Review of: Lost Harvests: Prairie Indian reserve farmers and government policy, by Sarah A. Carter; McGill Queen’s University Press, 352 pp, 1990
An exceptional essay on this book and subject is published here by Chelsea Vowel on her website âpihtawikosisân.
From the book publisher:
Agriculture on Plains Indian reserves is generally thought to have failed because the Native peoples lacked either an interest in farming or an aptitude for it. In Lost Harvests Sarah Carter reveals that reserve residents were anxious to farm and expended considerable effort on cultivation; government policies, more than anything else, acted to undermine their success.Despite repeated requests for assistance from Plains Indians, the Canadian government provided very little help between 1874 and 1885, and what little they did give proved useless. Although drought, frost, and other natural phenomena contributed to the failure of early efforts, reserve farmers were determined to create an economy based on agriculture and to become independent of government regulations and the need for assistance.
Officials in Ottawa, however, attributed setbacks not to economic or climatic conditions but to the Indians’ character and traditions which, they claimed, made the Indians unsuited to agriculture. In the decade following 1885 government policies made farming virtually impossible for the Plains Indians. They were expected to subsist on one or two acres and were denied access to any improvements in technology: farmers had to sow seed by hand, harvest with scythes, and thresh with flails. After the turn of the century, the government encouraged land surrenders in order to make good agricultural land available to non-Indian settlers. This destroyed any chance the Plains Indians had of making agriculture a stable economic base.
Through an examination of the relevant published literature and of archival sources in Ottawa, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, Carter provides the first in-depth study of government policy, Indian responses, and the socio-economic condition of the reserve communities on the prairies in the post-treaty era.
“Lost Harvests is a work of critical history that should withstand the blasts of even the most artful anti-critical criticism and, therefore, serve as an enduring model for anyone seeking a realistic approach to native policy in Canada.” D.N. Sprague, Manitoba History.
“This tight, informative work will blow apart many misconceptions about the involvement of natives in agriculture, or rather, the lack of it … The beauty of Carter’s work is that one tends to forget the statistics — though the numbers are provided — and focus on the story of a people who tried, against all obstacles, to live off the land that belonged to them.” Sarath Peiris, Saskatoon Star-Phoenix.
“Sarah Carter takes a long, hard look at Canada’s policies and native responses over the past century as they apply to western agricultural development. Her book succeeds in dispelling the myths of indolence and cultural inferiority that pervade attitudes towards the failures of native farmers.” Daniel Ray, Edmonton Journal.
“Fascinating … superb … beautifully written … By 1920, as is well-known, the condition of Indians throughout Canada reached a nadir. Carter’s splendid work explains only too clearly how this happened.” Boyce Richardson, The Beaver.
“Thoroughly researched, lucidly written … Lost Harvests provides us with a Canadian perspective on Indian policy that has universal significance. Historians of the American West will find it fascinating not only because it is insightful and well-written, but because it contributes to the understanding of prairie imperialism in the late nineteenth-century.” Robert W. Righter, Western Historical Quarterly.
Sarah Carter is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History, University of Calgary.