Canada 150: Anthropologist chronicled 19th-century First Nations
One of the least recognized but most significant of North America’s anthropologists, James Alexander Teit learned First Nations languages to an astonishing degree of fluency, married a Nlaka’pamux woman, immersed himself totally in tribal culture, and provided famous American anthropologist Franz Boas, who got most of the credit, with a trove of knowledge that might otherwise have been lost forever.
Everyone — First Nations, science, social historians, and today’s politicians — owes him a debt. University of Victoria scholar Wendy Wickwire, who wrote three books with esteemed Okanagan elder Harry Robinson, describes Teit as “one of the most outstanding, one of the most progressive, one of the most ahead of his time.”
He was born in 1864 on the Shetland Islands to John Teit, a grocer and advocate of public education, and Elizabeth Murray, who had been a governess before marriage. Teit worked briefly in his father’s store and at a local bank before taking an offer of a clerk’s position in his maternal uncle’s store in British Columbia. He arrived at Spence’s Bridge on March 17, 1884. He soon gravitated to a life that more resembled the First Nations culture in which he immersed himself. He married Lucy Susannah Antko in 1892. The marriage was happy. When she died in 1899, he described it as “a great blow.” In 1904, he married Leonie Josephine Morens, daughter of Nicola Valley ranchers, and they had six children.
Teit met Boas in 1894 and became an essential informant and intermediary on behalf of First Nations. He recorded aboriginal cultural beliefs, practices, laws, oral traditions, and social and personal value systems. Teit produced four monumentally important reports for Boas between 1900 and 1912. He made a comprehensive study of Salishan basketry with detailed construction notes, collected songs and stories, traditional tools and clothing, and assisted a comprehensive linguistic study of Athabaskan languages.
But equally important was his political activism. He helped form the Interior Tribes of British Columbia and the Indian Rights Association, convened a meeting of 450 chiefs at Spence’s Bridge over land rights, accompanied chiefs to Ottawa, and in 1916 was elected by First Nations to serve on the executive committee of the Allied Indian Tribes of B.C. He rejected as unjust and unlawful the B.C. government’s policy on aboriginal rights.
He died in Merritt in 1922. The work he began still shapes B.C. and its future.