Where Mountains Meet The Sea: A Coastal History

Posted by Daniel on Jul 25, 2010

Chapter Three
Part Nine: The Collectors

It was an article of faith among Euro-Canadians in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in British Columbia no less than the rest of the country, that Aboriginal people belonged to a doomed race. The “Vanishing Indian” was a stereotype of public discourse. Not only were they ravaged by disease, Indians, it was believed, were completely unsuited to “modern” civilization and were doomed to be supplanted by the newcomers.


Statistics appeared to support such a pessimistic view. The population of Aboriginal people in British Columbia plummeted in the post-Confederation period, from 25,661 in the 1881 census to a low of 20,174 in 1911, a decline of more than 20 percent. At the same time, the non-Aboriginal population boomed. (In 1881, Aboriginals accounted for 52 percent of the provincial population; by 1911 that number had declined to just over five percent.) The influenza epidemic that followed World War One alone claimed 1,150 aboriginal lives in British Columbia, a much higher death rate than in the non-Aboriginal population.


This downward trend actually halted during the 1920s when for a variety of reasons, chiefly improved health care, the Aboriginal population began to increase again, a trend that has continued to the present. But it takes time for conventional wisdom to respond to events. As late as 1931, Marius Barbeau, an ethnologist with the Museum of Man in Ottawa and one of the most knowledgeable students of Northwest Coast Aboriginal culture, declared that “at present, the indications point convincingly to the extinction of the race.” Barbeau’s colleague at the museum, Diamond Jenness, in his popular 1932 survey, The Indians of Canada, concluded: “Doubtless all the tribes will disappear.” The image of the Vanishing Indian was firmly entrenched in the world view of Euro-Canadians.


At the same time as Aboriginal cultures were supposedly disappearing from the coast, they were reappearing far from their homelands in institutions that were purpose-built to preserve them forever. The ethnological museum was a creation of the mid-nineteenth century. In major cities in both North America and Europe new museums opened their doors, including the Museum für Volkerkünde in Berlin, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Field Museum in Chicago, and many others. Their founders conceived these institutions as repositories for the material cultures of threatened indigenous peoples. The museums dispatched collectors to the four corners of the globe, including the Northwest Coast, to obtain artifacts to fill their galleries and display cases. Some ceremonial items were too valuable to part with, but mostly the people in the villages of the Pacific Northwest were happy enough to sell their masks, cloaks, poles, canoes, utensils and other belongings. Usually the collectors engaged local, First Nations agents to carry out the negotiations. There were some instances of fraud, or outright theft, the seizure of the Cranmer potlatch regalia being an example. Bones were removed from burial sites and sacred caches were plundered. But more often than not the exchange was voluntary. Just as early traders had stripped the coastal waters of sea otter, now museum collectors stripped the villages of cultural items.


The so-called “scramble” for artifacts began with the arrival on the coast of a small-time collector from Port Townsend, Washington, named James Swan. Described by historian Douglas Cole as “a periodic drunk and an ageing ne’er-do-well”, Swan nonetheless convinced the Smithsonian Institution to front him the money to tour the coastal villages in 1875 buying up artifacts for display at the next year’s Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. In total he collected, or purchased from other collectors, about five hundred objects, including an eighteen-metre Nuu-chah-nulth canoe that had to be shipped to Philadelphia by rail in pieces, a Tsimshian house front, three giant poles, and a wide variety of smaller items.


In the years that followed, a swarm of collectors followed in Swan’s footsteps. Not content to assemble objects, on at least three occasions they also collected people. In 1885, J. Adrian Jacobsen, a Norwegian with several years of experience bringing specimens of exotic cultures to Europe for public display, arrived in BC with a commission from the Berlin museum to bring back a troupe of coastal people. Adrian and his brother Fillip managed to round up nine Nuxalk men and women who, for twenty dollars a day plus expenses, agreed to accompany the Jacobsens to Europe. For a year the group toured Germany, demonstrating their ceremonies, dances and magic tricks before returning home.


One of the German anthropologists who spent a lot of time with the Nuxalk was Franz Boas, then working as a museum assistant in Berlin. Fascinated by the coastal people, Boas began making regular field trips to British Columbia, collecting artifacts and learning about the coastal tribes. By 1893, he had moved to America where he obtained a position at Harvard University. Boas would later become the leading anthropologist of his generation. For now, he was in charge of planning the Northwest Coast exhibitions at that year’s World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Chicago fair, marking the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World, attracted twenty-seven million visitors that summer. Boas had arranged for two plank houses to be erected on the lakefront fair grounds, inhabited by seventeen Kwakwaka’wakw men, women and children who came from northern Vancouver Island to be “living exhibits”, along with bare-breasted African women, dozens of Inuit from Labrador, Egyptian belly-dancers and a whole United Nations of exotic cultures meant to illustrate the variety of humankind, and the superiority of western civilization. In 1904, the Americans were celebrating again, this time at St. Louis where a fair was held to commemorate the centenary of the Louisiana Purchase. Two Kwakwaka’wakw from Fort Rupert and five Nuu-chah-nulth from Clayoquot agreed to accompany the usual impressive display of a large plank house, an 11.6-metre whaling canoe, and other artifacts. They remained in St. Louis for five months making tourist items for sale and regularly performing dances and ceremonies.



Next time: The Collectors (cont.)