Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

Native Wage Labour and Independent Production during the `Era of Irrelevance'

Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

Native Wage Labour and Independent Production during the `Era of Irrelevance'

Article excerpt

THE DEBATE over the inherent right of native self-government has been largely confined to the concept of political autonomy. (1) As University of Lethbridge sociologist Menno Boldt reminds us in Surviving as Indians, meaningful political autonomy can only be realized once the economic dependence of native peoples on welfare has been addressed. (2) The historical origins of this dependency have remained obscure because the study of Amerindian history is a relatively recent phenomenon in Canada. Pioneered by anthropologists, the study of native peoples' has been joined by many disciplines in the social sciences and humanities. Research has tended to focus upon the early contact period, the central role of the Amerindian in the fur trade, and the evolution of relations between Amerindians and the state. Until recently, historians have assumed that the importance of natives in the New World economy did not survive the decline of the fur trade in the mid 19th century. Consequently, there has been little interest among historians in exploring the nature and extent of Amerindian participation in the emerging capitalist economy. As J.R. Miller so aptly observed in Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens, only in World War II did Amerindians begin "to move out of an `era of irrelevance' in which they had been cast by the majority population in the nineteenth century." (3) Unfortunately, the perceived irrelevance of native peoples in the post fur-trade era has extended to the historiography itself. As a result, the experience of Amerindians, during a period of tremendous social and economic change in Canada, remains largely unexplored.

Despite the inadequacies of the historiography, a growing number of anthropologists, economists, geographers, sociologists, and historians have taken an interest in native wage earners and independent producers since the publication of Rolf Knight's Indians at Work in 1978. This paper will discuss the existing literature (as it relates to our understanding of native labour history), the various methodological approaches involved, the changing nature of sources, and some of the opportunities for research. In doing so, I will demonstrate that there is an emerging consensus that aboriginal peoples not only participated in the capitalist economy during this so-called "era of irrelevance," but did so selectively in order to strengthen their traditional way of life. Native efforts to incorporate aspects of the capitalist economy into their seasonal round and their resistance to the government's assimilation policy laid the foundation for the future construction of the non-proletarian Amerindian worker.

"Those Who Exist On the Margins of Many Fields"

ONE OF THE MAJOR REASONS why Amerindian participation in the wage labour economy has remained largely unexplored is due to the fragmentation of the social sciences and the historical profession. Whereas anthropologists have concentrated on the reconstruction of so-called "authentic" aboriginal cultures in pre-history, the study of Amerindian participation in the capitalist economy has been at the margins of native and labour sub-disciplines within history. Similarly, ethnic studies and sociology have found it difficult to incorporate the experience of Amerindian wage earners and independent producers into their research. This section will explore how well these academic fields have investigated Amerindian participation in the capitalist economy.

As "the main impulses for the serious study of native history have come initially from anthropology," a historiographical paper involving Amerindians should commence with this discipline. (4) Because anthropologists have long been interested in the reconstruction of traditional aboriginal cultures, the disappearance of `primitive' societies has prompted an identity crisis within the discipline -- a crisis which has been further exacerbated by new ethical questions about the study of aboriginal societies. …

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