- Seasons of Change: Labor, Treaty Rights and Ojibwe Nationhood by Chantal Norrgard
Chantal Norrgard’s monograph Seasons of Change: Labor, Treaty Rights, and Ojibwe Nationhood is a small, well-researched book that promises much. The author’s central purpose is to argue that Ojibwe participation in the broader economy was an expression of their sovereignty and numerous acts of resistance against federal assimilation policies. Ojibwe pursued economic integration not because they had similar material needs as other people, but because they wanted to maintain sovereignty. Moreover, Seasons of Change aims to “move in the new direction of indigenizing American labor history.” (9) The study is devoted to the Ojibwe south of Lake Superior (Minnesota and Wisconsin). Five substantive chapters organize the material thematically or topically: berrying, commercialized hunting and trapping, fishing, work in the lumber industry, and tourist colonialism. A helpful appendix reproduces the treaties of 1837, 1842, and 1854.
One of the most interesting chapters concerns berrying and gathering activities. This region was well endowed with wild rice beds, berry patches, and [End Page 270] maple sugar trees, and the Ojibwe were long familiar with these resources. Not only does this chapter demonstrate new market possibilities with colonization, but also highlights a fond social dimension created by commercial gathering activities. Life at seasonal work sites was recalled as happy times. The material here demonstrates strongly the role of women (and children) in the production and marketing of these natural products. Important content of the second chapter explains the violation of treaty rights by state authorities and Norrgard provides a legal history of several court cases. The third chapter concerns commercial fishing on Lake Superior and here Norrgard is attentive to the larger structures (i.e., monopoly) and treaty rights violations. A chapter on Ojibwe participation in the lumbering industry provides information on reservation logging, the work processes of this sector, and engagement is conceived as the exercise of creative agency to challenge assumptions about the disappearing Indian and assimilation. The final substantive chapter relates how the Ojibwe made tourist colonialism serve their own ends. Iron mining, a mainstay for the region, is noticeably absent.
More rigour and less ambiguity would have produced a better monograph. Norrgard’s ascribed meaning for labour is central to her purpose and argument: “I apply both terms “work” and “labor” to American Indian economic relations as a way of asserting an indigenous presence in American labor history” but ultimately she is out to dismantle “Euro-American definitions of labor and work that have been deliberately deployed to restrict and undercut Native people’s economic agency and to further the initiatives of settler colonialism and federal Indian policy.” (9) Necessarily, work and labour are used “interchangeably to describe strategies Native peoples have developed to make a living.” (9) This conceptual conflation of labour and work is justified as an undertaking to negate a social-science harm. Those academics that perpetrated an ignorance of Ojibwe economic agency, thereby purposely promoting settler colonialism/federal Indian policy, are not named. How commingling work and labour will actually mitigate this problem or how Ojibwe historical experiences will resonate with the broader labour history seem nebulous. While historical accounts that exclude all but the industrial proletariat have not been an accommodating approach for understanding capitalism, Norrgard’s imprecise definitions means that in other circumstances, farmers or businessmen would fit aptly. Traders on Wall Street work hard, but does that really write them into the American labour movement? Her conclusions rest on this bit of logic.
Occasionally, terms such as “capitalist market” or “commercialization” are summoned (e.g., 7, 26, 63, 64), but essentially, the study eschews economic concepts. In the absence of precise and appropriate terminology, how can comparative interpretations about labour history be reached? (For example, not all markets are capitalist markets.) The allotment policy is referenced and necessarily so, but the author assumes that this rather convoluted process of dispossession of reservation lands is on the tip of every historians tongue; and regrettably, the scholarship on this topic is never acknowledged. Norrgard...