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The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation Building in Western Canada to 1915 (The West Unbound: Social and Cultural Studies) Paperback – September 4, 2008
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"A specialist in the history of western Canada, Carter (history and classics, and native studies, U. of Alberta-Edmonton) does not have to reach very far, or very far back, to demonstrate that The Traditional Family fantasized by 21st-century neo-cons is not very old, and has never come close to ubiquitous. The notion of an eternal, monogamous marriage had more to do with nation building than with personal relationships, she finds, and was contested in just about every available arena when the elite tried to impose it during the late 19th century. Distributed in the US by Michigan State University Press." Book News, Inc., November 2008
"Varied forms of marriage predominated in the interracial fur-trade society before Canada acquired the North-West Territories and began its colonial occupation of the land after 1870. A richly complex society existed in the Canadian West before 1870. When the Dominion of Canada gained the Northwest, it felt the need to impose its own vision on what seemed a frighteningly expansive and strange environment. The many single men, and some single women, moving west posed a further threat to the unified Anglo-Canadian vision of family farms spreading to the western horizon. The example of the United States, with its looser divorce laws and rambunctious approach to western expansion, posed another threat. ... The Importance of Being Monogamous provides a fascinating account of how, especially between 1870 and 1915, when patriotic British imperial fervour saw the dominant entrenchment of the new order, the complex social order based on aboriginal and Métis models was finally eclipsed. Carter uses government records, advice books, fiction, missionary statements, and a broad range of sources to indicate how this transformation was articulated by those imposing it during a crucial period of our history. Land surveys, homestead regulations, and other official instruments were used to impose the monogamous model, frequently at the expense of women, many of whom were left destitute to raise their children by deserting husbands who could not be divorced. The role of the Indian Affairs Department also receives a close examination in this book, painting a discouraging picture of how it became the means of attempting to invade aboriginal cultures. ... Sarah Carter's book forms an important chapter in the story of Western Canada's transformation." Ken Tingley, Edmonton Journal, Dec. 7, 2008
"This sophisticated and engaging book has much to offer a number of scholarly areas, including Canadian history, gender studies, and political and legal studies. Working from a massive bedrock of diverse primary materials, Sarah Carter challenges assumptions about the institution of marriage, revealing its complexities and importance in the colonial past. In command of a multidisciplinary secondary literature, including legal studies and anthropology, her immediate focus is on western Canada, defined as the three prairie provinces, with particular focus on the region of southern Alberta....[The book] draws upon an excellent command of legal history, the depth and breadth of knowledge it displays on the topic is truly impressive, and it is written with a measured, yet passionate voice. It makes excellent use of photographs, and the text’s handsome layout makes for ease of reading. It is an important study that opens up multiple areas for further research; in particular, exploration of the limits of the law to control the intimate histories of people going about their everyday lives." Katie Pickles, University of Canterbury, BC Studies, Winter 2008/09
"The Importance of Being Monogamous is one of those books that make you wonder why its subject has not been the focus of a major study until now... Using Missionary publications, newspapers, travelers' accounts, government circulars and correspondence, and legal decisions, Sarah Carter explores how Christian, monogamous, heterosexual marriage was imposed on Aboriginals and Mormons in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Western Canada as part of the federal government's nation-building agenda. ... Indeed, before the late nineteenth-century monogamous marriage was not a foregone conclusion; it was a deliberate choice on the part of white, Christian, middle-class politicians, government officials, and reformers to make it the foundation for a new nation. ... Carter explores in more detail Plains Aboriginals' marriage customs as well the imposition of the monogamous model and its implications for women. Pointing to a persistent bias among scholars and legal experts, she argues convincingly that the term "marriage" should also apply to the diverse forms of unions found in Aboriginal societies in Western Canada. ... The Importance of Being Monogamous is a fine contribution to the study of British imperialism and colonialism and its reproduction in the Canadian context." - Melanie Brunet, College universitaire de Saint-Boniface, H-Canada, Dec. 2008
"This is too important a book to be confined to the libraries of scholars, even though they may be the principal targets of a university publisher. Sarah Carter, professor of history and native studies at the University of Alberta, sets out to show the function of monogamy, which some termed the 'fortress of marriage,' in incorporating Western Canada into the Dominion of Canada. In the process she depicts two major consequences, seemingly more relevant to race and gender status than nation building: the manipulation of First Nations and the reduction of the status of women, notably those of First Nations.... It is profoundly depressing to contemplate the destructiveness of Euro- Canadian interference in the aboriginal cultures (including those of the Canadian West) in the late Victorian era. Prior to colonial times, marriage in aboriginal cultures, according to Carter's findings, was often rich in ceremony and spirituality....The Importance of Being Monogamous is a worthy example of history amplified and enriched." Ron Kirbyson, The Winnipeg Free Press, May 3, 2009
"Historian Carter's study of marriage as a social institution in Western Canada seeks to destabilize the notion that monogamous unions are the ancient and unquestionable foundations of family-and thus community-life. Attempts by missionaries and the government to establish and reward monogamous marriage and punish alternative marriage brought these forces into conflict with Mormon settlers and with various First Nations. Harsh legislation also punished widows, single women, and wives deserted by their husbands. In an excellent chapter on Aboriginal marriage, Carter (Native Studies, University of Alberta) does a fine job of showing how the polygamy of some tribes was actually a source of freedom for women, in contrast to the strict laws governing marriage and divorce for white settlers. She examines the efforts of missionaries and officials to establish monogamous marriages for tribal people, in a belief that monogamy would elevate tribal women to the glorified status of white wives, many of whom were in a greater state of slavery within their marriages than Aboriginal women. This vast book is a thorough social and legal exploration into the settlement of Western Canada and the contested role that marriage played in establishing the nation." J. B. Edwards, Choice, May 2009
"Sarah Carter ultimately succeeds in convincing the reader that the monogamous model of marriage was not an inevitable institution, and that it required much effort to impose it on Plains Aboriginals, as well as to make the gender order appear like a natural progression. Through her intimate knowledge and incredibly well-researched account of the West in the late nineteenth century, she provides the reader with many compelling stories of experiences endured by Aboriginals, and the British colonists' often incredulous responses. The enlightening anecdotes and cogent discussion make this book appealing to a broad audience." Adrienne Roy, Saskatchewan Law Review, May 2009
"...prairie First Nations people had lived with diverse forms of marriage-including monogamy, polygamy and same-sex marriage-for centuries, to happy and harmonious effect. Divorce was easily obtained, remarriage was common and accepted, and, as Carter discovered, almost everyone had a spouse except those who didn't want to be married. In fur-trader society, many Métis marriages also followed this more flexible pattern. But in order to build a new nation in its own image, British colonizers used the Christian marriage model to "maintain the new settlers' social and sexual distance from the Aboriginal population," argues Carter in her illustrated and meticulously researched book....Indian Affairs had enormous power to dictate terms of marriage, sanctioning matches they liked and prohibiting ones they didn't, says Carter....While all of this seems far removed from contemporary life, Carter's study serves as an important reminder that the definition of marriage can never be taken for granted and is always a reflection of a particular time and place, subject to the manipulations and abuses of state power. As the Book Publishers' Award jury put it, 'this year's recipient is a book that has the potential to make a long-lasting impact on the study of early Canadian history, as well as current national policy...This is a first-rate example of why scholarly monographs matter.'" Geoff McMaster, Folio, May 25, 2009
"In Sarah Carter's book about the project to impose the model of monogamous, heterosexual, Christian marriage in a region that was dense with long-established alternative practices, one reads of late nineteenth-century missionaries and Indian agents undertaking matchmaking, forced separations and reconciliations, campaigns of gender retraining, and determinations of immoral character and illegitimacy. While the reach of colonial bureaucratic power extended far into family life, its hold on this terrain of domesticity was never total. Carter assembles a vast archive of policy directives, correspondence, legal decisions, journalism, census data, exploration and travel literature, missionary and police reports, and early social science to provide this fascinating account of the tensions and uncertainties, the unpredictable contradictions and loopholes, created by the effort to unravel ancient systems of social organization through the imposition of a different moral code." Jennifer Henderson, American Historical Review, June 2009
"Recent debates concerning the legality of gay marriage in North America reveal how fully the definition of marriage is intertwined with both public attitudes and government policy. This is not a new development. Sarah Carter's book analyzes government efforts to impose an approved model of marriage on western Canada in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A model that helped define the West as a space in which men (as monogamous husbands) were to be in control, especially of their wives.... Carter's volume builds on work by earlier historians, including Catherine Cavanaugh and Nancy Cott, to offer a well-reasoned and strongly supported analysis of an important but often overlooked intersection between gender and politics--the ways that the institution of marriage has served as a means for nations to define and differentiate themselves." Bethany Andreasen, Minot State University, Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Spring 2009
Examination of marriage as a diverse social institution in nineteenth-century Western Canada.
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Here, the author explains how Canada almost never allowed divorces because it wanted to present itself as different from/superior to the United States. The book goes into many ways that this harmed indigenous Canadian women. When colonizers came to Canada, they thought of Native people as immoral due to their non-monogamy. However, the Native practice made much sense within its context. If a man was far away a long time on the hunt, having another or temporary husband protected a woman. If two sisters wanted to live together or not be separated one sister could persuade her husband to marry her sister. But like many practices outside of the Western/European norm, First Nations people were punished for being different. Further, since marriages could be so easily ended, the colonizers often never deemed First Nations women to be married at all.
I recently read a book on white New Zealanders who study the Maori language. It said many of that group embrace the term Pakeha because they don't see themselves as just British abroad. While not identifying as Maori, these Pakeha learned that Maori presence plays a strong role in their identity. In the scholarly text "Yellowface," the author stated that while African Americans were harshly oppressed, white American musicians often appropriated Black musical styles in order to differentiate themselves from continental Europeans. This desire to be different gets spelled out well in this book.
The author spends much of the beginning of the text detailing other groups in the area who were non-monogamous. That made me fear that she had little information on actual Natives, a sad trait of much writing on the indigenous. However, she then jumps into the Native group in more depth. I hope this book can help to produce or maintain more rights for First Nations people, and First Nations women in particular.