FROM THE WINDOW OF THE PLANE, THE FRASER VALLEY APPEARS AS a great funnel enclosed by mountains. In the east at Hope it begins, a narrow sliver of green farmland on either side of the river, in places only one or two kilometers wide. Flying west past the town of Chilliwack, one sees the valley expand into a quilt of mixed land use—arable, pasture, and sprawling urban development, all set within a geometric grid that spans the space between the mountains. At Abbotsford the valley widens to perhaps fifteen or sixteen kilometers; the mountains on its southern flank fall away, and the ramrod-straight ditch that is the American border hems in the patchwork of intensive agriculture.
The tiny cars racing to Vancouver along the straight and narrow Trans-Canada Highway and much else that I see from the plane reminds me of a motto for our times: you can’t stop progress. Having lived away from the valley for over nine years in Britain, I am from my vantage point in the sky introduced to an uninterrupted view of the valley’s most recent transformations. New shopping malls mushroom in former green fields around the city of Langley, and new industrial parks and bypasses have apparently eaten their way into places where hobby farms and stands of deciduous forest once thrived. As we approach the Vancouver International Airport on the estuary of the Fraser River, the scale of change takes sharper focus. To the south the neighborhoods and shopping centers covering the slopes of the Semiahmoo Peninsula, my childhood home, have spread downward from their hilltop perch, absorbing the agricultural land reserves of the Nicomekel Valley; suburb begets suburb.
Suspending this bird’s-eye view for just a moment and thinking back in my mind’s eye, I can recall another view of the valley that belies this sense of prominent development and that resonates more strongly with a different temporality. In parts of the glacial uplands, one can still find original frame-built farmhouses surrounded by groves of weary fruit trees, slouching barns, and fence lines in desperate need of a coat of stain. And near the river’s mouth, the keen observer will make out the disintegrating skeletons of former salmon canneries whose wooden pilings still haunt the riverbank. There are other reminders as well. Perhaps the most poignant examples are the place names of the land’s first inhabitants. Toponyms like Semiahmoo and Nicomekel, although current words, still hint at an earlier Native geography echoed in the names of the many Indian reservations that dot the land. These relics evoke images of a time very different from today, the “time of the longhouses” (Wells 1987) when, it has been said, the land’s first people lived in harmonious equilibrium with nature, before the violent transformations brought about by the white man.
These images of the past lie in some tension to the view from my aerial platform. They have a fleeting quality: fading memories of an almost forgotten, distant summer displaced by the immediate tangible realities of concrete, asphalt, and glass. If there is a perception that is dominant and that seeks to envelop this place, then it is surely the sweeping and uncompromised view sustained from my window in the sky. Ushering aside questions of nostalgia, it boldly speaks of the triumph of humanity over nature, and the triumph of progress over the past, symbolized by the march of the strip malls and the urban tendril across the landscape. The disjuncture produced by these competing views of the Fraser Valley, which are caricatures to be sure, may seem to be overly simplistic, yet it still encapsulates an important premise about the history of this place, as well as providing considerable supporting foundation for this book.
The Big Picture
Where do these images come from and, more importantly, what are their implications? They resonate because they belong to a larger set of symbols that, through dramatization and repeated use, participates in a coherent set of principles about the founding of the West (see Bowden 1992; Cosgrove 1984; Furniss 1997; Wylie 1993), one that is inextricably tied to the history of colonialism. Reproduced in popular culture, the tourist industry, and academia, the rhetoric of colonial discourse describes how British Columbia was carved from wilderness between the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries—both on paper, as a series of lines and place names on the map, and on the ground, as an environment transformed through the physical labors of Europeans. According to geographer Richard Ruggles, “The ‘Canadian West’ is a recent entity in geographic terminology, since it did not begin to take definite form until into the nineteenth century, as agricultural, forestry, and mining populations began to diffuse through the area” (1971:235). Ruggles’ observation reflects wider historical and geographical opinion, a grand narrative providing partial assumptions that account for the divergence between the two images above. It is also a suitable point of departure for the present work.
If we are to start with the big picture, then history begins approximately where Ruggles indicates, with Europe’s interest in the West as an untapped resource, a landscape rich with opportunity. Despite an awareness of Native historical continuity—millennia of Aboriginal precedence—Ruggles, following broader consensus, suggests that the courageous acts of Europeans made the Canadian West, a history that reads largely as a protracted process of human impact on the environment (Slotkin 1985). This included drawing boundary lines, felling the forests for agriculture or timber, mining the land for gold and other minerals, as well as building model towns; in general terms, inscribing, molding, and harnessing nature for an emerging capitalist marketplace. Significantly, the story hinges on the dynamic qualities of the colonizers, explorers, and settlers—the catalysts of change who imposed their will on a landscape largely viewed as an objectified backdrop or static surface, transforming it from primordial slumber into an outpost of civilization and industry.
Theoretically, this view of the transformation of the western wilderness is consistent with core-periphery models. Discussing European colonization in terms of world-systems theory, Eric Wolf (1982:23) was among the first to argue that this kind of top-down model of social transformation privileges historical developments at the core, which are then transposed and amplified at the periphery. The most famous example, in the context of the North American West, is Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis. Turner argued that the history of the United States could be distilled to a series of developments whereby the march of progress eroded the line between wilderness and civilization. Accompanying physical changes in the land, Turner “saw in the West a social evolution from hunter to fur trader to cattle raiser to farmer to merchant and manufacturer” (Cronon et al. 1993:6–7): in other words, a process that involved the continual recession of the frontier and the accompanying frontier ways of life as European civilization pushed ever westward (Furniss 1997:10).
What are the consequences of these assumptions, and how have they framed our understanding of colonial history and environmental change? Such a model of history downplays the creative capacity of the periphery as a simple receiver of dynamic output. Because the line has been drawn so distinctly between core and periphery, colonizer and colonized, metropole and frontier, civilization and wilderness, we tend to view colonial cultures and their relationships to the landscape in objectified, coarse-grained, monolithic, and dichotomized terms (Cronon et al. 1993; Gosden 2001, 2004; Lightfoot and Martinez 1995; Murray 2004a). Europeans are labeled first and foremost settlers and colonizers, united in their desire to harness the landscape. Natives are, likewise, conceptualized as a self-evident and transparent group, one that either succumbed to conflict and disease or, bending under colonial pressure, was inexorably branded the colonized.
Associated with the Native is the inverse of the first image, the landscape of progress. Whereas the places conquered by the newcomers seemed to anticipate the future, the Aboriginal landscape consistently looked to the past—a past that not only revealed little evidence of historical change but that also seemed to recede further as the present claimed more and more of its living descendents. This is because any sense of agency in this narrative, the key ingredient for historical change, is attributed to industrious settlers who imposed their will on a previously existing but essentially primordial space. Unlike societies with their own unique histories of social and cultural transformation (the Stone Age societies of Europe, for example), the original inhabitants become precursors of Western society, which through its own history (understood mainly in terms of materially productive advancements) had already developed “civilized” cultures based on technology, politics, and the ideals of law and order (Gosden 1999:2; Trigger 1989:119). And while it was rarely completely erased by colonial discourse and its underlying story of progress, the Native, like nature, was an entity to be disciplined, forced to submit to the newly emerging capitalist landscape and its colonial power brokers.
As I will argue throughout this book, the big picture and the discourses sustaining it encourage investigations of the past on a scale that generalizes about the ways in which Natives and newcomers engaged and perceived the historical landscape. Much of our attention within fields as diverse as history, geography, and archaeology has focused on the settlement frontier as a geographic surface or container, analyzed predominantly in terms of its capacity for productive capital investments—logging, ranching, or agriculture, for instance. Such an emphasis has rendered history largely in terms of a self-legitimating colonial project to subdue nature (Demeritt 1995:29; Sandwell 1999a). Offering general support for the aphorism that history is written by conquerors, our attempts to represent the prehistory of the Northwest Coast echo the progressive logic of colonial narratives, and much of our research on Aboriginal land use has fallen in line with broader arguments about human evolution, technological development, and increasing cultural complexity. Common ground in our approaches is forged in a disembodied and abstract view of the profoundly multifaceted nature of human-environment relationships, where the landscape is reduced to an obstacle to be overcome, an index of social advancement. What characterizes this view of history are not the place-specific details but, rather, the tendency of these processes to be reproduced in generalized ways across the continent again and again (Cronon et al. 1993), compressing the richness and many textures of history into a rather predictable plotline. A view of social change grounded in principles of materialist production and a command of the broader issues such as capitalism and world-systems theory may facilitate our understanding of long-term historical transformations, yet attempting to read the permutations of place through such broad frames of reference can often result in oversimplified patterns homogenized across time and space, reducing more complex issues to black-and-white caricatures.
The big picture suggests a historical landscape viewed in terms of simple surfaces, monolithic oppositions, and macro-scales of analysis. It implies a somewhat narrowed, stilted, or archetypal view of the diverse ways in which people used and perceived the landscape in the colonial past. Like the apparently unrestricted view from the air, the story of the Fraser Valley and its relationship with the larger world may be at times more a caricature than a reflection of reality. From a lofty height, the forest canopy appears an undifferentiated mantle of wilderness, but the view from the ground can be something altogether different.
The Scope of the Present Work
Instead of accepting the broad brushstrokes of colonial history at face value, I want to entertain a view of the landscape that engages the social experiences of people living in the past, individuals as well as larger social groups. History viewed from this perspective tends to present a more ambiguous and messy picture, exposing a canvas of false starts, interruptions, and uncertainty, suggesting an altogether more human dialogue between peoples and places. Academic or literary writing about the past of any place would do well to bear in mind that landscapes are not just static, given, or objective things. Registered by the senses, they are also subjective and become real in the interpretive context of human experience.
Places may be close-grained, worked-upon, and lived-in, or abstract, distant, and imagined (Bender 1993:1). They can be interpreted and understood through their actual physical embodiment in the material world (Edmonds 1999a:9; Tuan 1990:10) or through their representation as texts or visual images, objects of consumption in material culture. Different views are to be expected across the variables of time and space, as the qualities of landscape emerge through the particular ways in which they are embraced and inhabited (Thomas 1996:87; Thrift 2000). Significantly, because both purposeful and unintended actions bring landscapes into focus, landscapes may become sites of tension to be negotiated, where certain interests may subvert those of others.
In considering the temporality of the landscape (Ingold 1993), we must also recognize how routine action, as well as challenges to the status quo, can help inform a landscape’s meaning over time, meaning that is always tied to other places and other histories (Barrett 1999; Cronon 1993:44–45). As writer Margaret Atwood (1972:134) elegantly observes, “Part of where you are is where you’ve been.” No landscape ever stays the same, despite efforts to convey the impression of stasis through myths. Rather than seeing landscapes as static monoliths, we should emphasize their movement as historically contingent processes, their refusal to be fixed in time (Pred 1984). Following an emerging axiom in landscape research,1 I see the landscape as both outcome and medium of social interaction. In other words, “Human interventions are not done so much to the landscape as with it, and what is done affects what can be done” (Bender 2002:S104).
With these ideas in mind, I propose a less conventional social history of the Fraser Valley, a history viewed through the differential qualities of place, according to the ways that social life became integrated within its material folds. Concentrating on the period between 1792 and 1918, the following chapters examine how Natives and newcomers appropriated and transformed the landscape during the first century or so of cultural contact. While this period witnessed routine forms of interaction with the land, such as practices of Aboriginal landscape management, it also witnessed material transformations of a magnitude that fundamentally changed the social fabric, altering the manner in which people related to the landscape, to each other, and to the wider world. In less than a century the landscape was changed from a place of varied ecology dominated by Douglas fir, woodland trails, and cultivated openings to one defined by fields, logging scars, and property boundaries. The pace and scale of change, which are profound for newcomers and Natives alike, present a unique opportunity for understanding how changes in the land were constitutive of transformations in the social geography of the region and beyond.
Given that this period was shaped by the appropriation of people and places into expanding networks of domination and representation, it is perhaps needless to stress the thematic importance of colonialism in this book. Although colonization—the course of stamping order upon environments and populations, molding them to reflect the values of a dominant power—features as an important subject, my aims are much broader than this. Drawing inspiration from the notion that cultural contact with the material world can also be viewed as a creative phenomenon (see Gosden 2004; Sluyter 2001), I emphasize that colonization exists side by side with the generation of nascent and sometimes unwieldy social forms. The language of colonial discourse tends to hamstring our ability to think beyond the more monolithic categories of this period. One way we can begin to get away from the baggage of language like “frontier” and “metropole” or “colonizer” and “colonized,” and the core-periphery oppositions these conjure, is to adopt Mary Louise Pratt’s (1992) notion of the contact zone, which reminds us that social exchanges are interfaces, not one-sided affairs. This concept implies the possibility of give and take, providing a heuristic for new categories of meaning informed by the particular character with which people imbued the changing social and material dimensions of the landscape.
This is partly an issue of scale. Scale matters from both a methodological standpoint, in terms of the analytical frames we deploy, and a historical standpoint, in terms of the past social arenas that such questioning targets. Geographers have traditionally concentrated on broader-scale spatial histories, whereas anthropologists and archaeologists have tended to focus on the politics of place (Gosden 1994:79, 1999:153). Of course, there are no rigid boundaries here, and in recent years the lines have begun to blur (see, for example, Brealey 2002; Burnett 2000; Clayton 2000; Strang 1997; Thomas 2003). However, by tacking back and forth between the nitty-gritty details of local experience and larger-scale social formations, particularly the way these are enmeshed within the politics of landscape, I attempt to shed some light on the ambiguity of historical encounters.
Many of the interactions I discuss involve less a clash of cultures or even cultural exchange than the mundane character of relationships with the material world. Different forms of landscape interaction, such as the colonization of natural places by newcomers and Native peoples alike (whether in the clearing of land for farms or the appropriation of forest for productive materials), generated interesting, often unintended social categories that refuse to be neatly framed by the big picture. These relationships, which we overlooked for the most part in our eagerness to explain wider questions of social and environmental change, were nevertheless socially consequential to people living in the past. Indeed, it is by interrogating the very ordinary practices occurring in the material world that we may shed light on broader historical processes.
To be sure, many of my starting propositions are not new ones. Even in studies of the Northwest, we are beginning to witness a healthy new injection of historically-based work on the colonial period that emphasizes its multiple and often contested points of view (see, for example, Carlson 2001a; Clayton 2000; Harris 2002; Loo 1996; Sandwell 1999a). This book parts company with a number of others in two significant ways. First, it provides a long view of historical change in the Valley, beginning prior to the establishment of the colony of British Columbia, where more conventional histories of colonialism begin. This perspective allows me to investigate issues of continuity and change in the social landscape, which might not otherwise be possible, and it helps deconstruct the less useful labels of pre-contact and post-contact (Lightfoot 1995). Second, this book explicitly adopts a material culture approach (Buchli 2002a; Gosden 1999:152–178; Miller 1987; 2002), allowing me to discuss how a diverse range of artifacts—from historical maps and survey monuments to oral narratives and successional forests—worked as active frames of reference through which an often contested history unfolded.
I have from the outset assumed an approach more encompassing than “dirt archaeology,” a term that describes the more traditional side of the discipline. Because the physical environment of the Fraser Valley has changed so drastically from the first century of contact, with very little in the way of in situ archaeology, most of my digging occurred in the archives for sources that shed light on the history of the past physical conditions of the environment and the different ways that human history intervened in its transformation. Although aspects of the built environment such as architectural features have played an important role, greater emphasis has been accorded mobile artifacts, features and representations that often go unquestioned but that I believe can tell us about the varied lives of people and their entanglements with places. This approach allows a stronger sense of the various issues that came to characterize inhabitation over what is, from a more human-centered geography, a relatively long time period.
Revealing the more monolithic strands of colonial discourse, including the ways they may be embedded in the agendas of academic research, involves picking at the weave of the fabric, unraveling the relationships that make it appear seamless. Of course, this project does not entail privileging the local at the expense of wider social significances but demands instead a balanced approach. If the imposed geographies of the colonial period contributed to a reworking of Aboriginal ties to place, they also created the conditions for various forms of resistance, fragmentation, and recombination, not only among Native groups but among newcomers themselves. In this sense, as Chris Gosden (2004) cogently argues, colonialism can be seen as having a “particular grip” on people and unanticipated effects on the way that places, histories, and identities are constructed. The task at hand, then, is to get closer to the landscape.