James Teit – a hero of the common people

In the early part of the last century, a young Scot settled in Spences Bridge and became an advocate for the local Indians.

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

In 1993, I had the pleasure of meeting the son of one of the most remarkable men that Canada has produced. The late Sigurd Teit was living in Merritt at the time, and I spent a fascinating couple of hours in Sigurd’s home, looking over accumulated material about his father, James Alexander Teit. The Museum in Merritt had only recently opened a whole section devoted to James Teit’s life, works and artifacts.

James Teit’s studies of the Thompson, Athapaskan and Shuswap peoples has left an invaluable legacy for generations to come. Studies of the works, photographs, research papers and artifacts collected and created by Scottish born Teit are an on-going discipline in several areas, including anthropology, botany, linguistics and social history.

At a time when the native peoples of central and northern British Columbia were witnessing the steady erosion of their hunting, fishing and agricultural areas by white settlement, as well as some Chinese takeovers of land formerly used by the bands, James Teit’s efforts to speak and write on their behalf to federal government officials has been preserved and catalogued in regional museums and our national museum in Ottawa.

The 1880s was a time of acute vulnerability for the native communities.  Roadways, railroads, farm and ranch settlement, mining claims, towns and villages,were all spelling at a speeding rate, the end of native life as it had been for thousands of years. The chiefs of various interior bands gathered to ponder how to cope with the changes. Change that was effecting the physical and spiritual health of their peoples.  The stress and strain of the changes had created dramatic declines in birth rates, higher than normal suicide rates, particularly among the women, and loss of strategic areas of fishing and hunting areas. Tribal autonomy became eroded markedly, with the establishment of the federal government Indian Affairs Department, a department that would affect every aspect of native life from birth to grave.

James Teit was just a young man when he arrived in Spences Bridge in 1884. He’d given up his birthright back in the Shetland Islands, left family, friends and associates, and at the age of 17, went to join his uncle, John Murray who had established a general store and an inn, as well as an orchard enterprise in the tiny settlement at the mouth of the Thompson and Nicola Rivers.  Clerking in a general store gave him free access to not only the non-Indian population of the area, but with the native peoples. He quickly found intense interest in the native way of life. Their hunting and fishing and social mores.  He quickly absorbed their language. Not only absorbed the language of the Thompson Indian people, he began to work on developing a written language for them.

The history of native peoples had been handed down from generation to generation by oral tradition. A written history would not be created for decades. Legends, stories, anecdotal information regard every aspect of native community life was not recorded. It is difficult to imagine the variety and depth of the native culture which included every aspect of personal lives.

It was only after years of interviews, some of which were recorded on the newly invented recording devices created by Thomas A. Edison, and many hours, days and months spent with the native peoples of the Thompson, that the color, character and depth of that culture began to emerge, all recorded by James Teit.

Teit’s book, The Thompson Indians of British Columbia, edited by Franz Boas, is a most valuable book available in most libraries.

Boas, a world renown anthropologist, had been looking for a source of the Thompson culture as part of the Jesup North Pacific Expedition. His meeting with Teit at Spences Bridge began an extraordinary relationship that built the bridge between academia and the day to day field work and knowledge which Teit was able to contribute.

Boas was struck by the meticulous documentation that James Teit was able to provide. Teit, after all, did not have a university degree, and perhaps, not even an equivalent of a high school education back in Scotland. Yet the word Genius would not be an exaggeration relating to Teit’s extraordinary insights. Teit’s instincts always hit the mark. His sound reasoning and respect for what he discovered built a bond of trust with the Thompson people, as well as the Athapaskan people of northern B.C.

Boas (pronounced Boaz) was an extraordinary man himself. Prompted by an exhibition of native dancers from Canada’s west coast while he was in Berlin, Boas proceeded to the Arctic, where on Baffin Island, he became fascinated by the Inuit culture. Born a Jew, Boas wondered about the causes of racial prejudice. He was firmly convinced that a culture should be judged according to its own standards, not by the standards of those who studied it. This was an extraordinary perspective at that time, at the turn of the century. And when you consider how different it was from the standards of judgement of the day, when native Indian residential schools were opening and trying to change the culture and beliefs of the native peoples, Boas’s belief seems indeed, generations before its time.

James Teit married a Thompson Indian woman, Lucy Antko. Lucy gave Teit access to native communities in the region, and she provided him with invaluable prime source material. She had a short life, however, and died at the age of 33. Her grave marker in the cemetery at Spences Bridge, written in the Thompson language, lies in the south end of the cemetery. It is a devoted tribute.

Drawings of native artifacts, photographs taken by Teit of the native people’s of the area, are not only beautiful portraits executed with great skill and artistry, but the photographs he took of day to day activities in the native communities have left us with a priceless record of the time. A time long past, but more recently immortalized for study for generations to come.

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