I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here.
The Archive of Place: Unearthing the Pasts of the Chilcotin Plateau
William J. Turkel
William J. Turkel’s The Archive of Place: Unearthing the Pasts of the Chilcotin Plateau is unique due to the fact that it is both a historical study of a certain place and a query into the particulars regarding the act of writing environmental history. Turkel is heavily influenced by post-structuralism, which means that he does not prescribe to the conviction that a universal, authoritative account of history exists. Instead, history differs from place to place, person to person, and era to era as it is constantly reconstructed using the memories, situations, and predispositions of the present. Turkel defines the present as the moment when history, memory, and landscape unite. The landscape or place, as the title suggests, acts as an archive of memory. A place is never really a part of the present, but rather made up of objects and traces of events from the past, which spark memory and create a sense of history. Like Mart A. Stewart, Turkel believes that human actions and environmental conditions are mutually determining. The study of this interconnectedness is environmental history. He feels that a historian must be upfront about how he or she has come to their conclusions and the biases that they have brought to the table while creating their version of the past. Environmental history, as well as other kinds of history, provides an account of the past, but it is not an account that can be considered the correct or most accurate account because such accounts of history are not possible.
Truly factual histories are not possible because historical consciousness is a product of the realm of discourse, which floats just above the realm of actuality. Interpretation of the past occurs differently in every individual or group. One place can hold the substantiation of many different pasts that all equally valid. Turkel asserts that due to the fact that the same material trace can be interpreted contrastingly, skirmishes are certain to ensue and this is a natural consequence. In Archive of Place, the Chilcotin Plateau in British Columbia serves as the stage for the study of these kinds of conflicts. Although the battles are unique to and isolated in the Chilcotin Plateau, Turkel states that they represent phenomena that are universal. Like the Georgian planters in “When Nature Suffers to Groe” and the settlers in White’s Island County, Washington, the residents of the Chilcotin Plateau have used their surroundings to create a history and personal reality that works for their particular requirements and principles. In Part One, the battle is one revolving around property rights, in which the mining company and the residents near Fish Lake use traces from the past that support their own right to the land and in the second section, conflicting versions of the past collide during the organization of a Heritage Trail commemorating Mackenzie King. The third section which revolves around the incidents surrounding the Chilcotin War, examines how the landscape harbors not only material traces of the past, but also the foundations of ideologies. Much of the three sections focus on the difference between Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal understandings of the past and the way this disconnect causes a great deal of social problems.
Embracing the idea that there is no “correct” version of the past, like Turkel does in Archive of Place, is both daunting and liberating. That every account is biased and lacking in some part can be disheartening, however, the concept that each account is unique to the individual or group makes the historical process intensely personal. Turkel places a great deal of importance of doing work on location in order to get a feel for the past that one is about to recreate. “There are no untainted passages through a place; you always leave something of yourself, and you always take something with you” (135), he writes. This opinion of the past fills every individual and every action, however minute, with significance and meaning, and makes the past breathtakingly complex and its examination overwhelmingly tricky.
Feature Photo: “HWY 20: Looking west on the Chilcotin Plateau” by One Man Wondering (Flickr)