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Emilie Cameron’s Far Off Metal River is a masterful and carefully written book that addresses pressing theoretical and methodological questions for postcolonial studies, nature-society relations, and Indigenous geographies. The book is situated in and around Kugluktuk, Nunavut, where it examines how southern relations with northern peoples and places have been constituted in and through story and storytelling. Cameron’s entry point is the British explorer Samuel Hearne’s account of an alleged massacre of Inuit by Dene people in 1777, an event Hearne claimed to have witnessed firsthand. This story has left its mark on the collective imagination of Canadians as well as on the landscape itself, hence the settler name ‘Bloody Falls’ on the Coppermine River. Crucially, Cameron observes that ‘Bloody Falls’ is not a story told by Inuit or Indigenous peoples. It is a Qablunaat story (an Inuit term referring to non-Indigenous, non-Inuit peoples), whose telling continues to define what many southern Canadians understand about history in the north.
Cameron is quick to insist that Far Off Metal River is not a book about Inuit. Nor is it written for Inuit. Rather, Far Off Metal River is an “inquiry into the contours of a relationship” across Inuit and Qablunaat epistemologies and ways of knowing. Cameron traces these contours across five empirical chapters. Chapter Two is a study of the geographies of the public reception and circulation of Hearne’s narrative depiction of ‘Bloody Falls.’ Hearne describes himself as a passive onlooker whose emotions are stirred by the violence he claims to have witnessed. Yet as a sympathetic observer, his tears divert attention from any Qablunaat complicity in violence. Rather, Hearne’s story consolidates Qablunaat as civil and benign observers of a northern “savagery.” But Cameron’s reading of ‘Bloody Falls’ also takes us well beyond the discursive. In Chapter Three, Cameron re-traces the efforts of Hearne’s successors to validate his story—in this case through the first Franklin expedition’s (1818-22) efforts to collect material evidence of the Bloody Falls massacre. In the process, however, expedition members actively re-made the landscape they were supposed to observe. The deliberate placement of bones at ‘Bloody Falls’ for depiction in expedition engravings illustrates that Qablunaat stories are also material ordering practices that are far less stable than they may seem. Qablunaat ‘truths’ about the north are always conjugated with some degree of doubt.
Cameron’s objective isn’t simply to reveal the partiality and hence contingency of Qablunaat accounts, but to find mechanisms for telling “different stories, better stories” (83). In Chapter Four, Cameron revisits the copper economies that circulated prior to colonization. Ever attuned to the dynamics of the colonial present, she discusses how Qablunaat associations with ‘traditional Inuit economies’ furnish contemporary discourses of Inuit as ‘natural’ miners. In one interesting moment, Cameron re-reads anthropological accounts and translations of Inuit stories to show how, even in translation, the stories contain radically different ways of relating to resources. In Chapter Five, “Resistance Stories,” she analyzes Inuit opposition to government attempts to memorialize Hearne in 1972. The conflict acts as an opening to a much broader discussion of colonial governance and Inuit self-determination. In the final two chapters, Cameron looks at Inuit refusal to engage with stories of the Bloody Falls massacre. There are simply other more important, more interesting stories for the people of Kugluktuk to tell. Importantly, Cameron is not documenting the presence of counter-narratives that ‘speak back’ to colonial knowledges. Instead, she is teaching her readers to respect the existence of Inuit worlds that exist outside the ambit of colonial encounters.
As should be clear by now, I quite liked the book and hope that it is widely read. It is a timely example of a non-Indigenous researcher centering the agency of Indigenous peoples in both research practice and writing. I say timely because I think that within geography (and Canadian geography especially) we are witnessing a broadening of interest in Indigenous geographies. This likely means more geographers developing relations with, and doing research in, Indigenous communities. It also, hopefully, means more Indigenous students within the discipline. Far Off Metal River is a particularly important resource for students who are learning to engage with Indigenous epistemologies, ontologies, and methodologies in both the field and in the classroom. Particularly instructive is Cameron’s framing discussion of ‘not knowing’, a call to “both acknowledge the limits of what we know and can know and take greater responsibility for what we do know and must know. To be actively humble, to know without speaking, to be silent, to engage our not knowing respectfully—these are skills we have not yet learned to learn” (35).
We should appreciate Cameron’s insistence that ‘not knowing’ emerges out of the context she is writing in: i.e. a relational network with Inuit peoples, lands, stories, and territories. But it would be a mistake to read Far Off Metal River as valuable to researchers of Indigenous communities and histories alone. Two years after its publication, the question we might now ask is, what will be the story of the book itself? To read Far Off Metal River too narrowly is to assume its value lies simply in contexts of Indigenous community-based research alone when, in fact it has much to teach us about research in general. Far Off Metal River is ultimately a book about relational knowledge. Perhaps we can use it to think other relations as well.