James Teit; Polymath at Spences Bridge

At the Bridge

James Teit and an Anthropology of Belonging

Wendy Wickwire, UBC Press, 2019

Review by Stephen Hume

Among the many extraordinary and colorful characters who represent the braiding of diverse strands of British Columbia history into our present multicultural narrative – legendary First Nations chiefs, iconic maritime explorers, flamboyant fur traders, avaricious prospectors, shrewd Chinese business magnates, Jewish entrepreneurs, Black industrialists, artists both indigenous and not, colonial bureaucrats clawing their way up the social ladder, South Asian timber barons and assorted saints, sinners, spies and outlaws – one of the most interesting is the son of a greengrocer from a remote Scottish island. 

James Alexander Teit was born in 1864 on the Shetland Islands to small merchant John Tait, a fervent advocate of public education in a day when notions of providing the tools for learning to the working class was still a radical idea in some quarters. Perhaps the enthusiasm for schooling was amplified by his wife, Elizabeth Murray, who had been a governess before marriage.

James Teit and his Nlaka’pamux wife Lucy Susannah Antko

After leaving school at the age of 16, young Teit worked briefly in his father’s store, soon took a position at a local bank – he’d won prizes for mathematics, German and “general excellence” – before abandoning his traditional inheritance of the family property to a younger brother and leaving abruptly for the colonies while still a teenager, perhaps to dodge the fallout from a paternity suit brought just a few months after his departure by a woman 15 years his senior.

In any event, he arrived at Spences Bridge on the Thompson River, the major tributary of the mighty Fraser, in the spring of 1884, invited to take a position with his maternal uncle John Murray’s trading post. It’s difficult for contemporary British Columbians to imagine the province’s Interior 135 years ago. 

The only road of any significance was a rutted wagon track the led from Vancouver, a still unincorporated sprawl of tents, log shanties and saloons, to the gold fields of the Cariboo. An unimpressed Frederick Seymour – he swiftly drank himself to death — who had come to the colonies in hope of advancement, found himself presiding over a long stretch of rough road with a gold mine at one end and a seaport under a different government at the other. 

And the seaport at the other end, well, it would burn to the ground in less than 30 minutes a scant 18 months after Teit’s arrival when an ill-tended brush fire got away.  In a region roughly the size of Western Europe there was the road, one railway and a few shallow-draft paddle steamers which worked the largest lakes and navigable portions of the great rivers. 

To make things worse for Teit, about the same time Vancouver burned down, the railway construction crews finished and pulled out of Spence’s Bridge. Business crashed. He still had a job but his uncle could no longer pay his wages. 

But luckily for posterity, Teit was a young man of astonishing adaptability. From the get-go he had felt the lure of the surrounding landscape and the indigenous peoples who inhabited it. Many traded at his uncle’s post. He admired and respected their cultures, not from a lofty pinnacle of ethnocentric superiority, but for the rich texture of their ways of living, the stories they told about themselves and the world. 

Teit, it turned out, had the linguistic skills of a polymath. He quickly absorbed indigenous vocabularies, grammar and syntax. He was soon fluent. He proved an adept trapper and tireless hunter to supplement his income. Quickly he was in demand guiding big game expeditions for wealthy sporting types. He didn’t hesitate to sweat in farm fields or orchards or even coal mines when there was work.

And, it seemed, the indigenous people he met liked and respected him, too.  In the second year after he arrived he began living with Lucy Susannah Antko, a Nlaka’pamux woman from Nkaitu’sus, a remote village northwest of Spence’s Bridge. 

He married her formally in 1892 at a ceremony witnessed by two First Nations friends, Hiawhatlah and Quilumjoot. But while the union welcomed him into the indigenous community, it got him ostracized in the racially stratified culture of colonialism. Indeed, Teit later itemized the pejorative terms directed at those like himself who took an indigenous wife: “squaw man,” “siwash man” and so on. To marry outside the draconian racialized norms of the day required courage, determination and the commitment of genuine love.

 It proved a happy marriage. When she died pneumonia in the early winter of 1899, Teit described it as “a great blow.”

Teit’s greatest contribution to British Columbia, indeed to Canada and the wider world, began in 1894 when he encountered a young German – and Teit spoke German – physicist who, on a science trip to the High Arctic had been sidetracked from his research by a fascination with Inuit culture. He gave up the hard sciences to embrace the emerging social science of anthropology.

Franz Boas quickly established himself as an ethnologist of remarkable breadth, energy and intellect. And in Teit he found a fellow soul, perhaps a little rougher around the scholarly edges. Teit, with his access to Interior First Nations and his own respectful fascination with them, became one of the most important anthropological informants in the history of the discipline.

He collected stories, genealogies, myths, spiritual beliefs.  Between 1900 and 1912, Teit produced four astoundingly important reports that helped preserve Interior culture in the aftermath of epidemics, economic disruption and social upheaval. One was a comprehensive record of Salish basketwork complete with detailed notes on construction methods. He collected and recorded traditional tools and clothing that were even then passing from use and memory. He helped create a detailed study of Athapaskan languages. And he collected songs and stories that were stored only in the memories of those who had survived the tumultuous upheavals of the previous 50 years. He even carried an early wax-cylinder recording device into the bush to collect songs in the voices of the actual singers whom he then identified with the use of another revolutionary technology, the photograph. 

And thus we have the songs, voices and faces of the artists and story tellers from a culture that was largely oral in its traditions. By the time he was done, writes retired University of Victoria historian Wendy Wickwire, he’d produced 2,200 pages of published research and another 5,000 pages of raw data in manuscript that hasn’t been published. 

Then, when his indigenous friends asked for help, he became an important assistant in organizing First Nations leader in their developing activism over displacement from lands, unextinguished aboriginal title, federal and provincial policy critiques and direct petitions to government for redress. He convened a meeting of 450 chiefs at Spence’s Bridge over land rights, accompanied chiefs to Ottawa and in 1916 First Nations elected him to serve on the executive committee of the Allied Indian Tribes of B.C.

We know much of this because of Wickwire’s remarkable new biography of this figure so critical to the shaping of the province and who, indeed, helped set it on the trajectory toward reconciliation that is now reshaping its future.

Teit, like environmental writer Roderick Haig-Brown, another man now lionized in a society which once dismissed his conservation ethic as an eccentric aberration, is a bit of a tourist marketing phenomenon in the communities of Merritt and Spence’s Bridge, Wickwire observes. Yet it’s fair to say that he remains under-appreciated in the broader Canadian memory.

Her biography At the Bridge: James Teit and the Anthropology of Belonging, just published by UBC Press, sets out to redress that. It is a remarkable book about a remarkable man and deserves a place on the bookshelf of everyone who understands that knowing where we’ve come from is essential to navigating our course to somewhere else and to somewhere that we hope to make better rather than worse.

It’s the fascinating story of a fascinating man, of course. Giants of early anthropology, from Boaz to Edward Sapir and from Charles Hill-Tout to Marius Barbeau, keep Teit company. Yet while this biography of a remarkable if over-shadowed citizen scientist is meticulous in its historic scholarship, it also offers the rich granular detail that brings a particular narrative to life. 

And it’s a vitally important narrative in this time of the dismantling of colonial institutions and the attitudes upon which they are founded. Reconfiguring the colonial mental landscape is not just an issue for increasingly enlightened members of the settler society that has superimposed itself upon the indigenous societies that preceded it. It’s also one for those upon whom that settler society imposed social and economic marginalization, political injustices and cruelly insensitive assumptions with all the consequences of language loss, displaced belief systems and disrupted community and family adhesion that accompanied them.

Teit was a man not merely of two worlds but of many. He had one foot in the realm of hunting societies and one in the world of high science. He spoke the languages of both. But where scholars like Boaz thought they were dealing with vanishing cultures, Teit saw them as vital, living, evolving. His work was both for science and for the people he worked with by creating an indisputable text-based record that would prove an essential tool in what was to come. He recorded oral history and laws, mapped place names that proved prior occupation and title. He’s largely overlooked today but he was a critically important force at the very nexus of the indigenous political resistance in British Columbia that was coalescing at the end of the 19thCentury and during the early years of the 20th

Wickwire’s book captures that sweep and drama. It’s not just another dry scholarly dissertation; it’s the lively, colorful, robust story of a man who helped to channel the historical forces that now shape the moral landscape and ethical future of the emerging British Columbia that everyone will have to share. 

Fifty years ago, a hereditary chief observed that people in B.C., both indigenous and settler, had better learn one important truth: there’s only one canoe – and we’re all in it together.  We either learn to paddle together or we capsize and drown together. 

That chiefly analogy might well apply to Teit’s view of the world, too. Wickwire limns that wise view with skill, grace and a writer’s fine crafting. 

Stephen Hume began writing more than 50 years ago about the emerging future of indigenous political self-determination and what it might mean for British Columbia. His first book on the subject, the award-winning Ghost Camps: Memory and myth on Canada’s frontier, was called a masterpiece of its kind by journalist and historian Bruce Hutchison. Hume’s most recent book is A Walk with the Rainy Sisters.


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