These Mysterious People: Shaping History and Archaeology in a Northwest Coast Community by Susan Roy
Reviewed by Madeline Knickerbocker
In the summer of 1968, my grandmother would sometimes take my young aunt and uncle to the northern bank of the outflow of the Fraser River to dig for “Indian treasure” at the Marpole Midden. My aunt, then a pre-teen, remembers these sunny afternoons as leisurely, educational outings, and, like many of the other pot-hunting groups of white, middle-class children and parents sifting through the soil in the area, my family members certainly did not know the site as ćəsna:m, an ancient Musqueam village, nor did they connect the items they found with the contemporary Musqueam people living in Vancouver. This non-recognition of ongoing Musqueam connections to local territories through material culture is precisely the type of disconnect that Susan Roy explores in These Mysterious People.
Roy’s book, coming out of her PhD dissertation, is a strong contribution to the field of Aboriginal history. Roy successfully engages with older and more recent historiography and theory, and through applying this to her sustained analysis of ćəsna:m, she is able to offer new and significant insights about colonial archaeology. Like Douglas Cole’s book Captured Heritage: The Scramble for Northwest Coast Artifacts, which is partly a springboard for some of her themes, Roy’s work is positioned at the intersection of local Native-newcomer history, cultural history, and the history of archaeology and anthropology. More than Cole’s work, however, Roy’s is consciously political, as she strives (and succeeds) to demonstrate how archaeological excavation at ćəsna:m worked in the colonial paradigm to distance twentieth century Musqueam people from their traditional territory.
To make this case, her research focuses on three eras: Harlan I. Smith’s mining of the site for skeletal remains in the 1890s as part of the Jesup North Pacific Expedition initiated by the American Museum of Natural History; the extensive excavations by Charles Hill-Tout for the Art, Historical, and Scientific Association of Vancouver in the 1920s and 1930s; and UBC professor Charles E. Borden’s salvage archaeology projects during the 1950s and 1960s, which was the first to draw links between contemporary Musqueam peoples and excavated remains. Beginning in this period, Musqueam people increasingly used archaeology to establish unifying symbols, foster a sense of historical consciousness, and facilitate legal victories, thus promoting Musqueam nationalism.
Though this narrative is well executed, it supports a pre-existing understanding in the field that early colonial archaeology and anthropology produced knowledge about colonized peoples in ways that dispossessed them and distanced them from their territories. Roy’s most innovative contributions, then, come from her focused analysis of instances of Aboriginal action that contested and complicated this process. In Chapter 3, she argues that a Musqueam-curated display of objects during the 1913 Royal Commission on Indian Affairs demonstrated their historic ties to their territory; though the members of the Royal Commission may not have been wholly able to decipher the symbolism, these “ethnographic” objects, including two house posts and the qeysca:m stone, represented Musqueam declarations of their community’s land claims and fishing rights. Chapter 4 focuses on the ways Coast Salish reburials in the 1910s and 1920s, while initiated by civic requests to free up more urban land, demonstrated Aboriginal willingness to participate in local development only if this could be reconciled with their ongoing care for the remains of their ancestors. Roy argues that while the exhumations and reburials were interpreted by contemporary press through the lens of the “Vanishing Indian” trope, for Coast Salish participants, they reaffirmed their respect for ancestral remains, which symbolically represented their historic connection to their territories.
The strength of Roy’s politics influences the textual presentation of her arguments. Her decision to present the complexity of hən’q’əmin’əm’ language, unitalicized and with diacritics, instead of spelled out phonetically, visually asserts its significance, and disrupts the normal assimilation of Aboriginal words into the English alphabet. Roy’s consistent use of hən’q’əmin’əm’ words can also be seen as part of the growing project to indigenize historiography.
Through its analysis of the shifting meanings of Musqueam archaeology in and around Vancouver, Roy’s excellent book will encourage readers to rethink their understandings of colonial excavations and land appropriation and to recognize and incorporate the historical presence of Aboriginal people and places into narratives that previously excluded them. The ongoing relevance of Roy’s arguments is clear: public hostility towards Aboriginal treaty sovereignty, land claims, and more specific proposals like Squamish chief Ian Campbell’s 2010 controversial suggestion that Stanley Park be renamed Xwayxway Park, demonstrates that the recognition of Aboriginal history is an issue that remains fraught with political and racial tension.
These Mysterious People: Shaping History and Archaeology in a Northwest Coast Community
Montreal: McGill Queen's University Press, 2010 pp. $29.95
BC Studies, no. 174, Summer 2012.