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Many Tender Ties

Now nearly thirty years old, Sylvia Van Kirk’s Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870 represents one of the first, and arguably still one of the best, of its period’s numerous attempts to “recover” the lost, forgotten, or slighted history of North American women.

Van Kirk, Sylvia. Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980.

Van Kirk explains that her readable, absorbing book “examines the role played by Indian, mixed-blood and white women in the development of fur-trade society in what is today Western Canada” in order to gain “valuable insights into the nature of the society which evolved” and to reconstruct “the complex, human dimension of the fur trade which has been little appreciated” (p. 1). White fur traders quickly came to appreciate the value of native women’s work, such as the manufacture of moccasins or snowshoes, and their crucial importance as interpreters, cultural mediators, and marital partners. These "country" marriages produced "mixed-blood" daughters, who then supplanted native women as desirable mates for the white fur trading elites, particularly because western Canada remained a remote region that would not see the advent of white women until the first decades of the nineteenth century. However, Van Kirk argues, the arrival of white women upset the racial and class balance of this vibrant, heterogenous society, and ultimately led to its demise. By the opening decades of the twentieth century, mixed-blood descendants preferred to celebrate their white, British origins, and deliberately sought to forget and obscure their Indian antecedents.

Van Kirk acknowledges the near-total lack of native sources in the opening pages of her study, and notes that she was “forced to piece together snippets of information from the extensive collections of traders’ journals, letters, and wills which have survived” (p. 6). While this white, male, alien perspective and the absence of Indian and mixed-blood voices obviously presents a sizeable obstacle to achieving a thorough understanding of native women’s thoughts, feelings, and motives in their interactions with white fur-trade society, the available sources do provide many valuable clues and hints. Through her imaginative but judicious use of a method that what would somewhat later be called “reading against the grain,” Van Kirk is therefore able to tease out a substantial amount of information from her limited sources and present a remarkably detailed and balanced interpretation.

She looks first at the relationship between the white fur traders and native women. Unlike other studies that stress the negative consequences of the Indians’ growing dependency on European manufactures (for example, Daniel Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country), Van Kirk focuses on the way items such as iron kettles, hatchets, needles, awls, and textiles genuinely eased Indian women’s heavy domestic burdens. And although European men unfavorably compared what they viewed as Indian women’s degraded, slave-like existence to the supposedly higher status of their own women, they frequently pitied and aided injured or starving native women. Nor were these chivalrous gestures merely altruistic—the white fur traders soon discovered that Indian women provided essential foods, goods, and services. Above all, through marriages à la façon du pays ("country marriages"), valuable access to Indian society that helped ensure the success of the traders’ commercial ventures. And Van Kirk stresses that Indian women themselves frequently desired and initiated these relationships because of their perceived material and social advantages.

The mixed-blood daughters who resulted from these marriages soon became valuable marital partners in their own right, as their unions with other white fur traders or their mixed-blood sons promoted crucial alliances and networks. But Van Kirk points out that as their white fathers began to educate, Christianize, and separate these young women from their mothers’ Indian culture and kinship connections, they lost their access to native women’s sources of autonomy, social power, and economic survival. They became increasingly dependent on the protection and support of white males, and therefore more vulnerable to desertion and destitution. However, for at least a century, these young mixed-blood women were viewed by incoming traders as particularly desirable wives, for, as Van Kirk notes, “A fur trader’s daughter possessed the ideal qualifications to be a fur trader’s wife” (p. 109).

But the arrival of the first white women in western Canada in the early nineteenth century heralded the profound changes that soon enveloped the racially and culturally heterogenous fur trade society. Fur traders now gained considerable prestige from marriages with white “ladies” rather than “brown” country girls, and the white women themselves felt they were locked into a bitter competition with mixed-blood women for these wealthy and respectable men. Formerly fluid racial and class lines hardened, and native women who had once been considered among the elites of fur-trade society experienced a devastating loss of economic security and social status. Van Kirk concludes that as white cultural values and racial prejudice dominated, "the early world of the fur trade became 'a world we have lost'"(p. 242).

This conclusion, which focuses on the apparent decline and disappearance of the indigenous and mixed-blood peoples and traditions, is perhaps the most serious flaw of Van Kirk’s book. More recent scholarship, such as Susan Sleeper-Smith’s Indian Women and French Men: Rethinking Cultural Encounter in the Western Great Lakes, contends that this stereotypical narrative has obscured the real history of the Native Americans’ persistence and accommodations to centuries of change. But Van Kirk’s careful and sensitive work remains a valuable introduction to the complex world of the fur trade society, as well as a useful model for finding, hearing, and understanding the voices and stories of non-literate native women in texts created by white male foreigners.

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