Stó:lÇ - Coast Salish Historical Atlas.  Carlson, Keith (ed.).  Seattle: University of Washington Press, Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre Press, and Chilliwack: Stó:lÇ Heritage Trust, 2001. 208 pages.



McGill University


A Stó:lÇ - Coast Salish Historical Atlas is a landmark publication which uses the format of an atlas to describe the persistence of a native community’s relationship to (and their historic alienation from) their traditional lands. The Altas is a large, richly coloured and illustrated book authored by a team of researchers working for the Stó:lÇ Nation, a First Nations political organization in British Columbia, Canada.  Fourteen different authors participated in authoring the project, though the majority of the texts come from historian Carlson and archaeologist Schaepe, who were authors in fourteen and eleven of the forty-six chapters respectively.  The other authors bring anthropological, biological, environmental, historical, and First Nations perspectives to the work.


The chapters of the book fall generally under six broad thematic categories:  Stó:lÇ culture history (14 chapters), Stó:lÇ culture and place (13 chapters), Stó:lÇ physical geography (6 chapters), Stó:lÇ culture and space (5 chapters), Stó:lÇ spatial knowledge (5 chapters), and Stó:lÇ social organization (4 chapters).  These themes reflect the broad perspective on Stó:lÇ relationships to landscape that the Atlas takes, though clearly the main emphasis is on exploring historical relations to land and the idea that culture shapes and is shaped by place.


By far the longest and most detailed chapter in the book is the compendium of over 700 Halkomelem place names for the lower Fraser River area.  Such a compilation of Halkomelem place names reveals an encyclopaedic knowledge of toponomy and history.  However in presenting the names the author McHalsie withdraws from current scholarship on the importance of the stories attached to place names as a devise for moral teaching.  The place names list is instead directed at proving Aboriginal title to the land.  However, in striving for this political goal, McHalsie has muddled his inventory of names.  For the up-river areas, where the communities which belong to the Stó:lÇ Nation largely reside, the maps and tables of names and meanings give a good detailed record.  Closer to the mouth of the Fraser River, where a different dialect of Halkomelem is spoken, and several First Nations have competing land claims, the information presented is less reliable.  McHalsie has had difficulty in transposing previously-documented place names into the up-river dialect, and provides no citations for what the original sources of the information are.  This is a disappointing treatment of the rich Stó:lÇ place name tradition.


In several chapters which deal with themes of historic Stó:lÇ society, the authors have had trouble describing Stó:lÇ socio-political organization. Carlson presents Stó:lÇ communities as a series of ‘towns’, ‘villages’, ‘hamlets’, which are organized as ‘tribes’ along watersheds.  This description departs from the generally accepted model presented in the ethnographic record of local groups of people descended from a common ancestor living in permanent winter villages and travelling to various family-owned resource sites throughout the year.  Carlson confuses ‘tribes’ with micro-dialect groups that have identified been in linguistic studies and in other places inflates small resource gathering camps and communities (esp. those in the Fraser Canyon) to a ‘tribal’ status.  This treatment of relatively well-known material may also have troublesome consequences if it is used to provide context in on-going disputes over aboriginal title and rights (which is one of the stated goals of the Atlas).


Many of the other chapters in the Atlas are interesting and unique contributions to the literature on Coast Salish history and culture.  In one, one Stó:lÇ families affinal kin connections are mapped out over real space, showing the centrality of kinship to understanding contemporary and historic relationships with Coast Salish territory.  There are a series of original and well supported chapters discussing the difficulties of interpreting historic Coast Salish population demographics, a topic much debated in current ethno-history scholarship.  The chapter on contemporary fishing disputes within the community provides the books’ most vivid description of contemporary Stó:lÇ life and the historical context for understanding it from the communities’ point of view.  Disappointing is the companion chapter of the now-infamous conflicts between Stó:lÇ and non-Native commercial fishermen, where some catch statistics are provided, but no real discussion or analysis of the complex and interesting power relations that are at play around the Fraser River salmon fishery.


The Atlas contains an underlying critique of interpretive anthropology and descriptive ethnography.  To paraphrase, by using history, Carlson seeks to ‘let the facts speak for themselves’ (p. 2).  One should be critical of ethnography because ‘anthropologists mainly pursue their own interests, not those of the natives’ (p. 134).  The Atlas argues that the discipline of ‘history’ is the most appropriate frame for cross-cultural understanding.  However, the presumed objectivity of saying ‘let the facts speak for themselves’ ignores the social and political context in which those facts are presented.  In rejecting the kinds of anthropological scholarship which pays attention to the narrative forms and discourses of indigenous peoples, Carlson’s work becomes removed from the words and the discursive frame of Stó:lÇ people’s everyday practice, and is rather firmly entrenched in a well-established narrative frame of western history about Indigenous places and events.  Aside from the two Stó:lÇ authors who participated in the project, little actual Stó:lÇ voice and narriative can be found in the Atlas, with Carlson paraphrasing oral traditions and synthesizing Stó:lÇ world view.  This reviewer is not sure that such a perspective meets that Atlas’ stated goals of bridging cultural ways of knowing, and decolonizing ways of thinking about the world.


The reasons for the publication of a book like this one are compelling.  Aboriginal land claims are currently unresolved in British Columbia, and are the subject of much public debate.  In the forward to the book Grand Chief Steven Point provides a passionate discussion of the need for Aboriginal peoples to bridge the gap between Native and non-Native ways of seeing the world as a part of reconciling the vast social inequalities which continue to exist between the two communities.  Public policy makers and land use planners are continually challenged by First Nations communities to consider historic and contemporary connections to the land in their decision making, but have little useful information available to them.  Also, First Nations communities have frequently expressed the desire to have published accurate and detailed information about their culture and history in their own voice, as written forms have at least as large an educational role as the formerly dominant oral ones.  The Atlas’ social significance as an important voice in informing a wide and diverse reading audience is exemplified by the several weeks that it held a spot in the top 10 in sales as reported by British Columbia Book Publishers Association.


While the Atlas is impressive in its scope and presentation, I believe it is plagued by simplified and sometimes unsupported assertions about Stó:lÇ cultural history and social organization.  It has frequent problems in handling the Halkomelem language material.  It will certainly be a problematic construction of identity for those down-river non-Stó:lÇ First Nations whose territories are claimed and discussed (often inaccurately).  A key weakness in this project is in the lack of footnoting and citation of sources used to argue their perspective.  Carlson excuses this by saying such devices are “intrusive” and instead presents a select bibliography at the end of each chapter.  Just as there are no footnotes or citations, there is no biography about the backgrounds of authors in the book.  This was clearly not an oversight, but a claim of ‘authority’, with the book being published from the offices of the Stó:lÇ Nation to speak for the Stó:lÇ people.  In an age of indigenous land claims (a context which this book is specifically produced within), it would have been prudent to have approached the details of all this material more carefully.