Review of Carlson, Lutz, Schaepe, and McHalsie, Towards a New Ethnohistory

Stó:lō Cultural Advisor Sonny McHalsie (far right) with Field School students at the former site of a pit house at Xethlath, a Stó:lō village on the Fraser River deserted in the early 20th century.

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Keith Thor Carlson, John Sutton Lutz, David M. Schaepe, and Naxaxalhts’i (Albert “Sonny” McHalsie), eds. Towards a New Ethnohistory: Community-Engaged Scholarship among the People of the River (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2018). 289 pgs, ISBN 9780887558177.

Reviewed by Daniel Sims.

In chapter one of Towards a New Ethnohistory, Adar Charlton cites Julie Cruikshank’s conclusion that “a single story can ‘do’ several different things” (44). This quotation perfectly captures the utility of this book. Resulting from the Stó:lõ Ethnohistory Field School organized by the universities of Victoria and Saskatchewan and held biennially since 1998 in Chilliwack, British Columbia, this collection of ten student papers leads by example and provides valuable case studies of how to properly conduct community-based research for anyone wanting to work with Indigenous peoples. The diverse applicability of the book is reflected in the backgrounds of the four editors. Two of them are connected to western academic institutions. Keith Carlson is the Research Chair in Indigenous & Community Engaged History at the University of Saskatchewan, while John Lutz is the Chair of History at the University of Victoria. The other two, David Schaepe and Naxaxalhts’i, are part of the Stó:lõ Research and Resource Management Centre, with Schaepe serving as senior archaeologist and Naxaxalhts’i as cultural advisor. All four were fundamental to the success of the Field School – which won an award from the Society for Applied Anthropology in 2016 – and their influence is seen in the work their students produced.
Comprised of ten chapters, Towards a New Ethnohistory exemplifies a new, transdisciplinary approach to ethnohistory, in which the researcher recognizes not only the legacy of settler colonialism in Canada, but also the subjectivity and relativity of their own views and western knowledge as a whole. This new ethnohistory aims to work with the community at all levels of research and form and sustain relationships that last long after fieldwork is conducted. Its hope is to produce scholarship that is cutting edge, complex, accessible and relevant to members of the community (23, 26-27). In seeking to incorporate community-based ways of knowing, this new model for ethnographic research provides valuable information on community-based views of the environment (21-22). Take for instance Colin Osmond’s chapter on Stó:lõ loggers in the second half of the twentieth-century. By abandoning colonial stereotypes, such as the ecological Indian, and actually listening to Stó:lõ loggers, he was able to see that from their perspective logging was seen as a traditional activity that in no way challenged their Indigeneity or ties to the environment (230). Indeed, as many of them told him, the environmental destruction that is often associated with logging, and their association to it, never really crossed their minds (231).

Ethnohistory student Jesse Robertson learning with Matsqui elder Mary Malloway, May 2015.  Photo by Tenille Campbell.

Osmond’s chapter is not the only chapter that deals with environmental history. Nine out of the ten chapters are highly relevant to environmental historians examining the history of the Stó:lõ homeland. In chapter 1, for example, Charlton uses a literary framework to argue that Stó:lõ transformer stories create a familial obligation to the environment (42). Reflecting the fact that this worldview, which permeates Stó:lõ society, is also referred to in the five following chapters. Amanda Fehr’s examination of how politics and society intersect with the constructed environment of the I:yem memorial (chap. 2). I will always remember hearing Dr. Carlson talk about how members of the Yale First Nation used a backhoe to knock this marker of Stó:lõ territorial and resource claims into the river. Fehr’s chapter also reflects the fact that Indigenous peoples on the West Coast had well-developed land tenure systems that predated contact, something anybody raised in community knows. Two chapters specifically deal with this topic: Katya MacDonald’s inquiry into how fishing sites are accessed (chap. 3); and Anastasia Tataryn’s survey of naming practices (chap. 4). Tataryn in particular shows how Stó:lõ place names are not only fundamental to Stó:lõ culture and society, but also the basis of the Stó:lõ land tenure system (110, 119). Reflecting the fact that the Stó:lõ have lived in the Fraser Valley and Fraser Canyon for thousands of years, Kathryn McKay’s chapter on care for the dead highlights how the Stó:lõ have protocols for graveyards that they currently know about, as well as ones that have become forgotten over time (chap. 5).

Plaque on I:yem (Eayem) memorial, north of Yale, BC.
City of Vancouver Archives, Steffens-Colmer Studios Ltd. and Don Coltman Company collection, CVA 586-2961.

As Lianne Leddy recently argued, “Indigenous perspectives should matter to environmental historians” who seek to understand historic and contemporary environmental policies and issues without perpetuating colonial views or co-opting Indigenous ways of knowing.[1] Too often, the examination of how humans interact with the environment either privileges certain groups and/or the environment itself, thereby running the risk of contributing to colonial erasure – the diminishment of Indigenous peoples through their omission, demission, or perversion. Some environmental historians might find this apprehension unwarranted due to the fact that environmental history emerged so recently and among individuals who might describe themselves as activists. Yet, even some relatively recent works of environmental history rely primarily on colonial records when it comes to including Indigenous peoples. As a member of the Tsay Keh Dene First Nation, who works in and teaches both Indigenous and environmental history, I can say that it shows. This book provides ten excellent examples of how to improve the way that environmental history can incorporate Indigenous perspectives by including Indigenous peoples and in doing so combats this eradication of memory. All of the authors conducted community-based research, albeit at times in a manner inherently limited by the Field School itself. (That is to say as a course there was an inherent time limit to how long research could took place and for those students who decided to not continue on with project less of an incentive to continue conducting research once the class was over.) In doing so, they set an example for other academics by not only publishing their findings, but also by describing how they conducted their research. The editors add to the utility of the collection by discussing in greater detail the research methods employed by the authors and the Field School that they were part of.

This book is a guide. As the title indicates, the numerous practitioners of the new ethnohistory, including environment historians, are working towards its full implementation. In doing so, they are fighting against the colonial history of many disciplines, including environmental history, in an attempt to incorporate Indigenous ways of knowing and knowledge. If they fall short, it is only because they are breaking new ground. Not helping the situation is that their task might potentially render them unnecessary. After all, while Naxaxalhts’i states in the prologue that there is some research that can and should be conducted by outsiders (ix), Adam Gaudry argues persuasively in the Epilogue that outside researchers must empower the community to conduct their own research (256-257).


[1] Lianne Leddy, “Intersections of Indigenous and Environmental History in Canada,” Canadian Historical Review 98, no. 1 (2017): 86.

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Daniel Sims

Assistant Professor - History & Indigenous Studies at University of Alberta - Augustana Campus
A member of the Tsay Keh Dene First Nation, Dr. Daniel Sims joined the Faculty of Augustana in January 2016. Originally wanting to be a Lutheran pastor, he attended Concordia University College of Alberta (now Concordia University of Edmonton) where he worked with Dr. Sandy Gow. His capstone paper was a historiography of the works of German historian Heinrich von Treitschke. Graduating with high distinction he began graduate work at the master’s level at the University of Alberta with Dr. Gerhard Ens, producing a master’s thesis that examined the history and identity of the Tsek’ehne nation (Kwadacha, McLeod Lake, Takla Lake and Tsay Keh Dene) through the lenses of the fur trade, missionary writings, treaty and the creation of reserves. He continued his graduate work at the University of Alberta with Dr. Sarah Carter, examining both the short term and long term cumulative impacts the construction of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam and Williston Lake reservoir had on the Tsek’ehne. After conducting over seventy interviews, he wrote a dissertation based on both archival and oral research, which was nominated for the Governor-General’s Gold Medal.

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