Colonizing Bodies
272 pages, 6 x 9
36 colour illustrations
Release Date:01 May 1999
Release Date:01 Oct 2007

Colonizing Bodies

Aboriginal Health and Healing in British Columbia, 1900-50

UBC Press

Recent debates about the health of First Nations peoples have drawn a flurry of public attention and controversy, and have placed the relationship between Aboriginal well-being and reserve locations and allotments in the spotlight. Aboriginal access to medical care and the transfer of funds and responsibility for health from the federal government to individual bands and tribal councils are also bones of contention. Comprehensive discussion of such issues, however, has often been hampered by a lack of historical analysis.

Promising to remedy this is Mary-Ellen Kelm’s Colonizing Bodies, which examines the impact of colonization on Aboriginal health in British Columbia during the first half of the twentieth century. Using postmodern and postcolonial conceptions of the body and the power relations of colonization, Kelm shows how a pluralistic medical system evolved. She begins by exploring the ways in which Aboriginal bodies were materially affected by Canadian Indian policy, which placed restrictions on fishing and hunting, allocated inadequate reserves, forced children into unhealthy residential schools, and criminalized Indigenous healing. She goes on to consider how humanitarianism and colonial medicine were used to pathologize Aboriginal bodies and institute a regime of doctors, hospitals, and field matrons, all working to encourage assimilation. Finally, Kelm reveals how Aboriginal people were able to resist and alter these forces in order to preserve their own cultural understanding of their bodies, disease, and medicine.

This detailed but highly readable ethnohistory draws on archival sources, archeological findings, fieldwork, and oral history interviews with First Nations elders from across British Columbia. Kelm’s cross-disciplinary approach results in an important and accessible book that will be of interest not only to academic historians and medical anthropologists but also to those concerned with Aboriginal health and healing today.


  • 1999, Winner - Sir John A. Macdonald Prize, Canadian Historical Association
  • 1999, Winner - Clio Award (British Columbia), Canadian Historical Association
  • 2000, Winner - Outstanding Academic Title, Choice Magazine
Colonizing Bodies is an innovative and engaging book … an important contribution to the history of First Nations and to health care history … Kelm critically examines the available evidence, suggesting that government reports and letters do not describe the ‘truth’ of aboriginal health but do provide an indication of what was shaping federal health policy … the book is rich in detail … Kelm grounds this book in a breadth of archival documents and she skillfully and strategically deploys evidence from aboriginal elders to make her arguments even more compelling … Persons interested in the history of First Nations and the provision of state health services will certainly find this to be a fascinating study, but it should also enjoy broad appeal as a case study of how colonialism is culturally constructed. It is, in sum, a tremendously important contribution. The analysis is elegant and it is a book that serves both as model and inspiration for the sophisticated study of health care in the twentieth century. Peter Twohig, Canadian Bulletin of Medical History
By discrediting the destructive and paternalistic deficit model, Kelm plays an important role in pointing communities, academics, and public health officials to the vital task of continuing to recognize and support the sources of community resilience and, ultimately, health. BC Studies
A worthy read, a sophisticated, interdisciplinary analysis of the health situation of Aboriginal peoples and the way in which whites and Aboriginals themselves responded to it … What is fascinating about Kelm’s analysis is her ability to make apparent the interconnectedness of issues … She has had to detail the many ways in which First Nations people were victims, but never totally lost agency. While Native agency is certainly present in the study, the overwhelming tone is one of condemnation for what was done to the First Nations. Wendy Mitchinson, The Canadian Historical Review
Mary-Ellen Kelm is an assistant professor of history at the University of Northern British Columbia who has written extensively on Aboriginal health concerns and Indigenous-European relations.


Illustrations, Figures, and Tables



Part 1: Health

1 The Impact of Colonization on Aboriginal Health in British Columbia: Overview

2 “My People Are Sick. My Young Men Are Angry”: The Impact of Colonization on Aboriginal Diet and Nutrition

3 “Running Out of Spaces”: Sanitation and Environment in Aboriginal Habitations

4 A “Scandalous Procession”: Residential Schooling and the Reformation of Aboriginal Bodies

5 Aboriginal Conceptions of the Body, Disease, and Medicine

Part 2: Healing

6 Acts of Humanity: Indian Health Services

7 Doctors, Hospitals, and Field Matrons: On the Ground with Indian Health Services

8 Medical Pluralism in Aboriginal Communities



A Note on Sources

Select Bibliography

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