Thinking through Canada's Early History

Interpretation 1: Peace, “Colonialism and the Words We Choose”

Source: Thomas Peace, “Colonialism and the Words We Choose: Lessons from Museum and Academy,” ActiveHistory.ca, 20 August 2018.


About two months ago I was in a local museum with my family learning about the eighteenth century history of the community in which the museum was located. In many ways we had a typical country museum experience. We were met by costumed interpreters and told the stories of the building and the people who lived there. Then we learned about some of the broader historical context. For our guide, the story this museum told hinged on the European settlement of the “savage wilderness inhabited only by Indians.”

As a historian who studies Indigenous communities during the eighteenth century in the places best-known today as Quebec, New England and Maritime Canada, I felt that I had been transported to a different era. Though wilderness remains pervasive, isn’t the noun savage an artifact from an earlier century? And don’t Indigenous peoples have a history that predates their encounter with Europeans?

Our guide was telling a story and using words and phrases that I assumed had been retired to the historian’s dustbin long ago. His language dated to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when Indigenous peoples were rarely the subject of historical inquiry and words like wild and savage were commonly used to describe these people.

Recognizing that this language is both inaccurate and reinforces colonial visions of the past, most of today’s historians have discarded this vocabulary in favour of words and phrases that better represent the experiences of sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth century peoples. Rarely do these words and phrases – the vocabulary adopted by my tour guide – appear in the books, articles and museum displays produced by today’s historians. Or, at least, so I thought.

The July 2012 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly features a provocative forum on the vocabulary used to describe Indigenous history during the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth century. It suggests that although few people employ language like my tour guide, many historians still use terms that diminish Indigenous pasts. James Merrell, the author of the featured essay in the forum, argues that although historians have done a better job at including Indigenous peoples in the stories they tell, their vocabulary and narrative structure continues to revolve around the experiences of Europeans and their American descendants.

Merrell’s article addresses terms that many recognize as problematic. Words such as precontact/postcontact, discovery, and prehistory have been generally regarded as historically inappropriate for the study of Indigenous histories (and history more generally for the final word in this list). But Merrell also discusses terms that many of us – myself included – continue to use on a regular basis.  Depending on the context, Merrell suggests that words and phrases like hunting territory, occupied, controlled, and settler can have implications that place North American and European societies on an unequal historical footing.

Take two examples:

  • Merrell draws out a long list of commonly used words that continue to depict North American history from the Atlantic shoreline. Words like Backcountry, backlands, backwoods, hinterland, marchland and periphery all orient North America’s historical geography to the eastern colonies – the “newcomer’s way of seeing the land,” according to Merrell – despite the fact that the places to which these terms refer were often the heartland of indigenous cultures.
  • Merrell emphasizes how land-related words like occupied, claimed, controlled and settled reflect the historiographical impermanence of Indigenous peoples on the land and the permanent presence of Europeans. Europeans are described as settling in a place, whereas Indigenous peoples are left to make claims and occupy the territory in which they live.

Although the lingo in modern scholarship may be less offensive than my tour guide, the message in Merrell’s essay is that similar trends continue among professional historians. Despite broader inclusion of Indigenous peoples as a subject studied by historians, North American history remains a discipline anchored in a European tradition.

The point here is not to pillory historians, and others, whose language remains steeped in a Columbianesque narrative. There’s no need for a witch-hunt. A number of the responses to Merrell’s article point out that the conditions under which language is employed is complicated, making its policing difficult.

Andrew Clayton‘s and Mark Peterson‘s critiques get to the heart of the trouble. They emphasize that most people – historians included – continue to define history through the lens of the nation-state. For most of us, when we refer to the study of the past in North America, we really mean the study of what have now become Canada and the United States. Our research into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries doesn’t begin with an effort to understand the past as it really was, but rather as it shaped our present-day countries. As long as we continue to frame the past from this perspective, it will be difficult to discard many of the words, phrases and ways of thinking Merrell outlines.

To move beyond this linguistic legacy, there may be need for a more fundamental shift in how historians frame our research and the curriculum and programming we develop. Can we really expect significant change when we frame this period as ‘pre-Confederation Canada’ or ‘Colonial America’? Not only do these titles ignore the people who lived in North America before the forefathers of Canada and the United States built their countries, but they also reinforce popular assumptions that the creation of the United States and Canada was inevitable.

In writing his article, Merrell makes a plea for historians – and really anyone who discusses the past publically (such as tour guides) – to use a vocabulary that better reflects the worlds in which people lived. Our language should not pigeonhole the people of the past into a pre-determined historical narrative. Rather the words we choose and the stories we tell should treat the people of the past equally, assessing their relative influence upon, and importance to, each other.

This is an important lesson for those of us interested in practicing Active History. Active Historians seek to listen to the people who affect, and are affected by, our research. This is an exercise that is implicit to the linguistic transition that Merrell, and his critics, seek to bring about. Although the essays in the July 2012 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly focus on Indigenous peoples, the lessons embedded within these texts permeate the historical profession. Whether or not you are engaged in researching or writing Indigenous histories, Merrell’s article and the critiques that follow it serve as useful fodder for classroom discussions, public workshops, and really, just about anyone interested in practicing Active History and using the historian’s tools to accurately and respectfully reflect the past. 

Editors Note: This article has been modified from the original to better reflect appropriate language related to Indigenous histories. The language used in the previous sentence has replaced words such as “Native”, “Aboriginal” and “history.” This essay also sparked a small exchange with Christopher Dummitt, which you can read herehere, and here.