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  • Makúk: A New History of Aboriginal-White Relations
  • Victoria Freeman (bio)
John Sutton Lutz . Makúk: A New History of Aboriginal-White Relations. UBC Press. xii, 432. $32.95

Makúk: A New History of Aboriginal-White Relations is one of the most important books on Aboriginal-settler relations in Canada to be published in recent memory. A detailed and nuanced examination of the labour history of Indigenous peoples in British Columbia, it thoroughly debunks the persistent stereotype of the 'lazy Indian' and demonstrates that the labour of Aboriginal people was essential to the development of the economic base of the province.

Turning much conventional thinking about Native economic dependency on its head, Lutz uses both statistics and oral history to demonstrate that Indigenous people were not bypassed by the developing capitalist economy. Through their vigorous participation in the fur trade, coal mining, forestry, agriculture, fishing, and canning, Aboriginal people were surprisingly prosperous and independent for most of the nineteenth century and were not made irrelevant by the arrival of thousands of settlers and prospectors during the gold rush, as is often asserted. In fact, the most startling revelation of the book is that Aboriginal unemployment and reliance on welfare became a widespread phenomenon only in the 1950s, as a result not of laziness but of systemic exclusion from the provincial economy.

In exploring this process of exclusion, Lutz effectively uses the framing device of the Chinook trade jargon as a metaphor for the relationship [End Page 551] between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. An amalgam of English and West Coast languages, it conveyed just enough information to facilitate economic relations, but was inadequate for communication over complex issues and frequently led to misunderstanding. The word makúk, one of the first words spoken to Europeans, can be translated as 'exchange,' yet in their ongoing economic interactions, Aboriginal workers and white employers understood key concepts differently and followed two different logics. Aboriginal people had 'a different relation to land and work, different ideas about what was being exchanged, and different notions about the hierarchy of obligations as it applied to employer, community and family,' which were interpreted by employers as laziness and lack of dependability and so became a racialized stereotype.

Challenging conventional historical interpretations, Lutz argues that most Aboriginal people engaged in the capitalist economy not because they were becoming acculturated but more fully to engage in their own traditional culture, especially the potlatch. Used to a highly seasonal traditional economy and lifestyle, Aboriginal peoples creatively integrated subsistence, status, and capitalist economies in a seasonal round of activities. As long as they could fall back on the subsistence economy, work for pay was desirable only if and when it supported this way of life. The ban on the potlatch, the central institution of the non-capitalist economy, eroded a major reason for participating in the wage economy.

Lutz further demonstrates that work for pay was a key aspect of the process of 'peaceable subordination,' temporarily enriching as it displaced Aboriginal peoples from their own lands and resources. When thousands of immigrants flooded into the province after completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, employers increasingly preferred white employees for high-skilled jobs, and Chinese workers for low-skilled jobs, since the latter were single men entirely dependent on wage labour, hence more 'dependable.' Aboriginal workers then became a reserve army of the unemployed, their jobs extremely vulnerable to technological change. By the 1950s, their subsistence economy largely destroyed or outlawed through new game and fishing laws, welfare was introduced to prevent starvation. Adapting yet again to changing conditions, Aboriginal peoples developed what Lutz labels a new 'moditional economy' that combined wage labour, capitalist investment, and the prestige, subsistence, and welfare economies.

Makúk is exemplary in its methodological approach. Exploring colonization as an intensely local as well as regional process, Lutz compares the strategies and experiences of the Lekwungen, who welcomed Europeans, and the Tsilhqot'in, who drove them away, and contrasts their experiences with those of Aboriginal people across the province. Through his extensive use of Aboriginal oral histories, Lutz not only gives voice to diverse Aboriginal perspectives, but offers a rich and complex social [End...


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