Making history

Many will remember that in the past, first nations put great stock in what they called oral history...

Many will remember that in the past, first nations put great stock in what they called oral history in trying to establish their title to what they regarded as their traditional lands.

That was a tough concept for those of Western European culture to get their heads wrapped around because they put greater value on written history.

I have a history degree.

I got that by reading numerous books and using those written words to answer the questions that were on the exam paper.

That was what you had to do to pass.

For example, if I had been answering a question about the impact of the Great Depression on ordinary Canadians and used the stories my Mum had told me about my Grandad riding the rails into the countryside outside of Winnipeg to get eggs for the family, it would have cut no ice.

But regurgitating what I had read in books about something similar in the Great Depression would have been okay.

Written history outranked oral history.

We even had a pejorative term for oral history – hearsay.

However, as a result of various court cases, first nations’ oral history has achieved status.

And the Joint Review Panel’s community hearings on the Northern Gateway Project recognised that by holding oral evidence sessions based on what it called traditional knowledge, essentially a new term for oral history.

What I found fascinating was when presenting his evidence on how plentiful oolichan once were in the Kitimat River, hereditary chief Sammy Robinson said, “You could walk across [the river] to the other side.”

I had heard that before.

Not from Sammy Robinson, not from any Haisla, but from my Mum.

My family landed here August 14, 1952. And my Mum talks about the salmon being so numerous then that you could walk from one side of the river to other on their backs.

That is of course an overstatement, but a clear echo of Robinson’s words.

The irony here is that because Robinson’s words have been recorded in the transcripts of the JRP, they are now written history.

And, I guess, because I have recounted my mother’s words, they too are now part of the written record.

 

Malcolm Baxter

 

 

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