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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.

William Beynon (1888-1958)
© Canadian Museum of Civilization, photo Marius Barbeau, 1947, image no. 103014.
Born in 1888 in Victoria, British Columbia, to a Tsimshian mother and a Welsh father, Beynon grew up speaking both English and Nisga’a. Upon the death of his maternal uncle in 1914, Beynon reluctantly assumed the role of chief of the wolf phratry (a subdivision of a tribe, known in Nisga’a as “laxgibu”) of Tsimshian society. He married the niece of a prominent chief in a traditional Tsimshian wedding, and adopted the name “Gusgain,” which means “High Cliff.” However, it was his work as an ethnographer, rather than his status as chief, that accounts for William Beynon’s legacy in Canadian history.

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.

Beynon and his team conduct an interview
© Library and Archives Canada
William Beynon’s work on potlatches, resulting from a 1945 visit to Gitsegukla, describes the ceremonies in a manner that has never been matched. Banned by the federal government from 1884 until the 1950s in an attempt to further assimilate native peoples, these lavish ceremonies often involved gift giving, dances, the recitation of oral history, and the recording of important developments such as marriages and deaths. Beynon’s work is considered the most complete account of potlatches ever written.

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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