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[book cover] The Importance of Being Monogamous

Sarah Carter

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April 2008

9780888644909 (Paperback)
9781897425190 (PDF)
9781897425190 (ePub)


The West Unbound: Social and Cultural Studies

Communication & Cultural Studies / History: Western / Indigenous Studies / Political & International Studies / Sociology



The Importance of Being Monogamous has been shortlisted for the Great Plains Distinguished Book Prize....

The Importance of being Monogamous has been selected for 2009 AAUP Book, Jacket & Journal Show.

Radio Interview

Listen to CKUA interview with Sarah Carter (May 17, 2009)


Intruding into the Bedrooms of the Nation





2009 Clio Winner in Regional History, Canadian Historical Association

About the Book

Sarah Carter reveals the pioneering efforts of the government, legal, and religious authorities to impose the “one man, one woman”model of marriage upon Mormons and Aboriginal people in Western Canada. This lucidly written, richly researched book revises what we know about marriage and the gendered politics of late 19th century reform, shifts our understanding of Aboriginal history during that time, and brings together the fields of Indigenous and migrant history in new and important ways.

About the Author

Dr. Sarah Carter is Professor and Henry?Marshall Tory Chair in both the Department of History and Classics and the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta. Her research focuses on the critical era that began in the late 19th century when Aboriginal people were dispossessed and a new population established in Western Canada.


Of an immense amount of new and pathbreaking research on Native people over the past 20 years, this work stands out.
Sidney L. Harring, Professor of Law at City University of New York and author of White Man’s Law:Native People in Nineteenth-Century Canadian Jurisprudence



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Copyright: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License (CC BY-NC-ND 2.5 CA). It may be reproduced for non-commercial purposes, provided that the original author is credited.


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Select a Chapter

Download Front Matter

Download Table of Contents

Download Acknowledgements

Download Chapter One
Creating, Challenging, Imposing, and Defending the Marriage “Fortress”

Download Chapter Two
Customs Not in Common
The Monogamous Ideal and Diverse Marital Landscape of Western Canada

Download Chapter Three
Making Newcomers to Western Canada Monogamous

Download Chapter Four
“A Striking Contrast… Where Perpetuity of Union and Exclusiveness is Not a Rule,
at Least Not a Strict Rule”
Plains Aboriginal Marriage

Download Chapter Five
The 1886 “Traffic in Indian Girls” Panic and the Foundation of the Federal Approach to
Aboriginal Marriage and Divorce

Download Chapter Six
Creating “Semi-Widows” and “Supernumerary Wives”

Download Chapter Seven
“Undigested, Conflicting and Inharmonious”

Download Chapter Eight

Download Appendix

Download Notes

Download Bibliography

Download Index

An Interview with Sarah Carter

“This innovative book brings together a wide range of subjects and sources to pursue a theme not previously articulated in a single work. Although the pressures increasingly placed on First Nations people, from the 1800s onward, to marry in conventional church ceremonies and to eschew polygamy have often been discussed, the extent to which other groups were pressed to conform to mainstream practices is little known…. Carter demonstrates that monogamy was not just an ‘Indian’ issue; Canadian authorities also challenged non-conforming minorities of European background. These groups, often small and dispersed, were less successful than established Aboriginal communities in subverting and resisting the pressures imposed on their modes of marriage and divorce.”

Histoire Sociale/Social History Journal


Only you? Assessing the bonds of monogamy in the old West

By Ken Tingley
December 7, 2008
Edmonton Journal

The Importance of Being Monogamous
Sarah Carter
The University of Alberta / Athabasca Press
383 pp., $34.95

The importance of monogamy was not something readily evident to much of the varied population of 19th-century Western Canada, Edmonton author and University of Alberta historian Sarah Carter points out in her new study of marriage and nation building in the old West.

Carter's fourth book, which recently made the longlist for the prestigious Cundill International Prize in History, begins by reflecting on the currency of this subject during the seemingly interminable current debate on family values and same-sex marriage. Carter sees much of this debate rooted in "a wistful nostalgia for an imaginary simpler time, when gender roles were firmly in place with the husband as family head and provider, and the wife as the dependent partner -- obedient, unobtrusive, and submissive."

Carter, a professor in the department of history and classics and the faculty of native studies at the U of A, points out, with sometimes unsettling and sometimes amusing examples, how recent scholarship refutes much of the accepted wisdom on the subject. She declares that the "main point of this study is that the 'traditional' definition of marriage is not as ancient and universal as conservative thinkers ... would have us believe." In fact, Carter takes the view that the Christian model of lifelong monogamous marriage did not itself become the dominant view until late in the 19th century.

This was particularly true in Western Canada, which "presented particular challenges to the national agenda in the late 19th century, as the region was home to a diverse population with multiple definitions of marriage, divorce, and sexuality," Carter writes. In the Northwest, there existed for some time after European contact, a broad spectrum of marriage and relational forms among the First Nations -- including monogamy, polygamy, and same-sex marriage, and divorce could often be easily achieved.

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. "Insisting on the superiority of British, Christian and common-law marriage played a critical role in the forging of a British Canadian identity in Western Canada," Carter concludes, "and it also played a critical role in the consolidation of state power in that region."

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. But while it tried to challenge aboriginal polygamy during the 1890s, this move was successfully resisted. The persistence of tradition, however, provides a more encouraging counterpoint, as many traditional relationships simply went underground.

Sarah Carter's book forms an important chapter in the story of Western Canada's transformation. In 1861, A.K. Isbister wrote that the "mixed race" people were the majority in Red River and that "every married woman and mother of a family throughout the whole extent of the Hudson's Bay of this class, and, with her children heir to all the wealth of the country."

The Importance of Being Monogamous goes a long way toward explaining how this situation changed so radically in just over four decades. Ken Tingley is a local historian and reviewer.

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