Review of Morgan, Beaver, Bison, Horse

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R. Grace Morgan, Beaver, Bison, Horse: The Traditional Knowledge and Ecology of the Northern Great Plains. Regina: University of Regina Press, 2020. 334 pgs. ISBN 9780889777880.

Reviewed by Ted Binnema.

This book should not have been published. But since it has been, it might provide useful lessons, particularly for students.

By way of introduction, environmental historians should know that this book posthumously publishes R. Grace Morgan’s dissertation entitled “Beaver Ecology/Beaver Mythology.” The dissertation was defended at the University of Alberta in 1991, before a committee of anthropologists and animal scientists. No historian served on the committee. The dissertation is now published with only minor changes (particularly in the terminology used to refer to Indigenous people), accompanied by a foreword by James Daschuk and an afterword by Cristina Eisenberg. Morgan’s dissertation contains much research, evidence, and analysis that is still useful to the careful and critical researcher, but the manuscript ought to have undergone very substantial revisions before it would warrant publication.

In my teaching, beginning in junior courses but especially at the graduate level, I warn students of the danger of allowing unexamined assumptions to bias their research questions, because erroneous unexamined assumptions doom studies from the start. Morgan, unfortunately, fell into this trap. In the introduction to this book (11), as in the dissertation upon which it is based, Morgan explains that “The primary hypothesis to be tested is this: the non-use of beaver resources by early occupants of the Northern Plains was a response to limited water resources and a recognition of the beaver’s role in maintaining these resources in Valley Complex systems. Stabilizing surface water by not hunting beaver was a crucial survival strategy for pedestrian peoples with limited mobility.” The hypothesis is based on an erroneous assumption: that early occupants of the northern plains did not use beaver resources. The problem that there is abundant documentary evidence that Indigenous peoples of the northern plains did use beaver resources (including the trapping and trading of beaver furs) during the early contact era, while there is very little evidence that they were averse to exploiting beaver resources in the pedestrian era.

I also teach students about confirmation bias – the tendency we all have, to seek out evidence that confirms our assumptions. Researchers are particularly prone to confirmation bias when they want certain things to be true. Judicious researchers minimize the danger of confirmation bias by working from research questions that have at least two plausible answers rather than hypotheses that need to be confirmed or falsified. Another important way prudent scholars avoid confirmation bias is to seek out sources that might force them to revisit, or even abandon, their assumptions, or nuance their interpretations. Morgan evidently did not do that. While that might have been acceptable to a PhD graduate examining committee in 1991, it should not be acceptable in a peer-reviewed monograph today.

Certainly, along the road from dissertation to book, peer reviewers and editors ought to have insisted that the significant flaws and gaps of the dissertation be addressed. Those reviewers and editors should have insisted that, unless the relevant contrary evidence from the Hudson’s Bay Company archives and American fur trade documents be discussed, the manuscript should not be published.

The reviewers and editors should also have insisted that, before the manuscript could be published, it would be updated to acknowledge and address voluminous relevant secondary literature and primary documents published since 1990.[1] That did not happen, although Daschuk’s foreword and Eisenberg’s afterword do cite some more recent scholarship (although none that contradicts Morgan). The massive evidence in those publications would have forced Morgan to abandon not only the central argument, but also many of the subsidiary arguments (that the Gros Ventre and Blackfoot-speaking peoples resisted the establishment of trading posts in their territory, for example) she made in the dissertation.

Not only the primary evidence, but also the analysis in the scholarly literature, would have forced Morgan to revisit her argument. Environmental historians today are very skeptical of attempts to advance anachronous claims that Indigenous peoples many years ago had environmental ethics and beliefs that are like those of today’s environmentalists or scientists. Indeed, environmental historians were coming to more sophisticated interpretations of Indigenous relations with the environment well before Morgan defended her dissertation. For example, even in 1985, Richard White wrote that “It would … be extraordinary if communities of hunters and gatherers … developed codes of environmental ethics which were on close examination found to have addressed the same problems in the same way as modern environmentalists. Yet this is what popular environmentalism often implicitly assumes has happened.”[2] Thus, Morgan’s argument, which might have seemed plausible in the late 1970s or early 1980s, would require, in light of the scholarship of the last thirty years, considerably more evidence in its defence, but Morgan presents no evidence beyond faulty logic: plains people did not hunt beaver, beaver fill an important ecological niche on the prairies, therefore plains people did not hunt beaver because of the important ecological niche they filled.

There are precedents, of course, for publishing un-updated manuscripts, but Morgan’s dissertation is readily available online. If a compelling case could be made for the dissertation’s publication, it should have been published as it was presented in 1991 so as not to obscure the history of the document. Instead, terminology was updated, while some of the material from the 1991 dissertation was left out. As a result, even now, researchers would be wiser to consult and cite the readily available dissertation rather than the book.

A simpler interpretation, consistent with the evidence presented by Morgan and the evidence in historical documents, is that plains people exploited beaver far less than subarctic peoples did, primarily because beaver were uncommon on the plains, and because trapping beaver during winter, especially in the pedestrian era but also in the equestrian era, interfered with bison hunting, while acquiring wolf and kit fox furs (especially in the earlier era) and bison hides (especially in the later fur trade era) did not. Fur traders complained that the Blackfoot-speaking peoples and Gros Ventre traded the much inferior summer beaver (including the furs of beaver cubs), but the plains people did so because summer was the only time of the year that they could do so without interrupting their normal bison-dependent ways. And during most of the trading era, plains people could meet their needs by trading wolf, fox, and bison skins and hides. While there is evidence, primarily from later in history, that some plains individuals and groups were averse to beaver hunting, the evidence suggests that these aversions were rooted in spiritual beliefs, and were rarely, if ever, shared generally by entire communities. They may have been limited to the holders of beaver bundles, or beaver-related spiritual beliefs. Blackfoot peoples appear to have been more generally averse to the eating of fish. There is no documentary evidence that any aversion to beaver hunting in the fur trade era or earlier was based upon environmental beliefs. The Blackfoot-speaking peoples did oppose outsiders exploiting beaver resources, and other resources, in their territories, but they generally welcomed the establishment of trading posts in their territories, although they often resented the establishment of posts in the territories of their rivals, even other Blackfoot-speaking rivals.

It is a bold thing to make the implausible argument that the Blackfoot-speaking people during the pedestrian era held environmental knowledge and beliefs very much like late twentieth-century non-Indigenous environmentalists and scientists, but that these people abandoned them quickly – became environmental apostates essentially – during the fur trade. If the evidence were to support such an argument, scholars should call it the way they see it. But the evidence does not exist to parlay such speculation in the service of “an ecological lament for a lost way of life in an environment that no longer exists” (ix).

The publication of the dissertation under the auspices of a university press has consequences. Even in its unpublished state, the study appears to have convinced uncritical scholars who themselves had placed relatively little reliance on archival documents. For example, in 2013, in Clearing the Plains, James Daschuk cited Morgan’s dissertation to support his assertion that plains peoples “developed a water management strategy that buffered them for the effects of even long-term drought. Ecological studies have shown that the Avonlea tradition and the Old Woman’s tradition that grew from it purposefully abstained from beaver hunting as a means of managing the amount of available water.”[3] Later in the same book, when discussing a nineteenth-century epidemic of scarlet fever, Daschuk wrote that for the Blackfoot-speaking peoples, “the threat of water contamination from drought might have been made worse by their recent abandonment of the centuries-old practice of maintaining fresh water supplies by conserving beaver stocks within their territory.”[4] Now that Morgan’s manuscript is published by a scholarly press, it has the potential to become significantly more influential.

Regardless of how noble a cause may be, it is never acceptable to distort the historical record regarding Indigenous people in the service of late twentieth or early twenty-first century environmentalism.

[1] Only a small sample of the relevant secondary literature and published primary sources can be cited here, but includes Shepard Krech III, The Ecological Indian: Myth and History (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999); John S. Milloy, The Plains Cree: Trade Diplomacy and War, 1790-1870 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1988); and Theodore Binnema, Common and Contested Ground: A Human and Environmental History of the Northwestern Plains (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001). Some published primary sources that should have been consulted include Raymond J. DeMallie, Douglas R. Parks, and Robert Vézina, eds., A Fur Trader on the Upper Missouri: The Journal and Description of Jean-Baptiste Truteau, 1794–1796 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017): Stephen S. Witte and Marshal V. Gallagher, eds., The North American Journals of Prince Maximilian of Wied, 3 vols., trans. William J. Orr, Paul Schach, and Dieter Karch (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010), vol. 3; Ted Binnema and Gerhard Ens, eds., The Hudson’s Bay Company Edmonton House Journals, Correspondence, and Reports: 1806-1821 (Calgary: Historical Society of Alberta, 2012); Ted Binnema and Gerhard Ens, eds., The Hudson’s Bay Company Edmonton House Journals: Reports from the Saskatchewan District Including the Bow River Expedition, 1821-1826 (Calgary: Historical Society of Alberta, 2016).
[2] Richard White, “American Indians and the Environment,” Environmental Review 9 (1985), 101.
[3] James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Indigenous Life (Regina: University of Regina Press, 2013), 7.
[4] Daschuk, Clearing the Plains, 75.
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Ted Binnema

Ted Binnema is a Professor of History at the University of Northern British Columbia. He is the author of “Enlightened Zeal”: The Hudson’s Bay Company and Scientific Networks, 1670 to 1870 (University of Toronto Press, 2014), but his most recent is Ted Binnema and Gerhard Ends, eds., The Hudson’s Bay Company Edmonton House Journals: Including the Peigan Post, 1826-1834 (Historical Society of Alberta, 2020).

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