Wendy Wickwire. At the Bridge: James Teit and an Anthropology of Belonging. 400pp., 5 maps, 26 b/w illus., notes, index. Vancouver and Toronto: University of British Columbia Press, 2019. $34.95 (paperback, pdf, epub), $95 (hardcover)

The purpose of this book is to redress an injustice committed against someone who could have had a central place in the history of anthropology. According to Wendy Wickwire, this might have been the case of James Teit (1864-1922) if he had not been pushed to the margins of the discipline as an amateurish ethnographer in the service of Franz Boas. In comparison with the legendary George Hunt, who has been the subject of several studies (and, recently, a series of events at the AAA/CASCA in Vancouver, 2019), James Teit is practically “unknown” (12). In her monograph on him—the outcome of several decades of archival research and ethnographic encounters with the concerned communities—Wendy Wickwire makes a challenging comparison with Boas himself, hoping that her reassessment of Teit as a visionary anthropologist in his own right will not be like other episodic rediscoveries of forgotten figures who, after a certain time, fall back into obscurity. According to her, Boas played his part in obscuring Teit’s stature (particularly after his death in 1922), and subsequent narratives kept reproducing, if at all, the portrait of an untrained collector subordinated to the academic expert. In fact, she argues that the professionalization of anthropology was one of the causes in this process: “For a new scientific discipline housed in the university, a high school diploma did not measure up” (273). The time has come, she writes, to question “the authority of mainstream history” (22), according to which Teit provided Boas with the field data that allowed the latter to produce a series of eleven monographs on the Nlaka’pamux and other Plateau groups, starting with The Thompson Indians of British Columbia (1900), the fourth in the twenty-seven-part series of Jesup North Pacific Expedition monographs.[1] Wickwire’s perusal of their correspondence allows her to affirm that this is “wrong” (15) and that Teit’s authorial status was paramount.

Wickwire reconstitutes the twenty-eight-year research collaboration between the two men, from their first encounter at Spences Bridge, British Columbia, in the fall of 1894, when Boas—portrayed by Wickwire as an “urban” scholar and awkward ethnographer, not necessarily at ease with flesh and blood “Indians”— was still monitored “like a hawk” (31) by the veteran linguist Horatio Hale and had to cover a mountainous area that would require several years work by a full team. Teit, in contrast, was a “community-based intellectual and man of action” (90), who had lived among the Nlaka’pamux for ten years and undertaken his own ethnographic projects on depopulation and local history in collaboration with his Nlaka’pamux wife, Lucy Antko, along with her relatives and friends. Two years later, when Boas obtained permanent employment in New York at Columbia University and the American Museum of Natural History, this gap between the two widened, Wickwire argues. Confronted with Boas’s “escalating demands and deadlines” (130), Teit eventually refused an offer of full-time work from Boas as this would jeopardize his activism. Wickwire quotes several letters reflecting the latent tension between ethnography in Boasian terms and activism as Teit’s priority. Here is one example: “This helping the Indians with their land question […] puts me behind in my ethnological work” (226). This was not Teit complaining about a burden—helping the Indians—but  justifying his tardiness to Boas.

Until recently—we could say until the publication of Wickwire’s monograph—this crucial aspect of Teit’s life and work was even less known and acknowledged. It is one of the great merits of the book to restitute not only the details of his activities on behalf of Indian rights and in collaboration with native representatives and organizations, but also his political background, ideologically speaking, which had roots in the freethinking and socialist milieus of his homeland Scotland. Wickwire puts forward astounding archival material that reveals Teit’s profound disdain for politicians at the service of capitalist interests who respected nothing “except dollars in immediate sight” (235). She also recalls that a century ago white activists were blacklisted—a spy even recommended that Teit be arrested. In his case, ostracism was doubled by the fact that he was a “siwash man” (a derivation of the French word sauvage), i.e., a white male married to an Indian woman.

When Edward Sapir became head of the Canadian government’s Anthropology Division in 1911, he challenged Boas’s monopoly of Teit’s ethnographic endeavours and recruited him as well. There are unmistakable clues, however, that subsequent cuts in Teit’s salary, until the termination of his contract in 1919, had to do with him being a critic of the government that paid him. The book has many moving passages from beginning to end, in one of which we learn about Indian chiefs joining efforts to offer him a salary as compensation for his difficulties. But perhaps the main thread in Wickwire’s storyline is her own critique—too radical in my view—of the colonial dimensions of salvage ethnography, to the point of saying that anthropologists “benefitted from the physical and cultural demise of the original inhabitants” and played “a leading role in the imperial mission by capturing the precontact purity of the North American Indian” (25). She even suggests that Teit’s anticolonialism is one of the reasons why he was left at the door of anthropology’s pantheon.

Considering that Teit participated intensively in the salvaging enterprises of Boas and Sapir, the book’s big question is how to explain this apparent paradox. Wickwire makes a thorough exegesis of Teit’s writings, not just his monographs, but also the reports and fieldnotes on which they were based, to unveil the uniqueness of his anthropology in contrast to the one made by his “colleagues” (as she prefers to call his two academic employers). To be sure, Boas and his disciples formed an avant-garde circle that defied Euro-American ethnocentrism and racism, but according to Wickwire they did it through a disembodied knowledge of timeless if not “nebulous” (177) precontact cultures. In sum, and unlike Teit, their anthropological concern was the past, not the present of Indian populations. Possibly the most striking document that Wickwire quotes is a letter addressed to Sapir in 1919, stating that “people in general are more interested in finding out about the dead and their history than investigating the living” (153). She sustains that one of the indicators of this clash of sensibilities is the fact that Boas in his editorial role often deleted the names of the storytellers as well as details that compromised the precontact purity of allegedly foundational myths and legends. Teit, on the contrary, avoided fixation and tried instead to transmit their current transformations, even their political meanings in a colonial setting. His ethnography of prophetic messianic movements is another indicator.

One of the book’s highlights, resulting from a sensational handling of archival materials (the notebooks of Sapir’s employee, Marius Barbeau) that were deemed lost, is the reconstitution of the song recording sessions that took place in Ottawa in 1912 and 1916 at the Victoria Memorial Museum, where, at the invitation of Edward Sapir, Indian chiefs gathered during their free time in a hostile environment. According to Wickwire, the discussions that took place at the Museum, on the spiritual significance of the songs as connecting humans to the land, should not be separated from the ones that took place on Parliament Hill, where the same men were making land claims with Teit’s help. Whenever he could get around Boas’s obsession with the precontact era, he underscored that Indian modes, such as the Nlaka’pamux system of lodges scattered across the territory according to seasons, were not doomed relics but sophisticated, even inspirational solutions in a province that he considered or hoped to be “ripe for socialism” (187). It is no minor detail that while the British Columbian government implemented its official “provincial” map, Teit simultaneously issued Indigenous territorial maps complete with long lists of Indigenous place-names.

James Teit’s anthropology connected the present, the past, and the future because it was an anthropology of belonging, as Wickwire highlights in the title of the book itself to express his four-decade immersion in the real life of living communities. By the same token, his ethnographic experience cannot be equated with the longer or shorter sojourns of professional observers, for the simple reason that he was at home—at home with his Indian relatives and friends. This point is abundantly illustrated, but the most poignant example is this one: “With Antko’s death in 1899, he experienced the Nlaka’pamux death rituals and protocols as an insider” (171). No wonder Wickwire concludes that “the professional designation of the ‘participant-observer’ does not even scratch the surface of Teit’s anthropology” (277).

However, At the Bridge: James Teit and an Anthropology of Belonging is not limited to the career of this forgotten anthropologist. Another extraordinary journey has to be mentioned: that of Wendy Wickwire herself, not just by physically retracing the trek of Teit or, for that matter, of Boas, but also by connecting the past with the present and the future, particularly of the Nlaka’pamux, by bringing the songs and other archival pieces back to the field where they originated. As news of the old wax-cylinder recordings spread, people “materialized from everywhere to hear them,” they “turned up in droves, many with cassette recorders in hand” (9, 12), all the more so because the voice of the ancestors was identifiable (Teit always opened each session by announcing the name of the singer). Wickwire’s own historiography of belonging authorizes her to combine historicist preoccupations with an enlightened form of presentism that makes Teit a very current figure indeed: “If anthropologists today are asked to distil their disciplinary mission in a sentence, most would frame it in Teit’s terms: as a self-reflective enterprise grounded in the details and the commitment to a mutuality and conversation between itself and its ‘others’” (285).

As Wickwire identifies the still ongoing polemics for and against Boas, she can hardly conceal her own stance. Her criticism of precolonial studies as practiced by the Boasians betrays the enduring influence of Johannes Fabian’s famous thesis on classical anthropology denying coevalness to “the Other.” Wickwire points out in the acknowledgments that she attended his courses at Wesleyan University in the late 1970s, when Fabian had “a new book manuscript that he wanted to test on the students” (187). This was Time and the Other.[2] As a countercritic of Fabian’s critique of anthropology, I regret that Wickwire may, under his spell, have underestimated the dialogical and collaborative dimensions of Boasian anthropology. This is not the place to defend the legitimacy of precolonial studies, but I fear that her radical critique denies coevalness both to our discipline’s ancestors and to Indigenous ones who were also interested and engaged in historical projects—not to mention the actual precontact or pre-reservation ancestors.[3] Let us also remember that the Boasians were not indifferent to the fate of Native Americans and that they had diverse views regarding the future of tradition. It will suffice to point out, as Wickwire herself notes, that Sapir promoted, Teit substantiated, and Boas signed a protest against the potlatch ban by the Canadian government as being rooted “in prejudice and ignorance” (223).

Not all historians of anthropology specializing in Boas will share Wickwire’s analyses. Her monograph is a work of rehabilitation that takes up Teit’s cause in a way that some will judge one-sided and biased, others convincing and compelling. In spite of everything that stood in their way, there were very significant linkages between Teit and Boas. And the truth is, At the Bridge is proof of that. Wickwire’s main concern, understandably, is with Teit’s place in the “spectrum of adulation and critique” of Franz Boas: “The quick answer is: ‘nowhere’” (283). In the final pages of her book as in the opening ones, she deplores the fact that he has been systematically ignored. Her book, though, does more than reassess Teit’s legacy: by bringing forth his ethnography as political praxis, it unsettles our perception of the discipline’s past. Ethnographers before Boas or, for that matter, before Malinowski, are getting increased attention, and many of them undoubtedly deserve it, not as historical curiosities, but as interlocutors for the twenty-first century. Considering the number and size of Teit’s monographs, some guidance in the form of suggested readings would have been helpful. His handwritten notebooks are not (yet) easily accessible, and “That’s where the gold mine lies,” Wickwire explains in a broadcast interview.[4] But for now at least we have At the Bridge: James Teit and an Anthropology of Belonging, which recently landed on four prize short-lists and should be read by all historians of anthropology, if not by all anthropologists.

[1] Between 1898 and 1930, Boas oversaw the publication of ten Jesup volumes. Most volumes consisted of separate, stand-alone sections (“parts”).  

[2] Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).

[3] For further development of this argument, see Frederico Delgado Rosa, “Totalitarian Critique: Johannes Fabian and the History of Primitive Anthropology,” in Disruptive Voices and the Singularity of Histories, ed. Regna Darnell and Frederic W. Gleach, Histories of Anthropology Annual 13 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019), 1–54. Another more accessible version of this argument (in this time of closed libraries and limited access to physical books) may be found in “Exhuming the Ancestors: A Reassessment of Fabian’s Critique of Allochronism,” Critique of Anthropology 39, no. 4 (December 1, 2019): 458–77.

[4] Patrice Dutil, “James Teit and the First Nations on the Pacific Coast” (interview with Wendy Wickwire), Witness to Yesterday, March 27, 2020, https://champlainsociety.utpjournals.press/wty-ep78-en. Brian Carpenter, Curator of Native American Materials at the American Philosophical Society, also recently hosted a virtual discussion with Wendy Wickwire that includes archival photographs and other visual material. You can find more details of that conversation at the APS event page, including a link to the Zoom video recording.

Frederico Delgado Rosa: contributions / website / fdelgadorosa@fcsh.unl.pt / Centre for Research in Anthropology (CRIA), Universidade NOVA de Lisboa