Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
No Colonizer's Historian
In 1966, Howard Adams completed his dissertation at the university of california at berkeley on education in pre- and early confederation canada, published just two years later as The Education of Canadians 1800–1867: The Roots of Separatism. The person who provided the forward tried very hard to derogate the work and claim alongside the imposed subtitle that it was really about québec separatism. This is far from what the topic of this sadly little known book delves into. In it, Adams is unpacking the means by which people are persuaded to act against their own interests, which are focussed particularly in how people are indoctrinated aka educated as children. In canada outside of Northwest Métis circles, he is little known. Look him up in most settler sources on the Red Power movement of the 1960s and subsequent constitutional negotiations in the 1980s, and get ready to read about how he was supposedly excessively emotional and intolerant of non-Indigenous people. Readers who are members of racialized communities will already recognize two of the tropes racists and settlers more generally fall back on whenever they can't avoid facing the proper anger and constructive critique from those oppressed by mainstream systems that ensure the benefits and comforts of settlers. Yes, Adams was angry, and yes Adams insisted that settlers had to get out of the way and Indigenous peoples insist on taking charge of their social lives, political organization, and writing and teaching their own history. These are non-negotiable requirements for decolonizing and general Indigenous survival, and Adams knew this.
Most biographical treatments start with Adams' birth in one of the Northwest Métis communities along the north saskatchewan river near saskatoon, as he did himself. But arguably for his work as an activist and historian in later life, two experiences were more important. He joined the royal canadian mounted police (rcmp) for four years from 1940 to 1944, serving as a constable. Then he moved into education, first as a school councillor, later as a high school teacher. By which point it seems that he had developed his specific questions about the nature of education in general and perhaps that of children in particular, as well as the beginnings of his unremitting critique of the negative effects of this indoctrination on Indigenous children. If we read his second book, Prison of Grass, Adams describes his feelings of worthlessness and despair as he struggled with the racist, anti-Indigenous messaging he heard and saw constantly in school and later at work. Today it is no surprise to see and hear young Indigenous people, especially Indigenous men, being encouraged to join a military or in the case of the rcmp, paramilitary organization with attendant uniforms and special training as a means of supposedly bettering themselves. These are powerful recruitment techniques, and logically Adams wanted to make sense of how Indigenous children and young adults could be so vulnerable to such suggestions, having experienced their persuasive power and struggled to break free of them himself. In time, as his dissertation research shows, he also wanted to understand how settlers were indoctrinated to reproduce the very structures that not only supported oppression and genocide of Indigenous nations, but also did extraordinary harm to them. In other words, Adams developed and applied a far-reaching, radical critique with the purpose of not just reforming the system, but destroying it in favour of a re-implementation of Indigenous principles.
One of the most iconic photographs of Howard Adams, taken at the spring 1967 saskatoon indian and eskimo conference.
Adams had no interest in repeating settler or colonial narratives to begin with, and his determination to do otherwise grew even more due to his experience working in Black civil rights activism while he was in california, including engaging with the work of Malcolm X and Karl Marx. Having learned how to organize and give effective speeches in the course of real political work as opposed to practice exercises in the classroom, Adams turned the theory and analytical tools he had learned onto the conditions of his community back home, and those of Indigenous nations in Canada generally. Elected president of the métis society of saskatchewan for the 1969-1970 term, and founded the New Breed newspaper. Then Adams chaired the red power league of saskatchewan until 1973. He was busy at conferences and organizing powerful demonstrations and speeches. Then he began to notice a strange new phenomenon. The canadian federal and provincial governments were suddenly interested in funding Indigenous organizations. He noticed that this notice didn't develop until it looked like Indigenous agitation and organization might be effective. So it was that Adams identified what the columnists at black agenda report have well-named a "misleadership class." This a group of educated, often relatively affluent members of an oppressed class or minority whose wellbeing depends on the oppressors, so that they act in the oppressors' interests rather than in that of their own communities. Adams referred to such people as the comprador class. He knew very well that a sort of proto-comprador class already existed in the form of indian act band councils that are by federal law responsible not to their communities but to the federal government.
These are not the only phenomena that Adams recognized in early form, and he was among the earliest if not the first to note a number of aspects of canadian history now considered commonplaces among canadian historians. This list is compiled with the assistance of both Adams' works and Jesse McLaren's article referenced fully in the footnotes.
- canadian colonization is characterized by a competition between elites attempting to maintain the fur trade and others pursuing new style industrialization that they expected to yield higher profits in land speculation and sales of primary goods;
- french, english, and later canadian use of the churches to disrupt and change Indigenous cultures to benefit white economies by providing access to cheap labour and destroying any perceived or actual Indigenous economic competition;
- neither Northwest Métis at large nor Louis Riel in particular were aberrations or pursuing strange or unheard of ideas when they opposed and actively resisted canadian expansion.
Much to the annoyance of mainstream canadian historians who like and have liked to consider themselves authorities on Indigenous histories and Northwest Métis histories in particular, Adams provided both a program and a herald of the research and historiographic work of Indigenous historians. He was in no doubt of the political and cultural importance of this shift in control of Indigenous images and narratives on Turtle Island.
Métis and Indian history is both a movement and a discipline which challenges eurocentrism. Intrinsic to that history is a people's sense of resistance and struggle that emerges from a growing counter-consciousness and the realization that they have suffered injustices because of their race and colonization. Authentic Aboriginal history must confront the inequalities and distortions in the legal, economic, and political realms and examine the processes and structures that house eurocentrism. Métis history is much more than Riel. There are Aboriginal accounts of Métis contributions to Canada's development which will emerge only with anti-imperialist, anti-racist research.
Northwest Métis and other Indigenous peoples well understand and understood just how important a leader Adams was, such that even the notoriously apolitical national aboriginal achievement awards committee presented him with a lifetime achievement award in 1999. Perhaps the most appropriate recognition besides being honoured as a major figure in the healing and resurgence of the Northwest Métis nation and retiring as a respected professor at the university of california and the university of saskatchewan, come via the Gabriel Dumont Institute of Native Studies and Applied Research. Besides posthumously publishing Adams' autobiography with additional contributions by friends and colleagues plus a companion disc including copies of selected photographs and documents. Furthermore, on the Virtual Museum of Métis History and Culture, is a whole section of samples from photographs and documents donated by Marge Adams, Howard Adams' widow in the Howard Adams Image Collection.