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Three Athapaskan Ethnographies: Diamond Jenness on the Sekani, Tsuu T’ina and Wet’suwet’en, 1921-1924

By Diamond Jenness

Review By Robin Ridington

December 23, 2015

BC Studies no. 190 Summer 2016  | p. 139-141

Diamond Jenness was a diligent and talented ethnographer, and the years 1921-1924 were particularly productive. In the summer of 1921 he visited the Sarcee (Suuu T’ina) of Alberta and wrote a report based on “field-notes he gathered on that occasion” (90). In the summer of 1924, he spent four weeks with the Sekani of British Columbia and later that winter, 1924-25, three months with their western neighbours, the Wet’suwet’en (whom he called Bulkley River Carrier). All three spoke related Athapaskan languages but their cultures reflect very different ecological and cultural environments. The Sekani were still a hunting and trapping people in 1924. They spent most of the year on the land and supported themselves in part through subsistence hunting. The Wet’suwet’en continued a fishing based economy. Only the Sarcee were entirely removed from their traditional bison hunting economy and had been confined to reserves by 1921. In all three groups the native languages were still widely spoken.

No better contrasts could illustrate the remarkable adaptability of Athapaskan speaking people. The Sekani are arctic drainage hunting people whose culture probably approximates that of ancestral northern Athapaskans. The Sarcee are fully realized Plains Indians, and the Wet’suwet’en are culturally allied with Pacific drainage Northwest Coast people. Bringing these three ethnographies together in a single volume invites a comparison Jenness left to others.

Jenness never had a university appointment. He did his ethnographic work through Canada’s Department of Mines and Resources. Jenness has been criticised for writing ethnography rather than theory, but looking back on his work almost a century later, one can see theories flourish and disappear while ethnography remains. In these three studies Jenness demonstrates his ability to record an astonishing amount of ethnographic information in a relatively short period of time. His fieldwork was based on intensive collaborative interviews with knowledgeable members of the communities he visited. He was obviously able to establish a rapport with elders.

For the Sarcee, bison hunting and warfare were only real in the memories of elders.  Jenness was fortunate in establishing productive relationships with twelve of these people. They told him of their exploits in war, their bison hunts, and their elaborate ceremonial life. Jenness diligently wrote it all down from field-notes. He also documented ceremonial traditions that were still active, even as important sacred objects like medicine bundles were being sent to museums like the one affiliated with the Department of Mines and Resources. It is interesting to wonder what more might he might have documented, had the means to record these narratives as audio actualities been available. The texts he recorded are glosses rendered in the “proper” English of his day. Jenness focussed on narratives of events rather than on the poetics of First Nations narrative. One can only praise what he accomplished rather than hold him to today’s standard.

The Wet’suwet’en ethnography lies somewhere in between the Sekani and Sarcee texts in terms of its being based on culture as it as lived rather than as it is remembered. Jenness documented hereditary phratry (clan) organization and the prescribed seating at potlatch gatherings. He recorded extensive first person narratives, again as glosses in the tradition of the brothers Grimm, rather than the ethnopoetics that some of his contemporaries like Fletcher and La Flesche used in their presentation of Omaha songs and texts.

All three Athapaskan peoples are strong and thriving today. The Sarcee have negotiated the repatriation of sacred objects such as the Starlight Bundle in 1989. The Sekani took adhesion to Treaty 8 in 2000 and the Wet’suwet’en were plaintiffs in the monumental Delgamuukw court action. Recent Supreme Court of Canada decisions have given greater weight to First Nations history and oral tradition. In republishing these three ethnographies together, Richling has given First Nations and academic scholars an opportunity to compare traditional Athapaskan cultures and recent histories.

Three Athapaskan Ethnographies: Diamond Jenness on the Sekani, Tsuu T’ina and Wet’suwet’en, 1921-1924
Diamond Jenness (Barnett Richling, preface)
Oakville, Ontario: Rock’s Mills Press, 2015. 325 pp, $24.95 paper