Nass River Indians (Reconstruction)

July 22, 2021
Frame enlargement from Nass River Indians (Reconstruction). Frank Bolton (Txaa Laxhatkw of Gwinwok), singing to an infant suspended in a cradle. (Reproduced by permission of Astral Tech Inc.)

Originally published, “Tin Cans and Machinery: Saving the Sagas and Other Stuff,” Visual Anthropology, 12 (1999): 49–86.

Although little known today, the 1928 Canadian movie, Saving the Sagas, is an early example of a film recording the presence of the ethnographic fieldworker, in this case, the National Museum of Canada ethnologist Marius Barbeau (1883-1969) working with members of the Nisga’a communities along the Nass River in northern British Columbia. This consideration of the film discusses the ways in which it represented those communities, first on its own and then, together with its contemporary Fish and Medicine Men, as part of Nass River Indians, the otherwise lost 1928 film from which the two shorter films were subsequently made. Focusing on the latter film’s relationship to government action concerning Indigenous peoples, it concludes with discussion of the implications of this representation, which was produced for the National Museum to be screened in conjunction with the National Gallery of Canada’s 1927 exhibition, “Canadian West Coast Art, Native and Modern.”

Lynda Jessup

NOTE: References to individual shots from each of the films are identified in the article as follows; Saving the Sagas, shot No. 1 = [SS1], shot No. 2 = [SS2], etc., Fish and Medicine Men = [FM1], [FM2], etc.

Many years ago now, and more than half a century after Bronislaw Malinowski’s visit to the Trobriand Islands, George Stocking [1983: 101] published a photograph of the ethnographer at work in the field [Figure 1]. Part of Stocking’s study of this “culture-hero of the fieldwork myth,” the photograph illustrates his discussion of Malinowski as both a champion of such intensive study and, as a writer of rare capacity, the man who firmly established the authoritative place of “the Ethnographer” in the myth-history of anthropology [Stocking 1983: 93-120]. Carefully staged from the darkened interior of the ethnographer’s tent, the photograph pictures the scene just beyond the tent’s opened flaps: a gathering of Trobrianders looking on as Malinowski, sitting in profile inside, works at his typewriter.

Figure 1 Malinowski at work, Omarakana. (Reproduced by permission of Mrs. Helena Wayne.)

Like other early pictures of ethnographers actually writing, it is an unusual image, its belated publication in Stocking’s study supporting the subsequent suggestion that the production of such records of ethnographic textmaking ran counter to “an ideology claiming transparency of representation and immediacy of experience” [Clifford 1986a: 2]. Now, viewed in the light of recent critical anthropology, they are seen as explicit illustrations of a colonial encounter, of an ethnographic authority rooted in Western frames of reference and, as feminist anthropologists have also argued, of an ethnography firmly grounded in masculine subjectivity [Gordon 1988: 7-24].

This alone suggests reason for inquiry into the now little-known 1928 film Saving the Sagas, a work ostensibly devoted to portraying the process of ethnographic record-making.1The only treatment of the film to date is provided in Morris [1994: 41-42, 45-55]. Her discussion, which attempts a close textual reading of the movie, includes some interesting observations, but is rife with inaccuracies. These extend even to her description of the film. Produced by Associated Screen News Limited, a commercial film producer in Montreal, the movie documents the ethnographic activities of Marius Barbeau and Ernest MacMillan among the Nisga’a of the Nass River region of British Columbia. Barbeau, an ethnologist at the National Museum of Canada in Ottawa (now the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa- Hull), and MacMillan, then principal of the Toronto Conservatory of Music, are depicted in their efforts to record “with camera and phonograph” what the movie’s first intertitle describes as “the vanishing culture, the rites and songs and dances of the Indians along the Canadian Pacific Coast, north of Vancouver” [Appendix 1, SS 1-5].2 Aside from its use in a reference to Canada’s Indian Act, the word “Indian” is used historically in this paper to refer to the concept Barbeau and others applied to the Aboriginal populations of North America. The words “Aboriginal” and “Native” are used throughout this paper to refer to the different peoples of indigenous ancestry in North America. These general terms, used to refer to a wide range of people of indigenous ancestry, are paired with the plural “peoples” to recognize both commonalities and differences among them. Described in that first intertitle as an ethnographic text itself—”a screen recording” of this “vanishing culture”—the film is also an early example of ethnographic filmmaking, both within Canada and internationally.

In fact, the earliest surviving movies to claim a place in the history of ethnographic film were shot little more than two decades before.3 Jay Ruby [1979: 71] points out that, in fact, many of these films are incorrectly labelled, the term “ethnographic” having been applied it seems to “any documentary film of exotic peoples … regardless of the maker’s competencies and intentions” and without due consideration of the film’s actual relationship to ethnographic study. Keeping this in mind, he also stresses however that such films cannot then be automatically disregarded in discussion of ethnographic film. Prominent among them is Edward S. Curtis’s In the Land of the Head Hunters [1914], a dramatic tale of passion and intrigue set among the Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) of Vancouver Island. Even the little-known films of Baptist minister and amateur photographer Joseph Kossuth Dixon, while made earlier than Curtis’s film, were shot only in 1908. Unconcerned by what would now be seen as a contradiction in aims, Dixon sought, as he described it, “to eliminate any hint of the white man’s foot”4 Joseph K. Dixon, Wanamaker Primer on the North American Indians [Philadelphia: Wanamaker Originator, 1909], p. 44. Quoted in Krouse [1987: 257]. in his efforts to recreate accurately an earlier phase of Aboriginal life on the Crow reservation in southern Montana where he shot a now-lost dramatization of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s version of the Ojibwa legend, Hiawatha, and a reenactment of Custer’s battle with the Sioux at Little Bighorn. As Susan Krouse [1990: 213-33] points out in her study of the films, moreover, he seemingly had no qualms about portraying Ojibwa and Sioux respectively using Crow Indians in their own native dress.

His work also underscores the fact that such an effort to recreate an earlier, seemingly pre-contact, period in Aboriginal life was characteristic of early ethnographic filmmaking in general. Curtis, who was also interested in recording what he saw as a vanishing race, reconstructed earlier Aboriginal costumes and set- tings for his film as well. As Bill Holm and George Quimby [1980: 29-30] point out in their study of In the Land of the Head Hunters, this approach is not only evi- denced in Curtis’s work, it also marks Robert Flaherty’s 1922 film, that keystone of ethnographic film history, Nanook of the North [see also Rony 1996: 90-104; Russell 1996: 55-77]. In these films, as in other early examples, ethnographic authenticity was located in what was imagined as the purer, pre-modern society that existed in contrast to the felt inauthenticity of the contemporary Aboriginal culture with which the filmmaker was working. Ethnographic authority—the power to designate this authenticity and, by contrast, inauthenticity—rested with the filmmaker and, by extension, with the West. In other words, where members of Aboriginal societies were pressed into service to represent themselves as essentialized, universalized, “traditional” and rapidly vanishing, the ethnographic filmmaker was not a participant at all but, like the camera, an invisible observer. “[Excluding] himself from the world of his subjects… [and] his subjects from the world of the film,” as David MacDougall [1981: 282, 278] points out, the film- maker was seemingly omnipotent and omniscient, at once arbiter and guardian of anthropological knowledge.

From that position, both anthropologists and film scholars have argued, the ethnographer defined the nature of the West’s relationship to other cultures with surprising consistency. In a discussion of ethnographic writing that applies as well to these early films, for instance, James Clifford notes the pervasiveness in ethnog- raphy of the theme of the vanishing primitive and of the end of traditional society. “Ethnography’s disappearing object is…, in significant degree,” he argues,

"a rhetorical construct legitimating a representational practice: "salvage" ethnography in its widest sense. The other is lost, in disintegrating time and space, but saved in the text. The rationale for focusing one's attention on vanishing lore, for rescuing... the knowledge of old people, may be strong.... l do not wish to deny specific cases of disappearing customs and languages, or to challenge the value of recording such phenomena. l do, however, question the assumption that with rapid change something essential ("culture"), a coherent differential identity, vanishes. And I question, too, the mode of scientific and moral authority associated with salvage, or redemptive, ethnography. It is assumed that the other society is weak and "needs" to be represented by an outsider (and that what matters in its life is its past, not present or future). The recorder and interpreter of fragile custom is custodian of an essence, unimpeachable witness to an authenticity [Clifford 1986b: 112-13]."

Using Clifford’s words as a point of departure, it is clear that what distinguishes Saving the Sagas from its contemporaries is not the fact that it escapes what he has subsequently called “the salvage paradigm” [Clifford, Domingues, and Trinh 1987: 121-50]. On the contrary, Saving the Sagas is an anomaly in the early history of ethnographic film and a rarity in the field of ethnography in general precisely because it depicts salvage ethnography. Portraying the fieldworker in action “saving the sagas,” it makes explicit what is implicit in other films of its generation, replacing an Aboriginal past seemingly reconstructed from surviving material culture and local memories by shots of that material culture as it survives in a contemporary context [Figure 2] and of the process by which the esoteric knowledge contained in memories is procured in the form of ethnographic records [Figure 3].

Figure 2 Frame enlargement from Saving the Sagas (SS 14). A man clears underbrush away from the base of the Third Pole of Kwahsuh, called Thl’ameen, at Angede. (Reproduced by permission of Covitec Inc.)

It also predates by 40 years what are generally thought to be the earliest ethno- graphic films to record the presence of the fieldworker, among them most notably Margaret Mead’s New Guinea Journal [1968], a film shot on a return trip to Manus 40 years after her first fieldwork there in the late 1920s. Mead’s early field research is now regarded as a major contribution to the development of modern ethnography, which emerged as a professional activity in the decade or so following World War I. During these years the authority of amateur and armchair ethnographers was increasingly superceded by that of the academically trained fieldworker, a situation George Stocking attributes in part to the apparent ability of professional fieldworkers to harness modern technology and Western science in the development of what seemed in contrast to amateur ethnography a more reliable, more efficient, and thus more “scientific” way of working [Stocking 1989: 208-79].

Figure 3 Frame enlargement from Saving the Sagas (SS 40). Marius Barbeau speaks into a phonograph while Albert Allen (Gadim Gaidoo’o of Gitanmaax) prepares to record a song with Robert Pearl (Wii Xha’a of Gitanyou) and Frank Bolton (Txaa Laxhatkw of Gwinwok). (Reproduced by permission of Covitec Inc.)

In this respect, it is significant that Saving the Sagas was filmed at the very moment that marked the emergence of modern fieldwork; it not only presents the academically trained fieldworker as ethnographic authority, but also does so by defining “modern” ethnography in terms of what was then recent technology—a technology that seemed to make this ethnography both possible and necessary. Note, for example, that with the establishment of Barbeau and MacMillan’s presence on the Nass, recent technology in hand, the ethnographic imperative generated by technology was presented to contemporary audiences in the third intertitle of the film: “The ways of the white man—and radio jazz—are sweeping away the old color [sic] of Indian life in British Columbia” [SS 6]. The shot following the intertitle, which illustrates the statement, shows three young Nisga’a men gathered around a radio [SS 7]. This was apparently sufficient to characterize the modern world of Native youth and to establish the idea that the march of Western civilization was inexorable and inescapable; from this point on the audience accompanies the ethnographic team (now identified as “our explorers” [SS 8]) inland and, significantly, back in time, to survey what are described in contrast as the “ancient town” of Angeda [SS 8] and “old Geetiks,” where, intertitles state, “the craft of the totem carver survives,” and what consistently appears to be an older generation of Nisga’a hold to what are called “the old rites” [SS 15-23]. As if to underscore the theme of vanishing culture, one of its members is even shown chanting on his grave—”the way to be sure about one’s funeral sermon,” an intertitle states [SS 24-26].

Figure 3a Frame enlargements from Saving the Sagas; Albert Allen (Gadim Gaidoo’o of Gitanmaax) with Robert Pearl (Wii Xha’a of Gitanyou) and Frank Bolton (Txaa Laxhatkw of Gwinwok).

Lynda Jessup

Lynda Jessup is Vice Dean in the Faculty of Arts and Science at Queen’s University at Kingston, Canada, and is Director of the North American Cultural Diplomacy Initiative (NACDI,

Her research focuses on the representation and circulation of Canadian and Indigenous visual and material culture in exhibitions and in museum collections, an interest that has taken shape most recently in research located at the intersection of exhibition history and international relations. Her current research is devoted to the study of state-sponsored exhibitions of Canadian art and focusses on the ways in which nationalist art histories are deployed internationally to advance foreign policy initiatives as an operative part of increasingly post-national processes of globalization.

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