Canada’s definition and documentation of “Indians” is a project of bureaucratic knowledge production in service of the continued assertion of settler colonial political visions.1 The Indian Act was introduced in 1876 to assert the terms of the political relationship between the Dominion of Canada and certain peoples the Act defines as “Indians.” The Act has been amended many times, but is remains a current piece of legislation in Canada and still defines “Indian” as a political and legal category of person.2 Defining and identifying “Indians” served the broader project of managing Canada’s so-called Indian problem. From the perspective of nineteenth-century legislators, the “problem” was one of Indigenous peoples asserting nationhood and insisting on claims to the lands where they have lived since time immemorial, thus creating obstacles for settler claims to sovereignty. But it is also a problem of knowledge, which Indian Affairs administrators sought to address through a practice of classification. To apply and enforce the provisions of the Act designed to undermine Indigenous sovereignty and compel their assimilation, “Indians” had to be made visible to state legislators, bureaucrats, and other agents. The definitional work of the Indian Act is both a technique of classification and a way of seeing.
While studying the scholarly literature on immigration in post–World War II Switzerland, the personal dedication in a 1964 dissertation about the “assimilation of foreign workers” caught my attention: “In memory of my paternal grandmother Antonietta Zanolli-Recati, who in 1905 moved with her family from Belluno to Zurich, the land of Pestalozzi.”1 This dedication interests me because it points to the ambiguity of “migrant knowledge,” a concept that has been introduced only recently to academic debates at the intersection of the histories of migration and knowledge.2 The case of Satuila Zanolli, the author of this dedication and the study it accompanied, invites a closer look at the interrelation of two different aspects of the broader problem of migration and knowledge formation: (1) knowledge possessed by the migrants themselves, that is, migrant knowledge in the truest sense of the term, and (2) knowledge about the phenomenon of migration, that is, migration knowledge.3