Podcast: Dr. Jennifer Brown
Like a river’s tributaries, Dr. Jennifer Brown’s many scholarly interests feed into her great interest in Aboriginal history. Brown specializes in researching the history of First Nations people in the Hudson’s Bay watershed. She also teaches Aboriginal history at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba and is director of the Centre for Rupert’s Land Studies there.
“I started being interested in the history of the fur trade back in the 1970s,” Brown tells Canada’s History associate editor Nelle Oosterom in an interview. At the time, Brown was completing a degree in anthropology. This led to the study of Aboriginal history in the North, including mission history among the Ojibwe and Cree nations.
“One thing that fascinated me was the Native families of the [European] fur traders,” Brown says. She wanted to know more about the aboriginal women in these families, as well as the children. So she began searching the Hudson’s Bay Company archives, church records and other sources to find out more about the families. Her research paid off in a surprising way when she began teaching Aboriginal history at the University of Winnipeg in 1983.
“I had the opportunity to teach students who were related back to these old families I’d worked on,” says Brown. Thus, fur trade family history suddenly became a source of great interest to her students.
“This was still a time when the families involved hadn’t necessarily done their own histories, there was still a great legacy of racism … and there were instances, which I saw among my students too, that if they had native ancestry, they pushed it aside. They didn’t want to talk about it.”
Brown has noticed what she calls a sea change in people’s attitudes towards their Aboriginal ancestry. “Everybody’s fascinated by it now,” she says, adding that she receives many queries for help researching family history.
Brown’s current research into the people of the Hudson’s Bay watershed encompasses oral as well as written history. The two media profoundly different.
“Aboriginal oral history doesn’t give you the sort of conventional chronology you’re going to find in a history book,” says Brown. “It doesn’t deal in specific dates. And it may talk about events and subject matter very differently from how outsiders would talk about them.”
Yet oral history is rich in stories that mattered to the people of the time – a sort of cultural imprint not provided by the name-and-date format of many history books.
Brown’s greatest aspiration for her research is to share it with future generations. “There’s a probability of bringing material into the mainstream Canadian history curriculum, to have more students exposed to it,” she says. “There’s a tremendous thirst for this material.”