This Week in History
Between Two Worlds: William Beynon's Life in Ethnography
For the week of Monday January 9, 2006
On January 15, 1945, William Beynon attended the now-famous potlatches at the Gitksan village of Gitsegukla, British Columbia. For five days he participated in and closely documented ceremonies that took place in the native settlement, shedding new light on the centuries-old traditions of the Tsimshian people. More than sixty years later Beynon’s work has stood the test of time, and has proven that he was indeed the pre-eminent Canadian ethnographer of his generation.
In 1915, Beynon began a partnership with famed anthropologist Marius Barbeau that would last for nearly half a century. The two conducted an ethnographic census of Tsimshian, Nisga’a and Gitksan societies, focusing on their cultures and social structures. In addition to ethnography, Beynon recorded the history and literature of his people, and worked as an interpreter for other researchers. Although he had no formal training in anthropology, Beynon’s works are considered a major source on these cultures. Expanding on the literature regarding Tsimshian beliefs, Beynon also clarified written materials that had previously been misinterpreted.
Upon his death in 1958, William Beynon was regarded as the principal ethnographer of the Tsimshian people. He compiled numerous notebooks full of insights into the details that he observed during several decades. Beynon’s works on the Tsimshian people are now stored at Columbia University’s Butler Library. He was designated a National Historic Person in 1989.
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