Spirits of the Rockies: Reasserting an Indigenous Presence in Banff National Park by Courtney W. Mason (review)
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Reviewed by
Mason, Courtney W., Spirits of the Rockies: Reasserting an Indigenous Presence in Banff National Park, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014, 224pages.

Spirits of the Rockies: Reasserting an Indigenous Presence in Banff National Park relays a history of the Nakoda First Nation presence in the Banff–Bow Valley region and of how Nakoda experiences in the post-treaty era have been shaped by Canada’s assimilative Aboriginal policies and by the local tourism economy. The book gives a rich history of Nakoda responses to colonial constraints brought on by European settlement in the Banff–Bow Valley region through an examination of power relations inherent in the colonial process. Courtney Mason relies heavily on French theorist Michel Foucault’s approach to conceptualising power – that is, not just as a repressive mechanism but also as a productive force. Mason applies Foucault’s slant on power relations to his own theorisation of how Nakoda responses to governmental assimilationist policies, and participation in the tourism industry, reflected the strategies of Nakoda people to manage colonial influences and to maintain their ways of life.

Mason situates himself clearly throughout the book, and his methodologies are consistently justified to the reader in such a way that he regularly acknowledges the book’s weaknesses. Using a “mixed methods” approach, which draws on historical accounts, archival materials, and personal interviews, Mason leads the reader through a history of Nakoda–settler relations in what became Banff National Park and situates Nakoda experiences of colonisation within the broader scope of Indigenous– state relations in Canada. This history is not relayed in a strictly chronological sense since that would betray Mason’s aim to demonstrate the multi-layered complexity of power relations at play in Indigenous–settler interactions. Rather, he relays this history through a detailed recounting of the impact European settlement and colonial administration had on the Nakoda peoples and, most importantly, by showing how Nakoda peoples negotiated and managed this terrain by taking advantage of opportunities to continue their cultural practices and to redefine their ways of living in spite of these constraints. The result is more dialogical than linear, and this format is mirrored in each of the chapters with historical content.

The book is divided into three parts. The first details the body of social theory Mason draws from to situate the particular experiences of Nakoda peoples within larger systems of power relations. Despite his acknowledgement that Foucault fails to problematise colonialism, Mason argues that Foucault’s conceptualisation of power as a relational force makes his theories effective for understanding colonial power structures. The second part of the book focuses on the policies that followed the signing of Treaty 7 in 1877, which greatly restricted Nakoda movements throughout their traditional lands. Mason draws attention to Nakoda efforts to maintain subsistence practices in spite of the restrictions imposed through the reserve system, the pass system, and the trend of “conservation” discourse that emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The third part of the book focuses on the growth of the tourism economy in Banff National Park and, particularly, the Nakoda presence in the annual Banff Indian Days festival. Mason argues that although the “naturalness” discourse that permeated the park’s marketing campaigns homogenised and invisibilised Indigenous people through pre-colonial imagery, Nakoda people harnessed opportunities presented by the festival to further their own political and socio-economic benefits.

Mason relies heavily on Foucault to frame the power relations inherent in the colonisation process. Granted this allows the work to be situated within common academic debates, and he does point directly to the limitations of this kind of analysis. However, despite Mason’s transparency about the limitations of his argument, the result is a rather disjointed commentary on Nakoda responses to colonisation, which relies on Foucault as the primary mode of analysis rather than on Nakoda concepts. While the book’s content about Foucault’s theories may indeed demonstrate that those theories parallel Nakoda experiences of colonisation, Mason’s claim that he puts an emphasis on Nakoda perspectives falls short, since his discussions of Foucault repeatedly overtakes the potential for his argument to be more deeply informed by the words that come...