Beyond the City Limits: Rural History in British Columbia

By R. W. Sandwell | Go to book overview

9 Invisible Women: Aboriginal Mothers and Mixed-Race Daughters in Rural Pioneer British Columbia

Jean Barman1

For all of the rhetoric on new ways of conceiving the past, scholarship is still dominated by a mythic pioneer woman who came from elsewhere to face the challenges of a new land. Mostly she was White, but regardless of colour, she brought with her a culture, a way of life, that she transplanted onto the new landscape. To the extent that scholars have rethought the past, it has been principally to reveal and then critique such women's lives in terms of their contribution to some larger colonial enterprise. Their existence as the norm of rural pioneer life has not been much questioned.

In the case of British Columbia, the mythic pioneer woman is best exemplified by Margaret Ormsby Pioneer Gentlewoman, the memoir of Susan Allison, a young White woman who in the 1860s followed her husband into the remote British Columbia Interior. 2 Pioneer Gentlewoman followed naturally, perhaps inevitably, on earlier scholarship. The classic Pioneer Women of Vancouver Island was consciously intended to counter the 'man's standpoint,' which up to then ( 1928) had dominated 'narratives of the exploration and development of the Pacific Northwest.' 3 Dedicated to 'the courage, strength of purpose and nobility of character which governed the lives of the Pioneer Women of Vancouver Island,' the volume began with, and essentially concerned itself with, 'white women's part in the history of the North Pacific.' 4 Other studies have mostly followed in this tradition. 5

If discussed at all, non-White women are considered only in passing, and then as exceptions to the norm. The wives of Pacific Northwest fur traders sometimes become pioneer predecessors, but often by obscuring their likely Aboriginal or mixed-race ancestry. 6 Other Aboriginal women have generally been interpreted as existing somewhere outside of history, as ethnographic specimens safely ensconced within some verbal museum of the past. When discussed, the emphasis has been on the ways in which they have held on to their traditional cultures and thereby, by inference, not muddied the waters of true pioneer womanhood. 7

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