The Literature of
Orkney and Shetland

James Alexander Teit

James Alexander Teit

James Alexander Tait  (later Teit) was a Shetlander who emigrated to British Columbia in 1884 to work on his uncle’s estate at Spence’s Bridge, and subsequently became a key early ethnographer in Canadian culture. He married a First Nations woman, Antko, one of the N’laka’pamux people, learned their language, and became a trusted friend who went hunting with his adopted people. In 1894, a German ethnographer, Dr Franz Boas, happened to call at Spence’s Bridge where he met Jimmie and this encounter began Teit’s scholarly work.. Boas was in a position to employ him and provide certain essential tools, which allowed him to amass a large collection of photographs and ‘Indian’ songs on wax cylinders. For Teit, this meeting proved to be the beginning of a career which continued till his death in 1922 at the age of 58. From 1911 he also worked for Edward Sapir in the Anthropology division of the Canadian Geological Survey. By the time of his death, he had contributed 2,200 pages of ethnographic text in 42 published sources and a further 5,000 unpublished,  a great array of artefacts and sketches, as well as the photographs and recordings. But unlike Boas and his ilk, Teit lived among the people he worked with.

Strangely perhaps, Shetland appears to have played a part in  his political understanding of the situation of the Native Canadians. After the death of his wife in 1899, he made his first trip home where he met and conversed with the writer and socialist, J.J. Haldane Burgess (1862-1927). Back in Canada, in 1902 he became a member of The Socialist Party of British Columbia and contributed to the journal ‘The Canadian Socialist.’ It was a time of great ferment in the Province as White settlers put pressure on traditional practices of hunting and fishing and in 1903 some of the tribes began to ally to tackle these issues. In 1906, they sent a delegation to England to discuss their concerns with King Edward VII.

Teit records in 1909 that “the Interior tribes insisted upon my attending their meetings and helping them with their writing. Thus I commenced to act as their secretary and treasurer …”[1]  The key document setting out the ‘Indian’ case, presented in 1910 to Sir Wilfred Laurier, then Premier of the Dominion of Canada, is an elegant and heart-felt plea signed “Yours very sincerely, The Chiefs of the Shuswap, Okanagan and Couteau or Thompson tribes – Per their secretary, J.A. Teit.”

Teit put himself at the service of the First Nations people in their dealings with the Canadian state, as delegate, interpreter and secretary, even to the point of neglecting the duties for which Sapir had contracted him in favour of this political work. Today, in Canada, his memory is still cherished by the population of First Nations of British Columbia.

[1] Statement by Teit made to the Senate Committee, Ottawa, June 16, 1920.

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