50 Years, 50 Books: Writing the Hamatsa

Posted: Friday, July 22, 2022


As a way to celebrate our anniversary, Acquisitions Editor Randy Schmidt reached out to fifty UBC Press authors and asked them to talk about their favourite UBC Press book. This is what we heard.

Written by Wendy Wickwire

Book cover for Writing the Hamatsa

When Randy Schmidt invited me to participate in his “Fifty Years of Fifty Favourite UBC Press Books,” my first thought was that I’d be hard-pressed to find a favourite. My bookshelves are literally lined with UBC Press favourites. As I mulled over my options, a new UBC Press book popped into view: Writing the Hamat̓sa: Ethnography, Colonialism, and the Cannibal Dance by Aaron Glass. I had just finished it and had learned so much. I so wished that I had had it while I was teaching my History of Anthropology courses at the University of Victoria. It would have filled many gaps.

A richly theorized historiographical survey of one of North America’s most iconic Indigenous ceremonials, Writing the Hamat̓sa is more than deserving of a place among UBC Press’s favourites. Glass’s goal in writing it was to show how the Hamat̓sa, with its dramatic choreography and ornate masks, had entered the vast library of ethnographic and literary texts as a “barbarous” form of “cannibalism.” Such a representation, he argued, needed to be seen as a product of settler colonialism. Only then could it be evaluated honestly and critically. Another of Glass’s goals was to show how the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw had actively contested and reconfigured such a trope.

Glass stressed repeatedly that his book should not be seen as a history of the Hamat̓sa but rather as a critical analysis of how the Hamat̓sa has been represented and misrepresented by outsiders over the course of two centuries. In a gesture that is rare among anthropologists, he implicated himself in this process: “I am not a neutral observer of the reception of ethnographic knowledge” …. [I am] “also an active producer and transmitter of it, asking a new generation to work with me to understand the work of past generations.”

In addition to combing through thousands of pages of published and unpublished accounts of the Hamat̓sa by fur traders, ethnographers, literary figures, government agents, missionaries and others, Glass interviewed numerous Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw community members. In fact, what impressed me most about this book project was its commitment to community consultation and collaboration. Glass invited two prominent Hamat̓sa dancers – Chief William Cranmer, and Andy Everson – to write, respectively, the book’s Foreword and Afterword. In their submissions, both thanked him for highlighting the multiple layers of misunderstanding and error associated with outsiders’ perspectives on the Hamat̓sa. Everson, who also contributed the book’s cover image, wrote an extended essay in which he described his deep personal relationship to the ritual.

Beautifully written and meticulously researched, Writing the Hamat̓sa will attract general and specialist readers alike. It will also serve as a valuable resource for students and scholars in Indigenous studies, history, anthropology, art history, museum studies, and beyond. For the Indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast, it will do much to temper the damaging and distorted cultural canons that have dominated their lives for years.

Although barely a year old, Glass’s book has already received high praise from senior scholars. Harvard University’s distinguished professor of history, Phillip Deloria, has described it as “a work of brilliant scholarship underpinned by decades of collaborative work [that] takes readers from fine-grained accounts of intertextual Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw self-fashioning to the history of anthropology itself.” University of Wyoming’s professor of anthropology, Michael Harkin, wrote recently that it is “an extraordinary work” that is “fundamentally an ethnography of anthropology itself.” French anthropologist, Marie Mauze, has described it as “one of the best contributions to Northwest Coast anthropology, to the history of anthropology, and to Franz Boas’s rendition of ethnographic data available today.”

Wendy Wickwire (emerita), Department of History, University of Victoria, and author of At the Bridge: James Teit and an Anthropology of Belonging (UBC Press, 2019)

Posted in 50Years50Books
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