Recording Their Story: James Teit and the Tahltan
November 4, 2013
Review By Jennifer Kramer
Judy Thompson, Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC) Curator of Western Subarctic Ethnology, has produced a lavishly illustrated book, compelling for its quality of images, clarity of writing, and elegance of design. Seventy-one rarely published and illuminating photographs depicting the land and peoples of British Columbia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are paired with fifty-one vivid colour images of Tahltan objects in the CMC collections. Belied by its heft and formal air, this is a straightforward and descriptive text that traces chronologically the life of James Teit from Shetland Islands youth to British Columbia settler, from reluctant shopkeeper to famed outdoorsman, and from Aboriginal rights advocate to important, yet under-recognized, ethnographer. Thompson oVers an in-depth representation created from extensive archival research in order to reveal the character and worth of a man with little academic education, but who nonetheless played a formative role in British Columbia anthropology and Aboriginal politics.
Teit’s exquisite portraits of the Tahltan serve as testimony to Thompson’s characterization of him as a perceptive and supportive friend of the First Nations of British Columbia. Although Teit employed the ethnographic technique of photographing subjects from multiple angles, his results did not turn individuals into abstract, scientific specimens. Rather, his portraits are imbued with humanity, intelligence, and beauty. Furthermore, Teit fulfilled his promise to return prints to the Tahltan who posed for him – an action that demonstrates his empathy, respect, and regard and the atypical quality of his sensitivity.
While a novel hybrid of biography and museum catalogue in format, this work follows the well-trod path of contextualizing an ethnographic collector of non-Native descent to explain objects sought, collected, or rejected and the values implicit in these choices (e.g., Black 1997; Cole 1985; Jacknis 1996). The book concentrates upon Teit’s formation of a collection of Tahltan objects, songs, stories, and photographs for the Canadian Anthropological Division of the Geological Survey of Canada in 1912 and 1915. Of particular interest is his correspondence to his superior, Edward Sapir, because it offers a first-person account of Teit’s experiences and motivations. For example, he expresses his reluctance to purchase either Tahltan ritual regalia that were employing Tlingit or other northern coastal styles or functional items that displayed non-native materials or technology. Instead, he tended to buy quotidian clothing directly from Tahltan women or to commission replicas of older types of material culture to assure their authenticity. This distaste for collecting intercultural traded items or borrowed styles is now recognized as representative of a salvage anthropological perspective typical of the time. Teit’s selections contributed and still contribute to representing the Tahltan in specific, perhaps essentialized ways. Unfortunately, Thompson refrains from commenting on Teit’s biases, missing the opportunity to link this important, historical research with contemporary scholarship.
Most ethnographers and museum practitioners perceive standard research methods of piecing together archival documents to form coherent narrative and selectively quoting letters and culling interviews to be an active shaping of text. When so much has been written about the crisis in representation, especially from a museological perspective (eg, Ames 1992; Butler 1999; Clifford 1985; Clifford and Marcus 1986), readers expect these issues to be made transparent. Although Thompson may be making a conscious choice not to intrude upon the story, her unwillingness to make explicit her own interpretations or to reflect on the knowledge she produces seems unusual.
Given the emphasis on collaborative museology and participatory action research in anthropology, one wonders why Thompson does not include the voices of contemporary Tahltan. Tahltan opinions and reception of Teit’s legacy and collections would seemingly be vital. The book’s title is misleading in this regard: Telling Their Story suggests that the Tahltan are agents in conveying their story. Putting aside the issue that a First Nation does not have a singular story but many, this book is not about the Tahltan sharing their perspectives on their material or intangible culture. The text appears strangely mute when it recognizes only in the acknowledgments the participation of contemporary and deceased Tahltan. While this might be due to experiences the CMC has had in working with the Tahltan, the chance to explain the benefits, challenges, and complexities of collaborative museology has been lost.
That said, there is much to value in this rich and detailed description of James Teit – a man clearly made for life in settler British Columbia, fluent in numerous Native languages, connected with the landscape, a famous hunter and guide with a profound respect and understanding for Aboriginal peoples and their cultures. The most important revelation from this book was how intrinsic Teit was to the Aboriginal rights movement in the early 20th century – translating, interpreting, and representing chiefs and other Native leaders of the Allied Tribes of British Columbia in their land claims and sovereignty declarations. Teit played an active role in helping the Tahltan write their 1910 “Declaration of the Tahltan Tribe” that to this day serves as their recorded statement of sovereignty and laws. Thompson has done great justice to Teit’s enduring memory in producing this worthy book.
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