TITRE: Totemic Identity and Aboriginal Governance
CHERCHEUR: Darlene Johnston (University of Toronto)
In defining aboriginal rights under Section 35(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982, the Supreme Court of Canada has insisted that aboriginal claimants demonstrate continuity with «pre-contact» peoples and practices. The Supreme Court has yet to decide whether s.35 protection extends to the right of self-government. It is clear, however, that any self-governing institutions for which constitutional protection in sought will have to satisfy the «integral to the distinctive culture of the claiming community prior to contact with European societies test» articulated in Van der Peet. For societies whose traditions were transmitted orally and using non-alphabetic writing systems, the burden of proving which aspects of governance were distinctively aboriginal and integral prior to contact poses serious methodological challenges.
My father’s ancestors, Algonquian-speakers of the Great Lakes region, did not experience sustained contact with English-speakers until the early 19th century. Records created and preserved by colonial officials from this era suggest that totemic identity played a role in leadership and governance. French-speakers had arrived on the Great Lakes two centuries earlier. Their penchant for recording the paroles (speeches) and harangues (public adresses) of their Algonquian-speaking hosts provides a rich colonial archives which is under-utilized by English-speaking researchers.
By definition, however, neither the French nor English written sources can provide observations on aboriginal societies in the period before their contact with European societies. This has prompted many historians to equate pre-contact with pre-history and pre-literacy. To demonstrate «the great difficulties involved in attempting to describe aboriginal organization», Harold Hickerson asked «Who was there to see it?» The obvious answer, the aboriginal peoples themselves, does not provide evidentiary consolation if such people are deemed to have been illiterate, with no means of preserving and transmitting their culture, tradition, and history.
As a legally-trained aboriginal historian, I understand that the absence of non-aboriginal observers and recorders does not consign the pre-contact history of my ancestors to the Great Unknown. They spoke, therefore they were. Their language was recorded by French missionary linguists of the highest calibre. Embedded in the the earliest recorded grammars and lexicons are the traditions, institutions, practices and self-understandings of their world. Inspired by Jan Vansina’s ground-breaking historical linguistics methodology, Words as History, I have come to consider the 17th century Algonquian-French dictionaries as truly primary sources for reconstructing my ancestors’ worldview.
My research plan is to demonstrate the extent to which oral tradition as recorded in colonial archives and missionary linguistics materials can be uitlized to produce a full-bodied, internatlly-consistent and coherent account of Algonquian totemic identity and governance structures. In support of this research I will require funding to purchase computer equipment and research assistance with document retrieval, transcription and translation.