Manitoba History: Book Review: Jennifer S.H. Brown, An Ethnohistorian in Rupert’s Land; Unfinished Conversations.

by Gwyn Langemann
Calgary, Alberta

Number 89, Spring 2019

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Jennifer S.H. Brown, An Ethnohistorian in Rupert’s Land; Unfinished Conversations. Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2017, 360 pages. ISBN 978-1-7719-9171-1, $44.95 (paperback) or 978-1-77199-173-5 (epub)

It is always worth reading a retrospective of the works of a creative and influential scholar. Jennifer S. H. Brown is one of a small group, primarily women, who defined a new field of scholarly research into the ethnohistory of the fur trade. She focused on women and family relationships involved in the communities of the fur trade as the subject of historical inquiry, despite the near absence of their voices in the record. This book brings together papers written over forty years, beginning in the 1970s, chosen and introduced by Brown. In some cases she has updated older works, while some of the others have not been published previously. The works are grouped together in six sections by theme, rather than being presented in chronological order. Brown’s introductions to each section, and the discussion of why these papers were chosen and grouped together, are to me the most interesting parts of the book.

Although she began her training in classical archaeology at Harvard, Jennifer Brown found that her real interest lay in the newer field of ethnohistory, which she pursued in doctoral work at the University of Chicago, where her advisors had cross-appointments in the departments of anthropology and history. Brown taught at the University

of Winnipeg from 1983 to 2011, and was director of the Centre for Rupert’s Land Studies there from 1996 to 2010. Under her direction, the Centre embarked on a publication series on fur trade and Indigenous history, aiming to provide a voice for Indigenous people and for women that had been practically absent from other historic publications.

The late 1960s and early 1970s was a period of a great awakening interest in Canadian heritage preservation, public history, and presentation, including a lively interest in fur trade history. The newly formed provincial archaeology bodies began excavations at a number of fur trade sites in western Canada, such as Fort George and Fort Victoria in Alberta, and Fort Carlton and Last Mountain House in Saskatchewan. At the same time Parks Canada began a massive programme of research, restoration, and reconstruction at a number of national historic sites, chosen to illustrate nation building themes. [1] In Western Canada, these were fur trade sites such as Rocky Mountain House, Fort Langley, Fort St James, and Lower Fort Garry. Archaeological research provided one line of evidence for reconstruction of these sites, but material culture and social history research burgeoned too, in order to provide the full interpretive package of living history. Winnipeg was chosen to be one of the regional Parks Canada offices, with a staff of historians, archaeologists, and conservators to work on the massive projects at Lower Fort Garry and later at the Forks (among other projects). [2] The Hudson’s Bay Company Archives (recognized by UNESCO in its Memory of the World Register [3]) is in Winnipeg, housed with the Manitoba Archives. Brown’s work can be placed in this context. When Brown arrived at the University of Winnipeg she would have found a community of fur trade researchers and resources at an exciting time when new avenues of fur trade research were opening and the focus widening, from seeing fur trade history as the study of great men and the political development of Canada, into a dynamic social history.

Her appointment at the University of Winnipeg was in the history department, and there were some initial turf wars between the anthropology and history departments. Where does an ethnohistorian best fit? Brown describes her research as a triangulation between oral histories, material cultural and museum holdings, and documentary sources. One theme through all her body of work involves the close reading of texts, in order to find what is lost in voice or comprehension at each stage of the writing, publishing, and interpreting process. Documents about oral cultures, such as those written by the fur traders about the Indigenous communities they encountered, were written at the time by outsiders; today we read them at yet another distance from the writers. “We are surrounded by relatively invisible yet continuing losses of languages, cultures, world views, and histories that still reside in people’s heads; in documentary, visual, and oral records, in unprocessed museum collections; in landscape and place names; and in the ground. We need to listen better to the still, small voices that speak from these resources” (p. 144).

Brown lists the other themes of her work: a focus on Rupert’s Land (an enormous part of Canada and our mental landscape that is seldom explicitly considered); the theme of voice and absence of voice; the theme of the social expectations that accompany power in various forms; and the theme of braided channels as an illuminating metaphor for the relationship of communities, the process of research, the relationship of teachers and students, and the streams of inquiry that repeatedly diverge and come together in new channels.

The readings in Section 1 concern language, translations, names and their meanings. Section 2 concerns family relationships, demographic changes during the fur trade period, and the relationships between traders and Indigenous women. Section 3 concerns families and kinship structures, gender roles and relationships, and the impact of trader fathers removing ‘native-born’ children to school and baptism in Montreal. Section 4 concerns women and the fur trade; both women as subjects of historical inquiry, and women studying the fur trade. One reading, for instance, concerns the background papers Brown wrote for the nomination of Charlotte Small (whose husband was David Thompson) as a person of national historic significance. Another reading reflects on the career of Brown as an anthropologist, and her colleague Sylvia Van Kirk, as an historian, [4] who came at similar research topics from different directions at a time of great expansion of interest in social history and what came to be called women’s studies, and at a time when skeptical university departments were unsure of how to accommodate such interests. Section 5 concerns Cree and Ojibwe prophets and preachers and their interactions with missionaries and traders in the later stages of the fur trade.

What has changed over time in Brown’s work? The change in emphasis can best be seen in Section 6, as her research moves from applying anthropological techniques to historical fur trade records, towards ethnohistoric field work with a particular community in the Berens River area on the east side of Lake Winnipeg. Her writing considers the historical knowledge that is still present in the community, in the early ethnographic work of A. Irving Hallowell (1930s), and in the still earlier accounts from Mennonite and Methodist missions. The Manitoba Museum holds in trust a collection of artifacts relating to Fair Wind, a Berens River Ojibwe whose drum ceremony is the subject of one reading. This area is part of the Pimachiowin Aki World Heritage Site, designated in 2018 [5] because of the strength of the language and oral history retention, the strong ethnographic record, and the profound relationship of the Anishinaabeg people (Ojibwe) and the boreal land that comes together in this cultural landscape. Brown’s research was used in the nomination process. This last reading explicitly brings together all the themes of the book, and considers field anthropology as a travel narrative for both the anthropologist and her friends in the community, as they literally and figuratively travel together up the Berens River from one community to another. The book title gives a nod to this time-honoured travel narrative format.

This is the great interest of this volume: the papers chosen from a life’s work show so clearly the depth of understanding that can grow over time. The braided streams of oral history in contemporary communities, material culture, a close reading of historic texts, and ethnographic records come together to give voice to those who have not directly left their voices in the historic record. The readings are unfinished conversations that flow through better questions and better listening, between Brown and the people of the past, Brown and her scholarly ancestors, members of the various fur trade communities in the past, and Brown and her future readers. This reader wants to continue the conversation.

There are no illustrations and only one map, showing part of Rupert’s Land and some of the places discussed in the text. Spread over two pages, the map is deeply bound into the book spine, unfortunately hiding some of it. In general, though, the layout is clean, and the typeface is attractive. The book, like other Athabasca University Press volumes, is available as a free pdf download.


1. Olga Klimko, “Nationalism and the Growth of Fur Trade Archaeology in Western Canada,” in Bringing Back the Past: Historical Perspectives on Canadian Archaeology, edited by Pamela Jane Smith and Donald Mitchell, Mercury Series Archaeological Survey of Canada Paper 158, Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1998, pp. 203–213.

2. E. Gwyn Langemann, “Archaeology in the Rocky Mountain National Parks: Uncovering an 11,000-Year-Long Story,” in A Century of Parks Canada, 1911–2011, edited by Claire Elizabeth Campbell, Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2011, pp. 303–331.


4. Sylvia Van Kirk, Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society in Western Canada, 1670–1870, Winnipeg: Watson and Dwyer, 1980. Jennifer S. H. Brown, Strangers in Blood: Fur Trade Company Families in Indian Country, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1980.


We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 25 April 2021