N-łḱwḱw-mín: Remembering the Fur Trade in the Columbia River Plateau

From Eastern Washington State Historical Society Archives.
Eastern Washington State Historical Society Archives.

The image above is a snippet from my recently defended doctoral dissertation (title above) in History at York University. Once it makes it through the administrative approval channels, I’ll include a link to it here.

My dissertation research examines the ways in which fur trade history has been used in the Columbia River Plateau to construct versions of the past that reflect people’s interests and desires, often omitting or silencing Indigenous people’s histories and stories in the process. The image above is a Christmas card sent by The Crescent Spokane Dry Goods Company in 1956, depicting a fictional fur trade holiday party, discussed in my dissertation as follows:

This multiple-fold invitation to a posh holiday party depicts the fur trade as a festive, if predatory, space. The cover depicted a party attended by fur traders of varying classes and Indigenous people who enjoyed punch from a crystal or silver bowl served on a table set with a white tablecloth. The interior caption, citing the oft-quoted Alexander Ross, read:

Spokane House was built by the Canadian Northwest Fur Trading Company in 1810 at the confluence of the Spokane and Little Spokane Rivers, ten miles northwest of the present city of Spokane. It was the first trading post established in what is now the State of Washington. This imaginative scene of Christmas Eve at Spokane House was inspired by the words of Alexander Ross, who wrote in his Fur Hunters of the Far West….“At Spokane House there were handsome buildings. There was a ballroom, even, and no females in the land so fair to look upon as the nymphs of Spokane. But Spokane House was not celebrated for fine women only, there were fine horses, also. The raceground was admired…altogether, Spokane House was a delightful place, and time has confirmed its celebrity.”[1]

Not only was the holiday card describing fur traders on the Plateau as erecting the “first trading post,” an act of firsting as discussed by historian Jean O’Brien, but it also exoticized both fur traders and the Spokane Indigenous women Ross described as “fair…nymphs.” Placed alongside Spokane women “were fine horses,” positioning women and racehorses as amusements for fur traders in a jovial, carefree environment.

Depictions of Columbia River Plateau fur trade history were often in the form of advertisements, patriotic and self-congratulatory commemorations of fur traders or events associated with the trade that were categorized as “pioneering,” and consumable tourist history. Scholarly analyses of the North American fur trade began to shift in the 1970s, emphasizing and interrogating the ways in which Indigenous people had been excluded from the historiography, but this was not yet the case on the Plateau. Few of the many Plateau settler fur trade histories created for public consumption engaged meaningfully with Indigenous peoples and those that did often placed them in the distant, but not too distant, past and depicted them as non-threatening contributors to pleasant versions of the Plateau’s history of colonialism. The result was a body of history and commemoration that silenced Indigenous pasts in the Plateau and further cemented the appearance of non-Indigenous settlers in the region. In this period, fur trade history was created on the very lands Indigenous peoples were using fur trade history to demonstrate were taken from them unfairly. For some people on the Columbia River Plateau, fur trade history was recreational, entertainment, and educational, but for others, it was a tool in the process of gaining restitution.

[1] “Christmas Eve at Spokane House == December 1810,” The Crescent Spokane Dry Goods Co., 1956, Northwest Museum of Arts and Cultures.