Pioneering Anthropology

A New Zealander opened the door to aboriginal studies in Canada

Diamond Jenness was Canada’s foremost anthropologist of his generation, perhaps of any generation. A biography of Jenness is therefore very welcome for an understanding of the life and the times: of Jenness as a personality and of the early development of Canadian anthropology.

There is a bit of a pattern of New Zealanders coming to Canada and taking up the study of aboriginal people. Diamond Jenness was the first, arriving just before the First World War, followed later by Harry Hawthorn who established anthropology as a discipline at the University of British Columbia. As well as compatriots, Jenness and Hawthorn were also colleagues. I arrived from Auckland at the University of British Columbia a year after Jenness passed away and, after a couple of conversations with Hawthorn, moved on to work with Wilson Duff on the history of First Nations people in British Columbia.

If three make a pattern, there is a reason for it and Richling explains it in In Twilight and in Dawn: A Biography of Diamond Jenness, at least for Jenness. Unlike Canada, one could not grow up in turn of the 20th-century New Zealand, or have any acquaintance with its history, and ignore the Maori. New Zealand was never a paradise of racial harmony, but Maori were a much larger proportion of the population than the Indians of Canada and, even in the early 1900s, society was moving toward greater integration. There was even a seriously regarded current of anthropological thought that believed that the “Aryan Maori” were so superior among aboriginal people that they shared the same ancestry as Europeans. Jenness was actually turned on to anthropology as a student at Oxford initially through a meeting with the Canadian ethnographer and anthropologist Marius Barbeau, but his New Zealand upbringing remained formative and, for Jenness, a positive example of how to develop aboriginal policy.

After a stint of field work in New Guinea, Jenness came to Canada, and to the Arctic as a member of an expedition led by Vilhjalmur Stefansson in 1913. It was the beginning of a long career devoted to the study and understanding of indigenous people in Canada. Jenness is best known for his studies of the people of the Arctic, but he worked among and wrote about an amazing range of aboriginal groups, from Alaska to Newfoundland. The objectives, in those pioneering days of Canadian anthropology, were coverage and salvage. Jenness and his colleagues wanted to record descriptions of as many traditional aboriginal peoples as possible before they were changed forever. Jenness hoped to find pristine cultures that were unaffected by contact with newcomers, and then was distressed to find that, even in remote areas, lives were already being changed by outside influences.

The choice of field locations was not systematic but seemed to be determined by chance, funding and opportunity. Once the ethnographer had arrived among a particular group of people, the first objective of the participant observation approach was a detailed description of the culture, including learning as much as possible of the language. But Jenness also moved from description to analysis, and here, too, his most lasting contributions were in the Arctic. He identified the Dorset Eskimo culture, and his conclusions about Inuit origins and patterns of migration have not been dismantled by more recent research.

Jenness’s lifetime of field work resulted in a huge body of published work. Much of it was written for an academic audience, but there were also classics written for a wider reading public such as The Indians of Canada, one of the first general accounts of the aboriginal peoples of Canada, and People of the Twilight, on Inuit cultures. Jenness clearly loved to get out to remote places, to live among the indigenous people and to understand and record their cultures.

When it came to the bureaucracy that contained most of his professional life, Jenness was less enamoured. For much of his career he worked in the Geological Survey of Canada’s Anthropology Division, then later at the National Museum of Canada. At one point, much against his better judgement, he took on the role of chief of the Anthropology Division, only to resign after a few years in disgust over the lack of support for the work of the anthropologists. In a way little has changed. As with today’s universities, there was too much control and too little money from government. The thinking and the funding within the Geological Survey focused on geology and the natural sciences, and less apparently “useful” disciplines such as anthropology suffered from lack of interest and support. Constantly underfunded and understaffed, it was difficult to get any momentum going on the urgent work of understanding aboriginal cultures. As a civil servant, Jenness was also prevented from publishing anything that could be seen as critical of Canadian government policy or even, in some cases, that might be offensive to public sensibility. It is little wonder that he much preferred the freedom of the field to the constraints of the office.

Particularly in retirement, Jenness did express his views on the treatment of indigenous people in Canada, presenting them, for example, before a federal committee set up in 1946 to examine the Indian Act. He drew on what he saw as the positive New Zealand example and advocated for efforts to preserve indigenous cultures, greater integration of aboriginal people into Canadian society and greater involvement in national politics. The New Zealand Maori got the vote at the same time as Europeans and had four seats in Parliament, whereas in Canada aboriginal people still could not even vote. Jenness was sent by Indian Affairs to investigate the state of Maori schooling to see if anything could be learned that would benefit Canada. In the end though, little notice was taken of his views. Bureaucrats and politicians of the day were not open to any critique of Canadian Indian policy let alone any significant change in approach. Subsequent academics, as is their wont, have extracted Jenness’s views out of his times and then judged them to be unsatisfactory.

As biographies go, on the life and times continuum, this one is more on the times than the life. A historian, to some extent, is the servant of his sources and Jenness left few personal records. We learn about who Jenness was from what he did and that approach to personality is not completely revealing. Barnett does emphasize that Jenness was unassuming and self-deprecating and those characteristics—avoiding the tall poppy syndrome in case you got your head shot off—was characteristic of many New Zealanders of his generation. This biography also does not pursue a straight chronological track as you might expect when following a lifeline. Instead, it circles back and forth as Jenness goes to a new place for field work or encounters a new professional challenge and the author explains the backgound. So the life is largely the professional career, but this approach does make for a comprehensive and insightful history of the early development of anthropology in Canada. And it is that history, along with Diamond Jenness’s role in it, that this biography describes and explains so well.

Barnett Richling’s biography of Diamond Jenness has been a long time coming, but it is worth the wait.