This Week in History


Alice Ravenhill:
Preserver and Promoter of Aboriginal Arts & Culture

For the week of Monday December 7, 2011

On December 7, 2007, Alice Ravenhill was recommended for designation as a person of national historic significance. Originally born in Essex, England in 1859, Ravenhill studied sanitary science at the British National Health Society. She gained distinction as a scientist and educator who strongly challenged social conventions, especially by advocating for higher education for women. After her arrival in Canada in 1910, when she came to help care for her widowed brother and his son, she developed a passion for promoting and preserving Aboriginal culture.

Alice Ravenhill on receiving
the degree of Doctor of
honoris causa, from
the University of British
Columbia in 1948

© University of British Columbia

This interest in Aboriginal arts and culture grew out of her involvement with the Women’s Institute. The Institute was interested in incorporating intricate Aboriginal designs with their hooked rugs. Ravenhill’s work with the institute led her to become co-founder of the Society for the Furtherance of Indian Arts and Crafts in 1939. The first of its kind, the organization, inspired by Ravenhill’s personal conviction, was devoted to raising the legitimacy and monetary value of Aboriginal arts and crafts.

Under Ravenhill’s supervision, the Society organized exhibits, publications, competitions, sales and lectures, all with the purpose of promoting the arts and crafts of Northwest Coast Natives. The Society, which would later be renamed the British Columbian Indian Arts and Welfare Society, published a book as one of its first projects. The book, The Tale of the Nativity, was significant as it was written by the children of the Inkameep Residential School with illustrations by Sus-hu-lk. 

Illustration by Sis-hu-lk, from The Tale of the Nativity, as told by the Indian Children of Inkameep, British Columbia
© The Society for the Furtherance of Indian Arts and Crafts

This was the beginning of many projects undertaken by the Society. The Society also worked towards achieving significant rights for Aboriginals peoples by lobbying for improvements to the reservations, health care, education, and many other important issues.

Alice Ravenhill had a deep respect for Aboriginal culture and worked hard to see it promoted and preserved. Her work was influential and her lobbying for Aboriginal rights was ground-breaking for her time. Ravenhill’s writings on the subject were well-respected and well-received, such that some of her texts became part of the elementary school curriculum in British Columbia.

Before her death in 1954, Ravenhill was awarded two honorary doctorates – one from the University of British Columbia and the other from the American Association of Home Economics – for her work as a scientist, social reformer, and preserver of Aboriginal culture. In 2008, Alice Ravenhill was designated a national historic person for her many pioneering efforts.

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