About N'laka'pamux Basketry and the work of James Alexander Teit (1864-1922)
The importance of James Alexander Teit's work as an ethnologist of the Interior Salish of British Columbia is fairly well known. Having settled in Spences Bridge in 1884, and married a N'laka'pamux woman named Lucy Antko in 1892, Teit had a privileged vantage point from which to observe and document the N'laka'pamux people. His access to the Interior Salish peoples of British Columbia facilitated a relationship with the American anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942), who immediately had Teit editing works such as The Thompson Indians of British Columbia (1900) for the American Museum of Natural History. Although this publication only briefly mentioned the basketry work of the Thompson (pp. 187-188), the publication of Coiled Basketry in British Columbia and the Surrounding Region explored the subject in much greater detail, and Teit's contribution to it proved fundamental to its ongoing importance as an ethnographic document. Boas assigned Dr. Herman K. Haeberlin to oversee the project, but he died in 1918, and the task was then assigned to Helen H. Roberts. Teit himself died in 1922, so the work was much delayed in its publication by the Smithsonian Institution in 1928.
When Boas was originally referred to Teit, he wrote in a letter that Teit lived “three miles up the mountain and ... [was] married to an Indian” and that he lived in a house “with a number of Indians...” Boas continued, “The young man, James Teit, is a treasure! He knows a great deal about the tribes. I engaged him right away.” (Wickwire, 187). Boas also found Teit useful in another way, since he was a skilled outdoorsman and had “an easy and effective manner of interaction with Native people.” (Wickwire, 188)
James Alexander Teit, n.d., photographer unknown.
BC Archives, C-08579
It is not known when Teit first came to appreciate the basketry of the N'laka'pamux people. One may suppose that baskets were among the goods traded at his Uncle John Murray's general store at Spences Bridge where he had come to work in 1884 from his native Shetland Islands. His father, John Tait (with his mother Elizabeth Murray) was also a general store owner in Lerwick (Shetland Islands). His uncle John Murray had come to Spences Bridge in about 1859, a year after gold had been discovered along the sand bars of the Fraser River. There seems to be conflicting opinions about the extent of John Murray's property in the Spences Bridge area. Wendy Wickwire records a descendent, Inga Teit Perkin, to the effect that John Murray had given much of his property away so that there was little for James Teit to inherit (Wickwire, 185). The Quesnel Museum, on the other hand, states that John Murray settled in Spences Bridge in 1870. Ten years later he apparently owned most of the property on the north side of the Thompson river, which included a fine orchard, an interest in a greenhouse, a stable, a seed house, and the Morton House Hotel. It seems that James Teit did work in his uncle's store for a time but became known as an outfitter and packer for big game hunters.
In his work as an ethnologist, Teit made many sound recordings on wax cylinders of the songs of the N'laka'pamux, and took hundreds of photographs of the N'laka'pamux with whom he lived. Many of his photographs can be seen at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, QC (Archives Collection). In this collection there are a number of photographs of groups of N'laka'pamux baskets taken between 1912-1918, precisely the time when Kathleen Pearson Southwell was beginning to acquire baskets for her collection. Thus, Teit's ground-breaking work remains both an invaluable reference for the existing basketry collection, and a wonderful exploration of the extraordinary artistry of the N'laka'pamux women who created them.
Teit, James; Franz Boas, ed. "The Thompson Indians of British Columbia" in Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History, Vol. II, Anthropology I: The Jesup North Pacific Expedition, New York(?): American Museum of Natural History, April 1900. (The entire text is available on line at www.canadiana.org).
Boas, Franz, ed., Haeberlin, H.K., Teit, James, Roberts, Helen. "Coiled Basketry in British Columbia and Surrounding Region." Forty-first Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1919-1924, Washington, DC 1928, pp. 119-484.
Wickwire, Wendy C. "James A. Teit: His Contribution to Canadian Ethnomusicology" in The Canadian Journal of Native Studies, Vol 8, No. 2, 1988, pp. 183-204.