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In Twilight and in Dawn: A Biography of Diamond Jenness

By Barnett Richling

Review By Robin Ridington

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 179 Autumn 2013  | p. 222-224

At last there is a comprehensive biography of Diamond Jenness, perhaps Canada’s greatest anthropologist, and it’s an excellent one. Barnett Richling has risen to the task with a clear understanding of the man, his remarkable career, and the sometimes stifling bureaucratic environment in which he was constrained to work.  I consider The Life of the Copper Eskimos (sadly not yet available as a reprint) to be one of the finest pieces of ethnographic writing about Canada’s First Peoples. While Jenness wrote with more humility than the outspoken Malinowski, he in fact accomplished a remarkable understanding of what Malinowski called “the native point of view” based on participant observation. In the case of Jenness’s Eskimo fieldwork, that participation took place under the most trying of circumstances. In the survey course on the First Peoples’ history and cultures that I taught at UBC for many years, I would read aloud Jenness’s description of a performance by Higilaq, his adoptive mother who was also a female shaman. In her seance, she adroitly defused a dangerous situation in which Jenness was accused of causing the death of a man who had seized his steel knife (95). In addition to being a beautiful piece of ethnographic writing, it showed the ethnographer’s understanding of the political and social context in which Inuit shamanism took place. Richling’s book includes a delightful photo of a smiling Higilaq holding an ulu.

Jenness represented the four-field approach to anthropology, combining ethnography, linguistics, physical anthropology, and archaeology. It was Jenness who first identified and named the Dorset Eskimo cultures. In the days before carbon dating, relative sequences and estimated time depths were all that could be reasonably determined. Throughout his decades long work on arctic prehistory, Jenness was able to piece together a more or less accurate account of Eskimo origins and migrations that has stood up to the test of more recent research. In his position as senior anthropologist with the Geological Survey of Canada, Jenness mentored many of the researchers who would make this story known. In addition to his field research and ethnographic reports, Jenness wrote for a general audience. People of the Twilight is what we would now call a narrative ethnography.

In addition to his lifelong research in arctic linguistics, ethnography, and archaeology, Jenness documented Athapaskans in Alberta and British Columbia, Algonkians near his home in Ottawa, and Coast Salish of Vancouver Island and the Fraser Valley. My own work for the McLeod Lake Indian Band of Sekani would not have been possible without Jenness’s classic ethnography, The Sekani Indians of British Columbia. He observed that Sekani and Beaver are a continuum of related bands speaking essentially the same language. Recent linguistic work by Sharon Hargus (personal communication) and my own work with the Beaver (Dane-zaa) have confirmed his conclusions. Others have found The Carrier Indians of the Bulkley River equally informative. A measure of his skill as a field researcher is that he produced these definitive ethnographies on the basis of only a few months’ fieldwork.

In addition to being a biography, Richling’s book is a comprehensive history of Canadian anthropology in the first half of the twentieth century. Jenness’s interests ranged from what would be called today “thick description,” to ethnohistory, and to the emerging field of psychological anthropology. He persevered despite a deadening government neglect of support for anthropological fieldwork and the absence of any academic departments in Canadian universities throughout much of his career. He was also a significant player in what we would call today applied anthropology. As Richling points out, his liberal upbringing in New Zealand sensitized him to the plight of Canada’s Native people and led him to study their situation and recommend policy to the government of Canada. Richling makes it clear that his views were informed by his knowledge of the Maori status in his native New Zealand. His recommendations to the government were often at odds with the powers that be, but he held steadfast to the authority of the knowledge he had gained through first hand experience. He was not, as Kulchyski has argued, a “ruthless assimilationist, an ardent imperialist ideologue” (337). Richling observes that these criticisms are examples of presentism and “thin history … good for making a point about how things look to us now, perhaps, but not for furthering or understanding of the past, that proverbial foreign country where people think and act differently, and occasionally change their minds” (337). He points out that Jenness’s recommendations certainly influenced Hawthorn’s concept of “citizens plus” (327).

Government bureaucrats criticized his work for its advocacy of Native people. Within anthropology, Richling quotes Hancock’s recent critique of Jenness for having “founded no formal school of Canadian anthropological thought” (331). This can be explained, in part, by the fact that he never held a regular position in a Canadian university. While anthropological schools of thought come and go, ethnography remains. Richling shows us that Jenness’s theory was embedded in his ethnography. He did what Malinowski advocated, before Malinowski, but he didn’t advertise. His Copper Eskimo ethnography showed how “magical” practices of shamanism were contextually embedded in political process. However, he didn’t feel the need to create a school of political anthropology. He left it to an intelligent and observant reader to draw the obvious conclusions.

Jenness was one of the first generation of Canadian anthropologists who laid the groundwork for those of us who came into our careers as Canadian universities were beginning to establish departments of Anthropology. My own career began as his was ending. His colleague Harry Hawthorn hired me to join the young department at UBC in 1967. The festschrift edited by Pat and Jim Lotz, to which I was privileged to make a contribution, was modestly entitled, Pilot, Not Commander. Perhaps future anthropologists will articulate the theoretical positions that were implicit in his remarkable ethnographic work. He was indeed a sure pilot.

In Twilight and in Dawn: A Biography of Diamond Jenness
By Barnett Richling
Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.  2012. 413 pp, $39.95 paper