than my Canadian and American friends of the same age. But they were willing to learn!)
“Okay, what about ‘First Nations’?”
This is the term that is in vogue in Canada right now. Unlike “Indian”, it acknowledges that, well, they were in the area first, before white settlers (which seems obvious to me, but in many ways they are treated as if they were foreigners in their own land by governments and settler communities). It also implies pluralism – “First NationS” – and, like the collective word “United StateS” it can at once demonstrate solidarity but also individuality and independence. By using the term “nation” you may also be suggesting the idea that they are potentially sovereign nations in their own right – which they had to be, to enter into treaty with Great Britain and, later, Canada, and First Nations did on multiple occasions – though in subsequent years they were treated as wards of the crown and not the independent nations they would have been.
However, as previously mentioned, this is a word for a collective that may actually not have the same goals and aspirations, and it can also be thrown around to refer to the group in sweeping generalizations – “find and replace” the word “Indian” in your digital documents and replace it with “First Nations”? Furthermore, you have to respect the fact that if some people don’t like the phrase and don’t want to be called “First Nations” then you shouldn’t call them that.
“What about tribe names?”
I would say that this is one of the better options, but with a few caveats. Acknowledging that you are speaking of a specific group of people – e.g., the Cree, the Blackfoot, the Stoney – is definitely a big step up from the general and problematic term “Indian”. However, you may notice something peculiar about the examples that I used: “Cree” comes from the French “Christineaux”, referring to the fact that some may have converted, and “Blackfoot” and “Stoney” are clearly English in origin. These names may have a lot of cultural currency in English Canada and perhaps among these peoples themselves, but they are in all likelihood names that were imposed by English colonizers. Would they choose this designation themselves? Perhaps. Again, many of these terms have been in use a lot longer among anglophones and are more recognizable to outsiders than the actual name of the First Nation (respectively, if I have this right, the Nehiyawak, the Siksiká and the Nakoda).
And even then, as our writing system was not designed with North American indigenous languages in mind, spelling is subjective. Is it Anishinaabeg, Anishinaabek, Anishinabe, or what? Chippewa or Ojibwa or Ojibwe or Ojibway? Am I referring to the name of the people, the name of their language, or a larger confederacy or alliance of smaller groups collected together, and how do these names differ?
Furthermore, some of these “tribe names” are more or less precise than others. Be aware of the history of the word and what it actually refers to. Even using the term “Algonquin” when referring to, say, the group that Samuel de Champlain met on his two week journey down the Ottawa River Valley in 1613 is a bit of a generalization. They were Anishinaabeg; “Algonquin” is a larger linguistic group which is composed of multiple nations who may or may not have enough in common with each other to be referred to be a generalized term.
Incidentally, some of our terms may not seem English or French in origin, but are not ideal either. “Eskimo” is a good/terrible example. Often spelled “Esquimaux” in the early years, it is comes to English via the French pronunciation of a word from a group of Algonquin speakers who may have been enemies of the Inuit. “Eskimo” is generally thought to mean, roughly, “Eaters of Raw Flesh.” (Or so the story goes.) Those once called the “Eskimos”, at least in Canada, prefer to be called the “Inuit”, meaning “the People” in their own language, instead of an insulting nickname from the language of their enemies. To use a European comparison, it’s as if the most commonly used name for the French in German and Dutch were a Germanized spelling of the English “Frog Eaters” or “Surrender Monkeys.” I’m sure the French would much prefer the nicer sounding, less insulting, and native term “les Français”, or even regional terms like “les Rouennais”, “les Bretons”, etc.
(Another caveat: “Eskimos” is still used as a collective term in Alaska to refer to two different groups, the Inuit and the Yupik. I would love to hear from people who are up to date on the views of that word in Alaska! Nevertheless, “Eskimo” is not considered an acceptable term in Canada.)
Even the term “tribe” has fallen out of favour, possibly because of “primitive” anthropological connotations. I believe “nation”, “band”, and other words are preferred to “tribe” or “tribal” now. I welcome any further clarification on this subject!
“Well, what can I call them?!”
Thank you for asking this question. The moral of this story is don’t assume. Be conscious of your word choices and think critically about them. If you are not sure, ask the group affected what they would prefer. You want a say in how people know you and your people – why would you assume that First Nations would feel otherwise? As always, I welcome comments and questions (always in a respectful manner).
Daniel Francis, The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture (Vancouver, B.C.: Arsenal Pulp Press, Inc., 1992): an excellent history of how the stereotypical image of the “Indian” formed in popular culture.
Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (Random House; Doubleday Canada, 2012): a fascinating recent work on the subject of relations between the governments of Great Britain, America, and Canada and the indigenous peoples of North America throughout the past centuries.
Paige Raibmon, Authentic Indians: Episodes of Encounter from the Late-Nineteenth-Century Northwest Coast (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2005): the author tackles very thorny questions of what people mean when they evaluate the “authenticity” of indigenous culture and just how damaging ideas of “authenticity” can be.
Circle: Teepees are erected with a base “tripod” of three poles tied together. The other poles are laid in place in a circular fashion before another rope walked around them. The canvas is attached to the tops of the tops of the last two poles and is dragged up – these form the smoke flap. The poles are heavier and more unwieldy then they look.
“Ceiling shot! Ok, I do this thing where I take pictures of ceilings. Teepees are no exception.”
At the Champlain on the Anishinabe-Aki Colloquium at Carleton University this week, there were quite a few of us glued to our various electronic devices. No, we weren’t rudely texting while the panelists were speaking (well, at least I wasn’t); we were projecting their words to the Twitterverse. We were retweeted and queried by other Twitterhistorians and museums alike, adding another layer of conversation to the conference.
This also may amount to more of a Twitter play-by-play of the colloquium’s proceedings, not only the most popular and witty of the tweets. While most but not all of the tweeting is in English, many of the presenters and audience questions were using French. I can just more easily wrestle my thoughts and summaries of events into 140 characters in English.
(Fair warning: I may be biased in favour of my own tweets, but there were so many other witty people tweeting I am sure that there will be plenty of variety! Most of these come from the official conference hashtag at #cuchamplain.)