As part of the Association of Book Publishers of British Columbia’s Read Local BC campaign, Laraine Coates of UBC Press hosted a panel discussion on writing about First Nations, featuring:
- Paige Raibmon, an associate professor in UBC’s history department and co-author, with Elsie Paul and Harmony Johnson, of Written As I Remember It: Teachings from the Life of a Sliammon Elder;
- Jean Barman, a nationally recognized historian, professor emeritus at UBC, and author of French Canadians, Furs, and Indigenous Women in the Making of the Pacific Northwest; and
- Jennifer Kramer, associate professor of anthropology, Pacific Northwest curator at the Museum of Anthropology, and co-editor of Native Art of the Northwest Coast: A History of Changing Ideas.
After Coates acknowledged that the evening’s event was taking place on unceded Coast Salish territories, she launched into the program by asking each panellist to describe their books.
Written as I Remember It was Elsie Paul’s idea, said Raibmon, and consists primarily of teachings and historical stories from Paul’s life. Paul, one of the last remaining mother-tongue speakers of Sliammon, wanted to create a booklet of teachings to share with her family. Raibmon thought Paul’s stories would interest a wider audience, and they decided to work together, along with Paul’s granddaughter, Harmony Johnson, to turn the booklet into a UBC Press book, which was organized into chapters based on key themes, including grief, education, spirituality, and pregnancy. “All of these stories were told and lived in a completely different language,” said Raibmon. “Elsie has lived a fascinating life, and she has a lot of interesting stories to tell.”
Jean Barman has written about BC history before, but “I’d always acted as if French Canadians didn’t exist in the province,” she said. She wanted to redress this deficiency and find out more about them. “That’s the nice thing about being an academic,” she said. “I get paid to find out!” As she did research for the book, her focus expanded from the French Canadians themselves to the fur trade that brought them to the province and the indigenous women who kept them here.
Jennifer Kramer co-edited Native Art of the Northwest Coast with art historian Charlotte Townsend-Gault and Nuuchaanulth historian Ḳi-ḳe-in. They wanted to challenge the “one monolithic idea of what native Northwest Coast art is”—the red, black, and white ovoids and formlines we so often see. The book unearths 250 years’ worth of commentary about Northwest Coast art from multiple perspectives, beginning chronologically with writings by Captain James Cook and including contemporary native artist–authors, to show the heterogeneity and richness of the region’s artistic past and present.
Coates noted that although the three books are different, they all deal with Aboriginal lives and legacy. She asked the panellists what they learned in their research.
Barman said that although over 90 percent of the men and all of the women she researched for the book were illiterate, she could still find traces of them in fur trade records or in the work of other people who had written about them. Barman looked at the relationships Aboriginal groups forged with the newcomers—particularly the way indigenous men encouraged their daughters to interact with the fur traders so that they could get access to trade goods—as well as the motivations French Canadian men had to stay rather than return to Quebec.
Raibmon said that unlike Barman’s project, hers “came with a workaround of the problem of finding traces.” Elsie Paul invited Raibmon to pull together audio material to create a book and allowed her to learn from the inside out, interconnecting teachings with history.
Kramer’s goal with her book was to consciously and actively address the problem that the majority of writing about Northwest Coast art has been by non-native authors. She wanted to bring in as many voices as possible to undermine the narratives repeated by Western, non-Aboriginal authors. “As an anthropologist, my number-one concern is, ‘Who am I to write about someone who isn’t me?’ We have this chronic problem or paradox: museums represent people who want to represent themselves. How do we get around that power imbalance?”
Kramer described the critical shift in the 1990s toward reflexivity, making the research process open to reflection and collaboration. “First Nations don’t have just one perspective, either,” said Kramer. “They’ll have many opinions. There’s no one way to write this. It’s not about correcting an incorrect history—it’s about acknowledging all the ways of knowing.” Kramer saw the draft of the book as a living, breathing archive, and she expressed apprehension about taking it to press and fixing it to a page. “It might have been better as an online blog, like Wikipedia, with many people engaging. We’re in this engagement together, and we’re co-creating these products of representation.” She also mentioned the discomfort that some of the artists felt, having the huge responsibility of representing not only their own artwork but also their culture, by extension.
Raibmon’s experience uncovered a bit of that tension as well. “Elsie did not get permission from the Sliammon people to write the book. She didn’t want to be seen as taking authority or speaking for her community.” She added that the university set up procedures requiring researchers who work with First Nations communities to get band approval, but “that’s not always appropriate. Elsie found it offensive that UBC wanted to get band council agreement so that she could tell her story.”
As a historian, said Barman, “I carefully document where all the bits and pieces come from so that others can add to them or challenge them.” She wants to make it clear that she’s telling a story, not the story, and there will always be pieces that are right to some and wrong to others. But if we don’t risk criticism and put your work out there, we’ll never learn, and our knowledge will never grow. “You’re doing something, but at least you’re doing something.”
Barman described a perennial difficulty that comes with historical research and writing: what to do about names. “What do we mean by the Northwest Coast?” To Americans, it includes Alaska and Washington but sometimes also Oregon and northern California. “What do you do before we had borders? What was something named in the past, and how have names changed? These issues can get you into conflict.”
Kramer agreed that names carry a lot of weight, and people can react strongly to them. She wanted her book to take an unconventional look at Northwest Coast art, which would naturally entail unconventional names and terms, yet still be discoverable to people using more familiar search terms. “That one would be accused of cultural appropriation is always a fear,” she said. Many First Nations groups have a very real fear of theft, given the historical theft of their land, their children, their sovereignty. But she had to grapple with the reality that no one member of the community could tell her that what she was doing was acceptable or give her a blank cheque. “You have to know you’re doing it with a good heart, that your intentions are clean.”
Kramer asked Raibmon if she had a voice in her book or if she felt as though she had to keep quiet and let Paul take the lead. The approach to narrative was different from her usual approaches, said Raibmon, but “the goal was to get Elsie’s voice on the page.” She still made a historical argument, but in an engaging way that foreground’s Paul’s voice. “I hope people who read the book will still see the historical connections, the connecting themes.” She added that she didn’t consider herself to be the historian and Paul to be her subject. “We were two historians working together, from different historical traditions. Personally I didn’t feel any tension from letting Elsie decide what topics would go in.”
“I didn’t actually understand why certain topics were off limits,” Raibmon continued. “Why are certain stories so important? There were chapters that were super important to them, but I didn’t understand it at the time. I learned how long it can take to let go of our assumptions that block our understanding… I understand now. But if my authority had trumped Elsie’s, I wouldn’t even have remembered the question, let along learn what I’ve learned.
“Elsie had stories of other families, but she didn’t feel that was appropriate to have in the book. She didn’t want to assume the stories would offend them. Cultural difference is understanding human difference.”