Teaching First Nations History as Canadian History

© Dr. Graham Reynolds, Cape Breton University


The past several decades have witnessed a remarkable transformation in the administration and content of First Nations education in Canada (Battiste 1995). In considering the changes that have occurred, beginning with the National Indian Brotherhood’s historic Red Paper entitled Indian Control of Indian Education in 1972, it is fair to say that a virtual revolution has taken place in relation to the transfer of authority from Federal and Provincial governments to local First Nations communities across Canada. In spite of budget cuts and bureaucratic intransigence, there is general acceptance today of the right of self-determination in the area of First Nations education and there is some expectation that First Nations language and culture will be preserved through aboriginal community schools. As impressive as this revolution has been, however, there is still a tremendous amount to be done, not only in continuing the struggle for First Nations control over their own education but also in response to the need for aboriginal content in Canadian primary and secondary school curricula. Indeed, in comparison to the advances in other areas of First Nations education, it is clear that progress in this last area has definitely lagged behind.

To date, there have been no widely accepted and effective strategies for teaching First Nations history and culture within the Canadian social studies curriculum. Most approaches involve teaching First Nations history as entirely separate units (taught usually on a non-compulsory basis) or as cursory introductions to what is regarded as the “mainstream” or, more appropriately, the Eurocentric history of Canada. In one of the most widely used texts on Canadian history, for example, the bulk of the treatment given to First Nations peoples consists merely of eight pages in an introductory chapter ( Herstein, Hughes and Kirbyson 1970 ). These approaches are certainly well intentioned and they are important first steps toward redressing the years of widespread prejudice and ignorance. However, as this paper argues, there is a need for a much more committed and comprehensive effort of historical revision in order to integrate First Nation’s history into the mainstream of our national history. Such a revision would obviously entail a complete evaluation of what constitutes so-called “mainstream” Canadian history. It would also involve a much fuller recognition of the importance of not only Aboriginal culture but the culture of other neglected or marginalized racial-ethnic groups as well (e.g. Canadians of African, Chinese and Japanese descent).

Ultimately, Canadian history is multicultural and the various cultures that make up Canada should be treated in a much more dynamic and contextualized manner. They do not exist, after all, as isolated and totally independent entities and their histories do not represent completely separate narratives (e.g. Barth 1968; Giddens 1979; Wagner 1981). On the contrary, they are all part of a common, culturally complex, national history that has been shaped by an ongoing process of cultural interaction and adaptation. Needless to say, the writing of this more integrated history is well beyond the scope of this paper. My intention here is only to offer a few preliminary observations regarding some of the conceptual changes that would occur if we were to take seriously the idea of treating First Nations history as Canadian history.2

Perhaps the most obvious feature of a more inclusive and integrated history of Canada would involve the dramatic expansion of the historical horizon of time and culture from a mere five hundred years to ten thousand years or more. Clearly, this kind of perspective would be more balanced and farsighted as opposed to the more narrow Eurocentric view of our history. In the context of North America, we might consider adopting a model of national history that is more like that of Mexico than that of the United States. Unlike our American neighbours, Mexico incorporates Aboriginal origins and content into its history and national identity. Most of the current histories of Mexico give substantial treatment to the pre-Columbian cultures and history. The authors of one such history devote a full three quarters of their text to the periods of history that preceded the arrival of the Spanish (Garcia, Navarro and Pecroz 1974). For many Mexicans and even Mexican Americans today, Latino and Indian cultures are so closely intertwined that they appear to be grafted together at their very roots. In the Chicano movement in the United States, for example, expressions of ethnic pride combine identification with Mexico’s ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations with Spanish language and culture (Gutierrez 1993).

In Canada, it might be argued, a similar identification with Aboriginal origins would not be possible because we lack the visible reminders of our ancient past. There were, after all, no Mayan or Aztec civilizations in Canada and the ancestors of our First Nations peoples of today did not leave behind great monuments built of stone. The comparative scarcity of large scale material culture brings into question the problem of how to interpret the more than ten thousand years of history of which so little is apparently known or recorded. This most certainly represents a major challenge for historians, even for those who acknowledge the great cultural achievements of the Pre-Columbian cultures of North America. The harsh conditions of our northern climate and soil, as well as the use of wood instead of stone as the common building material, have combined to erase many of the physical reminders of our earliest inhabitants. However, this does not mean that the ancient cultures of the northern and arctic regions should be judged materially or technologically inferior to those who had the advantages of a warmer climate. It is truly a remarkable fact that Paleo Indians and Paleo Eskimos not only survived in the north but their cultures flourished for thousands of years.

Today, there is a growing body of knowledge that is filling in many of the gaps in the ancient history of North America. Recent developments in North American archaeology are beginning to provide a much richer and deeper understanding of these cultures as well as the interactions between them. “These are exciting times for Paleo-Indian studies in eastern North America”, notes the archaeologist David Anderson (Anderson 1995: 33). The reason for this, he states, is “the existence of a large … interaction network operating among scholars actively working in virtually every state and province… “resulting in the rapid creation of ” a tremendous primary database about the region’s first inhabitants”(Anderson 1995)

In our own region of the northeast, there is sufficient archaeological and historical knowledge to expand our historical horizon beyond the past five hundred years in order to encompass the history of the Paleo Eskimo, Inuit, Dorset, Beothuk together with the Mi’kmaq and Abenaki cultures. These cultures , to a large extent, shared the same climate and geography and their worlds often intersected (McGhee 1996; Wright 1995). Acknowledging their history as part of a common Canadian history conveys a number of valuable lessons. Above all, it reinforces the importance of the intimate relation that exists between culture and environment and it emphasizes that climate, in particular, often plays a determining role in cultural interaction and technological innovation. The long-sighted view of history stresses the fact that over thousands of years large scale changes in culture were precipitated by dramatic and often sudden changes in climate. And, as the following discussion illustrates, the longer the historical perspective the more it becomes apparent that the course of human history parallels the patterns of environmental change.

Since the end of the last great ice age there have been several minor ice ages as well as warming periods. The extended Postglacial Warm Period reached peak temperatures around 2200BC. Then the global climatic weather began a fluctuating pattern of cooling that lasted until the first century AD. This period was followed by dramatic, yet shorter, shifts in climate, beginning with the Medieval Warm Period followed by the Little Ice Age that began in 1400 AD and which lasted until 1850. These changes in climate were significant enough to effect cultural and technological developments. The Post Glacial Warm Period was part of a global climatic trend that brought on an age of sustained human development throughout the world.

Advanced agricultural societies emerged in the rich river valleys of Mesopotamia and Egypt as well as in the warm and fertile regions of Mesoamerica (Ponting 1991). In North America, the receding Laurentide Ice Sheet and smaller Wisconsin glaciers enabled the great mammal hunters to migrate to the east and northeast. During the same period, Paleo Eskimos began their expansion across the vast regions of the Arctic which, on average, was warmer and more pleasant than the conditions that we find there today (McGhee 1996). The weather cycles of the Postglacial Warm Period remained relatively stable for several thousand years but then, quite suddenly, the conditions changed and from about 2200 BC to 1500 BC the global climate cooled rapidly.

In Egypt, these climatic changes helped bring on social and economic turmoil when the Nile river began a prolonged series of extremely low floods and the desert began to encroach on rich agricultural lands (Ponting 1991). Meanwhile, in North America, the global pattern of climatic cooling had a devastating effect on the local populations throughout the Arctic and sub Arctic regions. The consequences were profoundly personal and local in nature, especially when we realize that most of the cultural groups were made up of self contained family units who lived relatively isolated and independent lives for most of the year. Gatherings of single bands or more was a semi annual or annual event that provided the opportunity for social renewal as well as information exchange and planning for the future. The population in each region of the Arctic adapted to the environment differently and when the climate changed the effects were not felt in the same manner. “Accordingly”, writes the archaeologist Robert McGhee, “adaptation. was not a uniform process but a matter of individual bands accommodating their way of life to local environments that were no longer behaving as expected.” The archaeological record demonstrates that these cultures were shaped by “numerous individual decisions and their consequence” (McGhee 1996-111).

In regions such as the central Arctic ,where climatic cooling was not as severe, local populations continued to flourish. Elsewhere, such as in the high Arctic, the climatic change had profound and lasting negative consequences. The sudden cooling retarded the growth of vegetation which meant that animals like the Muskox, that lived on the vegetation, declined in numbers or disappeared altogether. This resulted in starvation for individual families. In a short period of time entire bands disappeared or their numbers were so diminished that they were forced out of necessity to join other cultural groups. Personal tragedies like this occurred again and again over hundreds and thousands of years and they provide us with an important historical insight into the central role climate played in initiating cultural interaction (McGhee 1996). The change to a warmer climate could have equally unsettling effects on some cultural groups. The Dorsets of the eastern Arctic, for example, were highly adaptive to their colder climate and had developed a hunting economy that made use of the prolonged winter conditions and the extensive sea ice. Unlike the Inuit, they did not use boats and open water hunting gear. The sudden shift in climate contributed to the disappearance of the Dorset culture at the beginning of the Medieval Warm Period. This same process of global warming helped stimulate agricultural productivity and population growth in Europe and it also had a positive effect on the Paleoindians and their descendants in the southern regions of eastern North America. As the Dorset and Paleo Eskimo populations retreated from Newfoundland, Indian groups from the south moved into the same area. This illustrates clearly how climatic change caused dislocation and retreat for some cultures while for others it provided material advantages, including the possibility for territorial expansion.

The connection between human beings and their environment, especially the influence of geography and climate on culture, provides one of the most valuable lessons that the history of the last ten thousand years has to teach. Above all, it demonstrates how the experience of place and climate creates an inseparable bond linking the earliest with all future generations of a region. Awareness of this aspect of human connectedness in the continuum of history teaches us how the forces of nature have shaped and continue to shape human societies. It provides a humbling reminder of the certainty that sudden and dramatic changes in our environment await us in the future. Given the current predictions about global warming, we should take far more seriously the environmental influences on our economy and society. “We may not be as vulnerable as the Paleo Eskimos”, McGhee warns, “but we will probably be as surprised and unprepared as they were by sudden shifts in weather patterns, and our reactions to these shifts will probably be just as fraught with risk” (McGhee 1996: 119). Teaching First Nations history as Canadian history conveys this lesson clearly and provides a valuable context for us to develop interdisciplinary approaches that would combine social and environmental studies.

In addition to providing important insights about the relationship between culture and environment, the history of the last ten thousand years also stresses the importance of cultural interaction as one of the most fundamental dimensions of human development. North American archaeologists inform us that the cultural boundaries that were once thought of as permanent delineations are, in fact, quite tenuous and fluid in nature (Nassaney and Sassaman 1995). Indeed, the archaeological record indicates more and more the seminal importance of cultural interaction in all areas and it stresses the need for adopting both multi scalar and panregional approaches toward our understanding of the history of pre-Columbian cultures of North America. The accumulative data from current North American archaeology make it abundantly clear that “cultural identities are created, maintained, and transformed through cultural contact “(Nassaney and Sassaman 1996: xxxiii, italics in the original).

The theme of cultural interaction is also stressed in current revisionist ethnology and ethnohistory. One of the most notable recent examples of this trend in ethnohistory is Richard White’s study entitled The Middle Ground.- Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650 1815. This highly acclaimed work traces the process of cultural interaction and transformation in the territory west of the Iroquois (the pays d’en haut) from the middle of the seventeenth century, to the early part of the eighteenth century. White offers convincing evidence to show that, in spite of the vast cultural differences that separated the various Algonquian tribes and the French, they nevertheless reached a sustained, albeit fragile, cultural accommodation based on trade, intermarriage, military alliance, etc. This accommodation produced a higher plane of humanity in which the borders of French and Algonquian identity blended into a common middle ground of culture (White 1991: 50).

The middle ground required willingness on both sides to live peacefully. White states that it grew according to the need of people to find a means, other than force, to gain the cooperation or consent of foreigners. To succeed, those who operated on the middle ground had, of necessity, to attempt to understand the world and the reasoning of others and to assimilate enough of that reasoning to put it to their own purposes (White 1991: 52). The central feature of the middle ground, White argues, ” was the willingness of those who created it to justify their own actions in terms of what they perceived to be their partner’s cultural premises. Those operating in the middle ground acted for interests derived from their own culture, but they had to convince people of another culture that some mutual action was fair and legitimate” (White 1991: 52).

Although White’s study is limited to the western frontier of French territory in which the circumstances were particularly favorable for a prolonged period of cultural accommodation, it provides important insights into the dynamics of cultural interaction during the entire post contact period. There is an emerging consensus among ethnohistorians that a similar pattern of cultural interaction took place in the eastern part of New France during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The earlier work of Cornelius Jaenen together with the more recent work of Kenneith Morrison, John Reid, and others have described various aspects of the process of cultural interaction and accommodation that occurred over this period, despite the fact that these were years of almost relentless conflict between European powers and their Amerindian allies (Reid1989). In some respects, there was even a greater degree of interaction in Acadia than in the western frontier. Partly in reaction to Jesuit resistance to sexual relations between Indians and French settlers, the French Crown began a policy in 1668 of encouraging racial intermarriages. In his recent history of the Mi’kmaq, Harald Prins notes that given the close interaction between the Mi’kmaq and French settlers in Acadia and the fact that the communities were so small in number, ” the result of this early miscegenation [policy] was that few of the local Mi’kmaq and French Acadians belonging to long-established shed regional families would have been ‘full-bloods’ by the mid- 1700s “(Prins 1996: 68).

The current emphasis on cultural interaction in both archaeology and ethnohistory is forcing us to reexamine the underlying dynamics of racial-ethnic relations over the entire course of our history. The history of the post contact period as well as the history of the last ten thousand years confirms the fundamental fact that cultural groups do not exist for any extended periods of time in total isolation and that cultural interaction has shaped even those cultural groups who lived in remote and sparsely populated regions. Viewed in this larger context, the arrival of the Europeans in America is part of an extended continuum of history and cultural interaction. Nor is there any reason to conclude that the process has ended. History, geography and climate are still shaping our lives today as actively as they were over the last ten thousand years.

This realization leads to yet another important lesson that our expanded, culturally complex and common national history has to teach, namely, that cultures have a living past and their histories are still accessible through current and future methods of historical inquiry. First Nations history is revealed not only in the written records of the past but through the vast body of unwritten history including myths, stories, legends, etc., that form a part of the oral tradition. Indeed, refinements in the use of oral history demonstrate that it is an authoritatively equivalent and parallel path of evidence to that of the written historical record. It is not at all surprising that many elders and other keepers of the records in oral based societies have historical recollections that are as accurate and, as a recent history of the North- West rebellion demonstrates, in some cases more accurate than written documents describing certain events of the past (Stonechild and Waiser 1997 ). Although many of the details of successive generations of First Nation ancestors have been lost, there is much that is known and even more that is certain to be discovered by future generations.

Acknowledging that First Nations history is Canadian history introduces, in a personal and meaningful way, Aboriginal content into the education and the lives of all Canadians. The values and perspective of this kind of integrated history confirm the reality of our fundamental humanity and interconnectedness and it illustrates that, as Canadians, we share a common national history. Understanding the lessons of this history will certainly insure a better and more harmonious future for our country, one in which, hopefully, tolerance and understanding will prevail over prejudice and ignorance.


1. There are some encouraging regional initiatives to integrate Native Studies into the school curriculum. In May, 1997, the United Church of Canada submitted a wide ranging proposal on Native Studies to the Ontario Ministry of Education and Training. One of its recommendations stresses that all students in Ontario should be taught Native Studies as part of a new integrated and interdisciplinary program. Moreover, the submission recommends that Native Studies “must teach Ontario students about Aboriginal history and culture from an Aboriginal Perspective”. (Siebert and Pohl 1997: 3).

2. Treating First Nation’s history as Canadian history is not an entirely new idea. Bruce Trigger noted in his article on Canadian historical writing that it was one of the directions that Canadian ethnohistonians were beginning to take (Trigger 1986). Trigger’s own work is contributing substantially to this trend and, along with the seminal work of Olive Dickason, it is helping in the revision of Canadian history as a whole (Trigger 1985; Dickason 1992: 1995).

References Cited


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