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Steffen Bohni Nielsen

"Our Kids Are Our Future" Personhood, Socialization and Politics of Identity among the Kwakwaka'wakw, 1878-1998

Anthropology and The Kwakwaka'wakw
Arguably, no other group has been "anthropologized" in such detail as the Kwakwaka'wakw, or Kwakiutl, as this group is generally referred to in anthropological literature.

The Kwakwaka'wakw people have been inscribed in the history of the discipline since one of its most influential figures, Franz Boas, conducted his first fieldwork in the region in 1886. He subsequently retained his involvement with the Kwakwaka'wakw for more than fifty years. Throughout the period Boas gathered a enormous amount of fieldnotes concerning, predominantly, ceremonial life.

In the midst of a demographic disaster, Franz Boas was convinced that he was studying the culture of a "vanishing race" and he set forth to salvage as much of its traditional culture as possible by documenting it in detail. Yet, at the time of his arrival, the region's indigenous people were actively engaged in the burgeoning industrialization of the frontier society. By then, more than a century of increasing interaction with European traders, settlers and finally governance had already passed.

Today, the Kwakwaka'wakw have rebounded in numbers and are actively pursuing their own ends politically, culturally and economically.

The nature of Boas' ethnography was an informed study on the uniqueness of a culture "from its own point of view". This endeavor produced voluminous, but fragmented, descriptions on Kwakwaka'wakw social organization, language, religion and art. Franz Boas never integrated his data into a single coherent ethnography, and his portrayal of Kwakwaka'wakw "culture" remained decontextualized socially, politically and historically.

His writings have since proved to be a seemingly insatiable source of "raw" data for a vast number of theoretical endeavors. Often theoretical ambitions seem to have overshadowed the empirical accuracy of these accounts.

Indeed, by investigating the vast literature on the Kwakwaka'wakw, the entire intellectual history of the discipline can be exemplified. The long-standing connection between the Kwakwaka'wakw and practitioners of anthropology and related disciplines remains to this day and has produced an overwhelming body of literature.

Read carefully, this body of ethnographic literature, combined with other documentary evidence, provides an immense opportunity to investigate long-term social and cultural changes.

The present study undertakes precisely this endeavor, as it investigates the historical development of notions of personhood and their relations to the politics of identity of British Columbian inter ethnic relations. The study concentrates on the development of the Kwakwaka'wakw at Alert Bay.

Empirical Background

The study covers a period when British Columbia has been transformed from a Frontier society to a burgeoning post-industrial society. To this day, inter ethnic relations are embedded with conflicts. One integral component of these struggles has been a struggle over identity.

Politics of identity is the politics of symbols and representations of self and others, which are continually negotiated and positioned. These politics were, and are, integral to the development and production of Kwakwaka'wakw categories of personhood and conceptions of self in the longue durée of history.

In British Columbia, a number of different agents partook, at various times, in this struggle: Federal Government officials, provincial government, politicians, missionaries, anthropologists, European settlers, traders, corporate interests, native NGOs, First Nations and different factions within these nations.

Historically, it has not merely been a history of Euro-Canadian colonizers and colonized natives, but rather a figuration of different factions on both sides with differing agendas, resources and ends. These were, and are, social agents making use of the symbolic, material and political resources to further their own cause. At the heart of this conflict religion and education were poignantly enunciated in the historic struggle over potlatching and schooling.

Initially, missionaries and the Canadian government preoccupied themselves with "civilizing the Indian". Although their ends differed on some points they joined forces in the adoption of a policy of assimilation by establishing residential schools largely funded by the Department of Indian Affairs and run by the missionaries. The prohibition of potlatching was another area in which their means and ends were corresponding.

Recently, the tide has been shifting by increasing native political, cultural and economic self-assertion on a variety of issues ranging from schooling and resource claims to aboriginal self government.

My working hypothesis is the following: in the period analyzed, 1878-1998, notions of personhood have been constructed and reconstructed in a complex interplay between shifting social agents from outside and within Kwakwaka'wakw society. Central to the understanding of personhood is the analysis of social agents, who, at various times, have occupied relative social positions of power under shifting structural conditions and who have had a central impact on the construction of categories of personhood.

My approach to understanding the impact of various institutions and agents on personhood will focus on processes of learning and socialization. Meanings and practices are internalized and externalized in the course of social life and form the cognitive and physical modus operandi of social actors.

While these meanings and practices are functional at one level, they are political at another. Questions such as: Who is learning what? Who is in a position to teach? What is being taught? And where is this taught? - are embedded with relations of power. These questions are, and were, central points of struggle in the politics of identity.

By focusing on socialization and learning, I approach the conceptions of personhood from a dynamic, sociological and historical viewpoint that will allow me to trace its continuities and discontinuities under specific structural and historical conditions.

Analytical Scope
To trace the development the study primarily addresses five analytical fields:

  • Shifting linguistic categories.
  • Focus on the change of language from Kwak'wala to English.
  • Whether it has had an impact on concepts and conceptions of self, body and others.
  • The namima. Focus on the enduring symbolic and social significance of the namima. How it is reproduced through the passing on of namima social and mythical history in Christian names and potlatch titles and privileges.
  • 'Namgis narratives. Focus on 'Namgis narratives of the period and their strategic use.
  • How were conceptions and constructions of personhood employed politically, internally and externally.
  • Potlatching. Focus on the shifting content, form and meaning of the potlatch throughout the period. How the potlatch has become the central institutional means of identification and positioning internally and externally.
  • Schooling. Focus on the school, which is, and has been, a very significant institution in the political struggle of social engineering, formerly as a means in the policy of assimilation (canadianization) and currently in a policy of indigenization.

Theoretical perspective
The study is an empirically informed contribution to historical anthropology and thus also the current agency-structure debate. I seek to integrate theories of sociology, history and anthropology into one contingent account.

At the outset, I employ Norbert Elias' concept of historical figurations. Following the vein of his canonic work Über den Prozess der Zivilization (1979 (1939), in which Elias outlines the development of a sociogenesis and a psychogenesis in Medieval Europe, I set out to delineate the trajectories of personhood of the Kwakwaka'wakw under radically changing historical and social conditions, albeit my method differs from that of Norbert Elias.

Drawing from institutional theory by Michel Foucault and Erving Goffman and theories of learning from Jean Lave. I attempt to integrate these with the hermeneutically informed framework. Other influences are G.H. Mead's theory of social selves and George Simmel's notion of the dialectics of social phenomena.

Research Background
The project is based on twenty months' research in British Columbia in 1997-1998, including one year of fieldwork on the 'Namgis First Nation Reserve at Alert Bay. This research will be complemented by a shorter period of field research this summer. The research expands upon the evidence collected and analyzed in my 1997 MA thesis (kandidatspeciale) entitled "A Most Difficult Lot to Civilize. Personhood and Politics of Identity among the Kwakwaka'wakw, 1792-1951", which was based solely on ethnographic and documentary evidence. The Ph.D. dissertation will be submitted in the summer of 2001.

Supervisors: Ole H°iris, Centre for Cultural Research and Nils Ole Bubandt, Department of Ethnography and Social Anthropology

Updated February 26 2001 by jpt. Please mail comments to the webmaster at Centre for Cultural Research.