‘Settlement’ – An Environmental History Perspective

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At the upcoming Western Canadian History Conference to be held in Edmonton in June 2008, there is a planned forum on Environmental History. The forum, to be chaired by Shannon Stunden Bower, will feature presentations by Frank Tough, Claire Campbell, Joshua MacFadyen, Liza Piper, and John Thistle on the question of ‘Settlement’ – An Environmental History Perspective. (Audio from the forum now available here). However, we are also looking for contributions in the form of questions or commentary prior to the session. To see abstracts of the proposed presentations go to the conference website: http://www.arts.ualberta.ca/~wcsc/Forum.html. You can direct questions to the chair via email (stundenb@ualberta.ca) or you can post them here. Selected questions will be addressed as part of the June discussion, but we also would like to encourage a parallel online discussion for those who are interested. We will keep this forum open until the June session has passed.

To get things started, here is the question to be discussed:

‘Settlement’ – An Environmental History Perspective

Historical geographer Cole Harris has argued the term ‘settlement’ should be replaced with ‘resettlement’, as an acknowledgement of the aboriginal occupancy that predates European arrival in North America. Whether Harris’ correction is accepted, most contemporary scholars recognize that, insofar as it fails to acknowledge the aboriginal fact, that phrase ‘settlement’ is flawed.

For historians particularly concerned with the environmental history of the west, are there other ways this phrase is inadequate? Are there longer term or larger scale processes that must be acknowledged, if the environmental history of the region is to be understood? Does ‘settlement’ imply a focus on agricultural activity, disregarding other environmentally activities such as mining and hydroelectric development and orienting inquiry away from less fertile areas such as the provincial norths? Or are there advantages to the phrase ‘settlement’ that deserve recognition? In rethinking the process of settlement, can a more environmentally attuned perspective reorient historical inquiry of the west?

Subsequent Discussion

#1 Ask Questions Now! Comments to Close on June 19th

Hi — As the “Settlement” panel discussion approaches on June 20th I wanted to call again for any questions or comments that people might be interested in putting to the discussants (Frank Tough, Claire Campbell, Liza Piper, John Thistle, and Josh MacFadyen). We’ll close down this forum late in the day on the 19th, although the session will appear on this site as a podcast in the weeks following the panel.

#2 Resettlement

I suppose there are a couple of advantages to Harris’ call for the use of “resettlement” over “settlement” that immediately come to mind.

By acknowledging the Aboriginal occupancy of northern North America that predates Euro-Canadian colonization, the term resettlement implies that western agricultural settlement does not exclusively define settlement. It recognizes that different forms of resource exploitation and territorial occupation should be viewed as settlement as well. This, I imagine, captures Professor Harris’ argument. The term settlement has implied that western agricultural settlement is the only legitimate form of territorial occupation.

Resettlement is also useful from an environmental history perspective because it suggests a change in land use. For instance, in western Canada , in the south, agriculture displaced earlier food production practices, most obviously hunting. The industrial fishery on the Northwest Coast displaced Aboriginal food and commercial fisheries. Logging transformed wildlife habitat, which in turn had an effect on hunting. This idea can also be applied to mining.

My question is about people. Does the idea of resettlement imply the introduction of an alien population of human settlers and the displacement or assimilation of an indigenous population? Did the Thule resettle the Arctic and displace the Dorset? How long must this new population occupy the land? Did the Norse briefly resettle Newfoundland and Labrador? Must the introduction of this new population involve changes in land use and the introduction of new animals and plants?

Any thoughts?


#3 Settlement

In response to Liza’s initial questions, I do think that the world settlement carries with it an agricultural connotation. Thus calling hunter-gatherers “settlers” never really quite works because according to the perspective of agricultural civilizations (like ours) they are not settled but moving around. Of course, the “settled” nature of our society is only true at a micro level within a very short time frame. Zoom out, and you can see that farming societies are constantly on the move and “nomadic” societies tend to stay put (Brody, The Other Side of Eden).

If settlement has an agricultural meaning, there’s no need to change the name to resettlement unless the people being replaced were farmers. If we expand the meaning of settlement to include all forms of inhabiting the land, then resettlement could be a more useful term. But do we really need these terms or can we just avoid them? I don’t think I would use “settler”, preferring instead farmer, rancher, Euro-Canadian, and such. As for settlement and re-settlement, perhaps “occupation” would be a more useful term, describing both legitimate inhabitation (neutral meaning) and illegitimate inhabitation (negative meaning).


#4 Settlement

What I would add to Dan’s comments is that people labeled “hunter-gatherers” and “nomadic” don’t always conform to that category. I’m thinking of the Coast Salish peoples on the Northwest Coast. For years, anthropologists have labeled these societies as “complex hunter-gatherer-fishers” because of their sedentary settlement patterns and complex social hierarchies, generally associated with agricultural societies. However, recent work by Deur and Turner has challenged this perspective by looking at the various food production strategies of Coast Salish peoples that can been seen as a form of agriculture. This is just another way to rethink land use patterns and how that might affect perspectives on settlement. Dan’s reference to Brody is also very useful.

It is really interesting to get to hear these different ideas on this important concept. The conference will obviously be very fruitful. This is certainly something that Canadian environmental historians need to think about critically. I’m working on a course syllabus for a course in North American environmental history right now and I need to think about how to handle “settlement” in my course. Any ideas? How should environmental historians teach this concept and where does it fit in environmental history?


Douglas Deur and Nancy J. Turner, eds., Keeping It Living: Traditions of Plant Use and Cultivation on the Northwest Coast of North America (Seattle & Vancouver: University of Washington Press, UBC Press, 2005).


#5 Settlement

Sean is right in pointing out the complexity of a category like “hunter-gatherer”. Man I wish I could attend this workshop!
As for a way to teach “settlement”, why not frame it with Brody’s big-picture approach which shows that settlers are not settled and that nomads are not nomadic? I think students should be challenged in their assumption that the dominance of farming peoples is natural or normal or inevitable. How does “settlement” fit into the course as a whole?


#6 Settlement

Thanks for the Brody reference. I think I’ll take a look through it as I consider how to address settlement in my course. I too wish I could attend this workshop.


#7 Shettlers

I think these words (settler, settlement) are wolves in sheep’s clothing. They are dangerous exactly because they come across as neutral, factual. The French “colon” is much better this way (although it has taken on all kinds of very negative connotations unrelated to indigenous peoples). Either the word needs to be charged with negative connotations or else avoided. My friend, Daniel Morley Johnson (http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/wicazo_sa_review/v022/22.2johnson.html) uses “settler” and “invader” interchangeably to good effect. Maybe resettlement is a good middle road here, but it still seems to imply the the land being settled was empty (even if emptied) whereas First Nations were often still “settled” in the area being “settled”. Would this be cosettlement? Dissettlement? Unsettlement perhaps? Yes, I’ll go with unsettlement. The Prairies were unsettled. I like that.


#8 Comparable issue in French?

I wonder if Dan or anyone else more versed than I in the French scholarship might be able to comment on whether there has been anything comparable to the settlement/ resettlement issue among scholars working in that language?


#9 Shettlers

Dan, that’s a very good point. You’re absolutely correct to point out that indigenous populations were often still “settled” in one area at the same time that it was being “resettled” by a new population. Coll Thrush’s recent book on Seattle comes to mind. Although, even in that instance, the Aboriginal population of the Puget Sound region were significantly displaced.

As we begin to broaden our thinking about settlement, I thought I would raise the question of urbanization. As the original thread suggested, histories of western Canadian settlement have tended to focus on the expansion of an agricultural frontier. Seattle and Vancouver provide very interesting historical case studies of settlement through rapid urbanization with marginal agricultural expansion.


#10 Out of curiosity, can I ask

Out of curiosity, can I ask you to elaborate on the negative connotations that attach to “colon” ?


#11 colon

In everyday language I understand it to mean something like idiot. Perhaps it would be comparable to some of the connotations that go along with peasant in english, only stronger.

#12 Welcome!

As chair for the environmental history semi-plenary to be hosted at The West and Beyond, I would like to join Liza Piper in inviting you to share your thoughts on the topic of settlement. What sorts of processes are typically emphasized by scholarship conceived through the settlement idea? What sorts of processes are often overlooked? What are the key questions that should be asked in an attempt to probe the strengths and limitations of the settlement idea, particularly from an environmental history perspective?


Featured image: Inuit snowhouse settlement near Tree River. Photo by Diamond Jenness. Canadian Museum of History. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

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