Notes on 7th Text for Reading Field: Ray

Canadian History, Week One:

Arthur J. Ray, “Constructing and Reconstructing Native History: A Comparative Look at the Impact of Aboriginal and Treaty Rights Claims in North America and Australia,” Native Studies Review 16, no. 1 (2005): 15-39.

Ray describes how Aboriginal history in Canada, Australia, the United States, and New Zealand has been interpreted during the post-European contact era. He demonstrates that these interpretations have conformed to different conceptual frameworks that were determined by different schools of thought — initially within the discipline of Anthropology and later within Ethnography. He notes that these frameworks have been shaped by cultural assumptions, heavily biased towards justifying and maintaining contemporary status-quo favoured by the dominant and governing social system of each country. Consequently, he argues, Aboriginal dissatisfaction, with what from their perspective constitutes historiographical misrepresentation, has seen judiciary and quasi-judicial bodies called upon to arbitrate over conflicting claims about the past. Ray finds that current revisionist historiography owes much of its perspective to research carried out on behalf of Aboriginal litigants interested in validating land claims. In Ray’s view, understanding the history of official land policy goes a long way to explaining the different approaches to, and emphases in, historiography about Aboriginal peoples in North America and Australia.

In North America, anthropology was dominated by the particularist school of Franz Boas, in which the connection of culture to environment was considered definitional. In contrast, in Australia the structuralist theories of A.R. Radcliffe-Brown predominated. Place and time, in the latter paradigm, were less important to culture than social organization.

The question of land claims in the United States came to the fore with the passage of the Indian Claims Commission [ICC] Act in 1946. Compensation was limited to Aboriginal groups that could demonstrate an unbroken historical existence as a socio-political group as well as a reasonably unbroken connection to, and exclusive economic use of, a particular territory. New research was required to demonstrate these continuities, because previously anthropological studies had focused on the survival or extinction of culture – not on histories of political economy and society. Theoretical models developed within Anthropology and amended or enlarged within Ethnography proved problematic when transferred into the field of History — the  purpose of the transfer being to furnish evidence about the past that was not only suitable for legal interpretation, but compelling. Instances, patterns, and conditions of forced and free migration in lands that did not have boundaries codified after the Western European fashion, were particularly difficult to incorporate into historical descriptions of groups. Lived history proved to be more complex than theorized models (people had a greater range of affiliations, moved differently, and understood entitlement to lands and use of resources differently than had been imagined).

The American experience had an impact in the Canadian deliberations which became prominent with the Supreme Court’s split decision on the Calder vs. Regina Nisga claim in 1973. Documentation and studies previously completed for the ICC in the United States informed Canadian research and approaches. Thus, Ray notes, Canadian studies adopted terminology, concepts, and topics that had developed during the course of ICC deliberation – notably “acculturation, diffusion, cultural ecology, historical demography (particularly depopulation and migration), land tenure, and land use and occupancy research.”[1] Not surprisingly, as Ray also points out, basic divisions in interpretation between litigants in Canada mirrored those of previous litigants in the United States.

Ray examines the Australian experience from the 1969 failure of the Yolngu to have their Aboriginal title to territory confirmed under existing statutes of the country’s common law. A commission was established to design remedial legislation. As in North America, Anthropological models proved problematic in that they did not account for the variances and complexities that actual groups of people displayed – particularly with respect to patterns of land tenure, as well as of group membership and political representation. As the Australian land claims process unfolded, it became apparent that new conceptions were needed if new laws were to adequately address actual conditions. According to Ray, as more evidence of Aboriginal divergence from academic models came to light, there was a compensatory move within scholarly circles to reconfigure the models. Historical research, as a means of establishing continuities of rights and practices of individuals and groups, became integrated into Anthropological practice.

Ray concludes that, whatever the differences in the North American and Australian approaches to land claims settlement, there is a fundamental similarity. Law and theory (predominantly as formulated within Anthropology) are seen to have worked in a circular fashion to challenge and compel revision of historical representations of Aboriginal peoples. By implication, Ray’s suggestion is that during the latter half of the twentieth century Aboriginal historiography was not politically neutral terrain.


[1] Arthur J. Ray, “Constructing and Reconstructing Native History: A Comparative Look at the Impact of Aboriginal and Treaty Rights Claims in North America and Australia,” Native Studies Review 16, no. 1 (2005): 27.

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About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
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