Academic journal article Material Culture

Playing Ourselves: Interpreting Native Histories at Historic Reconstructions

Academic journal article Material Culture

Playing Ourselves: Interpreting Native Histories at Historic Reconstructions

Article excerpt

Playing Ourselves: Interpreting Native Histories at Historic Reconstructions By Laura Peers New York: Altamira Press, a division of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2007. xxxiii + 207 pp. Illustrations, bibliographic references, and index. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN-13-978-0-7591 1 061 -8; $30.95 (paper), ISBN-13: 978-0-7591-1062-5; $30.95 (electronic) ISBN-0-7591 -1386-6 / 978-0-7591-1386-2 0.

Densely packed with significant new information and analysis, Playing Ourselves examines the implications of incorporating Native interpreters and related new content at five colonial era historic sites and reconstructions. Author Laura Peers, who is Curator of the Americas Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum and an ethnohistorian, studied two American sites: the North West Company Fur Post near Pine City, Minnesota and Colonial Michilimakinac at the Straits of Mackinac, Michigan. The three Canadian sites are Lower Fort Garry National Historic Site, north of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Fort William Historical Park, at Thunder Bay, Ontario, and Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons, a Jesuit mission reconstruction near Midland, Ontario.

Peers does not intend Playing Ourselves as "a critical report card" (p. 176) of past or present practice, although some of the historic sites in question do not escape some damning assessments on various matters such as the dearth of adequate interpreter training in content and strategies to deal with what is reported to be a constant stream of negative stereotypes about Native people originating from visitors (e.g. pp. 7, 79, 107). Rather, this valuable contribution to the literature on historic site interpretation and tourism is an ethnography of the representation of Native peoples and Native-White relations (p. xvi). It is a cogent analysis of change at these historic sites brought on by developments in colonial period historiography and the influence of Native interpreters.

Readers of this journal will be particularly interested in Peers' analysis of historic sites as landscapes-"stage sets for interaction" where core cultural beliefs about both the tangible and intangible can be enacted (pp. 1, 83, 111). The "rich materiality" of the sites is significant. It clearly attracts, engages, and communicates effectively with tourists, demonstrates social relations, and reveals the texture of cultural hybridity.

For the Native interpreters, the historic material culture used in their work becomes the foundation for the reclamation of Native identity and serves as a launch pad for significant cross-cultural communication with visitors. Peers shows that Native material culture initiates key historical debates, (pp. 108-9) permitting Native interpreters to address misunderstandings, stereotypes, and prejudices. This is the basis for what Peers refers to as "revisionist history" at these historic sites (p. 104).

A key new understanding presented in Playing Ourselves centres on the unexpectedly challenging and complex process of adding Native interpreters and interpretive content to the programming of historic sites. One reason is that Native interpreters perceive themselves as ambassadors for their historic and- most importantly-their current cultures. This results in the impetus to challenge the dominant society and the traditional interpretation of its past (p. 44). Peers has found that Native interpreters intentionally contest the traditional stories told at historic sites (pp. xxi, 46, 53). Indeed, Native interpreters' personal goals are distinct-even "completely oppositional"-in some cases to those of site management and in many respects to the preconceptions of visitors (pp. 31-2, 142). The result is contentious debates at many levels over authenticity and authority (p. xxxi).

Peers also presents findings that challenge some accepted tenets in the world tourism literature, for example, that encounters with Native interpreters produce little or no change in the tourist (pp. 142, 151). …

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