- French Canadians, Furs, and Indigenous Women in the Making of the Pacific Northwest by Jean Barman
Though great syncretic works only appear ever so occasionally, this Governor General’s Award-winning monograph is one such occasion. It is the product of a historian working at the height of her craft and delivers the detail and nuance that only decades of knowledge building can bring. The work brings to the historical foreground the contributions of French-Canadian fur traders and the indigenous women with whom they made their lives, via Jean Barman’s exhaustive analyses of fur-trade, sacramental, and colonial records.
Constructed in three parts—beginning with the overland westward exploration period, followed by the fur-trade period and, finally, the end of that trade and the rise of Anglo-settler colonialism—the work turns on the previously underappreciated contributions of French-Canadian fur traders, their indigenous partners, and their offspring in the very making of the region. Barman uses a very catholic definition of the term French Canadian, referring in fact to the somewhat diverse communities of French-speaking Roman Catholics associated most immediately with the St. Lawrence region (both indigenous and settler communities in the region) but also more broadly to the complex and multi-ethnic peoples of the French North American civilization. Fundamentally, the French-inflected tradition encompassed an easy acceptance of indigenous partners within civil and sacred spaces, and the adoption of some indigenous practices and adaptation to place, albeit through a small-holding-based mixed economy that not coincidentally included the fur trade. What distinguished French-Canadian traders coming west of the Rockies was their propensity to remain there, and the fecundity of their unions with indigenous women. Barman is at pains to show that these women, their children, and their French-Canadian partners were the backbone of the trade, fundamentally necessary to its success. Barman’s methodology highlights the collective imprint of the networks through quantitative assessments, drawing on the records associated with each of over 1,200 traders (and their families), and through detailed exemplars derived from family histories and fur-trade accounts.
Especially important here are the glimpses offered of the otherwise elusive voices of the mostly illiterate folks of the trade, some of which are derived from period accounts, but some of which come from the stories passed down to the traders’ descendants themselves. This is people’s history, and the obligations of the historian to the community are clearly at the front of Barman’s mind. As in her past works, an appendix of biographical notes provides a straightforward guide to the individuals who contributed to the text. In the last section of the book, [End Page 458] the author attends very carefully to the connections between the people of the past and those of the present, and to the active and engaged history making that is being undertaken in chat rooms, local museums, and descendant organizations today.
Not coincidentally, the work also contributes to the area of Metis studies, though in a somewhat subtle way. There is a long and sometimes fraught debate regarding the nature of Metis communities, with some scholars (and some communities for that matter) drawing a strong distinction between people and communities associated with the historic Metis Nation centred on the Red River and North Saskatchewan River areas, and families and communities like (according to Barman) those of the Willamette Valley, made up of complex overlapping and “dual” ties enacted through the children of fur traders and indigenous women. The scholarly debate has been rendered all the more urgent by recent judicial decisions in Canada around the Aboriginal rights of Metis, and the definitions of community to which those rights attached. For Barman, with the possible exception of a few families, the descendants of the fur trade drew on the “double inheritance” of French-Canadian and indigenous traditions selectively, with purpose and agency, rather than articulating the self-conscious and separate identity of the Metis who emerged in north-central North America. Whether this framework works always...