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The American Indian Quarterly 25.3 (2001) 431-452

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The Grizzly Gave Them the Song
James Teit and Franz Boas Interpret Twin Ritual in Aboriginal British Columbia, 1897-1920

Wendy Wickwire


The ethnographic archive assembled by James Teit (1864-1922) and Franz Boas (1858-1942) for the Nlaka'pamux of south central British Columbia is both large and diverse. 1 Among its contents is considerable material pertaining to the birth and rearing of twins. Some of this is in published form (Teit, Thompson Indians, Lillooet Indians, Shuswap, Abraham and Von Hornbostel), some appears in field notes and personal correspondence or diaries (CMC; Rohner; APS), and some exists on audio recordings (ATM; CMC). These sources, however, present an inconsistent picture. The unpublished records, for example, highlight a storied account of XwElinEk, a Nlaka'pamux woman, about a female grizzly bear who gave her ancestors a song and accompanying rituals to protect twins (CMC, cylinder collection). The published records, on the other hand, make no mention of XwElinEk or of female grizzlies, highlighting instead a generic third-person account of twin ritual in which males, both human and animal, take the lead (Teit, Thompson Indians 310-11).

This article focuses on such disparity as it relates to a larger complex of issues—the production of ethnographic texts and the relationships between "untrained" field-workers and "professional" anthropologists at a certain stage of historical contact. Its goal is to draw attention to problems of cross-cultural interpretation/translation in the early years of professional anthropology. It challenges the authority of the early mainstream published record on the grounds that interpretations of the smallest cultural details by some of the leading ethnographers of the day often vary according to the contexts in which they are read. To date, very few of the Boasian monographs have been historicized, despite warnings by Johannes Fabian, James Clifford, and others from the mid-1980s onward that "it is important to resist the tendency of collections [and texts] to be self-sufficient, to suppress their own historical process of collection" (Clifford, "Objects and Selves" 245). As the recent work of Judith Berman on the Boas-George Hunt collaboration and Ralph Maud on the Boas- Henry Tate collaboration reveals, careful historical scrutiny of the ethnographic archive is essential before we can begin to draw any sound conclusions from it. [End Page 431]

From Song to Cylinder

In early June 1897, Franz Boas, assistant curator of ethnology and somatology at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City, arrived at Spences Bridge, a small village on the Thompson River in south central British Columbia. He was accompanied by two colleagues: Livingston Farrand, a Columbia University psychologist whose goal was to gain some fieldwork experience, and Harlan Smith, an AMNH employee who was there to undertake photographic and archaeological research.

In addition to completing a decade-long field study of the Northwest funded by the Committee of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Boas was there to inaugurate his own Jesup North Pacific Expedition, funded by Morris Jesup, president of the board of trustees of the AMNH. As this was his first large self-directed project, Boas had ambitious plans for the Jesup: to gather artifacts, take photographs, measure and make plaster casts of human body features, oversee archaeological digs, record songs, and collect texts in the Native languages. Boas placed high value on the texts. "In these," he wrote, "the points that seem important to him [the informant] are emphasized, and the almost unavoidable distortion contained in the description given by the casual visitor and student is eliminated" (quoted in Rohner 199).

Boas chose to launch his 1897 field season at Spences Bridge because he had an ethnographic assistant there preparing the way for him (Wickwire, "Beyond Boas?"). He was James Teit, a young Shetlander whom he had met three years earlier. A resident of that community for ten years, Teit was on close terms with the local Nlaka'pamux people. 2 Not...


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