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  • Reflections on Native-Newcomer Relations: Selected Essays
  • Bonita Lawrence (bio)
J.R. Miller . Reflections on Native-Newcomer Relations: Selected EssaysUniversity of Toronto Press.304. $37.45

With these essays, J.R. Miller continues in his tradition of providing clear and detailed historical research. This collection spans nearly two decades of his work, including historiography, methodology, and policy.

It is in the area of Indian policy that Miller has always been at his best, and the essays in the policy section certainly complement his earlier work. And yet it is the essays where he attempts to break newer ground as a historian - through the use of oral history, complemented by photographs, for example, or in attempts to trace Native agency against assimilationist policies - that are most exciting in this collection.

It is, however, in the area of methodology, with the question of which side of the story is being told, and by whom, that this book enters difficult ground. Miller emphasizes throughout that his field is 'Native-Newcomer' relations, rather than 'Native studies,' and yet the distinction is somewhat facile. Miller may focus on Canadian government policy, yet he also includes his perspectives and opinions on Native responses to those policies. As a well-known historian, his voice is considered authoritative. People turn to Miller when they want to 'know about Indians.'

With this in mind, the most problematic aspect of this book is the manner in which Miller 'throws down the gauntlet,' not only against those who would suggest that Native communities should have a say in what is written about them, but towards the question of who should write about Native peoples. In the introduction, he pre-formulates his defence, asserting that 'academic freedom' cannot survive if no authoritative 'truth' [End Page 180] exists. The indisputable truth, according to Miller, will out, it must not be 'censored,' no matter what the consequences to embattled communities. And who it is that tells the story does not matter-as human beings, nothing human is beyond our experience, and therefore, outside of culturally sensitive material, any capable scholar is entitled to write about Native people.

As a sociologist, I find the authoritative manner in which most historians make 'truth' claims troubling. Despite at least a decade of post-structuralist and postcolonial theory that has effectively challenged master narratives of absolute 'truth,' the academic freedom of sociology departments remains intact! Moreover, as scholars from the margins, it is clear to us that while histories of invasions and colonization may be described somewhat authoritatively from the perspective of colonial policy - and even then, arguments arise as to how to interpret those histories in more nuanced ways, to take the multiple positionings of colonizers into account - nothing is so clear from the 'other side' of the picture. When taking into account the effects of colonialism on peoples whose identities, histories, and nations have been subjected to multiple episodes of forcible shattering and remoulding in highly distinct ways, it is clear that no singular 'truth' can represent that other side of the coin. Most scholars who have experienced colonialism are only too clear that there are multiple and highly nuanced stories which must be told to weave truths together - and that it is crucial that those who interpret those stories have a strong awareness of what it means to be colonized in contemporary society. Non-Natives have a role to play, as allies. But to assert their right to speak authoritatively and to trump voices from Native communities amounts to what Vine Deloria Jr has called a 'struggle for academic turf,' and should be recognized as such.

It appears that, for Miller, at some point Native peoples stopped being nations and became 'racial minorities' to be patronized and 'helped.' For Indigenous America, newcomer stories are only one small part of a much larger picture, and nations have a right to tell their own stories. However, at present, Indigenous nationhood remains denied, and contemporary academics have an immense power to (mis)represent colonized peoples. To dismiss Native communities' concerns about research and representation as 'censorship' is to trivialize the reality of what it means to exist at the edge of extinction. For a scholar...


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pp. 180-181
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