Notes on 2nd Text for Reading Field: Peers

Canadian History, Week One:

Laura Peers, The Ojibwa of Western Canada, 1780 to 1870 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1994). [Online preview: ]

Peers relates the history of the migration of the Ojibwa, whom she conceives as a distinct people. Her description begins after this First Nation had become culturally and geographically established in the Great Lakes region —  tracing subsequent movement west during the late eighteenth century, and outlining the establishment anew of the Ojibwa as a western people in the nineteenth century. The history chronicles ways in which various Ojibwa bands coped with waves of epidemic disease, the rise and decline of the fur trade, the discovery and then depletion of game populations, incursions by non native-born settlers, the loss of free access to land bases, and subjection to Canadian government. Throughout, Peers makes the point that material and social changes and continuities reflected both responses to necessity and choices freely made.  The resilience of Ojibwa culture is made apparent: its integrity  maintained over a vast geographical expanse, over an extended period of time, by an ever-changing array of individuals and communities.

Peers notes that although documentary sources may be Eurocentric and display knowledge gaps, they are adequate if the historiographical goal is to arrive at a baseline reconstruction amenable to correction as additional information becomes available. She has supplemented information gleaned from trade journals, and missionary and travel accounts, with an eclectic assortment of alternate sources ranging from interviews to artifacts. Nevertheless, she concedes, her ‘picture’ of the past is partial because Ojibwa people and trends moving to, from, and between groups associated with territories in the Turtle Mountains, Ontario, Minnesota, and Wisconsin are underrepresented.

Peers uses the concept of ethnicity to arrive at an understanding of culture as a kind of  multilayer available resource. Culture does not undergo radical change so much as it acquires new layers – over time, older ones may be accessed less frequently while newer ones become more prominent, but an underlying configuration remains recognizable. Thus many elements of an ancient Ojibwa lifestyle changed with exposure to, and experience in, the new ecological and social environments of the western prairie and parkland, but much that was traditional also proved adaptable and functional. In particular, she presents the Ojibwa as holding steadfastly to a perception of the world as a realm with immediate spiritual as well as physical attributes that had always to be factored into decision making. She describes kinship networks structured along lines found in other contemporary North American populations, but points out that interrelated systems for social cohesion — such as a patrilineal clan system with totemic divisions, and participation in the Midewiwin ceremony — were distinctively Ojibwa.

Peers breaks her study into periods that reflect varying degrees of interaction with Euroamerican arrivals. The first encompasses Euro-trade expansion into the West, beginning about 1780 and continuing to about 1804. The introduction of smallpox and the consequent depopulation of Aboriginal peoples operated as both a push factor (the desire to escape the disease), and a pull factor (relatively ‘empty,’ and therefore uncontested, resource-rich lands were made available). During this period the Ojibwa made use of Euroamerican traders and their goods.

The second period, encompassing the  inception of the Red River settlement, saw the potential for different styles of interaction and access to a potentially wider array of goods. The Ojibwa, as distinct from freemen and Métis associated with the North West Company, were initially valued by the Hudson’s Bay Company as allies. Red River Settlement, with its emphasis on establishing agricultural production, supplied the Ojibwa with new varieties of horticultural produce. With the amalgamation of the two trading companies in 1821, Ojibwa status within the settlement fell. However, to 1857, Ojibwa participation in the fur trade remained significant – in terms of returns for the Hudson’s Bay Company. The working out of relations between traders and Ojibwa was an ongoing process. In different eco-zones, bands adopted production practices reflective of available resources and circumstances. While individual responses varied, overall the Ojibwa appear to have preferred their own traditions to those introduced by any other group.

Peers characterizes the 1851 Turtle Mountain treaty as a “bitter” forerunner of relations to come in the third period. The implications of the treaty do not appear to have been lost on Aboriginal peoples of the time. To 1870, where Peers ends her examination, the Ojibwa are presented as continuing to exemplify the human capacity to adapt to change.

Like other recent historiographers such as Olive P. Dickason, Cole Harris, and Theodore Binnemma,[1] Peers’ strength lies in her ability to demonstrate that it is possible to write historically from non-Aboriginal record bases about people previously dismissed as ‘without history’ because without writings of their own. Given Peers’ timeframe, however, I have to wonder about the extent of  her research into self-generated and other contemporary documents that do exist. Take the issue of naming for example: While she asserts that “there is not a single instance [of the ethnonym ‘Anishnabe’] in the historic record,” both Peter Jones in his hymn book,  Nugumouinun Genunugumouat igiu Anishinabeg Anumiajig, published in 1836, and J. Hammond Trumbull in his study: On Algokin Names for Man, published circa 1871, make use of the term.[2]

Other commentaries online:

Robert Robson, review of The Ojibwa of Western Canada, 1780 to 1870, by Laura Peers, Manitoba History,

University of Manitoba Press, web page for The Ojibwa of Western Canada, 1780 to 1870,  by Laura Peers, University of Manitoba Press Native Studies Books

[1] Olive P. Dickason, The Myth of the Savage and the Beginnings of French Colonialism in the Americas (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1984); Cole Harris, The

Resettlement of British Columbia: Essays on Colonialism and Geographical Change (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997); Theodore Binnema, Common and Contested Ground: A Human and Environmental History of the Northwestern Plains (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001) , see this blog, previous post.

[2] Laura Peers, The Ojibwa of Western Canada, 1780 to 1970 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1994), xvii. See also Peter Jones, Nugumouinun Genunugumouat igiu Anishinabeg Anumiajig (Boston: American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, 1836), at Early Canadiana Online,, for which the item record notes, “Text in Ojibway.” Jones/Kahkewaquonaby/Desagondensta was of Aboriginal heritage, see Donald B. Smith, “Jones, Peter,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, Also J. Hammond Trumbull, On Algokin Names for Man, (S.l. : s.n., 1871?), 12,  at Early Canadiana Online, . For comments on naming Anishinabeg/Chippewa/Ojibwa see Glenn Welker, “Chippewa/Ojibway/Anishinabe Literature,” website


About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
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