Thursday, December 6, 2012

A tale of two McIlwraiths: Anthropology instructor follows in grandfather's footsteps

Anthropology instructor Tad McIlwraith's new book, We Are Still Didene, was published last month.

By Tamara Letkeman, doug Editor


Tad McIlwraith never knew his grandfather, but the noted anthropologist – who died five years before Tad was born – left an indelible mark on his grandson. In some ways, they’ve led parallel lives.

For starters, they share the same name: Thomas F. McIlwraith (fifth and seventh respectively. Tad’s father, a cultural geographer, is the sixth). Both are anthropologists who spent time studying and working with indigenous peoples in B.C., the elder McIlwraith with the Nuxalk people in Bella Coola in the 1920s, and Tad - who is an Anthropology instructor at Douglas College - more recently with the Tahltan people of Iskut, in northern B.C.

Both men wrote books about their experiences. In 1948 The Bella Coola Indians was published by the University of Toronto Press and last month, UTP published Tad’s book, We Are Still Didene, an exploration of Iskut hunting culture as told by the hunters themselves and of the community’s embracement of wage-based work in construction, trapping and other fields.

The parallel ends perhaps with the McIlwraiths’ motivations in writing their respective works. Tad points out in his grandfather’s time, anthropologists were largely doing “salvage anthropology,” so in writing his book he would have been trying to document what many people perceived to be disappearing indigenous cultures.

“The idea was anthropologists were essentially going to salvage the last of the traditions,” Tad explains. ”There were reasons to think that way, because the impact of 100 or more years of disease and colonial legislation had really compromised the numbers of these communities. They were in fact shrinking, and the low point of the population in British Columbia was in 1929.”

Nowadays, anthropologists don’t work from the assumption that indigenous peoples are disappearing. Tad says if he is trying to accomplish anything with his own book, it is to remind people indigenous hunting communities in northern Canada are alive and well.

“They are political forces. They are raising their kids in a mixture of traditional and contemporary practices that make sense to them. When I work in an aboriginal community, I work from the perspective that their culture is vibrant and alive, and that’s what needs to be understood.”

That’s not to say his work is not influenced by Thomas the fifth, who was one of the first anthropologists in Canada to spend a considerable amount of time working in a single indigenous community. Tad notes his grandfather took a “very human approach” to his work.

“It doesn’t come out entirely in his published academic work, but it does come out in the letters he wrote to his family and mentors. From them you get a very personal, very intimate portrait of what it was like to do anthropology in the 1920s in British Columbia. He puts a very human face on that kind of work, and I think it’s one that we as anthropologists generally accept is there but don’t always reveal to the public.

“So in my own book, I have made an effort to make myself visible and to help readers understand who I am, as well as understanding the people I write about.”