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The Cultural Wilderness of Canadian Water in the Ethnography of Franz Boas *

Alessandra Lorini **

A. Lorini,  «The Cultural Wilderness of Canadian Water in the Ethnography of Franz Boas», Cromohs, 3 (1998): 1-7, <URL: http://www.unifi.it/riviste/cromohs/3_98/lorini.html>.


«The water was smooth as a mirror […] The sea was alive with gulls and seals»
(Letter of F. U. Boas to his parents from Victoria, September 18, 1886)

«The background of my early thinking was a German home in which the ideals of the Revolution of 1848 were a living force»
(Franz U. Boas, «An Anthropologist Credo», 1938)


1. Franz Uri Boas's equalitarian views oriented his scientific research on racial relations. The father of modern anthropology (Silverman, 1981: 4), who listed among his Columbia University students Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Alfred Kroeber, Melville Herskowits, in the 1880s and early 1890s was a young German Jewish physicist traveling in the Canadian wilderness for scientific purposes, looking for a permanent position in the United States. As a result of his trip to Baffin Island (1883-84) and of several trips to the Nortwest Coast of British Columbia (1886-99) Boas turned from physics to geography and from geography to physical and cultural anthropology. In 1881 he had received a doctorate in physics from the University of Kiel by defending a dissertation in which he explored the polarization of light reflected from water and the absorbtion of light in water (Hyatt, 1990: 4,5). The content and title of Boas's dissertation - «Contributions to the Understanding of the Color of Water» - seemed to forecast the impact of water on Boas's imagination and scientific experience during his early trips to Baffin Island and British Columbia. A physicist with a strong background in philosophy, Boas recorded these trips by writing almost daily letters to his fiancée and future wife, and to his parents in Germany. The English translation of these letters has been made available by Boas's biographers Douglas Cole (the Baffinland diary), and Ronald P. Rohmer (the BC letters). These subjective sources, together with Boas's official reports for the associations financing his BC trips are the basis of this paper. I will argue that young Boas focused on the importance of water as a cultural element in the daily life of Eskimo and Kwakiutl peoples, and that the anthropogeography he developed during his first explorations profoundly affected his future research on races, languages, and cultures. As historian of anthropology George Stocking points out, by developing a methodological relativism Boas showed that each area could not be studied from a Eurocentric point of view (Stocking, 1974: 15).

When twenty-five year old Franz left Germany for the expedition to Baffin Island anthropology was not included among respectable academic subjects (Silverman, 1981: 1-2) . Boas planned his Arctic expedition of 1883-84 pnmarily as a geographical study to investigate the influence of environment on peoples's perceptions and their movements. Although young Boas had already developed some skills in physical anthropology and linguistics, and some knowledge of folklore and ethnology, he had not taken the decision to become a professional ethnologist or anthropologist. Yet that twelve-month trip in the Arctic had a profound influence on orienting his future career as he recalled in 1938: «A year of life spent as an Eskimo among Eskimos had a profound influence upon the development of my views, not immediately, but because it led me away from my former interests and toward the desire to understand what determines the behavior of human beings» (Boas, 1938: 201). In a letter of 1882 to his uncle Abraham Jacobi - an eminent physician who settled in New York City after serving several years in jail in Germany because of his revolutionary activity in 1848, and who played an important role in supporting his nephew's career in America - Boas discussed his shift of scientific interests during his university years: «While in the beginning my intention was to regard mathematics and physics as the final goal, I was led through the study of the natural sciences to other questions which prompted me also to take up geography, and this subject captured my interest to such an extent that I finally chose it as my major study».

2. He told his uncle how much he was influenced by the natural sciences, particularly physics. Yet, he became convinced that his previous materialistic Weltanschauung, which was rather understandable for a physicist, could not be held as soon as he felt the importance of studying the interaction between the organic and the inorganic, «above all between the life of a people and their physical environment» (Boas, 1882; repr. Stocking, 1974: 44). After the trip he took to British Columbia in 1886 Boas deepened the distinction between the natural sciences, such as physics - which are the off-spring of what he called, in neo-Kantian terms, «aesthetic impulse» -, and history and the social sciences, which are the expression of the «affective impulse» (Boas, 1887; repr. 1940: 643, 644). A marked difference existed, he found, between the «physical» and the «historical» methods: «The physicist compares a series of similar facts, from which he isolates the general phenomenon which is common to all of them. Henceforth the single facts become less important to him, as he lays stress on the general law alone». The historian, on the other hand, denied that the «deduction of laws from phenomena» was the only approach to «eternal truth». If the historical method differed from the physical method, yet it was not outside or distinct from science. In Boas's view it was rather another way science had of looking at the phenomena of nature (Stocking, 1974: 9, 13-15).

After exploring the Cumberland Sound, the Davis Strait, and Lake Nettilling, Boas's interests shifted from geography to physical and cultural anthropology. The diary the young scientist wrote during his trip to Baffin Island in the summer and fall of 1883 is a long and unmailable letter to his fiancée Marie Krackovizer in New York (Cole, 1983:13-52). This literary device helped him to face a long year in the Arctic among the Eskimo, a world in which water, in its various forms - the ocean, icebergs, rivers, the fog, igloos, etc. - was a metaphor of human struggles. Marie was the absent voice to whom a monologue of geographical, geological, and philosophical speculation was addressed. All Boas's activities, such as rowing Eskimo boats, driving sleds, hunting, eating row frozen meat, implied a relationship with water of various kinds. Although the young scientist showed a profound respect for the Eskimos as human beings and for their life style, and found their communal efforts a good antidote to European individualism, he coped with his feeling of «otherness» by reading Emmanuel Kant at night in his cold igloo. He wrote Marie: «[...] you have no idea what an effect privations and hunger [...] have on a person [...] Kant is a good antidote!». By reading Kant the contrast between Boas's memory of the previous year, when he was «in society and observed all the rules of good taste», and his present condition of being in a «snow hut [...] eating a piece of row, frozen seal meat», became more tolerable (Cole, 1983: 29). Water, the most important element of material life in the Arctic, provided food for the Eskimo (fish, seals) and for the German scientist who was living with them.

Boas's shift of his priorities from geography to anthropology coincided with a shift of his ethnographic interests from the Eskimos to the Kwakiutl and other Native tribes of the Northwest Coast of Canada. In 1886 he took a leave from Berlin University to make his second field trip, this time to British Columbia. Boas had begun to work on the Northwest Coast in 1885 as an assistant to Adolph Bastian at the Royal Ethnographic Museum in Berlin where several representatives of the Bella Coola tribe were exhibited (Cole, 1985:104-5). What Boas proposed to Bastian for his trip to North Pacific Coast in early 1886 was to study one of the oldest questions in American ethnology: the ethnic relationship of the Eskimo and the American Indian.

3. By early 1888, Boas's articles on the Northwest Coast Native tribes in Science and other journals had brought him to the attention of the Committee established by the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) to study the Northwest tribes of Canada. Between 1888 and 1894 he spent a total of twelve months in the Canadian Northwest on five field trips for the Committee (Stocking, 1974:84). In spite of the difficulties Boas had in interpreting the complex and changing social structure of the Kwakiutl, his reports on those field trips shed light on the ethnographic complexities of the Northwest Coast. In these reports Boas insisted on the conceptual separation of race, language and culture which played an important role in his later thinking on the cultural determination of behavior.

Water in its different forms, and the human activities related to it, was at the center of Boas's geoanthropological descriptions of the Northwest Coast. In 1889 he wrote: «The railroad bring us to the coast, and from there Victoria, the capital of the province, can be reached by a short sea trip [...] From Victoria one can observe the snow-crowned peaks of the Olympic Range which forms the south shore of the Juan de Fuca Strait. To the east we see the beautiful lines of Mount Baker, and to the north and the south many openings to the winding waterways of the coast. Whereas farther to the south the Pacific coast of America stretches out in an almost uninterrupted, inaccessible line, here it forms an inextricable net of channels and fjords. Numerous islands form a narrow passage of water, from the southern tip of British Columbia up to Alaska, through which the ships glide as if on a river. The wreath of islands is thinner only at a few places where the open sea reaches as far as the coast» (Rohner, 1969:3).

As many other European travellers, Boas felt the powerful impact of British Columbia's water-related activities in designing the landscape and people's life. While traveling in BC in 1888 on account of the BAAS, Boas wrote a letter-diary to his parents in Germany and to Marie, now his wife, in New York. These letters contain descriptions of long waits for steamers, and detailed information on the Natives's water-related activities. On June 25, for example, Boas wrote from a village located on the south bank of the Skeena River. There was a canning factory on a promontory and another one in a small bay. All the almost six-hundred Natives living there fished. Two hundred Natives were used for processing the salmon, and Chinese laborers soldered the cans. «It is quite interesting - Boas wrote - to watch the processing of the salmon. At the first table women cut them open; at the next table heads and tails are removed. Then they are drawn and thrown into a bath where they are washed. They are then put into a machine which cuts them into seven parts and throws them into a trough from which they are distributed to be stuffed into cans. The lids are placed on top at another table and then they are placed in a soldering machine which fastens the lids. They are then placed on a large iron frame [...] The entire frame is then placed into boiling water for twenty minutes and then cooled. Finally the cans are packed into boxes» (Rohner, 1969: 94). The city of New Westminster, at the estuary of the Fraser River, was the center of salmon fisheries.

4. At the time Boas's trips the northern part of the coast was almost entirely unsettled. There were only a few trading posts, missions, and salmon fisheries run with the help of the Natives. «The owner is at the same time the trader from whom the Indians buy the European goods they need», Boas observed; and «the salmon fisheries and the canning plants are all situated in the larger Indian villages because the Indians do the fishing» (Rohner, 1969:5-6). In the last decade of the century British Columbia had more types of languages in such a small area than the rest of Canada. At the same time «nowhere is found a culture of such strong individuality as in this region» Boas wrote (Boas, 1910; repr. 1940: 337). In Boas's view the fundamental features of the material culture of the fishing tribes of the coast of north-east Asia, north-west America, and of the Arctic coast of America were «so much alike that the assumption of an old unity of this culture seems justifiable, particularly since the beliefs and customs of this large continuous area show many similarities» (Boas, 1910; repr. 1940:338). These similarities raised the old ethnological question of the peopling of the New World that Boas and other thirteen investigators attempted to answer during the six years of the Jesup North Pacific Expedition the president of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Morris Jesup, announced in March 1897 in coincidence with President McKinley's inauguration. Appointed assistant curator of the Department of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in late 1895, Boas envisioned this ambitious undertaking which covered a wide range of geographical and anthropological researches on two continents and still remains the most significant scientific expedition in the history of American anthropology. The expedition had for its object the investigation of the present and past tribes of the coasts of North Pacific Ocean, beginning at the Amoor River in Asia, and extending northeastward to Bering Sea, thence south-eastward along the American coast as far as Columbia River. In this region the Old World and the New came in close contact. As Boas announced, the goal of the expedition was «to investigate and establish the ethnological relations between the races in America and Asia» (Cole, 1985: 147). It was his convinction that «before we can build up the theory of the growth of all human culture, we must know the growth of cultures that we find here and there among the most primitive tribes of the Arctic, of the deserts of Australia, and of the impenetrable forests of South America; and the progress of the civilization of antiquity and of our own times. We must, so far as we can, reconstruct the actual history of mankind, before we can hope to discover the laws underlying that history» (Boas, 1898; repr.Stocking, 1974: 108).

The Jesup Expedition continued and expanded the work the BAAS had begun in 1883. Operations in BC in the year 1897 were carried out by Franz Boas and Harlan Smith, for the AMNH and Livingston Farrand of Columbia University. They were assited by three Native informants: James Teit, of Spences Bridge, BC; George Hunt, of Fort Rupert, BC; Fillip Jacobsen, of Clayoquot, BC. The party travelled westward by way of the Northern Pacific Railroad. While Smith conducted extensive excavation in the area of Kamloops, Boas, Farrand and Teit took a lengthy trip northward to investigate the physical characteristics of the Natives inhabiting the banks of the Fraser River north of Lytton. Then they continued the journey over the mountains to the coast to study the tribe of Bella Coola. Boas followed a northern route towards the pass leading to the Bella Coola, and crossed the wild plateau of Tatla Lake. At Bella Coola he met Hunt who had collected specimens among the Natives. After he finished collecting and investigating, Boas started down Bentick Arm. Then he went by steamer northward to Skeena River, where he joined Smith. They spent some time near the mouth of the Skeena River investigating the graphic art and physical appearance of the Haida and the Tsmishian. After Boas had completed his work on the Skeena River, he journeyed southward on a coast steamer, and was joined at Bella Bella by Smith and Hunt. The party landed in Rivers Inlet where they spent several weeks. In the middle of September Farrand reached Rivers Inlet. Then Hunt returned to Fort Rupert, and Boas and Farrand to New York (Boas, 1898; repr. Stocking, 1974: 114-5).

5. The sketchy official reports of the expedition does not reveal the difficulties and the hardship of the journey mostly due to rain, snow, and crossing of rough rivers. Boas wrote his wife on July 6, 1897, about endless days of strenuous horse-back riding, of pouring rain. By then he was «fed up with these trips into the wilderness». In other letters he complained about the difficulty of traveling with pack horses in the rain, about mosquitoes, and days of waiting for steamers. But in spite of his reasonable complaints, Boas was quite happy with the results of his journey. On July 27 he wrote that when George Hunt joined Boas, he cooked for him salmon at the Native house where they stayed and went through some manuscripts in Kwakiutl language with him (Rohner, 1969: 212, 215-216). During this trip Boas's esteem of Hunt grew enormously and their collaboration solidified. The son of an English Hudson Bay's Company officer and his Tlingit wife, George Hunt's advantage as a collector was his position of insider and his basic level of literacy. Hunt knew most of the Kwakiutl of Fort Rupert and Alert Bay personally and his relatives and friends provided an extensive information network throughout the area. During the five years of the Jesup Expedition he sent over 2500 ethnological pieces ranging from daily utensils to artwork (Cole, 1985: 160-161). After the Jesup Expedition, the relationship between Boas and Hunt grew into a real friendship as their intense correspondence shows. After he became professor of anthropology at Columbia University in 1897, Boas kept frequently in touch with Hunt to fill the gaps in the material he had collected in previous years. Several letters concern information on water-related objects and activities. In 1908, for example, Boas wrote Hunt to get information «as to the way bark of the red cedar is peeled and treated and as to the plan and sizes of the canoe». He therefore asked Hunt to write «all you can think of about the different types of canoes that are used, the way the runways for the canoe are prepared, how the canoe is protected against sun and against cracking, how heavy canoes are launched and pull ashore, what the Indians say about the use of sails before the whites came, the ways of paddling, the steering, and anything of this kind that occurs to you». On October 27, 1908, Hunt wrote Boas that he was enclosing in the mail 122 pages on ways of catching and cooking seals and different fishes (Boas Papers, Boas/Hunt Correspondence, I, 1894-1917). On September 28, 1918, Hunt sent information about sweat-baths for respiratory problems he had collected from his uncles, where he explained how the Natives built and alimented a sort of sauna, and then jumped in cold salt water. On April 3, 1919 Boas asked questions about prayers he had found in the material Hunt had sent him from time to time. He wanted to know, for instance, the prayer the salmon fisherman addressed to his house (Boas Papers, Boas/Hunt Correspondence, II, 1918-1922) . This correspondence continued for over forty years until Hunt's death in 1933.

6. Boas's relationship with Native informants was based on respect and improved with the deepening of his knowledge of the culture of the tribes of BC. On September 30, 1886 Boas wrote his parents that the «mass of stories» he was collecting was «gradually beginning to bear fruit because I can now discover certain traits characteristic of the different groups of people». He felt he was on the right track «in considering mythology a useful tool for differentiating and judging the relationship of tribes». He knew that the people of that area had an entirely different cycle of myths from those in the North (Rohner, 1969: 29, 54). In Boas's view the knowledge of myths and legends of Native people made traveling to BC more attractive. Water always had a pervasive impact : «I remember with the greatest pleasure many trips in colorful canoes with Indian guides who did not stop telling tales», he wrote in 1889. One of these tales concerned a «mountain peak which alone reached above the waters during the great flood, and from this peak the earth was populated again». Another one was related to a dangerous rapid, formed in prehistoric times in a narrow strait which the Natives associated to «the Son of God, who killed and sank a dangerous sea monster into the ocean at that place» (Rohner, 1969: 13). From Boas's reports one learns that the Native peoples of the Northwest Coast spoke different languages, and many of their beliefs, their ways of doing things, their ceremonies and their design styles differed one from another. But one thing they shared was an intense relation with water in both their material and spiritual life. «To the Indians of the Northwest Coast, the sea and the rivers were not just a way of life but life itself», historian of early methods of fishing in BC Hilary Stewart points out. Many myths, songs, dances, and ceremonies were based on some aspect of the sea or the river, their spirits, the underwater world or the characteristics of fish. Water creatures were carved into bowls, painted on possessions, tattooed on the body, woven into baskets, and everywhere incorporated into daily living (Stewart, 1977:18). Into the rivers of the Northwest Coast like the Stikine, the Nass and the Skeena in the north, the Bella Coola and the Nimkish at the center and the Squamish and the Fraser River in the south, millions of fish made their annual migrations. Along these valleys thousands of people made their homes. In spring, summer or fall, depending on local species of fish running, entire families moved out from their villages. They would build temporary camps and spend many weeks by the river, the men fishing and the women butchering and preserving the fish (Stewart, 1977: 19-20). To favor the return of the migrating species of salmon, prayers were said and songs were sung on the occasion of catching the first of the season, or of the run. The «First Salmon ceremony» was a ritual of «reverence and respect» that stressed «the rhythmic cycles in nature and the interdependence of all beings» (Stewart, 1977: 162-3). As fish were life itself to the tribes of the Northwest Coast, beliefs, customs and taboos regulated the activities connected to fish and fishing. For example, many people living along the southern coast believed that salmon were real people inhabiting villages in a place under the sea, at the edge of the horizon. The five tribes of Salmon People lived in five villages, each with its own habits and special breeding places. It was believed that periodically these people metamorphosed into fish and run up the rivers after spending long time in the sea.Other fishermen believed the fish followed the lead of their chief, the first salmon to be caught, who therefore deserved all honors. Others believed scouts were sent ahead, and if they were not respectfully treated when caught, other salmon would not follow. Among the Bella Coola tribes throwing trash into a stream during the salmon run was punishable by death. Beside showing respect for the salmon, this rule was also due to the need to protect clear water for the migration and spawning of this material and spiritual resource (Stewart, 1977: 172,174).

7. Boas took his first trip to the Northwest Coast in 1886 with the idea that myths, like language and physical characteristics, might be a useful tool for differentiating and interpreting tribes and spent much of his time recording them. The function of the text was to provide, for a people without a written history, a body of documentary material equivalent to those that were the basis of the traditional forms of European historical scholarship. For his gathering of such a bulk of otherwise lost information, some contemporary Kwakiutl are extrememly thankful to Boas. Gloria Cranmer Webster, the distinguished director of the U-mista cultural center in Alert Bay and a descendant of Boas' s informant George Hunt, I had the pleasure to meet in 1996, thinks that Boas's work has left to young generations of Kwakiutl the memory of an otherwise forgotten past.

As an influential public intellectual who fought the battle against racism until his death in 1942, Boas was also instrumental in preserving the tradition of the potlach (a word coming from Chinook jargon), a common ceremony among the peoples of the Northwest Coast. He took stand against the enforcement of the Canadian antipotlach law of 1884 and genuinely defended the potlach and its ceremonial dances attacked by missionaries and government officers as forms of Native paganism and potential riotous behavior. In his report of 1898 to the BAAS, Boas argued that the economic system of British Columbia native tribes was largely based on credit, just as that of so-called civilized communities: «In all his undertakings the Indian relies on the help of his friends. He promises to pay them for this help at a later date. If the help furnished consisted in valuables, which are measured by the Indians by blankets as we measure them by money, he promises to repay the amount so loaned with interest». As the Natives did not have any system of writing, making an economic transaction during a public ritual made it formally secure for both the performer and the tribe: «The contracting of debts, on the one hand, and the paying of debts, on the other, is the potlach», Boas concluded (Boas, 1898; repr.Stocking, 1974: 105-6). Consequently when a Native invited all his friends and neighbors to a great potlach, he had two things in mind: to pay his debts in public, and to invest the fruits of his labor for himself and for his children. As Boas understood that the potlach was a form of life insurance, a means of insuring the well-being of the children of those who threw it, he argued that «the sudden abolition of the system destroys therefore all the accumulated capital of the Indians [...] What wonder that it should be resisted with vigour by the best class of Indians, and that only the lazy should support it, because it relieves them of the duty of paying their debts?». It was also unadvisable, in Boas's view, any interference even with the cruel ceremonies sometimes associated with the potlach: «They are so intimately connected with all that is sacred to the Indian that their forced discontinuance will tend to destroy what moral steadiness is left to him». It was during those ceremonies that he had heard old men exhorting the young people to reform their ways and conduct a morally sound life. «And the cruelty of the ceremonial - Boas keenly observed - exists alone in the fancy of those who know of it only by the exaggerated descriptions of travellers» (Boas, 1898; repr. Stocking, 1974: 106,107). Boas taught his students to respect the Natives from whom the ethnographer had a lot to learn. According to Melville Herskowits, one of the first generation of Boas's students, this respect «stemmed from the recognition he accorded values in the life of the peoples with whom he dealt [...] his honest humility in the face ot those who commanded information whose importance he understood, and which he had come to them to learn» (Herskowits, 1953:64). Boas's search of truth developed a strong sense of the relative, of an absence of fixity, of an all-in-flux in historical changes of human cultures that paralled, metaphorically, the physical changes of water.


* I am very thankful to Douglas Cole of Simon Fraser University and to Gloria Cranmer Webster, the director of the U'mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, BC, for sharing their ideas on Boas's early trips.

** - Alessandra Lorini teaches American history at the University of Pisa. She has just finished a book for The University Press of Virginia entitled Rituals of Race: American Public Culture and the Quest of Radical Democracy. Her current interests include environmental history, biographies of women anthropologists, and American pragmatism.


Boas, Franz Uri, Papers. Boas/Hunt Correspondence, I-II, American Phiiosophical Society, Philadelphia.

Id., 1887. «The Study of Geography», Science, 9: 137-41.

Id., 1898. Publications of the Jesup North Pacific Expedition, 1 : 1 - 1 1 .

Id., 1910. «Ethnological Problems in Canada», Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 40:529-39.

Id., 1938. «An Anthropologist Credo», The Nation, 147: 201-204.

Id., 1940. Race, Language and Culture (New York: Macmillan).

Cole, Douglas: 1983. «‘The Value of a Person Lies in His Herzensbildung’: Franz Boas' Baffin Island Letter-Diary, 1883-1884», in Observers Observed. Essays on Ethnographic Fieldwork, ed. by George W. Stocking, Jr. (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press): 13-52.

Cole, Douglas: 1985. Captured Heritage. The Scramble for Northwest Coast Artifacts (Seattle: University of Washington Press).

Herskowits, Melville, J.: 1953. Franz Boas: the Science of Man in the Making (New York: Scribner).

Hyatt, Marshall: 1990. Franz Boas Social Activist. The Dynamics of Ethnicity (New York: Greenwood Press).

Rohner, Ronald P., ed.: 1969. The Ethnography of Franz Boas. Letters and Diaries of Franz Boas Written on the Northwest Coast From 1886 to 1931. Translated by Hedy Parker (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press).

Silverman, Sydel, ed.: 1982. Totems and Teachers. Perspectives on the History of Anthropology (New York: Columbia University Press).

Stewart, Hilary: 1977. Indian Fishing. Early Methods on the Northwest Coast (Seattle: University ofWashington Press).

Stocking, George W., Jr. ed.: 1974. A Franz Boas Reader: The Shaping of American Anthropology, 1883-1911 (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press).

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