Myths and Realities in American-Canadian Studies: Challenges to Comparing Native Peoples' Experiences

Article excerpt

From the start it is clear that several myths surround the comparative study of historical issues in America and Canada. First, the assumption is that such work will be welcomed with enthusiasm. Certainly in the U.S. many historians speak glowingly about the need for and the benefits from comparative history. Participants at major national conferences, however, often find rather different responses. Sparse attendance at the few comparative sessions is common. Even more striking is the glazed look received when trying to discuss ideas and projects. Listeners often glance furtively around the book display hoping to find a friend they can use as an excuse to break away from what is obviously a boring conversation. (1)

My experience with Canadian academics is somewhat more limited. At first glance they seem to have somewhat more interest in doing parallel studies of related issues in the two nations. To an outsider it appears that a higher percentage of Canadian historians do some cross-border work than do so in the U.S. However, there is little welcome for such work done by scholars south of the border. Rather it seems to be treated in two ways, both negative. Much of it receives little attention, often being overlooked in citations and bibliographies when it probably deserves a place. Second, comparative studies often are reviewed more harshly than in the U.S. American academic reviewers tend to look at comparative work as having made a basic scholarly contribution, and tend to focus on the broad, general themes being considered. Canadian reviewers tend to criticize the same project for what it lacks and for minor factual errors or omissions. This certainly inhibits or even discourages some from serious consideration of comparative work. (2)

If such a transnational interest is actually wishful thinking by a small number of scholars, how does this apply to studies of Indian/First Nations people? In the past decade a few studies of tribal groups and their experiences with the two nation states have appeared. But, like comparative history in general, they seem not to have made a significant impact in either country. Here too, myths confuse the issues. One depicts society in the U.S. as highly individualistic while that in Canada is seen as more group oriented. The latter is described as an ethnic mosaic while the U.S. is a melting pot. How American society can be more individualistic than Canada when distinct ethnic identities are vanishing in the U.S. is not explained, nor is any attention given to the Enfranchisement Act of 1869 that set the Dominion government on the path of individualism for First Nations people when in the U.S. policies still dealt with tribes as units.

A myth related directly to Native Studies is that the U.S. used wars to reduce its Indian population, but Canadian officials let starvation and disease do the job. (3) It seems to me that even a brief look at our two histories demonstrates that such claims are false. First, Canada's relatively peaceful frontier dealings with its tribal groups lasted only until it sent Mounted Policemen west. Just over a decade after the Mounties marched onto the Plains, the 1885 fighting broke out. At the same time, bungling caused wide-spread starvation and disease tolls in the U.S. as well.

Although the obvious need to get past such widely-held myths, and the chance to enter rather uncharted waters helped attract me to comparative study, other factors helped too. Family stories of pioneer settlement caught my interest, and led to my obtaining a Ph.D. in American frontier history at the University of Wisconsin. At Madison my training focused on the actions of the settlers in creating new communities and the experiences of the Native Americans as they dealt with their unwelcome neighbors. The History Department at Wisconsin had a sought-after British Commonwealth Chair, and prominent scholars such as A.L. Rouse from Britain, and Max Crawford from Australia, lectured frequently. …