Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Indigenous Scholars, Focus Olive P. Dickason
"Indians had no history until they met Europeans." Apparently, they kind of sat around in mothballs and then got unpacked in a hurry when Columbus decided to get lost.
Jokes aside, it wasn't so long ago that the statement above was considered an unquestioned fact among the majority of non-Indigenous north americans, especially historians. History was defined as beginning with writing, most famously through books like Samuel Noah Kramer's History Begins in Sumer. Supposedly nobody could remember a thing accurately without writing anything down, and there can be no accurate history without accurate memory. So no writing, no history. This definition of history wasn't always consistently applied: the Aztec and Mayan Nations have been considered to have no history until the Spaniards encountered them in spite of their writing systems. History certainly isn't always accurately remembered or accurately written down, as anyone who has learned anything about nazi history books or the peculiar slants of church histories in Europe or watched a series like Terry Jones' Barbarians, for that matter. Few historians could have imagined this long-accepted truth would be overturned by a Métis woman who returned to university in her fifties after her children were grown.
Image Courtesy of the Aboriginal Multi-Media Society, 1997
Olive Patricia Dickason was born in the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1920. Her mother was Métis, and her father was english. When her family lost everything in the Depression, they pulled up stakes and left for the bush, where Dickason's mother had grown up gathering, hunting, and trapping. It wasn't long before Dickason and her sister were learning bush skills from their mother and helping to support the family. Dickason took grades 9 and 10 by correspondence, but her family was unable to finance anymore of her schooling. Despite the setback she didn't give up, and while travelling around southern Saskatchewan selling magazines, Dickason found an opportunity to finish high school. The opportunity came through Athol Murray, who became her mentor and helped her finish high school and go on to university.
After completing a bachelor's degree, Dickason went to work full-time in journalism, a field she had first entered on a part-time basis while at university. Twenty-four years later, having raised three children and worked for newspapers in winnipeg, montréal, and toronto, Dickason decided to return to university for her master's degree: in Canadian Indigenous history.
Cover From An Out of Print Early Edition of Canada's First Nations Courtesy of OUP, 2017.
The first reactions to her proposed thesis topic were incredulous. "What?! Indians don't have any history, you want the anthropology department." Dickason stood her ground, finishing her master's degree in 1972 and going on to complete a doctorate on the same topic. Then, she wrote Canada's First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples From the Earliest Times, a text that has since gone into its fourth edition, spawned A Concise History of Canada's First Nations which is in its second edition, paved the way for other scholars of Indigenous history in Canada, and is broadly used as a university text book. In studying her own roots, Dickason has also written numerous papers about the ethnogenesis of the Métis Nation in eastern Canada and the subsequent development of the Métis Nation in western Canada. Her very first book, The Myth of the Savage and the Beginnings of French Colonialism, originally published in 1997, has remained in print ever since. It includes critical evidence that in fact even under the european law of the time, the seizure of Indigenous land and incessant colonial violence against them was completely illegal. It is a dryer read than Canada's First Nations, but is well worth the effort. Among other perhaps startling facts for many readers is the historical information showing that initially, the french did not see themselves as a different "race" than the Indigenous people they met, and even emphasized how they were the same colour once their paint was scrubbed off. Not that this was a wholly positive thing, since this was promptly twisted into a justification for stealing Indigenous children, killing Indigenous men, and taking Indigenous women into both legalized and unsanctioned marriages.
In 1985 Dickason faced another challenge after being a professor with the university of alberta for ten years, when she reached the university administration's mandatory retirement age. Since her academic career hadn't started until her 50s, Dickason took legal action to challenge the university and its obviously ageist and indirectly sexist and racist policy. Although she won in the lower courts, the university appealed to successively higher courts until the supreme court finally ruled against Dickason in 1992. Undaunted, Dickason insisted she would finish her contract, revised and made additions to Canada's First Nations, and continued her work establishing the university of alberta's Native Studies department. She did have the satisfaction of seeing the university of alberta stop embarrassing itself by dropping the mandatory retirement policy in 2007.
Dickason's hard work did not go unnoticed. She was invested into the order of canada in 1995, won the John A. Macdonald History prize for best history book in 1993 (the irony in a Métis scholar winning this award was not lost on her), and the national aboriginal achievement foundation honoured her with a lifetime achievement award in 1997. The university of winnipeg presented her with an honourary doctorate in 2003. She was especially proud of the lifetime achievement award, saying in a 1997 Windspeaker interview, "For me, to be recognized by the Aboriginal community, it's like the culmination of my work as a historian." Another special honour comes from Métis communities all over canada, all of whom recognize Dickason as an Elder, a person who is not only older, but has also contributed significantly to their family and community through their leadership and hard work, and has an in-depth knowledge of the history and culture of the Métis Nation.
Dickason passed away in 2011, and since then the university of calgary has created the Dr. Olive Dickason Award, "which honors the accomplishments of an Aboriginal student who has overcome adversity and life challenges to succeed." At long last the university of alberta is honouring her this year with events to be held in November 2017 and a room dedication. Yet it is fair to say the greatest honours paid to her are the growing numbers of Métis scholars and historians at work today, including Heather Devine, Adam Gaudry, Michael Evans, and Leah Dorion, to name just a few.