As simple as this sounds, the way we tell stories matters—especially when you’re writing history. Despite all of the eye rolls we’re probably going to get from people who have had to fight to not fall asleep in the middle of a lecture on Medieval France for saying this, we argue that history is crucial to the way we as humans define ourselves in relation to the rest of the world.
People lean on history in different ways to form identity, whether these identities are individual, social, or national; history plays a much larger role in our day-to-day lives than one might think. World’s Fairs, like Expo ’67 or the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, are just one of the methods states use to solidify ideas of who “their” people are and where they-- “they” being the state, and the people the state claims--come from.
When history first began as a discipline, historians felt that there was a way to achieve perfect objectivity when writing about the past. The problem with this line of thinking—and historians really didn’t start acknowledging this problem until the 1970s—was that the groups who often got to write histories and define peoples were not always reflective of the populations they were talking about. The development of new areas of scholarly thought, like Subaltern Studies, Black studies, Feminist Studies and more pertinent to this podcast—Indigenous studies, have pushed back against this “objectivity”.
Each of these areas has not only reminded us that it is impossible to tell an objective story if you’re not letting diverse groups of people speak, but have also presented important arguments in favour of redefining altogether what stories are.
While these fields have their own unique perspectives, they all tend to present this argument the same way, and it’s what we want to reflect on in this post: the structures of the stories that you’re able to tell when you centre marginalized voices look remarkably different from the stories privileged in the Global North.
It’s that part specifically--the letting go of familiar structures and figures, or altering what they look like--that makes some folks really uncomfortable. This is especially the case when those history has traditionally viewed favourably can be seen in a negative light. We can take much of the settler public’s reaction to the 1967 Indians of Canada Pavilion’s portrayal of Canadian history as evidence of this.
But the discomfort people feel is nothing compared to the political and material ramifications marginalized groups face when their stories aren’t told. Take, for example the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls [MMIWG] in Canada, whose final report was released in 2019.
MMIWG, as a movement and an inquiry, has argued that one of the main reasons the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women in North America has gone unnoticed by the broader settler public, is due to broader issues of Indigenous erasure in state histories and public perception. As Rebecca Moore, a Mi’kmaw woman, explains in the Canadian Report’s Foreward:
Being an Indigenous woman means living under a society and ‘civilization’ that benefits from your voicelessness, invisibility, disappearance, non-existence, and erasure. Because if we don’t exist, then Canadians--while claiming to live an earnest and honest living-- are free to steal and exploit what is rightfully ours by loosening the ‘Rule of Law’ for themselves and tightening it to extinguish our existence and resistance.
This erasure makes it easy to forget that a lot of the violence people consider confined to the past is ongoing. And even after the report was released, the numbers of the missing and murdered Indigenous people grow. All of this begs a crucial question: where do we as creators and consumers of media fit in to trends of erasure of marginalized voices?
Cited follows a narrative story structure. In media, we do that to keep things interesting, but also to fit storylines neatly within an hour or a half hour program. And because you can’t fit too much into an hour, we have to make decisions about the stories that we tell, even when we’re trying to make scholarly arguments about the world around us, and that means we miss things.
Historians like Alexander Freund would say that oral historians and media documentary productions like Cited are often at odds with one another-- we are telling a story rooted in historical events, but we are not writing a history. Now, that doesn’t change the fact that what we produce could be seen as a radio history of the Indians of Canada Pavilion at Expo ‘67. And if that’s the case, it should be stated that there are multiple ways that we could tell this story. For example, the documentary would look very different if we were to focus solely on the First Nations Pavilion hostesses--featuring Barbara as well as many of the other women who worked alongside her--and cut out Robert Majoribanks, completely in favour of voices that had been historically ignored. [NOTE: We use First Nations here because Inuit and Metis people--two different Indigenous groups in Canada-- are not included in the Pavilion. It’s important to use specific terms to avoid conflating diverse peoples. ]
We could spend a lot more time looking at the extra training the Department of Indian Affairs felt that First Nations women had to do to be up to par with everyone else. We could talk more about the particular brand of racism, sexism and anti-Indigeneity First Nations women experienced during this era. We could talk more about the radical moves these hostesses made to make the histories spectators saw on the exhibit panels come to life with their own experiences.
While the final doc cut may have been more fragmented had we gone this route, it would likely make more cutting critiques of state and public structures that existed at the time. These are the kinds of things we can’t get at when we tell Bob’s story. We can certainly highlight the ways in which Indian Affairs still prioritized settler voices in the making of the Pavilion, and talk about the kind of racism Indigenous people experienced by looking at the barriers Bob pushed against as he tried to hear stories from the communities he visited. But we can’t hear Indigenous voices as Indigenous voices through a settler’s point of view. And in a day and age where Indigenous peoples from all around the world are constantly under attack, when we tell stories like this one, the First Nations’ perspective should matter most.
Sometimes stories like Bob’s are told because there’s simply more archival material available to allow us to tell a “fuller” story: one with a beginning, middle, climax, and clear ending. That’s not to say that there’s nothing available on the First Nations perspective during this period.
There are ways to locate Indigenous voices in a historical archive designed to favour settler voices. Early Canadian feminist historian Sylvia Van Kirk championed reading colonial sources carefully to find examples where marginalized voices managed to burst out of an archive determined to silence them.
More recently, Ann Stoler has argued that understanding that people in power tend to save, or archive, things that matter to them, reading “along the archival grain” can also reveal the ways history itself silences important voices. You can learn a lot about power by seeing what histories powerful people want to remember. And while these are useful methodologies, you’re not going to get a clear Indigenous perspective from either.
Indigenous studies has pushed beyond this thinking—historians in this area do make use of traditional print and audio archives, but they also tap into oral histories, and speak to living Indigenous people about their memories and the stories their communities hold, trying to actively seek out Indigenous perspectives that are hidden sometimes when we focus on sources that are readily available.
While it may be easier to access Robert Majoribanks life, there are hundreds of Indigenous interactions with him and Indian Affairs recorded during that period that can tell us something that Bob’s memoirs and his children never could. And it’s our job as listeners, readers, and consumers of information to keep this in mind. Maybe dive into the archives yourself, or check out the suggested readings we’ve left for you in the footnotes.
So, if there’s information out there that can change the story we’ve told in this episode of Cited, what’s the right story to tell about the Indians of Canada Pavilion? Which account is most correct? The thing is, the story of the Pavilion is all of these things at once.
While the fields discussed above have unseated a lot of the more privileged histories that we’re used to hearing, they also offer us a methodological tool crucial to the way we study history in the present: reality has never been singular.
Robert Marjoribanks did indeed go across the country to consult with First Nations people, and people likely thanked him for that work. But his point of view as a non-Indigenous person coloured the way he probably presented the stories given to him--in fact, we know for a fact that they did; it’s in the documentary.
And because of our tendency to privilege histories of white men, people are more likely to pay attention to his work more than the work the Pavilion hostesses did with less recognition. But that doesn’t mean that the hostesses’ work was unimportant. It could be argued—and should be argued—that these women actually performed radical acts of resistance within the walls of the Indians of Canada Pavilion. While they had to follow strict behavioural codes, they managed to present to their audience individual experiences that the panels missed; they could tell stories from home; they could stand in front of settler audiences and actively challenge misconceptions that visitors may have had of the hostesses as Indigenous women. Their very presence undermined the colonial nature of the Pavilion. That shouldn’t be ignored.
The Indians of Canada Pavilion was both a continuation of colonial control over Indigenous storytelling, and a radical push-back against a Canadian-controlled narrative about First Nations. But we can’t get to all of that in an hour. It’s up to you to read widely, to question whose voices are not being heard, and to understand that reading differently, listening differently, thinking differently is how we start to recognize complexity in a way that doesn’t erase marginalized voices.
Al Jazeera, “The Search: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women,” Faultlines 8 May 2019
Chris Andersen, Jean M. O’Brien (eds.), Sources and Methods in Indigenous Studies, (New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017);
Antoinette Burton, “Imperial Optics: Empire Histories, Interpretive Methods,” in Empire in Question: Reading, Writing, and Teaching British Imperialism, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011);
Lisa Brooks, Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018)
Robin Brownlie, Valerie Joyce Korinek (eds.), Finding a Way to the Heart: Feminist Writings on Aboriginal and Women’s History in Canada, (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2012)
Nellie Carlson, Kathleen Steinhauer and Linda Goyette, Disinherited Generations: Our Struggle to Reclaim Treaty Rights for First Nations Women and their Descendants, (Edmonton:University of Alberta Press, 2013)
Julie Cruikshank, Angela Sidney, Kitty Smith, and Annie Ned, Life Lived Like A Story: Life Stories of Three Yukon Native Elders, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990)
Alexander Freund, “Under Storytelling’s Spell?: Oral History in a Neoliberal Age,” Oral History Review 42, no. 1, (Winter/Spring 2015): 96-132.
Ranajit Guha, Gayatri Spivak (eds.), Selected Subaltern Studies, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).
Susan M. Hill, The Clay We Are Made Of: Haudenosaunee Land Tenure on the Grand River, (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2017)
bell hooks, Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black, (Boston: South End Press, 1989)
Emily Kirkman, “Fashioning Identity: The Hostesses of Expo 67,” MA Thesis in Art History, Concordia University, 2011
National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Volume 1a: Reclaiming Power and Place, (July 2019): 30
Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carlina Press, 2000)
Myra Rutherdale and Jim Miller, “‘It’s Our Country’: First Nations’ Participation in the Indian Pavilion at Expo ‘67,” Online Journal of the CHA 17, no. 2, (2006):148-173
Janet Silman, Enough is Enough: Aboriginal Women Speak Out, (Toronto: Women’s Press, 1987)
Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, (London: Zed Books, 2012)
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, eds. Cary Melson and Lawrence Grossberg, (London: Macmillan, 1988).
Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009)
Karen Stote, An Act of Genocide: Colonialism and the Sterilization of Aboriginal Women, (Black Point: Fernwood Publishing, 2015).
Martha Troian, “MMIWG is a pandemic in North American and beyond: advocate,” APTN National News, 6 June 2019,
Sylvia Van Kirk, Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society in Western Canada, 1670-1870, (Winnipeg: Watson & Dwyer, 1980).
Adrian Wyld, “Missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls: An epidemic on both sides of the Medicine Line,” The Conversation/The Canadian Press, 5 June 2019