Ten Books to Contextualize Idle No More

by Tom Peace on January 4, 2013

By Andrew Watson and Thomas Peace

After reading comment after uninformed comment, both online and in the media, ActiveHistory.ca decided to compile a short list of books written by historians that address the issues being discussed by the Idle No More movement.  Click on a link below to read a brief summary of the book.

Peggy Blair, Lament for a First Nation
Jarvis Browlie, A Fatherly Eye
Shelagh Grant, Arctic Justice
Cole Harris, Making Native Space
Douglas Harris, Fish, Law and Colonialism
J.R. Miller, Compact, Contract, Covenant
Jocelyn Thorpe, Temagami’s Tangled Wild
Treaty Seven Elders and Tribal Council, The True Spirit and Original Intent of Treaty 7
William C. Wicken, Mi’kmaq Treaties on Trial
Michael Witgen, An Infinity of Nations

In addition to these books, we would also like to direct your attention to the Canada in the Making‘s section on “Aboriginals: Treaties & Relations.”  This website provides an overview of the relationship between European empires, the Canadian state and First Nation peoples from the late-fifteenth century to the present. It includes links to online copies of many foundational – and constitutional – documents underpinning Canada’s relationship with First Nation peoples.


Peggy Blair, Lament for a First Nation: The Williams Treaties of Southern Ontario, (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2008)

  • Blair explores the historic and legal context for this major treaty negotiation between seven Ontario First Nations and the federal government. Encompassing 10,000 square miles of south-central Ontario, the Williams Treaties marked the culmination of several decades of confused federal-provincial wrangling for jurisdiction over Native fishing in Ontario, and continued efforts on the part of Mississauga and Chippewa First Nations to have their rights recognized. At the heart of this book are the disputes between First Nations and the provincial government over hunting and fishing rights, which continued throughout the remainder of the twentieth century. Blair argues that the legal basis for court rulings on this treaty have been inconsistent and often contradictory, revealing the inherent fluidity of treaty interpretation.


Jarvis Brownlie, A Fatherly Eye: Indian Agents, Government Power, and Aboriginal Resistance in Ontario, 1918-1939, (Oxford University Press, 2003)

  • Brownlie uses a case study of two Indian Agents from the Georgian Bay area to explore the relationship between the Department of Indian Affairs and reserve communities. Indian Agents acted as intermediaries who oversaw reserve administration and the implementation of government policy. As efforts to assimilate Aboriginal peoples became reduced to simply controlling their lives, the role of the Indian Agent became increasingly influential. By choosing two relatively different reserves and agents, Brownlie reveals how band members resisted these efforts of control, the inconsistent manner in which government policy was employed, and the importance of context in understanding how paternalism operated on reserve during the interwar period.


Shelagh Grant, Arctic Justice: On Trial for Murder, Pond Inlet, 1923, (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002)

  • Grant focuses on the first murder trial in the eastern Arctic. The case involved the death of a White fur trader, killed by an Inuit man in order to protect his family. She argues that the introduction of western jurisprudence and the non-Native criminal justice system to the Arctic during this case marked the imposition of Canadian sovereignty over the Inuit. Grant contrasts the flexible Inuit customs for maintaining social norms and conviviality in the period prior to colonization with the strict legal codes that characterized Western law. Both systems were irreconcilable with one another, but coercion and the threat of violence ensured the latter won out over the former.


Cole Harris, Making Native Space: Colonialism, Resistance, and Reserves in British Columbia, (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2002)

  • In this book, Cole Harris traces government policy towards First Nations in British Columbia from the early-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. Harris focuses on the creation of reserves (and their unusually small size relative to elsewhere in Canada), provincial and federal squabbling over jurisdiction, and Native responses to these colonial interventions. Harris does an excellent job negotiating the different perspectives of imperial and Canadian officials towards settlement and the people living on the land they coveted. The book reveals that colonial policy was debated and that British Columbia’s colonial legacy could have turned out differently. This nuanced reading of the past sets up his final chapter. Chapter 10: Towards a Postcolonial Land Policy explicitly links his historical study to present-day issues. His emphasis on the possibilities of the past allows him to make a suggestion for the future. Harris calls for a redrawing of boundaries between Native and non-Native land in British Columbia as well as “a fair measure of local self-government”.


Douglas Harris, Fish, Law and Colonialism: The Legal Capture of Salmon in British Columbia, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001)

  • In this comprehensive study of the legal history of Aboriginal fishing in British Columbia, Douglas Harris explores how colonial laws displaced Aboriginal laws during the early twentieth century. By demonstrating how colonizers (the canning industry, for example) benefitted from restrictive laws and licensing, Harris argues that the management and regulation of fisheries did not allocate access neutrally. Although regulation impeded First Nation fishing, Aboriginal fishermen resisted the state through the market economy, wage labour and politics. Harris makes it clear that colonial laws could be, and were, contested. Colonization was not a straightforward process.


J.R. Miller, Compact, Contract, Covenant: Aboriginal Treaty-Making in Canada, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009)

  • Compact, Contract, Covenant is perhaps the best synthesis of treaties in Canada. Miller’s book surveys the history of treaty-making from early commercial compacts made between fur traders and First Nations during the seventeenth century to the more modern treaties negotiated with the Canadian state during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The book helps situate the centuries-old treaty relationship within present-day Canadian society and demonstrates why these legal relationships “were, are, and always will be an important part of Canadian life.” This book is a good starting point for anyone interested in legal relationship between indigenous peoples and the Canadian state.


Jocelyn Thorpe, Temagami’s Tangled Wild: Race, Gender, and the Making of Canadian Nature, (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2012)

  • Thorpe explores the ways concepts, such as ‘nature’ and ‘wilderness’, were (and are) socially constructed to create exclusionary spaces. The designation of Temagami as a nature preserve and park in northern Ontario at the start of the twentieth century relied on categories of race, class, and gender in order to obfuscate the long indigenous human occupation of the territory and reconstitute it as a place without history. In doing so, ‘nature’ became something without humans, and ‘wilderness’ framed as something antithetical to civilization. Thorpe argues that these ways of thinking reveal far more about the context within which they are expressed than they do about the places and people they describe and their history.


Treaty Seven Elders and Tribal Council et al. The True Spirit and Original Intent of Treaty 7, (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996)

  • This is a collaboratively written book anchored in the oral testimony of over eighty elders from the five First Nations that are part of Treaty Seven (Bloods, Peigan, Siksika, Stoney, Tsuu T’ina). The book argues that the treaty text did not reflect the agreements made during negotiation; Treaty Seven was a peace treaty rather than a land surrender. In return for their agreement to share the land with the Canadian state, the communities in Treaty Seven were promised freedom to hunt, access to education, medical assistance and financial support. The authors do an excellent job demonstrating the importance of Native oral testimony and explaining why it must be taken seriously when considering past treaty-making processes.


William C. Wicken, Mi’kmaq Treaties on Trial: History, Land and Donald Marshall Junior, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002)

  • Treaties on Trial shares many similarities with The True Spirit and Original Intent of Treaty Seven.  The book explores eighteenth-century British-Mi’kmaw treaty-making through the lens of the Supreme Court of Canada’s Marshall case in the late-1990s. The Marshall case was a landmark decision in Canadian law because it helped integrate First Nations’ perspectives into contemporary legal understanding of treaties. In this book, Wicken demonstrates that eighteenth-century treaties often had both oral and written meanings that were taken seriously by both Aboriginal and Imperial participants. Over time, however, the written text took precedent over the oral agreements.


Michael Witgen, An Infinity of Nations: How the Native New World Shaped Early North America, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011)

  • This book addresses a period before, and during, the early formation of the Canadian and American state.  We have included it on this list because Witgen makes a compelling argument that most North American people remained autonomous from eastern colonial settlements until well into the late-nineteenth century. Rather than being seen as a part of New France, British North America, the United States or Canada, Witgen argues that the European fur trade created an opportunity for alliance between Anishinaabe and Dakota peoples. Together they dominated the politics and political economy of the mid-west, ensuring their own independence and survival. Of all the books on this list, An Infinity of Nations most explicitly demonstrates how the colonial legacy of the Canadian and American state has encouraged historians to ignore First Nations accounts and perspectives in the past.

Thomas Peace is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Native American Studies Program at Dartmouth College; Andrew Watson is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at York University

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Douglas Hunter January 4, 2013 at 10:38 am

I think for the average reader (and the academically inclined as well) Sarah Carter’s Aboriginal People and Colonizers of Western Canada to 1900 is as good a walk-through of the ugly sausage-making of the numbered treaties and political shenanigans as one can find. I also recommend Jill St. Germain’s Indian Treaty-Making Policy in the United States and Canada, 1867-1877 because it nicely compares and contrasts treaties like Fort Laramie and Medicine River with the numbered treaties in Canada.

Sean Kheraj January 4, 2013 at 11:53 am

This is an excellent post. I don’t know if Active History has done something like this before, but I would like to see more of these “recommended readings” posts for other contemporary political issues from time to time (a bit like the reading lists for our special podcast series, “Histories of Canadian Environmental Issues”).

David Tough January 4, 2013 at 12:44 pm

While the focus of Idle No More, and therefore of this list, is on treaties, I would suggest that to understand a lot of the anger involved, people need to read something about the Residential Schools – specifically John Milloy’s A National Crime. The treaty relationship was undermined by the state’s assimilationist policy, and that policy is encapsulated in the Residential Schools.

Sean Kheraj January 4, 2013 at 12:56 pm

I would also recommend that readers listen to this episode of the Nature’s Past podcast on the history of health and environmental issues among Aboriginal peoples of Canada:

http://niche-canada.org/node/10509

The panel discusses many of the issues surrounding living conditions on reserves in Canada and the historical context for understanding crises, such as the Attawapiskat housing crisis from last year. The panel also includes some of the scholars mentioned above.

Jim Clifford January 4, 2013 at 3:10 pm

Historian Christopher Dummitt responds to this post on his own blog. He suggests reading Tom Flanagan to better understand the Conservative perspective/agenda and also lists Annis May Timpson’s response to Flanagan. http://christopherdummitt.blogspot.ca/2013/01/idle-reading.html

Nancy Janovicek January 4, 2013 at 3:33 pm

I would add Janet Silman’s interviews with women from Tobique, Enough is Enough: Aboriginal Women Speak Out, to this list. Their stories demonstrate the effectiveness of grassroots activism and solidarity.

V. Jobson January 5, 2013 at 1:45 am

There is also Bounty and Benevolence: A History of Saskatchewan Treaties by Arthur Ray, JR Miller and Frank Tough. Here is a review of it by Jennifer Brown:

http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1621&context=greatplainsresearch

Daniel Rueck January 5, 2013 at 11:26 am
Ian Milligan January 5, 2013 at 4:40 pm

If you don’t have time to read, a useful source is the NFB Documentary “You are on Indian Land,” available online: http://www.nfb.ca/film/you_are_on_indian_land. It’s really relevant and helps capture the early days of the Red Power movement.

Daniel Rueck January 6, 2013 at 3:27 am

Speaking of films, I also recommend films by Alanis Obomsawin including:
Kahnesatake: 270 Years of Resistance http://www.nfb.ca/film/kanehsatake_270_years_of_resistance/
Spudwrench – Kahnawake Man http://www.nfb.ca/film/spudwrench_kahnawake_man
Is the Crown at war with us? http://www.nfb.ca/film/is_the_crown_at_war_with_us

Each of these is also available in French on the NFB website.

Sean Carleton January 6, 2013 at 8:12 pm

This is a great initiative!

For the British Columbia example, I would add Paul Tennant’s book _Aboriginal Peoples and Politics: The Indian Land Question in British Columbia, 1849-1989_(1990). Tennant’s book focuses on the political organizing side of things in BC which Harris only touches upon briefly. Tennant’s account will be of interest to those building #IdleNoMore as a political movement.

I would also suggest that folks return to and reconsider Howard Adams’s _Prison of Grass: Canada from a Native Point of View_ (1975). Adams’s book is complicated to be sure but it can generate important debate when contrasted with books like Harold Cardinal’s _The Unjust Society_ or Alan Cairns’s _Aboriginal Peoples and the Canadian State_ (2001). Also, as the #IdleNoMore movement expands beyond Canada, works like Dee Brown’s _Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee_(1972) deserve new attention. It was also recently used to create a HBO TV movie of the same name (2007).

For more popular resources, I would recommend Gord Hill’s _The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book_(2010), Thomas King’s _A Short History of Indians in Canada_(2005), and Eden Robinson’s _Traplines_(1998) and _Monkey Beach_(2001).

Also, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Susan Aglukark, and A Tribe Called Red (for example) incorporate Indigenous histories into their music.

AWatson January 6, 2013 at 10:04 pm

A great overview of the process by which English-speaking settlers pursued land acquisition ahead of and often in contravention of Crown-Indigenous treaties is included in Chapter Four ‘Acquisition: Uprooting Native Title’ in John C. Weaver _The Great Land Rush and the Making of the Modern World, 1650-1920_

http://books.google.ca/books/about/Great_Land_Rush_and_the_Making_of_the_Mo.html?id=wmr0sB9HwRgC

A great deal of the hisotrical work done on treaties overlooks the fact that unsanctioned land acquisition on the part of aggressive and speculative settlers and squatters in many cases forced the Crown to enter into treaties more hastily than they would have liked, thereby creating treaties that were often unclear or open to dispute.

Caroline VanEvery-Albert January 6, 2013 at 10:50 pm

I see lots of posts that address colonization and the historical context with respect to Onkwehon:we (Indigenous) people. However, Idle No More is also a movement by the people that is rooted in our traditional practices, traditional knowledge, languages, and traditional ecological knowledge. In order to understand and appreciate the voice of the grassroots people, it’s important to understand where this comes from. There are many Indigenous Scholars who’s research and writing is directly impacting this movement. Some additional resources include:

Aboriginal Epistemology by Willie Ermine

Anti colonial Strategies for the Recovery and Maintenance of Indigenous Knowledge by Leanne R. Simpson

Peace, Power, and Righteousness by Gerald Taiaiake Alfred

White Roots of Peace by Paul Wallace

Revitalizing Indigenous Languages edited by Jon Reyhner

Lighting the Eighth Fire: The Liberation, Resurgence, and Protection of Indigenous Nations by Leanne Simpson

Indigenizing The Academy: Transforming Scholarship and Empowering Communities by Devon Mihesuah and Angela Cavender Wilson

Decolonizing Methodolgies by Linda Tuhiwai Smith

Thinking Indian: A John Mohawk Reader Edited by Jose Barrerio

Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World’s Languages by Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine

On Becoming Human Chief Leon Shenandoah’s story by Steve Wall

Grandma Said by Tom Porter

Rebuilding the Iroquois Confederacy by Lois Hall

The Warriors Handbook by Lois Hall

Black Elk Speaks by John Neihardt

The Red Man’s Appeal For Justice by Clinton Rickard and Levi General

Basic Call to Consciousness by Akwesasne Notes

Red is Red & Custer Died For Your Sins by Vine Deloria

Knots In A String by Peggy Brizinski

Dances with Dependency by Calvin Helin

Dancing With a Ghost by Rupert Ross

Forgotten Founders by Bruce Johansen

The Mishomis Book by Edward Benton-Benai

Traditional Teachings by American Indian Travelling College

And the list goes on…I hope that you enjoy reading this list. I hope it gives you more of a perspective of who we are.

AWatson January 11, 2013 at 12:17 am

Wow! Caroline, this is a fantastic list of books. Some of them I’ve read, and many I will hereby commit to reading in the weeks and months ahead.
I couldn’t agree more that an understanding of the issues informing Idle No More requires a greater understanding of indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing the world. The task Tom & I set ourselves with this list was to identify ten key texts that related to what we saw as the heart of the matter: treaties and First Nations-government relations.
However, in honour of your emphasis on indigenous knowledge, here are three more titles that I feel are critical to that end. While none are authored by Aboriginal peoples, they exist only because of the meaningful education and insights provided by very wise Aboriginal collaborators:

Keith Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places: Language and Landscape Among the Western Apache
This might be my favourite book of all time, because it was in reading this book that I felt an indigenous way of knowing the world click for me. In this book Basso shows the ways physical elements of the landscape and environment act as memory cues for stories that relay important social messages about life in an Apache community.
http://books.google.ca/books/about/Wisdom_Sits_in_Places.html?id=3t-GFo8zezsC

Hugh Brody, The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers, and the Shaping of the World
In this book, Brody argues that because Aboriginal people have developed a much greater and nuanced understanding of the lands they call home, it is actually farmers and their propensity to expand or move on that should be considered ‘nomadic’.
http://books.google.ca/books/about/The_Other_Side_of_Eden.html?id=lxUL5W80iwwC

Julie Cruikshank, Life Lived Like a Story: Life Stories of Three Yukon Native Elders
This brilliant collection and analysis of the life stories of three elders, which are told in their own words, illustrates perfectly the ways Europeans misunderstood the history of colonialism in Western Canada and the United States, and how indigenous ways of knowing that history better reflect the lived experiences of seemingly straight-forward events, such as the Klondike Gold Rush.
http://books.google.ca/books/about/Life_Lived_Like_a_Story.html?id=OZLACOqFy8kC

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