Notes on 1st Text for Reading Field: Binnema

Canadian History, Week One:

Theodore Binnema, Common and Contested Ground: A Human and Environmental History of the Northwestern Plains (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001). [Online preview: http://bit.ly/Sbtng ]

Binnema outlines the of the history of  the the Northwestern Plains, conceptually defining it in geographical and socio-political terms as a region from at least A.D. 200 to 1806. His analysis of human activity is treated as a “history of human interaction generally.”[1] This allows for an appreciation of historical process as a complex dynamic. Human agency is given a greater emphasis than in previous works about the region that relied on notions of cultural determinism and the inexorable march of ‘progress.’  Binnema’s account highlights the heterogeneity within communities and the many different types of exchanges between communities. At all times, the physical materiality of the environment is presented as fundamental to community functioning. In this respect Binnema’s history aligns with a basic tenet of human geography: while the nature of the geographically situated resource base determines what can be done with and within it, people weigh the opportunities and constraints it presents and decide what might be done at any given point in time.

Binnema’s analysis of environmental resources demonstrates that the distribution of human populations was to a large extent determined by the great North American resource, the bison — the location, quantity and quality of which in turn was determined by the seasonal availability of various kinds of fodder. In terms of patterns of development, Binnema finds that Euroamerican arrivals to the region – whether people, livestock or technology – were as subject to environmentally determined opportunities and constraints as North American arrivals.

The patterns that Binnema describes are complex. Their most striking attribute is that of movement. He designates ancient history the ‘pedestrian era,’ during which people of the region – principally identified as Blackfoot and Gros Ventres — followed bison in a seasonal round that though ‘nomadic’ was by no means random. The ‘equestrian era,’ from approximately 1600 to 1750, saw an influx of groups from all directions whose cultural attributes had formed previously in other regions. These included Kutenais and Athapascans from the west and north, and Algokians and Siouans from the south and east.

The patterns of interaction during the equestrian era and through the subsequent period to 1806 were complicated by the introduction of the horse, of firearms (from approximately 1700), and of epidemic disease (the first documented beginning approximately 1780) — all of which followed patterns of their own. The arrival of Euroamerican traders, though of obvious import, generated patterns that owed as much, if not more, to Aboriginal decision making than to that of the newcomers.

The one constant in Binnema’s account is the region and the fact that its resources were desirable and access to them was contested. According to Binnema’s description, the working out over time of the various interacting factors mentioned above, culminated, in 1806, in a solidification of divisions between bands. He maintains that previously divisions had remained in flux as coalitions, associations and affiliations variously formed and dissolved at the individual, familial and community scale. As of 1806, the Cree and Assiniboine (more closely entwined with Euroamerican trade ventures) were firmly divided from the Blackfoot, Gros Ventre, and Sarcee.

That Binnema succeeds in supplying much detail in this general history, without having to speculate over-much on cultural aspects of the peoples he examines,  demonstrates the richness of such historical sources as the Hudson’s Bay Company’s archived documents. His reliance on that base and the relative lack of cultural material derived from other potential sources raises questions as to balance however. Take, for example, his emphasis is on trade, diplomacy, and warfare. This is a  ‘masculine’ (aka ‘public sphere’), perspective – and, particularly with regards to what constitutes ‘war,’ perhaps a predominantly Euroamerican masculine perspective. Ignoring the ‘feminine’ (aka ‘private sphere’) side of peoples’ lives — art, emotion, daily chores —  underplays the roles not only of women and children, but of the spiritual and intellectual dimensions of  historical decision making.

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Additional resources:

Ken Coates, review of Common and Contested Ground: A Human and Environmental History of the Northwestern Plains, by Theodore Binnema,  Oregon Historical Quarterly 104, no. 2 (Summer 2003), http://bit.ly/LfA0X

Mary Scriver, blog, “‘Common and Contested Ground,’ by Ted Binnema,” Prairie Mary (Tuesday, June 7, 2005), http://bit.ly/zqLmP

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“Never Forget,” posted to YouTube by thelight101, 7 December 2006.


[1] Theodore Binnema, Common and Contested Ground: A Human and Environmental History of the Northwestern Plains (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001), 13.

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About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
This entry was posted in Book Notes, Canadian History, Week One and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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