University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology


A museum of anthropology doesn’t sound like a mass market kind of place. Yet the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology draws respectable and diverse crowds, if the tour we just took there in early July is any indication.

The reason (my guess) is that it largely devoted to the cultures of what Canada politely calls the First Nations. This name is a straddle between historical accuracy and condescension, the latter embodied in the name of the American Indians or Native Americans. Like the First Nations peoples, there is not much to prove whether they originated in North America or how they made their way here if the didn’t or whether they were in fact the first.

Both America’s misnamed Indians and Canada’s First Nations peoples are believed to have crossed the Bering Strait perhaps 10,000 years ago, or maybe before, possibly on a glacial ice bridge and possibly spread eastward and southward. One hypothesis is that the migration was lead by the Clovis people whose stone points points were found in that area of New Mexico, interpreted as spearheads or arrow heads, and variously carbon-dated back to 10,000 or 20,000 years ago. Some archaeologists think there were pre-Clovis people in North America.

First Nations settlements raise difficulties for origin hypotheses. The are, for want of a better term, clans who lived in dozens of communities along the British Columbia’s shore and on offshore islands. Their languages are so dissimilar, as our tour guide at the museum pointed out, that one settlement can’t understand another living a few miles away.

Such is the pattern in the United States where tribal cultures, languages and customs are also different. Some, like the Navajo in Arizona and New Mexico have traditions about migration from the north and languages based on Athabascan stemming from Canada. Neighbours like the Zuni or the Hopi don’t. In fact, when my wife and I visited New Mexico a couple of years ago, the Zuni claimed to have migrated from the south, something hard to reconcile with a Bering Sea crossing. One student of the First Nations hypothesizes that they migrated from the south into British Columbia, though they may have crossed the Bering Sea land bridge and headed farther south first. Customs and practices of the First Nations peoples do have common traits with Asians, though.

Part of the fascination for the non-scientist is that searching for the roots of the First Nations people is a scientific mystery story. Some sites in the Southwest U.S. are lacking in clues though there are pottery shards or trash middens that are datable. For example, the abandoned cliff houses at Canyon de Chelly on the Navajo reservation in Arizona or those at Mesa Verde just across the border in Colorado. Perhaps more daunting to visit is Chaco Canyon down a long, rough road on the New Mexico side of the reservation, Still standing and well preserved after almost a thousand years are big stone buildings, stone that is carefully fitted to make almost plumb walls but without mortar.

These buildings, whose use are mostly surmised but seem to be ceremonial gathering centers, were left by the name the other tribes in the area use: the Anasazi, or the ancient ones. They vanished from sites like Chaco Canyon as well as Canyon de Chelly, Mesa Verde and a host of smaller satellites about the year 1300, probably because of an intense drought. Anthropologists think they moved and melted into Southwestern pueblos, but the aura of mystery still lingers.

In contrast, the First Nations people are still living along the British Columbia coast and are interviewable. However, their migration dates, uncertain as they are, are mixed with the estimated retreat of the great British Columbia ice sheet about 12,000 years ago that may have been impassable or may have been negotiable by Arctic-experienced peoples. First Nations workings are still being carved, like the totem pole they created. Totems are primarily a structural house or building component but also finely carved and painted with clan or religious symbols. Such are not found much beyond Oregon or Washington where dwellings were not as robust or ornamented. Totems are a centerpiece of the Museum of Anthropology’s exhibits. The also are a centerpiece of its appeal to the public.

Totem carving, and woodworking in general, are premier First Nations art as well as utilitarian forms. An obvious reason they are indigenous to the Northwest of North America and not a common characteristic in the U.S. is an enormous natural asset in British Columbia: the once trackless forest of red and yellow cedar.

Red cedar carves relatively easily, as the totems — and other artefacts — at the Museum show. It works easily in other ways, too. One is that is splits in straight lines, making carving into flat, relatively thin planks possible, with primitive tools, measured by eyeball at about the size of a common 1 inch board at the lumber yard. Strong as it is, red cedar especially can be hollowed out — historically with a stone adze — and then bent with steaming. White hot stones were dropped into an incipiently hollowed log filled with water to make a hull shape for a canoe — and formed into final shape with cross planks that form the seats. A neat trick is that, as the shaped log widens for passenger or storage space, the bow and stern ends rise to form a streamlined hydrodynamic profile.

Then comes the artistry, with brightly painted symbolic fish or bird shapes on the hull. There is a canoe hull partly formed that was carried out by the best known First Nations artist, sculptor, jeweller and painter Bill Reid, who died in 1998 but with a reputation that lives on. An entire rotunda in the museum is devoted to a massive carving in yellow cedar by Bill Reid — Raven and the First Men, the former a common First Nations symbol. It was commissioned by the founding benefactor of the Museum, Walter Koerner. A crane had to lower it into place and a World War II gun turret had to support the heavy wood. Bill Read’s ancestral people are the Haida who settled on the Queen Charlotte Islands.

The Great Hall of the Museum can accommodate full size totems, but others had to be cut apart to get them inside. Especially revealing is a pair of family-symbol carved totems that support an equally massive cross beam as part of the frame for a house. Then an equally massive longitudinal cedar log stretches to another pair of symbolically carved totems to form the rest of the house frame on which the walls can be hung. Houses were large and accommodated many families. Finely carved totems also serve as ornamental heraldic posts.

According to the explanatory placard, the totems are two great sea-lion decorated posts are from a Kila’ken house of the Quattishe on Quatsino Sound on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island. Dozens of tribes, bands or sub-tribes live along the British Columbia littoral or neighbouring islands. There diffuse languages do not transliterate into English easily and there are easily as many English names and spellings for these societies.

More fascinating to me, a survivor of table-saw home woodworking, are the magnificent boxes built by many different First Nations communities. Again, they are both utilitarian — for storage or trading — or finely painted to serve as repositories for family treasures. To me, at least, remarkable function of these boxes is that they were water tight and could be used for boiling or steam cooking. Again, partly filled with water, hot stones would make the steam.

To make one of these boxes, the craftsman must have a relatively thin, straight plank. Not only doe he then have to cut straight and true edges, a feat with primitive tools, But he also has to cut a series of three or four vertical, straight grooves, or what wood workers call kerfs, Then the plank is steamed and bent at the kerfs until it forms a box shape. Primitive craftsmen might then tie is with cedar withes or later ones used iron nails they got in trade for fish or furs. Finally a bottom planks was cut and fastened into place and sometimes an ornate lid made as a top.

My experience with even well cut wood is that water, which seems to work its way through anything, will leak at the bottom or the seal where the box was tied together at the final edge. Having puzzled over this ever since I first saw one of these boxes some years ago, I managed to buttonhole our tour guide later and got an explanation: fish oil as a sealant. If that indeed is what the craftsmen used, it works. Some of the boxes at the Museum date back to the mid-1800s and look today as if they could still do what their makers wanted. Iron pots from trade with whites gradually replaced such boxes, so the museum collection is a valuable relic of the past.

The Museum also devotes a gallery to the European ceramic collection of its benefactor, Walter Koeners. Fine as these pieces are, its only connection is with the late supporter of the museum since its beauty and workmanship doesn’t have any connection with the First Nations peoples.

As for kids, we have taken our grandchildren there and there were plenty of cohorts in our latest visit — or in earlier ones. The totems and canoes are good kid draws and an expanded museum shop offers lots of souvenirs for the younger crowd. At the other end of the spectrum, the Museum is a research site as well as an exhibit and lots of First Nations artefacts are stored in myriad drawers but these are restricted to pedigreed researchers and not open to the public.

Photos in the gallery include:

Two brightly painted First Nations boxes, the left made by the  Gitksan people between 1840 and 1860, and the right by the Haisa  people about 1880.

First Nations style cedar log canoe built by Bill Reid in 1985.   Thwarts show how sides were steamed out and held in place.

House frame:
House frame and family symbol totem in background, built on northwest  Vancouver Island about 1905.

Close up of the family totem.

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