Salvaging Sound at Last Sight: Marius Barbeau and the Anthropological “Rescue” of Nass River Indians
- ESC: English Studies in Canada
- Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English
- Volume 30, Issue 3, September 2004
- pp. 57-88
- Additional Information
♦ ♦ Salvaging Sound at Last Sight Marius Barbeau and the Anthropological “Rescue” of Nass River Indians Pauline Wakehani Carleton University I n 2001, an o st e n sib l y “l o s t ” c o l o n ia l te x t was restored to a second life via the work of institutional reincarnation. Re-sutured from stock footage held in the National Archives of Canada, Marius Barbeau’s 1927 ethnographic docum entary Nass River Indians was reconstructed as a celluloid fragment of national memory. Filmed on the tail-end of what historian Douglas Cole has referred to as the “anthropological scramble for [native] artifacts” in the Canadian Northwest (1), Nass River Indians stages the historical scene of “cul ture-collecting” on a receding frontier.1 At the same time that Marius Barbeau— an ethnologist in the employ of the National Museum of Canada— conceptualized and produced the film, he also doubled as its protagonist and hero.2Casting Barbeau as the supposedly benevolent 1 Cole argues that the heyday of artifact-gathering on the Northwest Coast of North Am erica took place roughly between 1875 and 1925 (Cole 12). This period is now frequently referred to as the "museum age” in which native cultural products were purchased, traded, and stolen in order to build the collections of new museum s in Canada, the United States, and Europe (Frank 165). 2 Barbeau’s role in the production of this docum entary is m ulti-layered. W hile Barbeau stars as the film’s principal hero, he also wrote the intertitles ESC 30.3 (September 2004): 57-88 Pauline Wakeham is a recent graduate of the PhD program in the Departm ent of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta. Her dissertation, Second Skins: Semiotic Readings in Taxidermic Reconstruction, theorizes “taxiderm y” from the early 1900s to the present as a sem iotic system that reinforces neocolonial power imbalances in North Am erica. Pauline is a sshrc Postdoctoral Fellow at Carleton University and she will begin a position as Assistant Professor at the University of W estern Ontario in September 2006. ethnologist dedicated to the task of cultural preservation, the docu mentary self-consciously foregrounds and yet also romanticizes field work in the Nisga’a territory of British Columbia. Depicting the Nass River Valley as a region ostensibly perched on the disintegrating edges of wildness, Barbeau’s film inculcates a strategic pathos surrounding the decline of native culture in the wake of Western progress. In this context, the film aestheticizes the already euphemistic concept of culture-collecting via recourse to the logic of salvage ethnography. During the early twentieth century, the rise of modern anthropol ogy in Canada was predominantly structured according to the salvage paradigm. Pivoting on the trope of the “vanishing Indian,” salvage ethnography posited that “authentic” native cultures “had once existed in a sort of timeless and holistic prehistoric state” (Nurse, “But Now Things Have Changed” 444). With the westward movement of colo nial civilization, however, “traditional” aboriginal cultures purportedly became imbricated in the historical process and, thus, crumbled under the weight of modernity. Reiterating this melancholy narrative in his book Indian Days in the Canadian Rockies, Barbeau laments: “It is clear that the Indian, with his inability to preserve his own culture or to assimilate ours, is bound to disappear as a race.... His passing is one of the great tragedies of the American continent” (7). From Barbeau’s ambivalent colonialist perspective, the “passing” of “the Indian” was a necessary tragedy, justified by the supposedly inevitable progress of Western culture and its burden to civilize North Am erica. For Barbeau , therefore, the vanishing Indian was a figure of colonial poesis— a tragic figure around whom an aestheticized narrative of extinction was writ large as a “picturesque chapter” of New World origins soon to be closed forever (Barbeau, “Our Indians” 695). Anthropological cul ture-collecting accordingly constituted an urgent and heroic project to preserve the continent’s so-called prehistory— consolidated in the remnants of native tradition— before it decayed and disappeared. Through his ardent re-narrativization of the trope of the “vanishing Indian,” Barbeau faithfully reproduced and reinforced the dominant ideology upheld by institutionalized...