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Discovering Folklore

For the week of Monday March 3, 2008

On March 5, 1883, Charles-Marius Barbeau, one of Canada’s top anthropologists, was born in Sainte-Marie-de-Beauce, Quebec. Marius Barbeau, as he was known, was a pioneer in the study of the folklore of certain Aboriginal peoples and French-Canadians.

Charles-Marius Barbeau in 1942
© Library and Archives Canada / C-034447
Barbeau began his education at home, where he was exposed to French-Canadian cultural traditions. At age 12 he attended the Sainte-Marie business college. Two years later, he enrolled in the Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pocatière classical college and, after graduating in 1903, decided to register in the Faculty of Law at Université Laval rather than become a priest. In 1907, after passing his exams for the Quebec Bar, he received a Rhodes scholarship and went to England to study at Oxford University. Passionate about human studies, he registered in the new anthropology program, a field he also studied at La Sorbonne in Paris while on vacation.

In January 1911, he began working in the new anthropology division at the National Museum of Canada (now the Canadian Museum of Civilization). He was put in charge of field research on the Huron people. He began in Lorette, near Quebec City, then moved on to Amherstburg, Ontario, and then to Oklahoma. Next he took an interest in the people living on Canada’s northwestern shore, particularly the Tsimshians, whom he studied throughout his career. During his field research, he recorded and transcribed many songs and stories to preserve the heritage of these two cultures.

Chasuble at the Indian Church in Lorette (Quebec) said to have been presented to the Hurons by Madame de Maintenon and ladies of King Louis XIV's court.
© Marius Barbeau / Library and Archives Canada / C-034576
His second great interest was French-Canadian folklore. Barbeau began studying this subject in 1913, when Franz Boas offered to publish his work in the Journal of American Folklore and to make him a member of the American Folklore Society. At the time, the Museum did not see this area of interest as work worthy of an anthropologist. Barbeau therefore conducted his research in his spare time and while on vacation. He collected many recordings and transcriptions of stories, legends and folk songs from all across Quebec. In 1916, he published the first results of his research in an edition of the Journal of American Folklore, which was dedicated entirely to him. In 1917, he formed the Canadian division of the American Folklore Society and became its president the following year.

Throughout his career, Barbeau published several hundred learned articles and numerous books. He retired from the Museum in 1948, but continued his work until his death in 1969 in Montréal. Charles-Marius Barbeau was recognized as a National Historic Person in 1985.

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