Talking Back to the Indian Act

Talking Back to the Indian Act: Critical Readings in Settler Colonial Histories is a comprehensive "how-to" guide for engaging with primary source documents. But more than that, the book explores the Indian Act itself, and gives readers a much better understanding of this vital piece of legislation. We asked authors Mary-Ellen Kelm and Keith D. Smith to discuss their book, and why learning this information and history is important.

You can read an exclusive excerpt from the book here.

“We find the Indian Act of 1876 are [sic] not calculated to promote our welfare if we accept it because it empowers the Superintendent General of Indian affairs to manage, govern, and control our lands, moneys, and properties without first obtaining the consent of the chiefs…”

Talking Back to the Indian Act: Critical Readings in Settler Colonial Histories is being published at a key moment in our history. Not only do we live in an age of twenty-four-hour news outlets broadcasting sharply divergent and politically motivated narratives, and where the nature of evidence is questioned in overtly public ways – we are also poised to begin a process of reconciling with Indigenous people in this country. Talking Back addresses both these critical issues.

The book provides a set of lessons in reading documents through a historical and critical lens that takes into account Indigenous and intersectional perspectives. In so doing, it demonstrates the historians’ craft as it can be reconceived so that alongside context, contingency, causation, change over time, and complexity (the five “Cs” of historical thinking), we also consider relationship, responsibility, respect, and reciprocity (the four “Rs” of Indigenous methodologies). It shows the value of thinking deeply about the role in historical experience played by gender, sexuality, ability, and other ways of being. As such, it introduces readers to an expansive approach to critically engaging with the written word that addresses key questions about the nature of evidence, how it is made, and how it can be used. Readers of Talking Back to the Indian Act will never again feel that they lack the tools to truly interrogate historical or other documents.

At the same time, Talking Back to the Indian Act introduces the reader to one of the most important pieces of legislation in Canadian history and – sadly – one that many Canadians know very little about. For nearly a century and a half, the Indian Act has dominated the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples living within its borders. As it sought to erase individual and collective identities, the Indian Act operated to extinguish Indigenous political structures, regulate familial relationships and gender roles, degrade kinship networks, circumscribe economic undertakings, reduce the land base available to Indigenous communities, and prohibit practices central to the maintenance of Indigenous cultures. Even those Indigenous people who Canada did not choose to classify as “Indian” have been impacted by the Act as they struggled to assert their own distinct identities and legal rights.

The provisions of the Indian Act, the surveillance required for its maintenance, and Indigenous responses to its intentions and effects have created a massive archive. It is from this prodigious body of material that Talking Back to the Indian Act draws the documents it uses to teach critical historical reading methods. Included here are: the original 1876 Act and the many amendments made to it, queries and clarifications from Canadian officials, law enforcement documents, legal opinions, court records, and reports from various commissions and inquiries. Importantly, here too are Indigenous people’s letters of protest, oral testimony, meeting transcripts of Indigenous organizations and inquiries, radio addresses, and creative works all talking back to the Indian Act from Indigenous perspectives. Readers who may have heard very little about the Indian Act will come away from this text with a better understanding of how the Act worked to constrain Indigenous lives and how Indigenous people persistently worked to overcome those constraints.

Talking Back to the Indian Act provides a set of lessons that shine light on several critical aspects of the Act and Indigenous responses to them in historical context. It encourages students to move beyond simply reading historical documents and to engage with them in more refined and effective ways. To that end, readers of this text are given an introduction to the interpretative tools traditionally available to historians and how these might be utilized in concert with Indigenous methodologies and intersectional analyses. Students will come away from this book with a much better understanding of this pivotal piece of legislation as well as the dynamics involved in its creation, its maintenance, and the resistance it engendered.

Talking Back to the Indian Act is not a definitive study of the Indian Act but includes a range of important topics that resonate across time and into the present. Each of these topics has stimulated an intriguing array of voices and document types available to researchers. This range of material has allowed the documents provided in this collection to be selected with variety of source type and perspective in mind. Readers will have the opportunity to not only interrogate individual letters, transcripts of oral accounts and testimony, official reports, reminiscences, legislation, creative writing, and other materials but also to consider the relative value of different kinds of sources to different sorts of projects that a researcher might undertake. In addition to the focus on issues that are significant in their own right, there are also a number of overarching themes represented here. For example, Canada’s goals of acquiring land and resources and assimilating Indigenous people are evident throughout this text, as is Indigenous resistance in its many forms.

Exploring the contours and development of the Indian Act through the documents provided in this text will help students in all disciplines – as well as popular audiences – navigate the headlines of today. It is our hope that Talking Back to the Indian Act makes a contribution to historical understanding while at the same time enhancing the skills necessary to analyse our present situation and the most appropriate paths to the future.

Mary-Ellen Kelm is Canada Research Chair and Professor in the Department of History at Simon Fraser University, and Keith D. Smith teaches in the Departments of Indigenous Studies and History at Vancouver Island University.