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Review

At Home with the Bella Coola Indians: T.F. Mcllwraith’s Field Letters, 1922-4

By John Barker

November 4, 2013

Review By Jacinda Mack

IN THE EARLY 1920s on the Northwest Coast of British Columbia, twenty-three-year-old anthropologist Thomas Forsyth Mcllwraith arrived in the Bella Coola Valley to study the small community of the Nuxalk people. He would later make the Nuxalk known to the world as “The Bella Coola Indians” in his comprehensive two-volume ethnography of their traditional culture and beliefs. Following the academic genre of the time, Mcllwraith proceeded to engage in “salvage ethnography” to record as much of the pre-contact culture as possible. Ironically, the very text that sought to record the culture of a “dying” people has become an important instrument of reclamation for the Nuxalk people and their culture. Mcllwraith’s contributions to the preservation of knowledge of Nuxalk culture is acknowledged by Hereditary Chief Nuximlayc (Lawrence Pootlass) in the foreword of the book. At Home with the Bella Coola Indians could rightly be considered the third volume, or perhaps, introduction, to the Bella Coola Indians. 

Opening with an excellent introduction, the reader is presented with the historical and social conditions of the era. A brief biography of Mcllwraith’s life and academic training and the physical setting in which he became immersed are discussed, as well as the local contemporary conditions of the Nuxalk and largely Norwegian population in the Bella Coola Valley. Complementing the collection of field letters are extensive editorial annotations that are often a fascinating read in themselves. A good cross-section of correspondence is presented in chronological order from the first season in the spring and summer of 1922, followed by the second season during the fall and winter of 1923-4. Finally, previously unprinted manuscripts regarding the Nuxalk are included as the final texts in the book. 

At face value, this book is interesting, humorous, and full of rich descriptions of life in the Bella Coola Valley during the early 1920s. Mcllwraith’s ethnographic skill at recounting detail and wonder shine through in his personal letters to family. One cannot help but laugh out loud at some of the predicaments that the young man found himself in, partly due to his status as a bit of an oddity with both the Nuxalk and his non-Native neighbours. Thus we are able to see Mcllwraith, the man, caught up in the drama of life in the Bella Coola Valley of the early 1920s. Although Mcllwraith often refers to the Nuxalk in less than flattering terms, the reader gets a sense of respect through his familiarity. 

Mcllwraith’s growing understanding of the Nuxalk is chronicled throughout the book, especially in the latter part of his fieldwork, as we can see when he wrote about the outlawing of the potlatch: “I came away with a profound disgust for our so-called civilization which is so intolerant that it tries to stop such rights… what right have we to abolish, with them, the rich life of a people whose only crime was that they lived in a country which we want? By the performance of these rites the people braced up and cheered up wonderfully, and I do not believe we have any justification to stop things which bring comfort to those who have lost friends and relatives. Christianity should not be forced down any person’s throat via the law” (56). 

At an academic level, At Home with the Bella Coola Indians also provides practical lessons about and insight into conducting ethnographic fieldwork. Indirectly, the book speaks to the complex interplay of research preparation, flexibility, focus and commitment to writing up the notes for publication. In addition, the inevitable ripple effect of the researcher that is inherent in fieldwork is identifiable with Mcllwraith’s acquired status in both communities. Historically, the reader is introduced to some of the key events and people who played a pivotal role in the early development of Canadian anthropology. 

However, the lack of dates and names associated with events limit both the reconstruction of his fieldwork and the contextualizing of Nuxalk stories. By omitting names in both The Bella Coola Indians and in his field letters, Mcllwraith has effectively “sterilized” the content in a way that may take away from its historical and cultural values. In retrospect, Mcllwraith himself would have probably found great irony in this omission, given his preoccupation with germs while conducting his fieldwork. Still, as a member of the Nuxalk Nation, I was very interested to learn about my ancestral past through Mcllwraith’s letters; that my great-grandfather Willie Mack was killed by “black magic” and that I also have ties to the Christenson family. Similarly, it is interesting to see what families and individuals were involved in Mcllwraith’s fieldwork and if this indicates whose family “Smayustas” (origin stories and cultural property) were represented as common Nuxalk culture in The Bella Coola Indians. 

At Home with the Bella Coola Indians is much more than a collection of anecdotal correspondence or relic of history; it breathes life into, and con-textualizes anthropological and social history with real people and places. To use Mcllwraith’s words, this book ironically serves as a “jumping off point” for contemporary studies about or by the Nuxalk, as well as for self-reflexive studies of ethnography and history in British Columbia.