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Finding A Way to the Heart [book review]


Review By Christine McFarlane Windspeaker Contributor







Influencing the world of scholarship

Book Review:
Finding A Way to the Heart: Feminist Writings on Aboriginal and Women’s History in Canada

University of Manitoba Press 2012

Edited by Robin Jarvis Brownlie and Valerie J. Korinek

Reviewed By Christine McFarlane

“Finding a Way to the Heart: Feminist Writings on Aboriginal and Women’s History in Canada” is a scholarly book that examines race, gender, identity and colonization from the early 19th century to the late 20th century and illustrates renowned Canadian scholar Sylvia Van Kirk’s extensive influence on a generation of feminist scholarship and women’s history.

“Finding a Way to the Heart” initially began as a project in 2007 when a Canadian Historical Association Roundtable organized the panel “Many Tender Ties: A Forum in Honour of Sylvia Van Kirk” and brought together scholars, students and colleagues to provide a retrospective assessment of Sylvia Van Kirk’s academic accomplishments.

When Sylvia Van Kirk published her groundbreaking book “Many Tender Ties” in 1980, she revolutionized the historical understanding of the North American fur trade and introduced entirely new areas of inquiry in women’s, social, and Aboriginal history.

Using Van Kirk’s themes and methodologies, “Finding a Way to the Heart” is an anthology featuring various scholars and how they were impacted in one way or another through Van Kirk’s research.

Van Kirk’s research has included “women’s history, Native-Newcomer history, Canadian history, and has highlighted a number of issues that historians grapple with today still: the construction of racial, gender, and sexual norms in the West, the diversity of women’s history and the way in which white female settlers (those individuals so often romanticized by the settlement histories) were themselves agents of colonialism.”

Van Kirk’s argument that “the fur trade could not have proceeded at all without the active participation of women” has not only “turned the conventional view of history upside down,” but her feminist questions and insights have helped pry open the narrow parameters of historical inquiry to expand the areas of life considered worthy of investigation, and to admit new kinds of questions altogether.

Sylvia’s work has impacted many and this is abundantly clear throughout the essays written for “Finding a way to the Heart.”

Elizabeth Jameson contributed the essay “Ties Across the Border.” She asserts that Sylvia Van Kirk has influenced the writing of American history as few Canadian historians have.  She cites Van Kirk’s influence as “most evident in the histories of the U.S. fur trade, women in the U.S. West, and in histories of Native-Newcomer relations,” and how “the frameworks of these fields shifted in the 1980s through Van Kirk’s influence and that of other path-breaking scholars who placed American Indian women and other women of colour at the centres of history, and whose scholarship established the intertwined significance of race and gender as analytical categories.”

Another contributor, Angela Wanhalla, expresses in her essay “Beyond the Borders: The “Founding Families” of Southern New Zealand” that it is Sylvia Van Kirk’s analysis of “interracial marriage and mixed race peoples in the western Canadian fur trade” that has influenced a generation of scholars working on Native women’s history, the fur trade, Métis communities, and post colonial history in Canada and the United States. But Sylvia’s work has also reached beyond the borders of North America, shaping the scholarship and approaches of those working on the history of interracial marriage, gender, and colonialism in other former frontier societies like Australia and New Zealand.”

Wanhalla further argues “New Zealand has a distinctive history of hybridity where male newcomers entered into interracial relationships, contributing to the development of a hybrid population that was welcomed and celebrated by officials and Aboriginal peoples, and that this history of intermixing is not as well known as the social worlds and societies created out of the North America fur trade.”

It is through this lens that Wanhalla explores this social world, taking Van Kirk’s scholarship and methodology as a point of reference and extends it to the resource economies and frontier space of southern New Zealand while inviting connections with the histories of gender and colonialism in western Canada.

Sylvia’s research was groundbreaking in its attention to race, class and gender and though her research career began before gender history developed as a field, it was Sylvia’s attention to the difference gender made that helped reveal the tremendous potential this analytical framework offered for new insights into human experience and the workings of society.

Contributors throughout “Finding a way to the Heart” reflect on Van Kirk’s influence and how it impacted on their own research and opened their eyes to new methods of inquiry.

These contributors include Jennifer S.H. Brown, Franca Iacovetta, Valerie J. Korinek, Elizabeth Jameson, Adele Perry, Angela Wanhalla, Robert Alexander Innes, Patricia A. McCormack, Robin Jarvis Brownlie, Victoria Freeman, Kathryn McPherson and Katrina Srigley. Finding a Way to the Heart is published by the University of Manitoba Press and is 269 pages.