We acknowledge that we live and work on unceded Indigenous territories and we thank the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations for their hospitality.


The Origin of the Wolf Ritual: The Whaling Indians, West Coast Legends and Stories

By Edward Sapir

Review By Regna Darnell

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 160 Winter 2008-2009  | p. 127-128

The Nuu-chah-nulth (formerly known as the Nootka) Wolf Ritual texts re-presented here have had a complex history of authorship and availability within the BC communities from which they were collected for the Anthropological Division of the Geological Survey of Canada in Ottawa by Edward Sapir, who was Canada’s first professional anthropologist and the pre-eminent linguistic student of Franz Boas (within the Americanist tradition). British Columbia was critical to the Boasian program of salvage ethnology. Indeed, the Northwest Coast became the primary laboratory for anthropological inference about culture history and “the Native point of view.” Boas, Sapir, and others working within this tradition established methods of collaboration with elders who remembered the old traditions and with younger Aboriginal people who could translate and record their knowledge. Although Sapir’s willingness to ride roughshod over the sensitivities of the hereditary owners of Wolf Ritual (and other) secret knowledge does not meet contemporary ethical standards, both he and his collaborators believed that the knowledge would be lost if it were not recorded in their generation.

Sapir worked most closely with Alexander Thomas (1895-1971), whose traditional name means “Turning-into-Wolf-at-Intervals.” Three of the four Wolf Ritual texts come from Alex’s grandfather Sa:ya:ci’apis, or Old Tom, and the fourth comes from To:tisim. John Thomas and Frank Williams also contributed to these texts. Three texts deal with the origins of the ritual at Ucluelet Inlet, British Columbia, while the fourth catalogues the prerogatives of Sa:ya:ci’apis. Sapir visited Alberni only twice, in 1910 and in 1913-14, but he maintained contact, correspondence, and collaboration with Alex Thomas and others at least through 1923. In 1934, Alex Thomas visited New Haven, Connecticut, to work on the long unpublished texts with Sapir and Morris Swadesh. They were published in 1939, the year of Sapir’s death, but have long remained unavailable. The present edition, in Nuu-chah-nulth and English translation, was prepared by Eugene Aarima, Terry Klokeid, and Katherine Robinson. They have returned to the archival sources at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa and the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia to correct errors and to illuminate the production of the texts. These scholars are particularly concerned that the texts be made available to contemporary Nuu-chah-nulth communities so that they may use them in their effort to maintain cultural continuity. The quality and magnitude of the texts also ensure that they will remain a significant resource for American Indian linguistic scholarship.

An appendix presents the correspondence between Sapir and Alex Thomas regarding the texts the latter was recording and sending to the former in Ottawa. Thomas attempted to follow Sapir’s instructions to document group divisions, family and clan histories, and ceremonial events. He also collected artifacts for the museum and place names for mapping (updated and expanded here using contemporary data). The correspondence frequently centres around the failure of the Canadian government to pay its accounts promptly. Thomas used his proceeds to pay the people who worked with him and was thus dependent on that income (fifty cents per page of handwritten notebook). His letters faithfully convey news of people Sapir knew in Alberni and environs and report on the growth and well-being of Thomas’s family. Sapir shares considerably less information about his own personal affairs than does Thomas. The contemporary editors emphasize the patronizing tone of Sapir’s relationship with Alex Thomas, but it should be noted that, given the anthropological discourse of the period, he was quite respectful of the latter’s expertise and dignity. Sapir also attempted to intervene in the anti-potlatch laws and to defend the value of First Nations ceremonies.

Another appendix presents Sapir’s ethnographic notes on his attendance at an eight-day Tlo:kwa:na, or Wolf Ritual, in 1910. Although not his first fieldwork experience, this was his first venture into the rich, ongoing ceremonial life of the Nuu-chah-nulth. Also appended are Sapir’s “particularistic” ethnographic notes on the Wolf Ritual (131) and excerpts from a much later (fragmentary) life history interview with Alex Thomas.

This project is an example of productive collaboration between linguists, anthropologists, and Native communities over successive generations of scholarly production and community life. It amends, expands, and makes accessible an unusually full account of the key ceremonial of the Nuu-chah-nulth. This volume will be useful to wide audiences in British Columbia and beyond.