Language Use on the Historical Playground

      3 Comments on Language Use on the Historical Playground

On Monday afternoon Christopher Dummitt responded to my Active History post “Colonialism and the Words We Choose” on his blog Everyday History. In his critique Dummitt argues that Monday’s post is representative of how disconnected some academic historians are from everyday society. He suggests that the argument I make is fuelled by a drive to avoid talking about inequality in the past.

Dummitt is right.  To be upfront about my biases, I do think that there is a gap between the work of academic historians and some parts of North American society. Monday’s post is certainly representative of these sentiments.  In my experience, within Canadian public discourse, Aboriginal people are often grouped alongside all other groups living in the country. They are seen as just another minority group. There is only a limited understanding that the treaties negotiated between European and Aboriginal societies affect all Canadians. The relationship that developed first, with the French crown, then with the British, and now with the Canadian state (along with some of their less-formal representatives) gives Aboriginal people a unique place within Canada.

Where I disagree with Dummitt is that I don’t think that my post is representative of ‘head-in-the-cloud academic speech,’ or my being out of touch with the Canadian public. While professional historians acknowledge gaps between their research and how the public perceives their topics, this doesn’t mean they are out of touch. Most of us have spent years doing research that most members of the public can’t afford to do themselves. This is why many of us love to teach and share our ideas in public forums. Yes, some are guilty of using inaccessible language. But a quick survey of James Merrell’s article, which was the focus of my post and unfortunately behind a pay wall, would demonstrate that this isn’t the case here.

In sharing my ideas on, I hope that other people will think more deeply about Aboriginal people and how their history relates to the development of Canada. In writing Monday’s post, I hope that sharing my professional interests and thoughts will generate discussion (which it has) and work to strengthen the relationships between Canadians and Aboriginal peoples.

Dummitt raises a few points, however, that I think require some clarification.

1)    I don’t call for a wholesale sanitization of language.  Neither my blog post nor Merrell’s original article call for the banishment of certain words from the historian’s lexicon. Rather, Monday’s post asks historians, and the public, to think deeper about the words we choose when discussing Aboriginal history.

As an example, let’s take Dummitt’s criticism of my statement that pre- and post-contact are historically inaccurate for Native history.

The meeting of Europeans and Native people was obviously an important transformative moment in North American history. So a broad use of the term contact obviously has some utility.

But when we get into specifics, contact becomes more complicated and requires reflection. Europeans and Native people were in contact with each other from as early as the late-fifteenth century. Yet we rarely mean this contact when we use the terms pre- and post-contact.

Indeed, we are not often clear about what we mean when we use the terms pre- and post-contact.  Contact was a process, not an event. So, in using the term as a point of reference, do we mean the physical interaction between people, or the influence and spread of plants, animal, disease and trade goods? These forms of contact did not always occur simultaneously. Contact between Europeans and Aboriginal peoples took place in many ways, shapes and forms over the course of nearly three centuries, making its utility as a specific term of reference rather limited.

Instead of contact, I would suggest that where possible historians try to employ more specific language. What would Canadian history look like if – depending on historical context – we referred to Aboriginal societies as pre- and post- Jesuit, pre- and post-European fur trade, or pre- and post-colonization? Although it’s true these phrases don’t have the same catch-all nature of contact, I think they do a better job at representing the unequal power dynamics of the past and name some important agents of change in Aboriginal societies.

Using these other terms also requires that historians think about what was important to these societies. Was the arrival of European influence always more important than their relationship to, and contact with, neighbouring North American peoples?

2)    I think that Dummitt reads too much into my complaint that “words and phrases like hunting territory, occupied, controlled, and settler can have implications that place Native and European societies on an unequal footing.” My point here is not that we should avoid talking about inequality and pretend that “everyone plays nice on the historical playground.”

Far from it! Rather, the argument that I make in this post, and the one that Merrell develops in his contribution to the William and Mary Quarterly, is that historians ought to approach their historical subjects in the same way. Just because Europeans went on to create North American nation-states doesn’t mean that their definitions should be projected onto an earlier time.

Yes, it’s true that “Europe wasn’t colonized or settled or controlled by Iroquois traders, missionaries and adventurers.” But neither was much of Acadia or Nova Scotia by Europeans during the seventeenth, or even the early-eighteenth, century, despite the pervasive use of these labels to describe these places.

The point here is that historians sometimes use a language that poorly represents the historical context of the period in which we study. If we are interested in calling places by the names that the people who actually lived and wielded control over them, then, as the work of John Reid and William C. Wicken suggests, the term Mi’kma’ki is probably better applied to many of the seventeenth and early-eighteenth century places we know today as part of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

This isn’t a load of P.C. postmodernist mumbo jumbo. It reflects a significant amount of empirically based historical research. Take a look at John Reid and Emerson Baker’s “Amerindian Power in the Early Modern Northeast: A Reappraisal” in volume 61 of the William and Mary Quarterly and Reid’s “Empire, the Maritime Colonies, and the Supplanting of Mi’kma’ki/Wulstukwik, 1780-1820” in volume 38 of Acadiensis. (Unfortunately the first one is behind a pay wall). Both articles, I think, reveal the fruit of following the suggestions now called for by James Merrell without the equivocation that Dummitt suggests in his response.

3)    Yes, the history of European and Aboriginal interaction is one of unequal relations. But to view those relations as always tipped in Europe’s favour is a mistake. Until at least the end of the eighteenth century, Aboriginal people wielded real power even around colonial centres like Quebec. Yes, colonial influence – particularly the church and imperial rivalry – had changed these societies, but Aboriginal people also influenced colonial society and, for imperial officials, preventing Aboriginal violence against colonial intrusions remained an important objective for centuries after Europeans sought to make North America their home.

In the end, I think that Dummitt and I agree on a lot. My sense from Dummitt’s response is that he feels that my post is symbolic of a movement that dismisses the processes of European colonization and colonialism. This is not at all my goal and I agree with him that we need to acknowledge and discuss how Aboriginal people saw North America’s history differently.

Where we seem to disagree is not in these foundational principles, but rather in how they are enacted.  I think we need to more deeply consider the language we use to discuss the past (both in this period and more broadly). In doing so, we make it easier for our students and the public to see what is often clear in the source material.  Canada and the United States are legacies from Europe that had to overpower, though not destroy, all other societal alternatives (sometimes militarily, but more often diplomatically and culturally) in order to come into being. In my mind, using a language that reflects the historical context of our research helps to present the possibilities embedded in the past that were curtailed in order for the nation-state to develop. This doesn’t change the past.  It helps us better understand it.

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3 thoughts on “Language Use on the Historical Playground

  1. R. Connie Wawruck-Hemmett

    Regarding your statement above:
    “Just because Europeans went on to create North American nation-states doesn’t mean that their definitions should be projected onto an earlier time.”
    When I read the first part of your first article that describes your visit to a museum, I was left with the impression that you were concerned about your guide’s use of some upsetting terms. I would like to know if the guide was “in character”, as a previous comment suggested, and if so should that person not have acted and spoken in a historically- rather than politically-correct manner. In historical reproduction, at whatever level of display, I think it is necessary not to “project” modern terminology “onto an earlier time.” I agree with much of what you have to say regarding the responsibility of historians to use the most precise terminology possible, but to expect a historical display–for that is what the museum representation actually is–to forego the terminology of the period, and to use twenty-first century terms, is to make the depiction incorrect…. something like depicting World War I battles with soldiers using laser weapons.

  2. Anne Marie LJ

    I appreciate the discussion between yourself and Dummit, as I shared some of his concern that what was being proposed was an elimination of certain terms. I am more comfortable with a discussion of more careful use of terms, and I think, as a profession we need to be calmer about discussions of terminology. Engaged in public history, I am very conscious that while we strive to carefully address all of the complexities of past events and lives; the added layers (and careful terminology) may make the story less accessible to the general public rather than more. But presenting only one layer, or viewpoint, is clearly inadequate and risks seeming like affirming that past perspective. Having portrayed an 18th century French woman, I have stories. Costumed, “living museum” presentations and William and Mary articles are far apart, but we do need to think much more about how we get the complex, multi-faceted story that is debated and developed by academics out there in an accessible, engaging way that invites reflection and dialogue.

  3. Tom Peace Post author

    Thank you both for your comments. I think that you get to the heart of an issue I had not completely considered when I initially wrote this post. The focus of the post is primarily about writing, not oral engagement. In the original post, I implicitly equated the guide’s interpretation with the narrative that was constructed at the museum. But this, as many people have now pointed out, was a mistake. The guide’s comments were inappropriate (this was not first person interpretation, at least not that either my partner nor I could tell). But I felt that it was likely unrepresentative of the museum as a whole. This is why I chose to leave the museum anonymous. In the end, choosing to tell this story as a way of introduction diminished my initial point

    Fortunately, it created another fruitful line for discussion. I think that the William and Mary Quarterly’s forum has a lot of applicability for the museum context, but as many people have commented, it doesn’t necessarily apply to first person interpretation. Based on the feedback we’ve received regarding this piece, the issue of language use and first person interpretation is clearly a really important subject. This is certainly a subject that we (the editorial collective) would be very interested in having someone develop more fully.

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