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Coming to Shore: Northwest Coast Ethnology, Traditions, and Visions

By Marie Mauze, Michael E. Harkin, Sergei Kan

Review By Robert Hancock

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 148 Winter 2005-2006  | p. 115-8

Coming to Shore promises to make a significant contribution to the anthropological study of the indigenous peoples and cultures of the North Pacific Coast of North America. Comprising papers from the Northwest Coast Ethnology Conference, held in Paris in the summer of 2000, it features twenty-one chapters by representatives of several generations and traditions of ethnographic and ethnological research, and it documents both the changes and the continuities in anthropological research in the region since the late nineteenth century. Drawing attention to the connections between French and North American research in the region, the editors (Marie Mauzé, Michael Harkin, and Sergei Kan) emphasize the relationship between the research of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Franz Boas, arguably the two most significant figures in their respective national traditions. Throughout the book, other connections become evident, such as Lévi-Strauss’s formative visits to the Northwest Coast Indian Hall (which was originally planned by Boas and is described in Coming to Shore by Ira Jacknis) at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Regna Darnell offers a sustained examination of the theoretical congruencies of Boas and Lévi-Strauss and argues that, though the two applied different research methods, both focused on culture as a creation of the minds of living people and both privileged textual collection and analysis as the best means to gain access to it. 

The first three sections emphasize the history, or “traditions,” of research on the North Pacific Coast, including several autobiographical snapshots, and a reflection by Lévi-Strauss on the importance of this culture area to his life’s project. Frederica de Laguna’s synopsis of her life and work is especially poignant, especially given the length of her career and her health at the time. A former student of de Laguna’s, Marie-Françoise Guédon, pays homage to her mentor by emphasizing the importance of de Laguna’s incorporation of the peoples of central Alaska into the North Pacific Coast culture area. Pierre Maranda’s recollection of the introduction of structuralism to the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of British Columbia, one of the central research institutions in the field, is important but disappointing in its brevity and informality. 

Three chapters develop and expand the discussion of structuralist theory by examining aspects of the relationship between research on the North Pacific Coast and the French theoretical tradition. Marie Mauzé assesses French reactions to research by Americans, examining the seeming lack of interest among scholars on this continent in French analyses of North American materials. And she goes on to outline the appropriation, simplification, and reification of the “potlatch” as an abstract anthropological category among French scholars. Marjorie Halpin assesses previous attempts to apply a Lévi-Straussian structural analysis to North Pacific Coast materials, arguing that scholars invoke his name without actually undertaking the type of work he did. On the other hand, Margaret Seguin Anderson, in reexamining Lévi-Strauss’s discussion of the Asdiwal adawx in the light of more recent studies of Tsimshian culture, finds that, despite its flaws, his research still offers a significant contribution to the analysis of indigenous culture. 

In the strongest chapters in the collection, Judith Berman and Robert Bringhurst address the tradition of textual analysis of North Pacific Coast materials. Making clear the connections between secular and mythical narratives, Berman focuses on contact narratives, outlining how they function as “anti-myths” that document important shifts in indigenous cultures. Using a series of paintings by Diego de Sylva Velázquez as his examples, Bringhurst explains the functions and characteristics of myths. He shows that they emphasize the details of everyday life and that they have meaning both for those who created them and for those who live in different places and times. He argues that myths can speak about the human species, about the local, and about the teller. On an abstract level, they can help people to think about “the nature of nature” (181). Also in this section on text and narrative is a chapter by Martine Reid and Daisy Sewid-Smith, which basically reiterates the first several pages of their introduction to Paddling to Where I Stand: Agnes Alfred, Qwiqwasutinuxw Nobelwoman (UBC Press, 2004). 

The fourth and final section of Coming to Shore includes chapters that offer current perspectives on research on the North Pacific Coast. In a contrast with Sergei Kan’s examination of images of Alaskan indigenous peoples in tourist literature, Richard and Nora Marks Dauenhauer document and theorize changes in Tlingit clan identities, concluding that “concepts of personal identity and sociopolitical organization … are now more congruent with Euro-American patterns than were the Tlingit patterns of previous generations” (254). Similarly, Aaron Glass, in studying the contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw Hamat’sa, demonstrates that cultural analyses that examine both traditional and innovative features as part of a functioning whole enable researchers to focus on the contemporary uses of tradition rather than on assessing the historical accuracy of certain practices. 

Bruce Miller and Daniel Boxberger reassess earlier research on law and justice. In showing how Coast Salish people form and maintain “peaceful social relations in a hostile world” (305), Miller argues that current community members are exploiting the conservative bias of earlier work on the topic to make “conservative representations of their own prior, historical justice practices for their own reasons” (305). He argues that they tend, like some anthropologists, to idealize earlier and current cultural formations while downplaying the effects of power and authority in their communities. Boxberger, on the other hand, argues that the Delgamuukw case marks a shift in the role of anthropologists as expert witnesses. He calls the reliance on oral history in expert testimony “a form of intellectual hegemony” and asserts that the commodification of indigenous knowledge by anthropological witnesses “is a process of usurpation … necessitated by the exigencies of land and resource claims and facilitated by the assumption of the role of expert by anthropologists” (324, emphasis in original). 

Chapters by Michael Harkin and Thomas Thornton deal with geography, space, and place. The latter examines “the relationships between place, personhood, and character,” arguing that “place is an essential yet dynamic element of personhood and character” among the Tlingit (365); in effect, places, like people, have characters. Building on Thornton’s analysis, Harkin focuses on the politics and aesthetics of the multitude of discourses on place within the theoretical context of Deleuzo-Guattarian deterritorialization and reterritorialization. Directing his attention to debates about the use and development of – and, ultimately, sovereignty over – Clayoquot Sound, he argues that these discourses “intersect and conflict in a contested third space” between and beyond the physical and sociocultural aspects of places (385).

The Makah of the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State are the subject of two chapters. Janine Bowechop offers an insider’s perspective on the Makah whale hunt of the 1990s and its effects on the community at large. Patricia Pierce Erikson describes a model of Makah “museum auto-ethnography” (339), which she conceptualizes as part of a wider process of indigenous groups developing their own cultural centres and asserting control over their representations. Discussions with community members about basketry lead her to see the Makah Cultural and Resource Center as a “center of collaboration,” where Makah and anthropologists could come together. She comes to appreciate “how tribal museums and cultural centers disrupt the anthropologist-Native dichotomy and offered an alternative” (356). 

Some copy-editing and proofreading problems give the volume a slightly unfinished feel. Nevertheless, the chapters confirm the editors’ introductory assertion that the North Pacific Coast is central to the history of anthropology for reasons that go beyond the fact that this was where Boas conducted his pioneering research. Taken together, the chapters reinforce both the extent of the Boasian legacy and the continuing vitality of research in the area.