‘Aboriginal Rights Claims and the Making and Remaking of History’ by Arthur J. Ray

Arthur J. Ray. Aboriginal Rights Claims and the Making and Remaking of History. McGill-Queen’s Native and Northern Series 87. 360pp., 11 maps, 17 images, notes, bibl., index. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2016. Can$110 (cloth), Can$29.95 (paperback)

There are two ways to read Arthur Ray’s Aboriginal Rights Claims and the Making and Remaking of History. The first, following Ray’s own stated goals, is as a “single-volume introduction to the use of historical evidence in the varied aboriginal and treaty rights claims settings of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States” (27). Drawing on decades of experience as a scholar and an expert witness in Canada as well as an impressive breadth of comparative legal, historical, and anthropological scholarship, Ray provides an effective overview of some of the most significant land claims processes of the twentieth century settler colonial landscape. He focuses in particular on the ways in which these processes have been shaped by the testimony of expert witnesses—scholars who have been tasked with providing reports to courts and tribunals regarding Indigenous historical land and resource ownership and usage—and on how this applied work has in turn shaped academic disciplines, offering new perspectives, challenging dominant paradigms, and at times engendering bitter and sustained debates. As Ray moves across this vast scope, his text coalesces into a powerful indictment of the extraordinary lengths to which Indigenous Peoples have had to go in order to claim and receive recognition for their legal, political, and cultural rights. This second way of reading the text is particularly valuable for an undergraduate audience unversed in international Indigenous issues, which appears to be one of the book’s primary intended readerships.

There is, then, a certain broad magnitude to Ray’s work that is both scholarly and political, and more than motivates his comparative structure. This said, Ray achieves the careful balance of general and particular that works of this nature require more successfully in some chapters than in others. At its strongest, Ray’s text is able to simultaneously outline very complex colonial histories and legal structures with succinct clarity and accuracy and provide a compelling analysis of their intersections with disciplinary formation and debate. Ray’s second chapter, on the United States Indian Claims Commission (1946–1978), is a model in that regard, moving from a discussion of the Commission itself to a careful and sensitive account of the development of the concept of “ethnohistory” within anthropology, and the competing ways in which the emerging sub-discipline was taken up by scholars working for the US Justice Department and for the Native American tribes pursuing land claims. Ray aptly shows how debates whose stakes in anthropology had previously been understood as largely theoretical became politically charged through expert presentation.

To wit, cases before the Commission saw anthropologists working on behalf of Indigenous plaintiffs pit Alfred Kroeber’s then already well-worn notion of “culture areas”—figuring Indigenous territories as being customarily “contiguously bounded” rather than overlapping, with few, if any, “no-man’s lands”—against the more recently developed “cultural ecology” school, which posited that “primitive peoples” obtained “most of their subsistence needs from a small portion of their traditional territory, usually places (or niches) near their primary habitat sites” (44-45).[1] These opposing perspectives laid out radically different visions of Indigenous territorial ownership and usage. In turn, these visions gained formidable teeth when they moved beyond the realm of “academic questions” and into a Commission context in which non-anthropologists were evaluating which theory seemed more plausible and, in part, using those evaluations to determine land compensation for Indigenous plaintiffs. This posed substantial ethical questions for the discipline at the time, leading to fierce fights between scholars working for the different parties. “Anthropology,” Sol Tax declared in 1955, “is in a bad position right now. The bickering and accusations that result from claims cases threaten the whole profession, especially when it is all kept underground” (quoted, 63). If divisive, Ray argues, the demands of expert testimony were also incredibly generative for anthropology, pushing anthropologists not only to re-evaluate the theoretical and ethical significance of their models but also, and perhaps even more significantly, to pursue new forms of historical data in order to more effectively ground their claims in historical realities. These archival engagements led to the formation of the journal Ethnohistory, founded originally by a group of anthropologists acting as experts for the American federal government, and the sub-discipline of ethnohistory.

The questions that emerged around the Indian Claims Commission remain with anthropology. Indeed, the salience of questions around the ethics of professional testimony, of the purported “objectivity” of anthropological data, of the relational obligations to the communities with which anthropologists work, and of the responsibilities of anthropology towards contesting ongoing forms of domination have only become more central to the discipline in the last decades, particularly in the settler colonial contexts with which Ray is concerned. This makes Ray’s second chapter essential reading, especially for the gaps it points to between theoretical innovation—e.g., the development of cultural ecology—and the ways that these innovations might be used against the very peoples anthropologists write about, form relationships with, and to whom they can (and arguably should) become morally obligated. Scholarship does not exist in a vacuum, especially not in contexts of ongoing land and rights claims, an important truth that Ray historicizes very nicely.

The superb balance Ray strikes in chapter two between a broad orientation to the American claims process and the detailed analysis of anthropological debate, however, is not entirely sustained by the chapters that follow, which trace claims processes in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. The broadly comparative nature of the book means that each chapter requires considerable explanatory text, orienting readers to the different colonial histories and the establishment of distinct claims processes in five different nation-states. In some chapters these details overwhelm the specific analysis of how anthropology and history shape and are shaped by these claims processes, which, while always present, seem far less central to the account than in Ray’s work in the context of the US. A notable exception to this pattern is the final substantive chapter of the piece, in which Ray discusses his own involvement with a number of different significant Métis land claims in Canada. Ray’s discussion of his own testimony and the disciplinary trends he was contesting, his evaluation of his fellow expert witnesses, and his reflections on the consequences of his testimony are intriguing and give the reader a strong sense of how much academic work is required for proper testimony and the ways in which it can impact the course of both an academic career and the results of a proceeding as a whole (chapter seven).

While the very broad scope of Ray’s text renders it somewhat uneven as an account of “the making and remaking of history,” as I’ve suggested above, it can also be read as a powerful summary of the extraordinary lengths to which Indigenous Peoples have been compelled to go in order to prove their rights to territories and resources they have owned, occupied, and used since time immemorial throughout the settler colonial landscape. This second reading of the book makes it an excellent teaching tool for undergraduate audiences engaging in depth with the complex ways that colonial actors and structures have constrained and conditioned the claims that Indigenous Peoples can make, and even the ways that these Peoples are and can be defined under colonially imposed laws. Ray’s account traces a trajectory from the earliest and most tentative forms of colonial restitution to a more contemporary landscape in which Indigenous laws and political formations are being recognized to an extent by colonial governments.[2] He shows how each and every shift in colonial policy has been hard-earned across different settler colonial nations and how these shifts have informed others internationally. So too, Ray’s work reminds us how, at every turn, states have fiercely resisted the positions advanced by Indigenous communities seeking the recognition of their rights and historical redress for the violence of colonial occupation. In the face of this opposition, Ray’s text testifies—pardon the expression—to a remarkable network of scholars and lawyers working in collaboration with different Indigenous Nations in order to advance these cases, imbuing his text with a rare sense of optimism despite the many frustrations and challenges it chronicles. In short, though Aboriginal Rights Claims and the Making and Remaking of History is not entirely successful in its stated intentions—given its scope one wonders how it could be—the text’s sweeping nature and emphasis on historical orientation makes it a resonant teaching tool and a useful reminder for scholars working in these different nation-states of the shared struggles that Indigenous Peoples have faced and continue to face asserting their rights across the settler colonial world.

[1] Ray traces cultural ecology’s development to separate pioneering work by anthropologists Ralph Linton and Julian Steward in 1936.

[2] Though typically only within certain already established boundaries, as Elizabeth Povinelli, Paul Nadasdy, and Glen Coulthard have all argued in different contexts. See: Elizabeth Povinelli, The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous Alterities and the Making of Multiculturalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002); Paul Nadasdy, Hunters and Bureaucrats: Power, Knowledge, and Aboriginal-State Relations in the Southwest Yukon (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2003); Glen Sean Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Minneapolis and Saint Paul: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).

Joseph Weiss: contributions / jweiss02@wesleyan.edu / Department of Anthropology, Wesleyan University

1 Comment

  1. Richard Handler

    June 12, 2018 at 7:14 am

    Excellent, clear review of a book that obviously will be of great interest to many of us who teach both anthropology and the history of anthropology.

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