- An Ethnohistorian in Rupert's Land: Unfinished Conversations by Jennifer S.H. Brown
A cornucopia of riches awaits the reader of An Ethnohistorian in Rupert's Land. The author of this well-written and perceptive study of several northern Indigenous groups from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries is Jennifer Brown, one of the foremost ethnohistorians in North America today. Her collection of eighteen articles, written over a forty-year period, greatly enlarges our understanding of the human history of the huge territory once known as Rupert's Land, where the waters drain into Hudson's Bay. The professor emerita of the University of Winnipeg, and former director of the university's Centre for Rupert's Land Studies, writes clearly and directly, using a variety of written records and oral testimony. [End Page 207]
Each of the six parts of the study begins with a short summary of the chapters to follow, explaining how they fit together. In the first section, the author primarily discusses words and language. Parts Two and Three look at familial and marital relations, as seen through stories and kinship structures. Part Four reviews women and includes a personal sketch of the author and of Sylvia Van Kirk, her friend and fellow contributor to the topic of women in the fur trade. The last two sections concern the Cree and Ojibwe people themselves. Indigenous stories and voices are the author's main interests.
Readers will each have their own favourites in this wide-ranging collection, one full of variety and interesting detail. Wherever Brown felt it appropriate, she has recast her articles, which are not simply reprints. New information, available in oral histories and newly located documents, has contributed to a great upsurge in interest in fur trade society. Very effectively, Brown underlines the importance of the writings of George Nelson, an early nineteenth-century fur trader who crossed enormous barriers of culture and language. In his surviving journals, one can see how the trader viewed life from many different angles – in particular, from within his two fur trade marriages. One totally new article appears in the collection, a wonderful sketch of Charlotte Small, the Cree wife of David Thompson. Until now, all of the attention has gone to the famous fur trader and map-maker, while Charlotte has lingered in the shadows; no longer.
Brown fully uses the accounts of the Christian missionaries to discuss their First Nations work, particularly those produced by the Methodist denomination (now a part of the United Church of Canada). She finds them extremely useful once one learns to read beyond the "Methodistical prose of a past century." Her essay on the attempt by the Reverend Allen Salt, an Ojibwe missionary from southern Ontario, to convert the Ojibwe in northwestern Ontario to Methodism captures the formidable challenges he faced at Rainy Lake in the mid-1850s. Salt, even though of Ojibwe descent, failed completely.
The life story of William Berens (1866–1947) provides an invaluable resource for her as he lived simultaneously in a "modern" and a "traditional" Ojibwe world. He was like other individuals of the time who navigated "complex and intricate paths between Christianity and Ojibwe traditions, while remaining unequivocally Ojibwe." Thanks to the records of the American anthropologist, Irving Hallowell, who worked with the Berens River chief, for many years, as well as from close communication with his descendants from Berens River on the central eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg, Brown came to know him very well.
An Ethnohistorian in Rupert's Land provides an excellent example of how experienced ethnohistorians make the necessary connections between various disciplines to bring forward valuable new perspectives. [End Page 208]
Donald B. Smith
Department of History, University of Calgary