At the Bridge: James Teit and an Anthropology of Belonging
By Wendy Wickwire. UBC Press, 374 pp, softcover
Every time a statue of Canada's first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, is moved or vandalized, someone somewhere will say, “Well, they were all racists at that time.”
Similar comments are sometimes made in connection with the defacing of a statue of Egerton Ryerson, one of the key designers of Canada's Indian residential school system.
In fact, not all the settlers were racist, as demonstrated by UVic history professor emeritus Wendy Wickwire’s erudite and engaging 2019 book, At the Bridge: James Teit and an Anthropology of Belonging.
She writes that Teit arrived in Victoria in 1884 as a 19-year-old from Scotland, eventually settling in Spences Bridge. He married a Nlaka’pamux woman, Lucy Antko, and they created a ranch in the Twaal Valley.
Antko lost her Indian status as a result of the marriage—that's the way things worked under the Indian Act in those days. But because they lived so close to her community, Teit formed strong bonds with the Indigenous people and learned their language.
Over time, he documented their lives, even recording stories and songs, and worked as a translator and adviser in their efforts to recover their stolen land. Teit also collaborated with a famous anthropologist of the era, Franz Boas, who studied Indigenous peoples on behalf of museums.
Wickwire makes a compelling case that Teit has never received his due in the world of anthropology, despite his prodigious output.
“When he wrote about traditional hunting practices, he wrote as a hunter who spent years with the Nlaka’pamux and Tahltan hunters,” she writes in her book. “When he wrote about local food practices, he wrote as one who had walked the land with its local foragers.
"When he wrote about sweathouse tradition, he wrote as one who used the sweathouse as his neighbours did. When he wrote of attitudes toward death and dying, he wrote as one who sat with his friends in their dying moments.”
At the Bridge also illuminates how the longtime deputy superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott, rebuffed efforts by Teit and others to lift the ban on potlaches.
In 1916, Teit travelled with chiefs from the B.C. Interior to Ottawa, where he met Scott in person for the first time. The author brings this history to light in the most vivid way, showing how discrimination was repeatedly meted out to Indigenous people, notwithstanding Teit's efforts to blunt this.
“Teit’s prominent role in the political arena was undoubtedly a factor in his later marginalization by the discipline of anthropology, where such activism had little currency,” Wickwire writes.
While At the Bridge stands as an impressive treatise on participant-based anthropology, it's also an eloquent rebuttal to those eager to forgive federal and provincial politicians for their treatment of Indigenous people because "that's just the way things were done."
It wasn't always done that way—and James Teit was living proof of that.