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Reviewed by:
  • Recording Their Story: James Teit and the Tahltan
  • John Lutz
Recording Their Story: James Teit and the Tahltan. Judy Thompson. Seattle: University of Washington Press. Pp. 208. US$50.00

James Teit was an extraordinary figure in early twentieth-century British Columbia, and Judy Thompson's beautiful book gives us an excellent introduction to his life and a detailed account of his work with the Tahltan people in northern British Columbia.

James Teit came to Spences Bridge, British Columbia, in 1884 from the Shetland Islands to work in his uncle's store. The main customers were the local Nlaka'pamux people and James soon started to learn their language and make friends. In 1887 he moved in with a Nlaka'pamux woman, Susanna Lucy Antko, and formally married her in 1892. He became a convert to, and an advocate for, the cause of Aboriginal rights in British Columbia.

His familiarity with the Nlaka'pamux brought him to the attention of Franz Boas, the leading figure in North American anthropology, in 1894. Teit became a collaborator with Boas and soon worked with other major anthropologists of his day, eventually becoming a key contributor to the fledging Anthropology Division of the Geological Survey of Canada. He balanced his ethnographic fieldwork with his passion for hunting and the outdoors, working half the year as a biggame hunting guide. He published major works on the Nlaka'pamux (Thompson), the Secwepmec (Shuswap), and the Tsilhqot'in (Chilcotin) and was writing up his Tahltan manuscript when he died of a 'pelvic abscess' in 1922 at age fifty-eight.

Recording Their Story offers chapters on each segment of his life but focuses on 1912–22, during which time he did two field seasons among the Tahltan. Teit met the Tahltan and employed several most years after 1903 when he guided hunters in their traditional territory. He told them of the ethnographic work he was doing in the south and the Tahltan asked him to record their stories. He also told them about his political work with BC First Nations and the Tahltan joined with their southern counterparts. He took hundreds of pages of notes, many dozen photographs, and 135 recordings of songs, and collected 190 artifacts, each with full details about each person he recorded or purchased from, their English and Tahltan names, the meaning of their names, their clan, and the importance of each item.

Thompson takes full advantage of Teit's own records, many of which are at the Museum of Civilization, where she is curator of Western Subartic Ethnology, but also reaches deep into other [End Page 185] collections to fill out the story. She delved into the correspondence of Boas and other anthropologists, into the photo collections of the well-heeled hunters Teit guided, and family albums made available by his grandson, James Teit, and another Teit scholar, Wendy Wickwire. Perhaps the richest source was discovered late in the research – copies in the Shetland Archives of his father's correspondence with James. Her research is meticulous, her writing clear and engaging.

The publication team at Douglas and McIntrye, particularly designer Peter Cocking, and the Canadian Museum of Civilization, notably Harry Foster, deserve kudos for the design of this book and the photographs, some colour, maps, and text boxes that liven nearly every page. The design proves that scholarly books can be visually as well as intellectually engaging.

It is hard to be critical of such a fine book but it is worth noting that it is a very sympathetic view of Teit and, while it points to some of the apparent contradictions in his work – taking western hunters trophy hunting on land and for game that he would at other times assist Indigenous people in claiming as their own – it does not delve into them. Nor does the book engage the rich postmodern critique of salvage ethnography. The appendices list the artifacts and songs acquired by Teit, but the volume lacks an index.

When James Teit died, Peter Kelly, spokesperson for the Allied Tribes of British Columbia called him 'a brother of the Indians of British Columbia . . . who was looked to as one of them; one who could present their views...


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