UBC Theses and Dissertations

UBC Theses Logo

UBC Theses and Dissertations

Epistemological inequality : Aboriginal labor and knowledge in the geological surveys of George Mercer Dawson, 1874-1901 Prkachin, Eva Jean


Historical studies of Canadian science often ignore the assistance that Aboriginal people provided to frontier scientists. Monographs and biographies detailing the extraordinary career of Canadian geological surveyor George Mercer Dawson in the late nineteenth-century subsume the role that Aboriginal people played in his explorations. Postcolonial scholarship dealing with science criticizes the low epistemological status that scientific explorers accorded to Aboriginal knowledge, but neglects how collaboration between Aboriginal people and scientists influenced the knowledge that they produced in the New World. Dawson’s journals, technical notes, and scientific publications detail the numerous types of physical and intellectual labor that Aboriginal people contributed to his surveying expeditions in western Canada, particularly British Columbia, Alberta, and the Yukon. Using Aboriginal guides, general laborers, and informants enabled Dawson to cover substantial amounts of terrain during short surveying seasons, avoid hazards and delays, make ethnological observations, and record information on regions that he did not personally visit. Despite borrowing substantial amounts of knowledge from his Aboriginal guides and informants, Dawson did not equate Indigenous knowledge with scientific epistemologies. Dawson extracted the knowledge that Aboriginal people supplied him with from its epistemological packaging, but frequently acknowledged the Indigenous origin of his information, even in highly specialized scientific publications. Dawson’s work, then, serves as a powerful reminder of Aboriginal contributions to science produced during the exploration of North America.

Item Media

Item Citations and Data


Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International