One Book for Christmas

Posted by Daniel on Nov 30, 2010 - 5 comments

If I had to recommend just one recent book about BC for your Christmas shopping list it would have to be John Lutz's Makuk: A New History of Aboriginal-White Relations (UBC Press).

The book came out in 2008 so it has taken me an unforgivably long time to get around to reading it, but now that I have I'm certain it is the most important book about BC produced in the last few years.

Beginning with first contact, Lutz traces the history of Aboriginal-White relations down to the present day. It is not a pretty story but neither is it one that many of us are familiar with. I think most of us probably think that contact was bad for BC's First Nations. In a nutshell: lost their land, lost their cultures, lost their bearings.

But it is much more complicated than that and Lutz does a terrific job exploding some of the myths we've grown accustomed to accepting. His emphasis is on Aboriginal participation in the workforce, which was extensive. Far from being excluded from the capitalist economy, Aboriginals actually provided the workforce that made it possible. They worked in the salmon canneries, coal mines and sawmills, as farm labourers, packers, road and railway builders, loggers, steamboat deckhands, domestic servants and longshoremen. As one government official remarked in 1871: "Every Indian who could and would work -- and they were numerous -- was employed in almost every branch of industrial and domestic life..."

This situation did not last. Aboriginals lost their visibility and economic importance, and Lutz explains why. But his book is a persuasive attempt to write the First Nations back into BC economic history. As a bonus, it is filled with fascinating illustrations as well.

Lutz makes a point that I suppose I knew but had not thought about. One thinks that with the arrival of outsiders in the late 18th century, BC began to develop and grow. But in fact the arrival of Whites began the depopulation of the province, not its population. Few Europeans and Americans actually settled here -- Aboriginals were in the majority until at least 1885 -- and the Aboriginal population declined dramatically due to imported diseases such as smallpox, measles and influenza. So in fact it was not until 1950 that the population of BC regained the size it had been in 1750!

The great worth of Makuk (the word means "exchange") is that it takes the familiar history of the province and twists it slightly so that we are suddenly seeing it from a different angle, from the perspective of the Aboriginal inhabitants. And everything changes.