- Canadian Indian Cowboys in Australia: Representation, Rodeo, and the RCMP at the Royal Easter Show, 1939
On the eve of the Second World War, eight Aboriginal rodeo riders from Alberta journeyed to Sydney, Australia, to compete at the Royal Easter Show, an annual celebration sponsored by the Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales. They were accompanied, monitored, disciplined, and at times even had their cause championed, by an RCMP officer who served as the contingent's chaperone. Lynda Mannik's intriguing study of their reception and experiences is a welcome addition to the field of Canadian cultural history. It will prove valuable to historians of public exhibitions, European–Aboriginal relations, and, in particular, to those historians interested in the growing body of transnational studies examining citizenship and colonialism.
Mannik uses her introduction to document efficiently the parameters of the tour and then employs the five chapters that follow to highlight the competing aims and motivations of the host Royal Agricultural Society, the Canadian government, the Aboriginal rodeo riders, their RCMP chaperone, and the Australian media and crowds that attended the event. The result is a wonderfully nuanced exploration, not only of the extent to which those involved were able to dictate the outcome of the tour, but also of the manner in which some of them were forced to rethink a number of traditional assumptions about cultural difference, colonialism, citizenship, and national identity. Whereas the Royal Agricultural Society had originally envisioned the tour as an opportunity to 'reproduce well-known colonial frameworks of knowledge by enhancing notions of progress and modernity through the use of primitive imagery,' the result was something quite different. The 'intended meanings' of the tour were transgressed and, to a certain extent, altered as the white Australian audience came to identify with the Aboriginal riders on a level that those involved could hardly have anticipated. This was not a tension-free process; conflict and racism directly affected the athletes' experience throughout the tour. But the story told here is a complex one in which human agency occasionally broke through cultural barriers to create new opportunities for cross-cultural understanding. Effectively organized and filled with revealing anecdotes about the men's experience at the competition and 'off duty,' this book is well suited for use in senior undergraduate or graduate courses. [End Page 357]
As in any study, there are themes that remain underdeveloped. The growing literature on sport and masculinity could have been harnessed to explore the extent to which gender ideals affected the actors' perceptions of one another. And from my own perspective as a historian, I am left wondering about the overall lasting impact of this experience on the participants. The book adroitly highlights the men's agency and consistently emphasizes that the show, and the tour more generally, provided the possibility for cross-cultural exchange and a questioning of hegemonic beliefs among the Australian audience and, at times, even within the mind of Constable Leach, the men's chaperone. But a sustained discussion of the long-term impact of this episode on those involved would have helped to highlight the extent to which these opportunities were taken up and expanded upon or remained fleeting moments in which dominant notions of civilization and racial superiority were only temporarily destabilized.
Finally, one ought to note that the book began life as the author's MA thesis, and while an ever-increasing number of MA programs move toward eliminating the thesis option in favour of a much shorter cognate essay, I would encourage graduate faculty to reflect upon what we are giving up in the name of efficiency: the possibility of more innovative books by early-career scholars with fresh ideas and a desire to present their arguments in a thoughtful but engaging manner.