Writing the Hamat’sa: Ethnography, Colonialism, and the Cannibal Dance
Review By Leah Alfred Olmedo
January 30, 2024
Aaron Glass’s 2021 book, Writing the Hamat̓sa: Ethnography, Colonialism, and the Cannibal Dance, refuses a typical ethnographic approach through its inversion of subject matter. The book is a survey of those texts – ranging from 1786 to 2018 – that take as their topic the Hamat̓sa, a Kwakwaka’wakw secret society and dance (commonly referred to as the Cannibal Dance). However, the text does not seek to draw conclusions about the Hamat̓sa itself; rather, using the Hamat̓sa as the fulcrum of his investigation, Glass explores a “…unique window into colonial attitudes toward Indigenous inhabitants of the region” through the texts those colonial agents produce (63). Through his close examination of the texts written about the Hamat̓sa, Glass draws conclusions not about the Kwakwaka’wakw Hamat̓sa, but about those who purport to represent it.
The structure of the book moves from the general to the specific, from the outside to the inside. Glass begins by situating his reader in the field of anthropology, introducing its history and evolutions. The second chapter introduces cannibalism’s discursive treatment from a general imperial standpoint, then moves to the texts that resulted from early contact with Indigenous peoples in BC. It reviews the texts of sailors, fur traders, settlers, missionaries, amateur scientists, government agents, guidebooks, and the popular press, focusing on revealing the “agendas [they each bring] to the intercultural encounter” (83). The third and fourth chapters focus on the works of Franz Boas and George Hunt and those of Boas’s students. They consider how “professional ethnography has mediated knowledge of the Hamat̓sa, and how recursivity – the reiteration of similar descriptions across texts – has promoted a highly selective view of its cultural reality” (134). Glass is particularly cognizant of the way English glosses of Indigenous terms (by Boas and others) create confusion of meaning and become engrained as authoritative (93, 158, 174), and how the use of the ethnographic present obfuscates understanding through decontextualization (167, 316). In the fifth chapter, Glass gives voice to the subjects of the texts covered by the previous chapters, “widen[ing] the purview beyond colonial agents and academics” through the inclusion of Kwakwaka’wakw autobiographies, autoethnographies, and creative works (276). Moving from the literature to its application, the final chapter considers how extant texts – and the Hamat̓sa itself – are contemporarily utilized and handled by various Kwakwaka’wakw communities.
In many ways, Writing the Hamat̓sa embodies a corrective to the approaches it critiques. Glass counters by modeling, in his own writing, the possibilities for generative and respectful anthropological work with Indigenous communities. The respect that underlies his work is evident in his inclusion of Kwakwaka’wakw voices. The book includes a foreword by elected ‘Namgis Chief William Cranmer and an Afterword by Andy Everson, both initiated Kwakwaka’wakw Hamat̓sas (xii-iii, 368-75). It uses the orthography of the U’mista Cultural Centre – the orthography created by and with the Kwakwaka’wakw themselves – and actively corrects outdated and inaccurate terminology. By including Kwakwaka’wakw perspectives in the works under consideration, Glass gives equal attention to those texts produced by the Kwakwaka’wakw alongside those produced about them (284). This equal consideration creates parity amongst texts that might otherwise be unevenly hierarchized through academic structures. Despite his experience working with and in Kwakwaka’wakw communities, Glass writes from a position of authority only as a scholar and is careful not to imbue his writing with a sense of authority from within the community or culture (8-9). He explicitly discloses his own positionality and the inherent limitations to his access and authority in discussions of the Hamat̓sa: “…as a non-Kwakwaka’wakw and a noninitiate, I simply cannot claim the phenomenological, epistemological, or political privilege to articulate the ethnographic “truth” about the Hamat̓sa. That is not my story to tell” (34). This respect for limits is applied throughout the book; despite its consideration of texts that investigate both secret societies and the taboo of anthropophagy – topics that produce curiosity and speculation – Glass actively avoids imposing his beliefs about the Hamat̓sa upon his readers. He points to inaccuracies and issues within the texts he examines (on 154, for instance), but – further exemplifying his understanding of his own position – does not offer any corrections or answers.
Glass’s modeling of correctives to past anthropological approaches is further illustrated through his method of close reading through contextualization. While critiquing much of the writing on the Hamat̓sa for its decontextualization (both intentional and not), Glass works to present each text as “…properly historicized and contextualized (both in terms of the political and epistemological conditions of its production and in terms of its relation to the cultural reality it purportedly describes” (11). In so doing, he creates an accessible primer to this genre of anthropology, systematically illustrating the field’s evolutions and the ways in which those evolutions are evident in the works produced. This generous articulation of the field assumes no specialized knowledge on the part of the reader and, despite its erudite vocabulary and strenuous critical reading, is thus accessible to readers outside of the field. This accessibility is also facilitated by Glass’s reiteration of each section’s most salient points in a short concluding summary (a tl;dr section, to use internet parlance). The book itself is an extended literature review and could, in other hands, be unwieldy to the point of unreadability. However, because Glass embeds each text within both a historical and disciplinary contextual frame, Writing the Hamat̓sa reads like a narrative, providing throughlines for readers to follow across texts. By situating the texts and putting them into conversation with one another, Glass illustrates the self-referential nature of much ethnographic work and the ways in which its recursivity lends itself to a perceived sense of authority (11, 22). He reveals the flaws embedded within those texts granted authority in the field, then traces the reproductions and perpetuations of those flaws, thus illustrating the endemic spread of these issues to the field at large (170-1). In describing the field’s recursivity, Glass points to the irony of this self-perpetuating motion, that the “…ethnographic objectifications” are in fact the ones that “feed on themselves, cannibalistically” (24).
Overall, Glass’s work is thorough, thoughtful, and unequivocable in its critique of previous textual treatments of the Hamat̓sa. Glass utilizes his relationship with the Kwakwaka’wakw to ground his perspective without overstepping his bounds, wielding his knowledge of the field to clearly articulate the discipline as a whole. By doing so, he illustrates its inherent flaws, both in its treatment of Indigenous peoples and in its faith in its own products. Prioritizing a methodology of writing from within one’s own community, Glass’s position of authority within the field of anthropology makes him perfectly situated to create this book. This is due not only to the emphatic critiques he levels at an entire field of study, but because the culture under consideration in Writing the Hamat̓sa is neither the Kwakwaka’wakw nor the Hamat̓sa, but those who write about both.
Glass, Aaron. Writing the Hamat’sa: Ethnography, Colonialism, and the Cannibal Dance. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2022. 512 pp. $34.95 paper.