- Taking Medicine: Women’s healing work and colonial contact in southern Alberta, 1880–1930 by Kristin Burnett
With Taking Medicine, Kristin Burnett makes a contribution to intersecting literatures on women, colonialism, healing, and Indigenous peoples. Her main interest is women who performed a broad range of healing work in southern Alberta. As the book proceeds, her focus shifts from Indigenous women, to female medical missionaries, to graduate lay nurses. Accordingly, we gain a sense of the female actors who moved within and into this region as healers and caregivers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Thus, the book is not a study of either Indigenous or settler women per se, but of the individuals who fulfilled a particular role in a particular place and time, and of their cross-cultural interactions with patients. Burnett’s focus roots the study in place in significant and interesting ways. At the same time, it means we do not learn about the lives of these women beyond the field of therapeutics or outside of the region.
Readers interested in comparative colonialisms will appreciate that throughout the book, Burnett ranges widely in her contextualization of contact among women in southern Alberta, discussing relevant and comparable situations not only throughout the rest of Canada but around the globe. She thereby situates her work within a broader literature and also compensates for some of the limitations of her source base. Burnett also provides ample historical background on the colonial history of Western Canada, a trait that scholars outside the field will find useful, though specialists in Canadian history may find slightly redundant.
In Chapters One, Two, and Three, Burnett focuses on Tsuu T’ina, Nakoda, Siksika, Kainai and Piikani women. In Chapter One, she provides an overview of women’s place in the cultural and historical landscape of the region demarcated by Treaty 7 in 1877. In Chapter Two, she discusses traditional knowledge held and practiced by women from these Nations particularly in the fields of medicinal plant use and midwifery. Burnett argues that these women played crucial roles as midwives, herbalists and healers long before colonialism cast its long shadow onto their territories. Significantly, Burnett argues that Indigenous women continued to perform this work into the early years of colonial settlement not only for members of their own communities but for the first generation of settler women, as well. This intercultural dimension of health care and midwifery is of particular interest to Burnett as an instance of contact that belies colonizers’ claims to a monopoly on authority and knowledge. Far from familial networks of support and Western medical authorities, settler women turned to Indigenous women for their expertise. Extending a well-established narrative of fur trade history to the sphere of bodily care, Burnett demonstrates an instance of cooperative contact born of necessity. Settler women turned to Indigenous women because they had no other choice. The resulting encounters were sometimes fleeting, sometimes enduring. Documenting the existence of these relationships is a key part of Burnett’s contribution. In so doing she adds texture to our image of gendered contact frontiers, and argues that such relationships challenged Euro-Canadian stereotypes about Indigenous peoples. As Burnett realizes, however, the fact that settler women turned to Indigenous women for assistance does not in and of itself mean that they simultaneously threw over stereotypes about the inferiority of Indigenous societies. Unfortunately, Burnett’s source base does not allow for a fuller picture of these relationships on the ground. We do not know the extent of cross-cultural bonds of friendship and mutual respect that may have developed, or whether settler women altered their preexisting beliefs as a result of such intimate encounters with Indigenous women.
Burnett organizes Chapters Four through Six chronologically to focus on successive waves of female health care providers. In these chapters, she emphasizes connections between the advent of Western health care and the broader colonial project of dispossession. For Burnett, the therapeutic work that Euro-Canadian women conducted was “at the heart of the colonial project in...