The Importance of History in Telling Indigenous Stories

I often have people question my tendency to dig up the hardships of the past in my research… why I feel it necessary to dedicate major portions of papers or thesis chapters to historical explanation? It’s simply because I believe that history is an important figure in the story of any peoples, each individual would not be who they are in present day society if it were not for the hardships and triumphs of their ancestors. We cannot understand the present without first understanding the history.

Aboriginal histories pose a unique situation; these are histories that have often been written from an outsider’s perspective. Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s groundbreaking book, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, originally published in 1999 and now in its second edition in 2012, continues to make us question the history of colonialism and the impact that our research, as academics, can have on the Indigenous populations with whom we study. An important issue that is raised in Smith’s work is the power that lies within history itself:

History is also about power. In fact history is mostly about power. It is the story of the powerful and how they became powerful, and then how they use their power to keep them in positions in which they can continue to dominate others. It is because of this relationship with power that we have been excluded, marginalized and ‘Othered’. (Smith, 1999:34).

As Smith states here, history shapes the present and future of a people. In this line of thought, Smith encourages Indigenous Peoples to become the researchers of Indigenous Peoples and to change these power dynamics to fight against the colonial oppression. Corntassel, Chaw-win-is, & T’lakwadzi (2009) approach history in a similar way. Seeing as most history was written by settlers and rather than Indigenous Peoples, they suggest that Indigenous peoples can use their histories as a tool for reconciliation in their “restorying” or “truthtelling” of their histories. In these ways both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples change the way they look at history and Indigenous Peoples can reclaim the power over their position as the Other.

As Corntassel et al. discuss in their paper, “truthtelling” becomes increasingly important when looking to the past decisions of the Canadian Government, with particular regard to the Indian Act, Residential Schools and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC is providing Aboriginal Peoples in Canada with a platform to tell their histories from their perspectives and an opportunity to “truthtell” their experiences and “restory” the histories that were formed by settler society and gain a degree of reconciliation from Canada for the hardships imposed upon them by the Indian Act.

At times it is important to dig deeper than what is presented at face value in texts, especially when it comes to Indigenous histories. Much of Indigenous history is passed down through oral narratives and is rarely recoded in written form. Indigenous oral history acts as an important aspect in present day Aboriginal research and endeavours, projects such as the Oral History Project at IGOV which gathers oral narratives alternatively though interviewing, and the success of oral history being accepted as evidence on trial in the 1997 case of Delgmauukw v. the Queen, demonstrate the power that history can generate for the betterment of Aboriginal issues in the country. These acts of seeking the truth in history present the importance of digging up the past, even when it makes us uncomfortable, to better understand the present.