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2.2: History without Archives

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  • The idea that the Americas have no history before the arrival of Europeans derives mainly from the apparent absence of a written record. European, Middle Eastern, and Asian civilizations evolved highly bureaucratic and centralized administrative functions based on the ability to write things down. The influential Canadian economic historian, Harold Innis, described the impact of writing on the building of empires in his 1951 book, The Bias of Communication. He argued that there are two kinds of communications: time-biased and space-biased.

    • Time-biased media seek to transcend time. They are heavy and durable, such as clay and stone. They have a long lifespan but they do not encourage the extension of empires. Think here of ancient Egypt or Sumeria as examples. Innis associated these media with the customary, the sacred, and the moral: they’re heavy on gods and proclamations, light on detailed instructions. Time-biased media facilitate the development of social and economic hierarchies. They also favour the growth of religion and the hegemony that religion imposes on secondary institutions, such as education. For Innis, speech is also a time-biased medium. Speech, in the form of oral culture, can be passed down from generation to generation, yet does not encourage territorial expansion. Oral culture is concerned with preserving values and traditional knowledge. Oral cultures emphasize their past and create a collective society rich in tradition, ceremony, and custom.
    • Space-biased media, conversely, seek to obliterate physical boundaries. They are light and transportable and can be transmitted over distances. They are associated with secular and territorial societies and facilitate the expansion of empire over land and sea. Paper (and papyrus) is an example of space-biased media: it is readily transported, but has a relatively short lifespan since it degrades and can be easily destroyed or lost. Writing, closely linked with paper, is also an example of a space-biased media. Writing emphasizes the present and the future, and is not localized like oral culture. Writing is grounded in technical knowledge and facilitates the growth of states, political authorities, and decentralized institutions.[1]

    Many societies — perhaps most or even all — combine elements of both kinds of media, but they also privilege one over the other. Europeans in the 1400s had space-biased media at their disposal, in the form of writing. This gave them the power to pass instructions across long supply lines that wrapped their way around Africa and across the Atlantic. It gave their delegates the ability to devise documents that assigned “ownership” to lands they’d just encountered. And it was the very embodiment of their belief system, bound up in the form of the Holy Bible.

    Indigenous peoples in this hemisphere had time-biased media, which put them at a disadvantage in many ways (which we’ll explore in Chapter 3). But the important point is that they did have media; they had a written record, which the Europeans chose to ignore or attempt to destroy where it challenged their own media. Oral tradition was, as well, disregarded and disrespected by Europeans and, from the 19th century on, attacked in schools and in the courts. Consequently, it is a generally, and wrongly, held belief that the Americas (as we’ve come to call them) had no historic record. In truth, writing, media, and historic accounts were widespread.

    The Archive of Place

    One of the barriers to appreciating the depth of history in what is now Canada is our commitment to the notion of the country being “new” in the so-called New World. In fact, human occupation of the northern half of this continent began at least 14,000 years ago and probably much earlier. That is a long time indeed — long enough for any group of people to establish a profound relationship with their location, with their place. This is no less true of the indigenous peoples of Canada than it is of the peoples of the Steppe, the Gobi, the Orkneys, or Melanesia. Places themselves are a record of memory, most of which is accessible only to those who know how to read it.

    In his study of British Columbia’s Chilcotin Plateau, The Archive of Place, William J. Turkel describes the complex of grease trails of the region. This was the extensive system of footpaths carved out of very challenging terrain in order to facilitate communication and commerce between the west coast and the interior plateau. They were called grease trails because of the trade in oolichan grease (a fish oil) that was ported on the backs of hundreds of freight-bearers over hundreds of kilometres. Turkel writes,

    For the people of Ulkatcho, as for their Aboriginal neighbours throughout the Chilcotin, memory is everywhere anchored in the landscape, along the grease trails and rivers, of course, but also in the meadows and forests between. For them, there is not a single trail that connects the Fraser [River] with the [Pacific] coast or that unites provinces east and west; rather, there is a dense, lived mesh of trails and a cyclicity and seasonality of travel.[2]