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Journal of World History 11.1 (2000) 131-134

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Book Review

Native Peoples and Colonialism

Native Peoples and Colonialism. A special double issue of BC Studies: The British Columbia Quarterly. Edited by Cole Harris and Jean Barman. Vols. 115-16 (autumn/winter 1997-98). Pp. 307. $20 (this issue).

Land claims by native peoples of British Columbia, one of which culminated in a momentous 1997 ruling from Canada's Supreme Court (Delgamuukw v. British Columbia), have attracted international attention recently. In other British Commonwealth countries and in the United States particularly, people interested in the rights and experiences of indigenous groups are comparing British Columbia's [End Page 131] history to theirs. For instance, a lawyer for the claimants in Delgamuukw told me that Australian advocates of aboriginal rights had invited him over to discuss the implications of the case for their cause.

Conversely, native land claims have prompted many British Columbians to think about their province in an international context. Students of regional history and ethnic relations have become more conscious of British Columbia's place in the worldwide history of European colonialism. This special issue of BC Studies testifies to that heightened consciousness. Indeed, the editors decided to publish a special issue entitled Native Peoples and Colonialism when they "suddenly" received several manuscripts on the subject and inferred that there is a "widely perceived take colonialism out of the closet...and examine it for what it was and is in British Columbia."

The result of that decision is an anthology of nine articles, most of which serve the perceived need explicitly and intelligently. (Some readers may be disappointed, however, not to see further explanation of the litigation that made this special issue timely.) Not surprisingly, the articles are more useful for showing how the concept of colonialism can illuminate British Columbia's history than for showing what British Columbian history can teach outsiders about colonialism.

The essays are in a variety of disciplines--geography, literature, and art, as well as history. They also vary in the extent to which they make use of literature on colonialism elsewhere. A collection so varied, limited, and fortuitous cannot be comprehensive. Nor can we reasonably expect its parts to add up to a coherent whole. Yet together those parts have commendably broad chronological coverage, and the quality of their scholarship is unusually even, for an anthology. Readers with an interest in Canadian or British Columbian history or in native peoples of North America will find much here to appreciate.

Three articles focus on mechanisms of colonial domination. Historical geographer Cole Harris, a journal editor and mentor to several of the contributors, shows how fur traders deployed "technologies of power" and thus prepared the way for colonial regimes. But the real virtue of his essay is the balance it strikes between acknowledging historical forces that were beyond native control and insisting on native agency. Harris persuasively debunks as too simplistic a venerable theory that the fur trade mainly enriched native cultures.

Fellow geographer Kenneth Brealey traces, sometimes in dense jargon and other times in dry detail, how an Indian Reserve commissioner divided the province into native spaces and space for colonization. Although his article has clear relevance to the modern land claims, it assumes more knowledge of those claims than many readers [End Page 132] will have. Brealey is most effective in showing how one man was able to impose his culturally conditioned will on British Columbia's demographic and economic landscape.

Jo-Anne Fiske's compact essay offers some fine insights into factors affecting a colonial regime's legal culture, particularly on the frontiers of colonization. She shows, first, that some nonnative officials relied on principles of native law in order to further their own interests and, second, that such uses of native law principles eventually became an unacceptable threat to the colonial economy. She closes with an important question about the possible consequences of incorporating native legal discourse in British Columbian law today, but she probably poses the question too cryptically for anyone unfamiliar with the issue.

Two other contributors remind us...