Collaborative Landscapes

Maple at Crawford Lake Conservation Area

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Editor’s note: This article is part of a series of reflections on the 2017 Canadian History and Environment Summer School. You can find all the articles here.

I am still digesting the many stories, presentations, conversations, images, and sounds I experienced during this year’s CHESS that focused on gender and Indigenous landscapes. Yet, as I sat down to reflect upon my experiences, Bonnie Devine’s references to the maple tree in her compelling opening conversation about the Toronto Land Purchase immediately came to mind. As we travelled to the Crawford Lake Conservation Area, the Woodland Cultural Centre Museum and Art Gallery in Six Nations of the Grand River, and the Mississaugas of the New Credit Community Centre over the three days of CHESS, I continued to encounter the maple and returned to Devine’s story that communicated two representations of the tree—as a cousin and intricate member of creation and of relationships but also as a somewhat arbitrary boundary marker of land possession indicated by a gash in a tree made by a settler surveyor. These two representations seemed illustrative of disparities between Indigenous (in this case, Ojibwa from Serpent River First Nation) and non-Indigenous understandings of land and relationships that remain essential elements in Reconciliation and in my own research within environmental history. The emphasis on land and relationships—and particularly, how relationships manifest in specific spaces—witnessed throughout CHESS, provided a meditative fulcrum for how a non-Indigenous scholar dealing with Indigenous and non-Indigenous histories and interactions recognizes her position and makes meaningful contributions.

From the beginning of my decision to research the maple syrup industry in what would become Canada through a multi-disciplinary lens that hinged on environmental history, I knew the chronicle would be incomplete and problematic if it did not incorporate past and present Indigenous production, knowledge, and teachings on maple syrup making into the account as well as those of the shifting gender dynamics of sugaring and product marketing in both Indigenous and settler-colonial frameworks. Maple syrup landscapes—both the physical spaces and the artistic renderings of these places—privilege a particular narrative of the niche crop that emphasized the able-bodied, white, male settler in a tale of benevolent nature, cooperation, adaptation, and technological savvy. It greatly obscures the roles of women within production and it simplifies Indigenous involvement, curtailing it to a narrative of the past that does not involve contemporary knowledge mobilization projects and story telling.[1] CHESS speakers and locations reminded me of the necessity of and rewards from digging deeper and using my situation as an environmental historian to account for the reasons behind the construction of this mainstream landscape narrative and to expose the untold stories of resilience and influence that move beyond the settler context of knowing a place and its relationships.[2]

Two underlying questions and themes emerged throughout this year’s CHESS that will help me engage in these maple syrup landscape complexities. How do we best acknowledge the land where we walk (and research) and the relationships embedded in those places, and how can research and the histories we write further aid in the creation of healthy relationships built upon respect and partnership between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities? CHESS contributors offered examples of how we can address these questions. For instance, our ongoing dialogue on land acknowledgement statements over the three days well illustrated the need to know more about the intricacies of place and the multiple ways of seeing and knowing a place. Deborah McGregor encapsulated this discussion when she encouraged us to realize that these acknowledgements need to be contextualized, inclusive, made from the heart, and based upon actual effort to explore local histories. These acknowledgements, and by extension, the real and meaningful education and learning we undertake to understand the complex histories and relationships built into the geographies we study also came through in the conversations with tour guides and elders at the Woodlands Cultural Centre and the Mississaugas of the New Credit Community Centre who illustrated the deep and important history of inter-Indigenous relationships between Haudensaunee and Anishinabek peoples as well as how they connect to those with non-Indigenous settlers. These examinations of the connections and relationships to place, people, and environment were further explored in CHESS through a gender lens, for example during our education on the daily experiences of Indigenous children at the Mohawk Institute Residential School. Gender was also a key lens in Brittany Luby’s examination of the role of Anishinabek women’s bodies when it came to transformations to breast milk medicine linked to hydroelectric flooding in Dalles C38 Reserve.[3]

CHESS contributors asked questions and fostered discussions that not only allowed me to contemplate my personal research responsibilities but also reinforced my view that the way forward is collaborative, especially since the mainstream narrative of maple syrup in Canada emphasizes Indigenous/non-Indigenous knowledge sharing but does not deeply interrogate the nuances or power dynamics within the initial and subsequent interactions between those making maple products. Collaboration requires deep thought into the meanings within methodology and what makes an equal and beneficial partnership. CHESS contributors reinforced the view that places of maple syrup collection and production are also relationships among peoples and between humans and the non-human and that the multiple ways of seeing these places as relationships goes beyond my educational background into the realm of Indigenous Knowledge (IK). It is clear that Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars continue to wrestle with how to—or, indeed, if it is possible to bring together—notions of what constitutes IK or the somewhat fraught construction of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK).[4] And these important conversations allow me to consider how best to frame maple syrup production in relation to these concepts and lived meanings and what questions to ask.

Maple at Crawford Lake Conservation Area
Maple at Crawford Lake Conservation Area

Perhaps one of the most pertinent conversation threads for me in CHESS activities and readings was the centrality of creating respectful and reciprocal research partnerships. Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars advocate for equality, respect, and meaningful and mutually supporting outcomes when it comes to research projects.[5] For instance, Tom Peace and Kathryn Labelle’s discussion of their relationship building during the writing of their edited collection, From Huronia to Wendakes, emphasized the centrality and value in a collaborative framework and the importance of seeing land not just as space but as relationships. Thanks to CHESS contributors and conversations, I now have new questions to ask and approaches to consider as I continue to unpack the history of the maple syrup industry and seek help in uncovering that history in Wendat, Haudensaunee, and Anishinabek territory as well as within that of the Wabanaki Confederacy on the East Coast where I now reside.


[1] For an example of contemporary Indigenous story-telling on maple syrup see, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson,” Ninaatigoog,” in Dancing on our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence, and a New Emergence (Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring, 2011), 74-83.

[2] See, for instance, Jocelyn Thrope, “Indian Residential Schools: An Environmental and Gender History,” NiCHE http://niche-canada.org/2016/04/27/indian-residential-schools-an-enivironmental-and-gender-history/ accessed May 10, 2017.

[3] See also, Brittany Luby, “From Milk-Medicine to Public (Re)Education Programs: An Examination of Anishinabek Mothers’ Responses to Hydroelectric Flooding in the Treaty #3 District, 1900-1975. CBMH/BCHM Vol 33, issue 2 (2015), 363-389.

[4] For instance see, Deborah McGregor, “Traditional Ecological Knowledge: An Anishnabe Women’s Perspective.” Atlantis Vol 29, issue 2 (Spring/Summer, 2005), 103-109.

[5] See for instance, Dawn Martin-Hill & Danielle Soucy. Ganoso’se’n e yo’gwilode’/One Who is Full of Our Traditional Knowledge: Ethical Guidelines for Aboriginal Research Elders and Healers Roundtable. A Report to the Interagency Advisory Panel on Research Ethics. 2004; Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. (2014). Social Justice, Transformation and Indigenous Methodologies. In R. Rinehart, K. N. Barbour, & C. C. Pope (Eds.), Ethnographic Worldviews Transformations and Social Justice (pp. 15-20). Springer; and Shawn Wilson, “What is an Indigenous Research Methodology?” Canadian Journal of Native Education Vol 25, no. 2 (2001): 175-179.

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Elizabeth Jewett

Dr. Elizabeth Jewett works at Mount Allison University. Her dissertation research focused on the development of golf course landscapes in Canada between 1873 and 1945. Her new project explores the history of the maple syrup industry in Canada.

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