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Reviewed by:
  • In the Days of Our Grandmothers: A Reader in Aboriginal Women's History in Canada
  • Susan Elaine Gray (bio)
Mary-Ellen Kelm and Lorna Townsend, editors. In the Days of Our Grandmothers: A Reader in Aboriginal Women's History in Canada. University of Toronto Press. xii, 434. $36.00

This volume gathers previously published essays on Canadian Aboriginal women's history. The contributions were collected by Mary-Ellen Kelm and Lorna Townsend, who wrote an introduction that includes the development of theoretical paradigms in Aboriginal women's history in Canada, a comprehensive eleven-page bibliography that presents a broad range of work generated in Aboriginal women's history, and an index. There are some very fine essays in this reader - pieces that are nuanced and sophisticated in their analysis, and that challenge readers to transcend intellectual and other boundaries. This is the book's chief strength.

The authors, coming from a variety of backgrounds, wield a range of methodologies and tap sources that are historical, gender historical, anthropological, ethno-historical, and archaeological. This variety ensures that readers witness the construction of gender history through myriad lenses and varied vantage points, and through the pursuit of different kinds of questions. All of the essays focus on the experiences of Aboriginal women in post-contact times and examine the effects of colonization. The book focuses on the fur trade, the church, the coming of settlement, subsistence and paid labour, sexuality and reproduction, law and the state, and writing and representation.

Many of the contributors transcend old rigid and simplistic models that painted Aboriginal women as witless victims who lost their power, their purposes, and their sense of family and self through the ravages of colonialism and its institutions. Susan Sleeper-Smith, for example, discusses women who created Catholic kin networks, used Catholicism to maintain autonomy in their marriages, and operated with proficiency in Native and European worlds. Rather than seeing Aboriginal women as victims of colonization, Sleeper-Smith shows that their role as cultural brokers in the fur trade was truly pivotal. Bruce M. White describes the importance of incorporating both early documents and later ethnographies into what he calls the 'ongoing creative process' of determining ways that women functioned as the builders of bridges between cultures in the fur trade and, as had Native men, enjoyed distinct and powerful roles in their societies. Nancy Shoemaker shows that, at a time when mid-nineteenth-century Iroquois society was in a state of turmoil and flux, Iroquois people who took on Christianity did so for reasons that were sensible to them, incorporating Christian beliefs and rituals that [End Page 559] easily fitted into their cultural framework. Women, she argues, deftly used Christian symbols to assert their own authority. Sarah Carter's chapter shows how, in the face of ideological constraints and the governmental and legal controls that created a marginalized society with decreasing opportunities for Aboriginal people, women in the early reserve years provided a security and stability that were vital to their families and communities.

The title of the book is unfortunate. While it is heartening to see the diversity of scholars working in the field of Aboriginal women's history (both non-Aboriginal and male scholars contribute essays), there is a disappointing lack of Aboriginal scholarly representation, given the many scholars of Aboriginal descent who are generating thoughtful and insightful work. With only one Aboriginal contributor, it seems presumptuous to call this book In the Days of Our Grandmothers. A better title might have captured, as well, the focus of many of the essays - that of looking at Aboriginal women as active participants rather than victims of colonization.

The last chapter, by Emma Larocque, which is self-righteous and short on substance, is disappointing. Scholars must seek to cultivate dialogue and communication between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. They must do research that probes all sides of all issues and turn critical eyes to all that they see. Hiding written sources away because they were generated by men who were writing in their times is equivalent to book burning. Doing so is not a scholarly or enlightened way of thinking. The dead cannot defend themselves nor can the generators...


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pp. 559-560
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