The Cannibal Spirit
November 4, 2013
Review By Judith Berman
Harry Whitehead’s novel The Cannibal Spirit fictionalizes one of the most important figures in the history of BC anthropology, Franz Boas’s long-time collaborator George Hunt. With many points of reference to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the book is a compelling read and a serious attempt to address issues of colonialism, modernity, and the relation of ethnography to both. It is at the same time problematic from the standpoint of biography, history, ethnography and, ultimately, its own literary purpose.
History in several senses is one of its themes. Hunt’s viewpoint alternates with that of Harry Cadwallader, in real life his White brother-in-law, but here portrayed as his son-in-law. Both men “travel backward” (106) into their pasts as they journey into the “darkness” of the BC wilderness, Cadwallader sent to find Hunt like Marlow after Kurtz, each man seeking resolution for his personal crisis.
The novel addresses history on a larger scale as well, with Hunt represented, among his other facets, as a man navigating between the assumptions of colonialism and anthropology to document the equal and distinct character of Indigenous history. As one of the book’s Kwakwaka‘wakw characters says, Hunt put their stories in books “for white people to see … we is real and forever, same as them, important as they in life” (55).
Whitehead has made an effort to imagine Indigenous characters that are as “important” and “real” as his white ones, and his research has some depth to it. He has, however, exercised considerable license with the historical subject matter (noted generally in his acknowledgements). He did not attempt to capture the real-life Hunt’s voice or, for that matter, the human being, despite the preservation of hundreds of Hunt’s letters to Boas, some of which Whitehead has clearly read. (The obscenities Whitehead puts in Hunt’s mouth have no place either in traditional Kwak’wala or, according to descendants who remember him, in his English usage.)
The story radically alters the chronology of Hunt’s life, compressing into a single year Hunt’s 1900 prosecution under the Indian Act; a 1903 trip to New York to work with Boas; Indian agent Halliday’s 1922 confiscation of Kwakwaka‘wakw dance regalia; and last, but in Whitehead’s narrative the first, precipitating event, the 1925 death of George’s eldest son David. David’s six siblings who survived to adulthood are reduced to a single sister, excising the forebears of many contemporary Kwakwaka‘wakw.
The treatment of ethnography is similarly cavalier. For example, a central thread that features the real-life Tlingit notable Sheiksh (“Shaiks”), based on Tlingit clan history recorded by Ronald Olson (likely taken from Social Structure and Social Life of the Tlingit in Alaska, 1967), alters Sheiksh’s moiety and clan affiliation as well as his genealogical connection to Hunt, thereby violating Tlingit principles of matrilineality and moiety exogamy. It moreover changes Hunt’s principal Tlingit crest from Raven to Killer Whale and confuses the hereditary crest with the shaman’s initiating spirit. If Indigenous history is as “real” and “important” as that of the colonists, these changes are akin to conflating the Tudors and the Bourbons, and depicting the Union Jack as the French flag, or the clan tartan as a Christian symbol.
Finally there is Whitehead’s manufacture of “darkness” in Hunt that attaches to him the same lurid images promoted by the book’s colonial antagonists. At the beginning of the fictional Hunt’s journey he decapitates his son’s corpse and bears the rotting head away with him; at the other end, deep in the forest, he becomes a killer, head-hunter, and “Cannibal Spirit” for real, “despite [my] half-white blood … more savage than … you can know” (167-8).
A fictional protagonist based on Hunt might have served Whitehead better in some ways, but would leave the book’s contradictions at its core. Taking so much liberty with real Indigenous history undermines the proposition that it matters, and capitalizing on stereotypes that equate Aboriginal life with savagery and darkness likewise ensures that the novel cannot transcend what it attempts to critique.
The Cannibal Spirit
By Harry Whitehead
Toronto: Hamish Hamilton, 2012 295 pp. $32