Ethnohistory in the North of North America

In North America, ethnographic research on northern indigenous peoples has long remained characterized by a lack of interest in historical change. Until the 1950s, most researchers still aimed primarily at reconstructing pre-Columbian states of affairs. Changes consecutive to contact with Europeans were evident to eyewitnesses, and abundantly documented in historical sources, but they were seen as evidence of cultural disintegration, which should be disregarded in ethnographic descriptions. Even the numerous studies of northern communities of the 1950s and 1960s, whose purpose was to uncover the extent of "acculturation," barely documented the changes that had occurred since early contact times. Beginning in the 1960s, Margaret Lantis (for the Aleuts), Wendell Oswalt, Dorothy Jean Ray, and Jim VanStone (for the Yup'ik and Inupiat of western Alaska) were among the first to resort to historical sources for the study of northern North American Native peoples.

Documentary evidence comes from a variety of sources: records from explorers, trading companies, whaling ships, missionaries, and later police and government. Researchers have used the archives of the Hudson's Bay Company in particular—which became more widely accessible after its transfer from England to Canada in 1969—since the 1970s to document the fur trade among Algonquian and Athapaskan (Dene) Indians in Canada (see, e.g., Charles Bishop, Daniel Francis, Toby Morantz, Arthur Ray, and Colin Yerbury). Beryl Gillespie, James Smith, and Joan Townsend are also among the first scholars who have documented the history of Athapaskans in Canada and in Alaska. François Trudel has used the Hudson's Bay

Company archives to illuminate different aspects of the history of the Inuit of Nunavik. The logs of commercial whaling ships operating in the Arctic in the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries, analyzed by John Bockstoce (Chukchi and Beaufort Sea coasts) and Gillies Ross (Hudson Bay), have revealed a wealth of information concerning the Inuit who were in contact with the whalers. Dorothy Eber has recorded the Inuit oral tradition pertaining to their contacts with whalers on Baffin Island. The history of the Labrador Inuit, based primarily on the archives of the Moravian missionaries, has been thoroughly analyzed by Garth Taylor and Helge Kleivan.

Historical knowledge about the Inuit and Yup'ik continues to accumulate at a steady pace. Ernest Burch has demonstrated that in certain cases, and using well-defined methodological precautions, oral data allow detailed and reliable reconstructions. He has relied heavily on information he collected from local informants for the reconstruction of Inupiat social systems and their interactions in early 19th-century northwestern Alaska (Burch, 1998). Burch, Yvon Csonka, David Damas, Guy Mary-Rousseliere, and most recently Lyle Dick and Renee Fossett have provided important contributions to the history of Canadian Inuit from the central and High Arctic.

A substantial portion of the Arctic volume of the Handbook of North American Indians, which presents all Inuit and Aleut peoples from Asia to Greenland, was conceived as historical ethnography. Other historical overviews of the same geographical scope can be found in Wendell Oswalt (1999) and David Damas (1996). Such studies all point to the geographically varying time depth of contact between Natives and outsiders, and the subsequent asynchronicity of social and cultural change.

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