Review of ‘At a Crossroads: Archaeology and First Peoples in Canada’ edited by George P. Nicholas and Thomas D. Andrews.

05th January 2014

‘At a Crossroads: Archaeology and First Peoples in Canada’ edited by George P. Nicholas and Thomas D. Andrews, 1997, Archaeology Press, 303pp. ISBN 0-9649-1181-5 (pbk).

Review by Paul S.C. Tacon

As the start of a new millennium forces us to review everything from the preamble of the past to the nature of society in the future we reach a major crossroads. This crossroads has long been evident in Australian Archaeology with lots of relationship bumps and potholes in recent years threatening to spoil certain journeys into the past. However, as the result of much introspection, discussion, debate and navel gazing, we are beginning to work out more satisfactory ways of conducting investigations into the past that benefit both Indigenous and non-Indigenous stakeholders. Canadians are particularly good at navel gazing; some might argue it is a national pastime. As a consequence, Canadians are continually redefining their relationships to each other, to the past and to the present. A most recent example pertinent to Australian archaeologists is At a Crossroads: Archaeology and First Peoples in Canada, edited by George P . Nicholas and Thomas D. Andrews.

This weighty tome contains 20 chapters of case studies, an introductory essay on Indigenous Archaeology in the Post- Modem World, an Afterword, a Preface and a Foreword by Bruce G. Trigger. Although it is undoubtedly a very important volume, it easily could have been shorter. For instance, although each case study is important in its own right, there is much repetition of post-modem or processual rhetoric, introductions repeatedly cover common ground and long- winded explanations of how wonderful it can be when Indigenous and non-Indigenous work together abound. I do not disagree with these sentiments, indeed I actively encourage just this sort of archaeology, but the editors could have worked harder to get authors to distil their thoughts not only to avoid repetition but also to make the book more concise and robust.

The authors state on page 4 of the introduction ‘our intentions with this book are to underline the importance of what has already been accomplished, provide examples of what has or hasn’t worked, and encourage new ways of thinking about indigenous archaeology’. Certainly, they have achieved these aims but there is a bias toward northern and western Canada; a few examples from southern Ontario and southern Quebec would have been useful given the different First Nations peoples, provincial governments and forms of local politics in these regions. For those unfamiliar with Canada, one would think little archaeology was practiced in these provinces even though the opposite is true.

Besides lots of interesting case studies (and some of the results really are both fascinating and remarkable), there are particular papers on presenting Indigenous history in museums, land claims, title to cultural property, the need for education and the antiquity of traditional forms of knowledge. The relevance, validity and importance of oral history for archaeological interpretation is a theme found throughout the individual papers. The book is very positive in approach, the editors conceding they avoided the ‘dark side’ of archaeological-Aboriginal relations.

The book is reminiscent of the 1995 Archaeologists and Aborigines working together (edited by I. Davidson, C. Lovell-Jones and R. Bancroft; Armidale, University of New England), with papers by Indigenous people, non-Indigenous archaeologists and combinations of the two. But At a Crossroads is not as accessible because of the length of text, small/compressed print, a lower image to text ratio, and less plain English. However, the book achieves much the same end of emphasising the range of benefits that result from a cooperative approach to the past. Certain Australian university departments should be paying more attention to the issues raised in both books. Perhaps this would assist in encouraging new students to work in Australia rather than fleeing overseas.

Although the book is generally well-organised and presented, there are various typos and certain annoying inconsistencies. The worst is an alternation between ‘Indigenous’ and ‘indigenous’, even by the editors in there own articles. Indigenous with a capital ‘I’ should have been used consistently throughout the book. The book could also have been improved by including more illustrations, clearer pictures and short chapter abstracts. Perhaps a short plain English version is also needed, not just for Indigenous communities but also for secondary schools, university students and established archaeologists with increasingly less time to wade through reams of detail.

Minor problems aside, I highly recommend the book for those interested in exploring new ways of archaeologists and Indigenous peoples working together. I also recommend it be compulsory reading for Honours students and graduates as the examples, case studies and more general reflective essays will be of immense value for those embarking on an archaeological career in the Australia of the third millennium. It’s always insightful to see how others handle similar problems to those we face when studying another people’s past.

Paul S.C. Tacon
Review of ‘At a Crossroads: Archaeology and First Peoples in Canada’ edited by George P. Nicholas and Thomas D. Andrews.
December 1999
Book Reviews
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