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Real Indians didn’t work, did they? – A history essay

December 15, 2010

Assessing a well-worn myth about aboriginal workers and their role in settling the ‘white’ West

The noble savage is dead. Long live the noble savage. That seems to have been the view of many politicians, land promoters, frontier boosters and historians as the nineteenth century drew to a close and western settler society clinched its hold on former aboriginal lands forever. At least that is what was promoted in earnest as the West on both sides of the forty-ninth parallel cranked up the unstoppable machine of industrial progress. So, a conquered people walks into the sunset, blankets wrapped around them, papooses on their backs, American soldiers and North-West Mounted Police officers apparently ushering them off to the happy hunting grounds. Already their centuries of existence living free on land where the buffalo roamed were being carved into the form of the wooden cigar store Indian of popular lore in white society.

The best-known artists who depicted the settlement of the West offered the public these images. They painted what they perceived was a true representation of a glorious past and a promising future. Or did they paint what a widely perpetrated myth demanded? Aboriginal people were rendered as harmless and risible lesser beings that couldn’t cut it in the fast-paced new world of western expansion and industrial development. Whether they portrayed a ‘Mild West’ (Canadian) or a ‘Wild West’ (American), as historian Brian Dippie put it, one thing was abundantly clear: indigenous people were culturally invisible, rendered an artefact of bygone times, and seen as an obstruction to progress. They were certainly not pictured as productive workers who contributed extensively to the settlement of western North American. In fact, they were not believed to be workers at all.

Recently, historians are showing that the colourful paintings – and some equally colourful histories – were a far cry from the truth. Aboriginal workers, men, women and in some cases children, had much to do with helping to ‘settle’ the West and they suffered immeasurably for it. There is increasing acknowledgement of that role and of claims that without them white settlers might never have survived. Ample evidence shows that aboriginal people sacrificed their ancient cultures, livelihoods and futures so that colonial economies could thrive, but reaped few of the long-term benefits.

Earlier historians, boosters, novelists, poets and artists with a romantic bent made good use of the well-worn myths legitimized by the likes of American historian Frederick Jackson Turner that the West was a place to conquer and the regrettable toll would be the western territories’ first peoples. After all, there was a West to expand into for Canadians and a manifest destiny to promulgate for Americans. As historian Beth LaDow notes in The Medicine Line, “Turner placed the frontier at the heart of America’s essential story, at once grandly progressive and poignantly sad: a nation born on a frontier it was destined to overcome, finding its greatness in a wilderness it was destined to destroy.”[1]

Cultural and environmental destruction was the price paid when newcomers came to settle on their newfound, some say stolen, lands. Through war, economic dominance and the rule of law colonial governments, doing the will of white settlers, would build their quasi-European societies. Historian John Lutz, echoing LaDow and others, criticized Turner’s argument as one that justified “the destruction of indigenous peoples…[as] part of the trial by fire from which a new nation and a new people would be born.”[2]

Yes, there were the heroic sagas of white Indian fighters battling rebellious chiefs invented by popular novelists like Owen Wister and Zane Grey. There were the images of a proud but defeated Sitting Bull, victor over Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The great chief sensed in the wind what the coming of the white man would bring for his people. There were images of Louis Riel captured and hung for trying to forestall that same coming. There were the images of Indian wars on the Great Plains and slaughters along the forty-ninth parallel at Cypress Hills and elsewhere.

As the sagas go, the fearless white soldiers of Thomas Jefferson and John A. Macdonald’s newly created Mounties overcame the savages and put them in their place however diminished that place might become. Despite the actual violence that characterized much of the nineteenth-century West, the myth-makers offered even fiercer images of the massacres of innocents. Apocryphal though the more exaggerated images may be, they still capture our attention today in museums and art galleries.

The creation of these myths helped create Canada and the United States. They were instrumental in forging those two nations and they did it partly by perpetuating false images of aboriginal peoples. To the settler seeking a bit of land that he or she could own and work, it didn’t matter. They were encouraged by the images and they would go west to discover what their dreams looked like in real life. They were often disappointed. There was no way the West could live up to those dreams, yet the paid propagandists were persuasive. They penned glowing descriptions of coming prosperity. Soon the land-craving easterners and European immigrants would further push the aboriginal first owners of the land to the background, out of sight and out of their booster-blinded minds. LaDow discusses how Canadian-born railway baron James J. Hill, a millionaire American West booster, promoted the “great adventure” that awaited the new settlers:

Jim Hill got his wish. The land rush was astounding. The dry country began absorbing people like blotting paper. Droves of them – in model T’s reeking with cooking grease, in little Maxwells with repaired axles, in piled-high Studebaker wagons, and of course on the railroads, stepping dazed from emigrant cars, standing expectantly amidst trunks, clocks, manure, flying feathers, wagons, and sewing machines, waiting trackside for a “locator” to take them to their square of paradise.[3]

The eventual and inevitable result was the ethnocide of the aboriginal population that had been there for centuries. Though that population far outnumbered the settlers even into the latter part of the nineteenth century, it would need to adjust to the invaders ways or perish.[4]

How the European colonial powers accomplished this feat is a matter taken up in many histories. There are those that treat the aboriginals as the stoic victim. Others see them as an enemy to be conquered. Still others see them as being assimilated. We know that it was a result riddled with racism and fear that was justified in the name of progress. What is not so well known is the real role aboriginal workers played in the settlement of the West. What were the political and environmental impediments put in place to discourage their former way of life in subsistence and customary economies? How did institutionalized racism work to the colonial powers’ advantage? What pressures were brought to bear on aboriginal people and their leaders to force them to abandon their culture and their traditional way of life?  How did they resist such pressures? How did colonial powers on both sides of the forty-ninth parallel make the Indian of the frontier West invisible and why did they see that as necessary? How did the myth of the lazy Indian get used as a tool in settling the West?

Let us examine western myths in more detail for the use of myth had much persuasive potency in the process of first boosting and then settling the West. Myth also helped to clutter the reality of wealthy men seeking even greater wealth through the rapid industrialization of a racially cleansed and colonized West.

Historian Brian Dippie, in examining how early artists portrayed the West, shows how their choice of visual imagery perpetrated one myth: that there was only one West, there were two, but “Neither West lived up to its mythic billing.”[5] In the cowboys-and-Indians West created by these artists and various writers, including future United States President Theodore Roosevelt, Dippie revealed the myth’s compelling strengths, especially as they related to the working class. Cowboys were better people than farmers and agricultural workers, he quoted Roosevelt as saying, “nor are the mechanics and workmen of a great city to be mentioned in the same breath.”[6] 

Certainly this was the prevailing attitude when it came to aboriginal people in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Cowboys “were touchstones to a common myth” and “Indians, too, served as touchstones to that myth.”[7] Roosevelt and the artists Dippie mentions also saw the aboriginal as “a ghost whose lingering presence affirmed the bustling, progressive civilization that had displaced him.” As he puts it, the aboriginal

“could join it by abandoning such vestiges of his old way of life as tipis, feathers, and the other picturesque reminders of yesterday like the buffalo skulls that dotted the land where plows now turned over the soil and farmers planted their crops.” Or,  

he could stand aside and observe, with resignation, the new forces that had doomed his way of life. In this guise, as the representative of a “vanishing race” – more precisely, a vanishing culture – the Indian, decked out in traditional finery, filled an obvious allegorical role for artists interested in sounding a nostalgic note as they celebrated, regretfully or otherwise, civilization’s triumphant advance.[8]

Even American novelist Jack London, an ardent communist, was part of this disappearing act. With regard to the gold rushes of the late 1890s, as historian Kathryn Morse states, “Those of [Jack] London’s contemporaries who did take note of the social consequences for Native peoples along the Yukon often dismissed those dislocations and personal tragedies as the necessary costs of the advance of white civilization. London did not even mention Native peoples in his article.”[9]

There it was in a nutshell. But how did the myth translate into the material reality that came when settlers and historians alike conjured their misunderstandings of what to expect regarding aboriginals who had occupied and used the land in their traditional ways for centuries? The answer lies partly in learning how colonial and later national governments responded to their own need to control growth in the West and eventually to use it to nation-build. The editors of Parallel Destinies, a series of borderlands essays, summarize:

Although the First Nations peoples adapted to the new conditions, the introduction of virgin soil epidemics, the alterations wrought by capitalist trade, and the sociocultural transformations that attended the spread of Christianity and the confrontation with European racism altered centuries-old patterns of life and subsistence. Among their arsenal of tricks and trinkets, the Europeans also brought an important new idea: the concept of borders and fixed colonial territories.[10]

The myth, then, was the handiwork of land speculators, empire builders, pamphlet-writing boosters, colonial managers…and future American presidents. An effective part of that myth was the notion that aboriginal workers played no role in the expansion of an industrial economy as it blazed its way into the mountains, plains and valleys of lands west of the Mississippi and the Red River. As historical geographer Cole Harris argues, “Europeans readily concluded that, without technologies of note, Natives must be savages, while the whole paraphernalia of European modernity, from steam engines to tableware, was a tangible yardstick of their own civilization.”[11]

What followed the myth about the western garden waiting to make European paupers rich or at least small landholders was the myth that the people who owned the land that was being legally stolen were expendable and therefore invisible. It was much to the white settlers’ advantage to activate this strategy, and historians appear to have aided and abetted the aboriginal vanishing act. For Lutz “Non-aboriginal historians…have accomplished what disease, violence, and social disruption could not: by basing history on the impressions of immigrant groups, we have made Aboriginal People ‘disappear’.”[12] He forcefully declares that “The ‘red men’ have not vanished from the historical landscape: they have been vanished.”[13] Harris adds that “the use rights of a different and, in most settler eyes, a lesser people, were essentially invisible.”

Blaming historians and settlers, though tempting, was not the only explanation for the invisibility of aboriginals. Official sanctions made them disappear as well.  Anti-aboriginal actions of men like Joseph Trutch, British Columbia’s first lieutenant governor, and others were probably less carefully planned and more reactive to the situation as it arose. Still, historians have uncovered evidence of their racialized views on aboriginal rights to adequate space, work and their own cultures. As Harris notes, Trutch “thought Native people were slovenly and lazy, and doubted their capacity for abstract thought.[14]

They justified aboriginal displacement and dispossession – two key instruments in the social engineering toolbox of all colonialism – through science and political philosophy. The early settlers and later immigrants from far-off lands came west believing they had a God-given right to own that same land because they were biologically superior to the ‘red man’. Scientists had told them so. “The 1860s were probably the high point of “scientific” racism,” writes Harris. “The ideas of the phrenologists, craniometricians, and polygenesists were still very much alive and…the idea of evolution as a competitive biological process was also used to explain the relative attainments of different peoples.”[15]

British philosophers like John Locke had argued that the New World migrants had a divine right to own the land if they could make nature produce commodities from it. If the ignorant savages who lived on it didn’t know how to make it pay, it should be up for grabs to those who did. Harris cites Lockean scholar Barbara Arniel, saying she “is right to suggest that English recognition of Aboriginal right to land in seventeenth-century America emerged less from legal or moral principles than when it served the interests of English colonizers to do so.” He adds that “the underlying intention of almost any Native land policy in a settler colony was the dispossession, with as little expense and trouble as possible, of Native peoples of most of their lands.”[16] 

Certainly the notion of private property had a profound influence on aboriginal-white relations, but this did not come first with the rush of settlers in the late 1800s. More than a hundred years earlier, fur traders and Christian missionaries travelled to the West carrying this land ownership philosophy to aboriginal communities in hopes of converting them to the Christian deity and the new capitalist economy that went with it. Before the aboriginal was ‘lazy’ he was raw material for the missionaries to mould as they saw fit.

British settlers might have related to aboriginals’ often nomadic and communalistic way of life and their view of the land as belonging to no one – a shared and common wealth. After all, their ancestors lived closer to that pre-industrial reality until the Enclosure Acts in the mid-eighteenth century shifted society towards private property.[17] Yet they were blinded or chose to ignore the culture and economy that were already in place when they arrived in their new home. Instead of adjusting to it, the majority vowed to end it. The invasion of the white settlers, with their assumptions of superiority based on science and philosophy, led to an imposed European culture and economy based on private property and financial profit.

As historian Alexandra Harmon has shown, what they found when they arrived on western aboriginal land was a “roughly woven regional and social fabric” where people had “multiple affiliations, multiple loyalties, and multiple ways to identify themselves to others.”[18] This diversity was largely ignored by settler society. Instead, they argued that North America’s first peoples were incapable of realizing the potential of the land they owned and that it was, therefore, right and proper to move in and take over. Lutz puts it more bluntly in a 2002 essay on Indian migration: “aboriginal people were offered choices that undermined their own cultural economy and were constantly judged negatively by the measures of capitalism.”[19] He concludes elsewhere that “Settlement, not contact, marked the demise of aboriginal culture and history.”[20]

Coupled with the myth of a lesser people and the right of white settlers to take possession of aboriginal land was the myth of the lazy Indian. This myth, too, had political and scientific backing. As Harris notes, “the aggressive, money-oriented individualism of white culture often did not correspond to Native cultural objectives.[21] From the fur-trading era onwards, the two cultures – one monied, Christian and European, the other grounded in a shared use of nature and spiritualism – were in steady conflict. The aboriginals were synchronized with their spiritually inspired sense of the land and they had their own ways of dealing with what nature threw at them. The settlers, too, had to find ways to address their new natural surroundings whether it was the boomtown or the coastal wilderness, rugged mountains or dry prairie.

Some historians, particularly in addressing the use of nature, have argued that the plunder of the land wrought by the settler economy had dire consequences. They suggest that how we use the earth influences the environment and social relations. Morse, for example, describes how the gold miners of the Klondike related to their new and harsh setting: “Hunting and fishing ventures connected miners to the salmon, moose, and caribou they harvested for their dinner tables. These labors created direct, tangible, visible ties to the earth, to animals, trees, soils, creeks, and mountains, to local places and ecosystems, and to the burnished yellow dust and nuggets of gold itself.”[22] These activities also connected them to aboriginal workers who mule-hauled, picked and shovelled and even prostituted themselves in aid of the settlers’ rush to get rich.

For Morse, “Capitalist culture treated nature, the nature which produced pork, beans, gold, and every other thing that humans valued, as an instrument to be harvested and exploited to the point of destruction for maximum profit.”[23] Among those exploited were the aboriginal peoples along what they called ‘the medicine line’ wherever it had been laid. They were caught up in a battle for survival that pushed them to work for wages in this emerging capitalist-driven environment while they continued to engage in their subsistence and ‘prestige’ (potlatch-related) economies. Eventually it would lead them into a welfare economy and the demise of their earlier lifestyles.

Historian Rolf Knight’s 1978 book, Natives at Work, provides a well-researched compendium of the paid work that aboriginals performed to survive the steady rush of white settlers. Knight’s goal was to refute “the view which holds that native Indians were occupationally limited by the continuing imperatives of their aboriginal cultures….Whatever else they were, whatever cultural traditions they retained, Indian loggers were loggers, Indian longshoremen were longshoremen, Indian cannery workers were cannery workers.”[24] In pursing this goal, he shows that without aboriginals the early settlers could not have survived the natural environment they had chosen, or been coaxed by authorities and boosters, to occupy.

As evidence, Lutz notes that “in 1828, [Sir George] Simpson found that, in contrast to their previous practice of importing food, Hudson’s Bay Company people were now dependent upon Aboriginal People “for the means of subsistence and for various duties about the establishments.”[25] He concludes that “The European economy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries depended on aboriginal labour.”[26] In some parts of the northwest coast in 1858, Lutz quotes a local newspaper: “‘many areas of work – lumber mills, logging camps, farming and shipping – would have been unable to get along without Indian labour’.”[27]

Knight documents this participation industry by industry, showing that aboriginal labour was instrumental in these operations. Indeed, Lutz notes that the coal industry on Vancouver Island was literally discovered and run by aboriginal miners, as acknowledged by colonial governor James Douglas.[28] As stated earlier, there were also hundreds and perhaps thousands of aboriginal gold miners and those providing service to the white mining communities that mushroomed in British Columbia and the Yukon Territory.[29] They were fishers, farmers, loggers, mill hands, navvies, domestics and even arts and crafts workers. For Knight, “Employment in the broader economy was an important aspect of native Indian history,”[30] adding that “Wage work in the major industries of the province has been an intimate feature of Indian lives for five and more generations.”[31]

More recently, aboriginal historian Charles R. Menzies and Caroline F. Butler have further confirmed Knight’s findings in their study of two British Columbia coastal first nations. They write that first peoples did take opportunities offered by the settler economy, but they did not abandon their own, noting that “Ts’msyen and Gitxaala peoples have adopted some elements of the K’mksiwah [settler] economy while rejecting others. They have acted simultaneously within and against the emerging capitalist order.”[32]  Although it might seem that the settlers took over aboriginal land without resistance from its previous owners, Menzies and Butler argue that “social and class relations that emerged on the north coast did so as the result of indigenous actions, decisions, and responses. It was not a simple process of external pressure acting upon a passive population.”[33]

And yet it seems that many historians, like Robin Fisher, have ignored this participation and even dismissed it as untrue.[34] Also often ignored are the roles aboriginal women played as workers in fish canneries, on hop farms and doing various other seasonal jobs as well as their role as domestics in settler homes. As historian Page Raibmon argues, women worked alongside the men in various parts of the settler economy. She explains that

Most Aboriginal people lacked a single source of income upon which they could rely. They consequently spun themselves an economic safety net by moving between seasonal occupations. This strategy characterized Aboriginal subsistence and trade long before White settlement, and Aboriginal people put it to work under the economic uncertainty of colonial capitalism.[35]

Raibmon and others describe another aspect of aboriginal economic participation as well: prostitution. They could be slaves forced to do the bidding of their aboriginal owners and this could take the form of selling them into sexual service.[36] Also, some aboriginal cultures accepted prostitution. Some of the women saw it as a way to earn money to increase their status at potlatches.[37] And many fur traders and other whites took aboriginal wives. As Harmon notes, Hudson’s Bay Company employees “often found mates among women they knew as Indians” and “Numerous early American and European settlers – also married or had liaisons with native women.”[38]

Aboriginal wage labour continued through the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, much of it occurring along the forty-ninth parallel and further north on the British Columbia coast. Borderlands studies reveal patterns of economic activity that circumstances created by white settlement forced on aboriginal workers. They also show how surveying and mapmaking could and did become the tools of oppression that eventually boxed first peoples onto reserves on either side of the border drawn between Canada and the United States. Historian Sheila McManus writes in her 2005 borderlands study, The Line Which Separates, about the Blackfoot confederacy, that “International scholars of colonialism have argued that mapping, surveying, and scientific information gathering were not just tools of North American exploration and national building but also of international empire building.” [39] McManus, suggests that

while the line between the United States and Canada was needed to create each nation, other lines, distinguishing “Indians” from “whites,” Indian land from white land, femininity from masculinity, were equally necessary in the borderlands because both nations depended on assumptions about race, space, and gender to make all of their demarcations meaningful.[40]

She adds that “by the closing decade of the [nineteenth] century, the Blackfoot had been rendered largely invisible on both sides of the border, socially and economically marginalized on their reserves, their territory obscured by the maps and borders of whites.”[41]

LaDow in her borderlands study, The Medicine Line, describes the kind of economic adjustments that aboriginal workers faced. She explains that the invisible border between the two nations was meaningless to first peoples except to show that its creation was another way for whites to limit or control aboriginal ways of life and disrupt traditional economies. The boundary “formed the centre of a particular kind of experiment, a cross-boundary frontier,” she writes. “It saw the typical Western succession of weary surveyors, visionary railroad men, hard-bitten ranchers, and beleaguered homesteaders. [For them, the line represented] the hopes and limitations, complements and contradictions of people adapting to each other in a remote and difficult geography.”[42] For the aboriginal peoples that lived along the line, it also “had the power to transform his [Sitting Bull’s] people’s social and political status.”[43] And this it did, including their relationship to other workers.

Though it was not part of their culture to do so, aboriginal workers joined early trade unions and even participated in job actions. They supported the 1893 fishermen’s strikes on the Fraser River, for example, and “In 1906 the Duncan local of the Federal Labour Union was composed partly of Indian workers…In the same year, Indian longshoremen of the Burrard Inlet area were central in forming the Lumberhandlers Industrial Union, Local 526 of the Industrial Workers of the World.”[44]

Despite this participation, trade unions fell into lockstep with the colonial mentality regarding Indian labour. Wage work interrupted their aboriginal economic activity and aboriginal workers tried to compensate by participating in both. By doing so, they were seen as incompatible with the modern workplace. As Harris explains, “In these more formalized work environments in which intermittent, casual work had become exceptional, the intrusion of other work regimes and the absenteeism and censure associated therewith, only served to undermine a Native worker’s seniority in the union and compatibility with the industrial workplace.[45]

If possible, Chinese and Japanese workers were treated with more disdain and disrespect than aboriginal workers. They were abused by employers and became handy political targets for labour organizations, including the American Federation of Labour which, to win favour with both members and unaffiliated trade unionists, pushed for legislation to ban Asian labour from the workplace and restrict their civil rights.[46] Even the more progressive Knights of Labor and its more radical affiliate the Western Federation of Miners catered to the interests of white workers with anti-Asian gestures.[47] Historian Carlos Schwantes in Radical Heritage suggests that “Workingmen were frightened by the steady, hard-working Chinese, who supposedly did not drink liquor, ate little, and were often used as pawns by the new entrepreneurs to drive wages down and disrupt union organization.”[48]

It would seem that the trade union movement disregarded and disrespected the aboriginal working population in tandem with employers and local politicians. The Chinese were a threat to jobs, so they became a more important ethnic group to challenge and be rid of through any means possible, including violence, as Schwantes shows. Conservative trade unions that focused exclusively on their specifically white memberships were the rule. In spite of the radicalism that Schwantes documents, unions adopted and sometimes cultivated more conservative views regarding Asian labour. They weren’t very radical either when it came to questioning the treatment of aboriginal groups.[49]

Interestingly, even other immigrant groups covered in historian Gunther Peck’s Reinventing Free Labor, a book partly about the racism that they confronted, seemed to consider themselves better than aboriginal workers. In his study of Greek, Italian and Mexican workers Peck reveals that they looked to their unions to ostracize unwanted (read non-white) labourers even though they themselves were considered non-white. In the case of some Greek workers, their union, the Western Federation of Miners, accommodated them. Schwantes explains:

By excluding Japanese strikers from their ranks in the name of working-class radicalism, Greek strikers underscored the crosscutting nature of the emancipation immigrant workers had achieved. These intersections between racialism and radicalism did not make labor history in the region exceptional, but rather distinct, helping explain why so many western workers appear both exclusive and inclusive, ‘conservative’ and ‘radical’.[50]

Although much evidence points to a strong tendency among unionized workers to dismiss aboriginal, black and immigrant workers, not all trade unionists of the day were racist. George Henry Evans, editor of The Workingman’s Advocate, publishing in the 1830s and 1840s, “condemned the confiscation of Indian lands in the North, South, and West, while making room for Native peoples in his vision of a national commons.”[51] A notably progressive voice of his age, Evans added that a non-white worker must “have his right to land restored to him before he can be free.”[52]

But the historic fact is that unions did not, by and large, provide enough support or protection for aboriginal workers in spite of occasional aboriginal support for strikes and other worker-employer conflicts, particularly in mining, forestry and longshoreing. While Italian, Greek and other European immigrant workers eventually won acceptance, aboriginal workers seldom did. As Harris argues, aboriginal workers “experienced the racism that fell differentially on the labour force, placing them, in common white estimation, far below white workers, if perhaps a notch above the Chinese or Japanese.”[53] Clearly, in terms of their role in the new colonial economy, they were as invisible at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth as they were when settlement began in earnest and the colonial powers took decisive steps to make them go away.

Lutz, Knight, Harris and others often wear two hats as they study aboriginal history. They are as much advocates as they are historians, using their craft to battle for racial equality and gender, environmental and human rights. But their ideologies – clearly left of centre to Marxist – do not appear to limit their search for truth or reduce their writings to brash polemics and rash propaganda. Note their critical information on potlatches and the rapacity of some chiefs as well as those on aboriginal prostitution and slavery. Nor do their studies hide the fact that aboriginal groups were violent towards each other as much as towards the invading white population.

Yet they might ask themselves if it all matters anymore. What’s done is done. Yes, the aboriginal peoples were cheated out of their land by myths and manipulation, tricks and unrespected treaties, maps and surveys, laws and outlaws, traders and exploiters, settlers and their governments. The settler society is guilty as charged. Why should historians bother re-examining what happened? Why revisit events that have evolved into the sad reality of today? For some, it matters because as activists they want to support ongoing attempts to settle native land claims and current efforts to develop workable self-government for First Nations peoples. In his 2008 book Makuk, Lutz suggests it is a question of assuaging the guilt: “Canadians are haunted by the unfinished business of colonization and a collective guilt over historic injustices and our contemporary relationships with Aboriginal Peoples.”[54] For others, it is a matter of correcting the historical record. Knight, for example, argues that “Accounts of native Indian labour in BC should be considered in conjunction with the life and labour of non-native people.”[55] As Menzies and Butler claim,

the success of the natural resource industries in British Columbia depended upon the movement of labour from the indigenous economy to the industrial economy and the eventual enclosure of First Nations’ labour power within the authority of a market-based system of wage labour. The success of these industries depended on the movement of resources from the aboriginal economy to the industrial economy – the capture of fish and trees, and the capture and control of land and sea.[56]

Whatever their reasons, today’s historians have accepted the task of giving aboriginal workers their rightful and accurate place in the history of the North American West.


Dippie, Brian. “One West, One Myth: Transborder Continuity in Western Art,” The American Review of Canadian Studies 33, Winter 2003, pp. 509-42.

Findlay, John and Coates, Ken, eds. Parallel Destinies: Canadians, Americans, and the Western Border (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002).

Harmon, Alexandra. “Lines in Sand: Shifting Boundaries Between Indians and Non-Indians in the Puget Sound Region,” Western Historical Quarterly 26, 1995, pp. 429-453.

Harris, Cole. Making Native Space: Colonialism, Resistance, and Reserves in British Columbia (Vancouver: UBC Press, c2002).

Highway, Tomson. Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout (Vancouver: Firehall Arts Centre production, April 29, 2009).

Knight, Rolf. Indians at Work: An Informal History of Native Labour in British Columbia, 1858-1930 (Vancouver: New Star Books, 1996). 

LaDow, Beth. The Medicine Line: Life and Death on a North American Borderland (New York/London: Routledge, 2001).  

Lutz, John. Makúk: A New History of Aboriginal-White Relations (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008).

McManus, Sheila. The Line Which Separates: Race, Gender, and the Making of the Alberta-Montana Borderlands (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, c2005).

Menzies, Charles R. and Butler, Caroline F. “The Indigenous Foundation of the Resource Economy of BC’s North Coast” (Labour/Le Travail 61, Spring 2008). 

Morse, Kathryn. The Nature of Gold: An Environmental History of the Klondike Gold Rush (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003).  

Peck, Gunther. Reinventing Free Labor: Padrones and Immigrant Workers in the North American West, 1880-1930 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Peck, Gunther. “The Nature of Labor: Fault Lines and Common Ground in Environmental and Labor History,” Environmental History 11, April 2006, pp. 212-238.

Raibmon, Paige. Authentic Indians: Episodes of Encounter from the Late-Nineteenth-Century Northwest Coast (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).

Schwantes, Carlos A. Radical Heritage: Labor, Socialism, and Reform in Washington and British Columbia, 1885-1917 (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1979).  

Sharp, Paul F. “Whoop-Up Trail: International Highway on the Great Plains,” Pacific Historical Review 21 (May 1952): 129-44.

Simoneau, Yves, dir. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (HBO Film release, May 2007), based on the book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970). 

Stegner, Wallace. “The Medicine Line,” Chapter 7 in Wolf Willow: A History, A Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier (Toronto: Macmillan Co., 1967).

 Taylor, Joseph E. III, “Boundary Terminology,” Environmental History 13 (July 2008, pp. 454-81).

 White, Richard. “The Nationalization of Nature,” Journal of American History 86 (December 1999): 976-86.

 White, Richard and Findlay, John, eds. Power and Place in the North American West (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999).

[1] Beth LaDow, The Medicine Line: Life and Death on a North American Borderland (New York/London: Routledge, 2001), 20.

[2] John Lutz, Makúk: A New History of Aboriginal-White Relations (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008), 43.

[3] LaDow, 154.

[4] Lutz, 163, notes that “despite introduced diseases and a dramatically reduced population, Aboriginal People remained in the majority long after the first white settlement.” He adds, 165, that “When BC joined Canada in 1971, there were three times as many Aboriginal People as ‘settlers’ living there. In fact, until 1885, BC was, by population at least, an ‘aboriginal province’.” Rolf Knight, Indians at Work: An Informal History of Native Labour in British Columbia, 1858-1930 (Vancouver: New Star Books, 1996), 25, says there “were possibly 80,000 native people living in the territory of present-day BC in the late 1770s.”

[5] Brian Dippie, “One West, One Myth: Transborder Continuity in Western Art,” The American Review of Canadian Studies 33, Winter 2003, pp. 509-42, 510.

[6] Dippie, 522.

[7] Dippie, 523.

[8] Dippie, 524.

[9] Kathryn Morse, The Nature of Gold: An Environmental History of the Klondike Gold Rush (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003), 196.

[10] John Findlay and Ken Coates, eds. Parallel Destinies: Canadians, Americans, and the Western Border (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), 11.

[11] Cole Harris, Making Native Space: Colonialism, Resistance, and Reserves in British Columbia (Vancouver: UBC Press, c2002), 52.

[12] Lutz, 279.

[13] Lutz, 42.

[14] Harris, 50.

[15] Harris, 46.

[16] Harris, 14.

[17] Harris, 266) makes reference to the British settlers who would perhaps remember the seizure of lands in their own country where “the centuries-long struggles over enclosure had been waged between a great many ordinary folk who sought to protect customary rights to land (on which livelihoods often depended), and landlords who wanted to dispense with the clutter and relative unprofitability of customary usage and use their lands as they saw fit.”

[18] Alexandra Harmon, “Lines in Sand: Shifting Boundaries Between Indians and Non-Indians in the Puget Sound Region,” Western Historical Quarterly 26, 1995, pp. 429-453), 446.

[19] Lutz, Parallel Destinies, 96.

[20] Lutz, Makuk, 43.

[21] Harris, 283.

[22] Morse, 8.

[23] Morse, 12.

[24] Knight, 20.

[25] Lutz, 165.

[26] Lutz, 7.

[27] Lutz, 170.

[28] Lutz, 42.

[29] Lutz, 41.

[30] Knight, 328.

[31] Knight, 3.

[32] Charles R. Menzies and Caroline F. Butler, “The Indigenous Foundation of the Resource Economy of BC’s North Coast” (Labour/Le Travail 61, Spring 2008), 21.

[33] Menzies and Butler, 2.

[34] Robin Fisher, Contact and Conflict: Indian-European Relations in British Columbia, 1774-1890 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 1977/1992), is regularly cited for this dismissive approach. Knight, 5, says “Fisher’s account is a recrudescence of the view that with the passing of the buffalo, or the sea otter, and with the coming of the steam engine, native Indian peoples were shuffled off into some form of reserve dependence.” He further critiques, 18, Fisher’s views…that Indian labour had become “irrelevant to the BC economy after major European settlement.”

[35] Paige Raibmon, Authentic Indians: Episodes of Encounter from the Late-Nineteenth-Century Northwest Coast (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 98.

[36] Lutz comments extensively on aboriginal slavery in his essay “Annual Migrations of  ‘Canadian Indians’ in John Findlay and Ken Coates, eds. Parallel Destinies: Canadians, Americans, and the Western Border (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), 94.

[37] Lutz, Parallel Destinies, offers insights into the importance of potlatches, p. 84.

[38] Harmon, 434.

[39] Sheila McManus, The Line Which Separates: Race, Gender, and the Making of the Alberta-Montana Borderlands (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, c2005), 17. On p. xviii, McManus quotes cultural geographer Peter Jackson as arguing that all maps “are ideological instruments in the sense that they project a preferred reading of the material world.” [Jackson, Peter. Maps of Meaning: An Introduction to Cultural Geography (London and New York: Routledge, 1989, 186.]

[40] McManus, 83.

[41] McManus, 177.

[42] LaDow, xviii.

[43] LaDow, xv.

[44] Knight, 17.

[45] Harris, 287.

[46] Carlos Schwantes, Radical Heritage: Labor, Socialism, and Reform in Washington and British Columbia, 1885-1917 (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1979), 80, “[the trait of Pacific northwest labour movement], the one most easily accommodated by the AFL was the continuing anti-Orientalism.”

[47] Schwantes, 26, “the Knights built a local assembly from the unsound timber of anti-Chinese sentiment.”

[48] Schwantes, 23.

[49] Schwantes hardly mentions the union movement’s response to Indian workers and there is no reference to aboriginal, indigenous or Indian workers in his index. Perhaps the omission, like that of so many historians, is part of the academic disappearing of Indians that has gone on since the mid-18th century.

[50] Schwantes, 225.

[51] Gunther Peck, “The Nature of Labor: Fault Lines and Common Ground in Environmental and Labor History,” Environmental History 11, April 2006, pp. 212-238), 227.

[52] Peck, Environmental History, 228.

[53] Harris, 289.

[54] Lutz, Makuk, 296.

[55] Knight, 24.

[56] Menzies and Butler, 21.

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