Book Review: First Contacts

[The following review is in the current issue of the Western Historical Quarterly.]

Jon Sutton Lutz, ed., Myth & Memory: Stories of Indigenous-European Contact (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2007) 236 pp.

In this anthology of articles about first contacts between native and European peoples, editor Jon Lutz shares a description by one of Captain Cook’s officers of an evening encounter on the Northwest coast. One Indian man sang “a few words in tune” accompanied by the beating of canoe paddles, “after which they all joined in a song that was by no means unpleasant to the Ear.” The English answered with a “Fife and drum” tune. “Not to be outdone in politeness” the native sang another song, which the English followed with a song on the French horn.

Myth & Memory challenges us to reconsider the phenomena of first contacts, on the Northwest Coast and around the world. The ten essays analyze their respective contacts, from Jamestown to the Kalahari, from a variety of novel perspectives: a genre of stories, a set of performances, and a group of cultural productions. The authors admirably give equal weight to native memories and traditional European-authored primary sources. Many have more than a whiff of the linguistic turn, dissecting the accounts in terms of “cultural currency,” “extravagant ambiguity,” “imaginary productions” and, as in maritime concert above, “spiritual performance.” (11, 30)

The approach is frequently rewarding. Patrick Moore examines the use of humor in contact narratives of the Canadian Kaska tribe to make the larger point that native groups often had different story-telling traditions with different purposes, traditions that need to be understood by scholars using the stories. In an important chapter, I.S. MacLaren explores Paul Kane’s writings on Chinook Indians. He shows how the published texts that many of us have relied upon as primary sources were heavily adapted, altered and even invented by a variety of editors working sometimes from Kane’s field notes, but more often from other published sources on the Chinook and perhaps from their own imaginations.

This linguistic turn can also take the reader down some dark alleys before we emerge into the light of day. In an otherwise fascinating chapter about “narrativity and the lost colony of Roanoke,” Michael Harkin takes us through “topoi,” “iterations and reiterations,” “the mode of theatricality,” the “erotics” and “politics” of representation, “poetics of ambiguity,” “epitomizing events,” and, most unfortunately, “(ab)originality” as we take a learned tour of four centuries of writings about Roanoke. The combination of Harkin’s postmodern rigor and his modest conclusion—that it is exactly the racial and other paradoxes of the story that invites constant reinterpretation—leaves the reader feeling as if he had listened to a shaggy dog story at the MLA.

Myth and Memory is an important collection for anyone studying first encounters, native peoples or colonialism. It is hoped that many of the essays here will grow into monographs on their topics.

Myth and Memory may be purchased here.