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TEIT, JAMES ALEXANDER (until 1884 he spelled his surname Tait), store clerk, farmer, hunting guide, ethnographer, author, and political activist; b. 15 April 1864 in Lerwick, Scotland, son of John Tait and Elizabeth Murray; m. first 12 Sept. 1892 Antko (Susannah Lucy) (d. 1899) near Spences Bridge, B.C.; they had no children; m. secondly 15 March 1904 Leonie Josephine Morens (d. 1948) in Spences Bridge, and they had six children; d. 30 Oct. 1922 in Merritt, B.C., and was buried there.

James Teit was born into a merchant family in Lerwick, in the Shetland Islands. His mother had worked as a governess before her marriage. His father was a licensed grocer in Lerwick and a strong promoter of public education; he helped to launch the Anderson Educational Institute, Lerwick’s first upper-level public school, in 1868. It was probably from this school that James graduated at age 16.

Following his graduation, James worked first in the family store and then for about a year as a clerk in a Lerwick bank. He also may have spent some months as a commercial fisherman in the North Sea. Sometime in the early 1880s his mother’s brother John Murray invited one of his nephews to join him in British Columbia. Murray had established himself in 1859 as a storekeeper and farmer in Cook’s Ferry (Spences Bridge), in south central British Columbia. A bachelor, he offered the prospect of an inheritance. The invitation appealed to 19-year-old James, who relinquished his birthright to his younger brother John and arrived at Spences Bridge on 17 March 1884.

At this time James changed the spelling of his surname to Teit. Perhaps influenced by his father’s keen interest in Shetland history, he had traced his family roots to Jan Teit, a Norwegian who had settled on the Shetland island of Fetlar in the 12th century. As he would explain in a letter to his uncle Robert Tait in 1905, “[Teit] is the real old original and proper way of spelling the name.”

In Spences Bridge, Teit clerked at his uncle’s store, supplementing this work with whatever seasonal employment he could find – trapping, farming, and orcharding. Each fall he hunted in remote areas of central and northern British Columbia. His experience would soon enable him to advertise his skills as a guide for big game hunters. Through his uncle he came into close contact with the region’s aboriginal peoples, many of whom traded regularly at Murray’s establishment. Within three years of his arrival, he was living with Antko, a young Thompson (Nlaka’pamux) woman from Nkaitu’sus, a small native village in the Twaal valley just north of Spences Bridge. On 12 Sept. 1892 they were officially married in her village by Archdeacon Richard Small.

In 1894 the German-American anthropologist Franz Boas* was in British Columbia on an ethnographic field trip. He interrupted his train trip to the coast to spend a night at Spences Bridge. Someone there suggested that he contact Murray, who in turn sent him to find Teit. In a letter to his family on 21 Sept. 1894 Boas described Teit as “a treasure! He knows a great deal about the tribes. I engaged him right away.”

Teit was immediately helpful to Boas. Fluent in the Thompson language, he explained to his relatives and friends that Boas wanted to measure and to interview them. Trusting Teit, they all agreed to work with Boas. The following day Teit took Boas on horseback to visit numerous small aboriginal villages in the vicinity. Immediately Boas’s attitude to his fieldwork changed. As he explained to his family, “The disagreeable feeling I had that I don’t get along with the Indians is slowly wearing off now, and I am hopeful that I will have good results.” Before departing for New York City, Boas returned to Spences Bridge in December to undertake more research with Teit. After only two days Boas had measured 123 natives, his greatest accomplishment in any aboriginal community east of the coast, so he was pleased with Teit. He delighted to hear that Teit was well along on a written ethnographic report for him. By spring 1895 Teit had expanded this report to 216 pages, had produced a shorter study of the Nicola (Stuwíxamux), a little-known Athapaskan-speaking group once resident in the Nicola valley, and had assembled and sent to New York a large collection of “articles of ethnological value” from the Spences Bridge region.

Boas’s next trip to British Columbia, in June 1897, was funded by Morris Ketchum Jesup, president of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. It was the beginning of a five-year research project known as the Jesup North Pacific Expedition. The goal was to produce a systematic ethnological and archaeological overview of the relations between the indigenous peoples of the Pacific rim of northwestern America and those of northeastern Asia. The JNPE was organized into a number of research teams. The Pacific northwest team consisted of Boas, Americans Harlan Ingersoll Smith, Livingston Farrand, and John Reed Swanton, and British Columbians George Hunt* and Teit.

Throughout the JNPE, Boas relied heavily on Teit. He launched the project at Spences Bridge where, with Teit’s assistance, he and his colleagues spent a productive week studying archaeological sites, taking photographs, recording stories and songs, and listening to explanations of designs on woven baskets, jewellery, and masks. Boas also hired Teit to guide his group by packhorse north to Soda Creek and then west to Bella Coola, a trip that took almost seven weeks. Boas made only one more field trip to British Columbia during the JNPE, electing instead to conduct most of his research from his New York base by correspondence with Teit (in the interior) and Hunt (on the coast). Almost weekly these two men mailed him large volumes of written responses to his queries.

During the JNPE, Teit maintained a rigorous field-research and writing schedule which resulted in major publications. Of the 27 JNPE publications in the American Museum of Natural History’s Memoirs (New York), Teit authored four: “The Thompson Indians of British Columbia” (1900), “The Lillooet Indians” (1906), “The Shuswap” (1909), and “Mythology of the Thompson Indians” (1912). He also contributed indirectly to an additional three. He was a field assistant and consultant (identifying sites, collecting artefacts, and proof-reading reports) for Smith’s two archaeological reports of 1899 and 1900 and he supplied many of the primary data featured in Farrand’s “Basketry designs of the Salish Indians” (1900). Finally, he facilitated Smith’s photographic work at Spences Bridge that formed the core of the Ethnographical album of the North Pacific coasts of America and Asia (1900). Teit’s productivity for the JNPE, in particular his large synthetic overviews of three individual cultures, stood in contrast to Boas’s slim output. Indeed, at least one review of the legacy of the expedition argues that it was Teit’s on-the-ground ethnographic work which was largely responsible for the overall success of the project. In every respect Teit surpassed his New York-based colleagues in fulfilling the expedition’s goals: in-depth ethnographic studies of individual cultures, comparative analyses of cultural data, a range of field experiences, and large collections of material artefacts.

The JNPE provided Teit with a regular income, an asset after the death of his uncle on 30 March 1896. Murray had left his nephew little more than a piece of property, which Teit sold to pay his uncle’s debts, and the old store and its contents. Teit kept the store to house his hunting supplies and ethnographic collections. The building also provided him with space for an office and a venue for holding meetings.

On 2 March 1899 Teit’s wife Antko died. He explained in a letter to Boas that, “as she was a good wife to me and we had lived happily together for over twelve years, I naturally took her demise as a great blow.” It may have been the loss of his wife and his uncle within three years that prompted Teit to visit his parents in Lerwick. He departed on 22 Dec. 1901 and sailed from New York after a six-day visit with Boas. On his return he spent about seven days with Boas before arriving in Spences Bridge on 6 July 1902.

In the months that followed, Teit resumed a courtship he had begun earlier with Leonie Josephine Morens, daughter of colonists who had immigrated from the Savoie region of France [see Joseph Guichon]. On 15 March 1904 in a Roman Catholic ceremony, Teit, almost 40, married 23-year-old Leonie. Although Teit’s family was Presbyterian, he had described himself in 1901 as a freethinker. Other than his formal marriages and his friendship with Roman Catholic missionaries such as noted linguist Jean-Marie-Raphaël Le Jeune, he had little involvement with organized religion. The Teits moved in with Leonie’s widowed mother on the family farm near Spences Bridge. Over the next 14 years, they would have six children, each of whom would be given a Norse name. In 1911 Teit would build a home for the family in Spences Bridge, where they would live until they moved to Merritt in 1919.

From 1902 on, as his hunting skills improved, Teit acted as a guide for big game hunters from Europe and the United States. These trips, usually two to three months in duration, supplemented the income he obtained from anthropological research. Less than a decade later the British magazine Travel and Exploration would describe him as “the premier guide of the province, with . . . an unrivalled knowledge of the topography of the country . . . , a marvellous instinct for game, and a complete mastery of the various Indian languages.” Teit had probably learned target shooting from his father and he was likely already a skilled marksman when he arrived in British Columbia. His expeditions into northern British Columbia brought him into contact with Sekani, Kaska, and Tahltan peoples, some of whom travelled with him.

Meanwhile, throughout the first decade of the 20th century Teit worked steadily for Boas, collecting myths, artefacts, and other ethnological information among the peoples that he knew. He also spent time working on his notes and manuscripts. In September 1904 he guided Homer E. Sargent, a wealthy Chicago consulting engineer, on a sheep-hunting expedition to the Cariboo. During this trip Sargent learned much about Teit’s ethnographic work for Boas and in March 1907 he offered to donate funds to it. With this support Teit undertook field research in 1908 and again in spring 1909 in Washington State, Idaho, and Montana among the Salishan- and Sahaptin-speaking peoples. His notes would be published posthumously as “Coeur d’Alene, Flathead and Okanogan Indians” in the Bureau of American Ethnology’s Annual report (Washington) for 1927–28 and as Middle Columbia Salish (Seattle, 1928). Sargent, a collector of aboriginal artefacts, was particularly interested in basketry and requested that some of his funds be directed towards more acquisitions. In response, Teit began in 1909 to assemble a large British Columbia basket collection, which he deposited in 1910 and 1911 at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, at Sargent’s request. His basketry notes, sketches, and photos would be edited by Boas’s students Herman Karl Haeberlin (who died part-way through the project) and Helen Heffron Roberts; the resulting publication, “Coiled basketry in British Columbia and surrounding region,” would appear in the Bureau of American Ethnology’s report for the years 1919 to 1924, published only in 1928. Sargent continued to finance Teit’s field research liberally until Teit’s death in 1922.

In December 1911 Edward Sapir, chief of the anthropological division of the Geological Survey of Canada and a student of Boas’s, had recommended a systematic study of the Athapaskan-speaking peoples of northern British Columbia and had convinced the director of the survey, Reginald Walter Brock*, that “no better man could be chosen for the position” than Teit. Consequently, Teit was added to the survey’s payroll in 1911 on a yearly contract. In 1912 and 1915 he undertook field trips for the survey to the Stikine valley, where he interviewed numerous Tahltan and Kaska people, collected songs and artefacts, and took photographs. He also continued to work intermittently for Boas, doing fieldwork in the Kootenay region in spring 1913 and conducting ongoing research on basketry. In addition, he assembled collections of clothing, tools, and other articles for Charles Frederic Newcombe of the provincial museum. By 1917 Sapir had expressed concern that Teit’s work on Boas’s projects was interfering with his productivity for the survey. Teit had gathered extensive raw data and artefacts for Sapir, but he had not found time to prepare any material for publication.

There were other demands on Teit’s time during the years he worked with Boas and Sapir that affected his anthropological work. Aboriginal leaders all over the province were worried about the future of their peoples, having witnessed large-scale settlement and development in just a few decades, with a loss of their rights to their land base. Because there were so few who could communicate in English, the chiefs were in desperate need of translators to help them argue their position. With his linguistic ability and his ethnographic knowledge, Teit was perfectly placed to take on this role. As he would explain in 1920 to a Senate committee in Ottawa, the Interior Tribes of British Columbia, an alliance of Thompson, Shuswap, and Okanagan leaders, “insisted [in 1909] upon my attending their meetings and helping with their writing. Thus I commenced to act as their secretary and treasurer.” He also acted for the Indian Rights Association, an alliance of lower mainland, northern coastal, and Vancouver Island aboriginal groups formed the same year. He spent most of 1910 travelling to reserves throughout the southern interior region to create a liaison between the two groups. By the summer, with Teit’s help, the Interior Tribes had produced two important written documents, a declaration and a memorial to Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier*, outlining its position. This form of political advocacy was in keeping with the anti-state rhetoric that Teit had been following in socialist journals from Vancouver such as the Western Socialist and its successor, the Western Clarion, between 1902 and 1909.

Teit made several trips to Ottawa with delegations of chiefs to act as translator and lobbyist. The first was in January 1912, when he and nine chiefs representing the Indian Rights Association met with Prime Minister Robert Laird Borden* and members of his cabinet. In July 1912, in response to Borden’s appointment of James Andrew Joseph McKenna* as special commissioner of Indian affairs responsible for reaching an agreement with the province about the land question, Teit convened a meeting of about 450 chiefs in Spences Bridge. The agreement McKenna reached with Premier Richard McBride* resulted in the establishment in April 1913 of the royal commission on Indian affairs for the province of British Columbia. The creation of the McKenna–McBride commission, as it was called, led to further meetings of native leaders at Spences Bridge.

When the Allied Indian Tribes of British Columbia was formed in June 1916 in Vancouver, Teit was selected to serve on its executive committee, along with aboriginal leaders Basil David, John Tetlenitsa, and Peter Kelly*. With Kelly, Teit co-authored the organization’s Statement of the Allied Indian Tribes of British Columbia for the government of British Columbia, published probably in Vancouver in 1919. The statement rejected the recommendations of the McKenna–McBride commission, which had been published in 1916, especially because they failed to address issues such as land titles and water rights and because they advised that valuable lands be cut off from the reserves and lands of little value added. In 1920 Teit spent from mid March until mid June in Ottawa (with a short trip to British Columbia in mid May) writing letters and lobbying to promote the aboriginal cause. Despite strong opposition from aboriginal peoples, the British Columbia Indian Lands Settlement Act was assented to on Dominion Day 1920, empowering the federal government to implement the recommendations of the royal commission. Two months later Teit was appointed by the federal and provincial governments, along with William Ernest Ditchburn* for the Department of Indian Affairs and J. W. Clark for British Columbia, to undertake a review of the commission’s report. Teit was to represent the aboriginal peoples’ interests, a position he agreed to take only with the approval of the chiefs. Just weeks into this work, however, he became ill with what would be diagnosed as bowel cancer. After a year of rest and treatment, however, he improved and he resumed his work on what became known as the Ditchburn inquiry.

By March 1922, just as he was beginning to write up his report, Teit suffered a relapse. He died seven months later at age 58. His death was a great loss, not only to the anthropological fraternity, but also to aboriginal peoples throughout the province. As Boas commented in his obituary of Teit, “Unceasingly he labored for their welfare and subordinated all other interests, scientific as well as personal, to this work, which he came to consider the most important task of his life.” Teit’s colleague Peter Kelly was more emphatic on this point, noting in 1953 that “the organization of the Interior Indians fell apart after Teit’s death. Not altogether, but it was never the same again.”

For many, James Alexander Teit is a minor anthropological figure, remembered at best as Boas’s assistant or informant and the author of a number of important ethnographic texts on the plateau peoples of North America. His work as a political advocate is almost entirely unknown. Given his contribution and his legacy (over 2,200 printed pages in 43 published sources and almost 5,000 more in unpublished manuscripts) it is time now to acknowledge him as one of North America’s most distinguished anthropologists.

Wendy Wickwire

James Alexander Teit was the author of a number of works in addition to those mentioned in the text. A bibliography of his manuscript and published writings can be found in Roderick Sprague, “A bibliography of James A. Teit,” Northwest Anthropological Research Notes (Moscow, Idaho), 25 (1991): 103–15.

American Museum of Natural Hist., Div. of Anthropology Arch. (New York), Corr., James Teit and Franz Boas, 1894–1902. American Philosophical Soc. (Philadelphia), B B65p (Franz Boas professional papers). Canadian Museum of Civilization (Hull, Que.), Arch., Ethnology records, I-A-236M (Edward Sapir, professional corr.), folder Teit, James A. (1911–22). Private arch., Sigurd Teit (Merritt, B.C.), J. A. Teit, journals, 1897, 1901, 1904, 1908–10, 1912–13, 1920; Teit family papers, photographs, and miscellaneous documents, including copies of documents from the Shetland Arch., Lerwick, Scot. Shetland Times (Lerwick), 4 Sept. 1904. J. J. Banks, “Comparative biographies of two British Columbia anthropologists: Charles Hill-Tout and James A. Teit” (ma thesis, Univ. of B.C., Vancouver, 1970). Judith Berman, “‘The culture as it appears to the Indian himself’: Boas, George Hunt, and the methods of ethnography,” in “Volksgeist” as method and ethic: essays on Boasian ethnography and the German anthropological tradition, ed. G. W. Stocking (Madison, Wis., 1996), 215–56. [Franz Boas], The ethnography of Franz Boas, comp. and ed. R. P. Rohner, intro. R. P. and E. C. Rohner, trans. Hedy Parker, (Chicago and London, 1969); “James A. Teit,” Journal of American Folk-Lore (Lancaster, Pa, and New York), 36 (1923): 102-3. Don Bunyon, “James Teit – pioneer anthropologist,” Heritage West (Vancouver), 5 (1981), no.3: 21–23. Peter Campbell, “‘Not as a white man, not as a sojourner’: James A. Teit and the fight for native rights in British Columbia, 1884–1922,” left hist. (Kingston, Ont.), 2 (1994), no.2: 37–57. Roy Gronneberg, “James Teit – friend of the Indians,” New Shetlander (Lerwick), 126 (1978): 28–30. Katharine Howes and Pat Lean, “Commemorating: James Alexander Teit; an interview with Inga Teit Perkin, daughter of noted ethnologist James A. Teit,” Nicola Valley Hist. Quarterly (Merritt), 2 (1979), no.2: 1, 4. Ira Jacknis, “‘The artist himself’: the Salish basketry monograph and the beginnings of a Boasian paradigm,” in The early years of native American art history: the politics of scholarship and collecting, ed. J. C. Berlo (Seattle and Vancouver, 1992), 142–44. Peter Jamieson, “Jimmy Teit of Spence’s Bridge, British Columbia,” New Shetlander (Lerwick), 53 (January–March 1960): 17–20. Pat Lean and Sigurd Teit, “Introduction,” Teit Times (Merritt) 1 (summer 1995): 1–64. Ralph Maud, A guide to B.C. Indian myth and legend: a short history of myth-collecting and a survey of published texts (Vancouver, 1982). R. P. Rohner, “Franz Boas: ethnographer on the northwest coast,” in Pioneers of American anthropology: the uses of biography, ed. June Helm (Seattle and London, [1966]), 151–247. Frantz Rosenberg, Big game shooting in British Columbia and Norway (London, 1928). J. A. Smith, Widow Smith of Spence’s Bridge, ed. J. M. Campbell et al. (Merritt, 1989). W. C. Wickwire, “Beyond Boas? Re-assessing the contribution of ‘informant’ and ‘research assistant’, James A. Teit,” in Constructing cultures then and now: the Jesup North Pacific Expedition (Seattle, forthcoming); “James A. Teit: his contribution to Canadian ethnomusicology,” Canadian Journal of Native Studies (Brandon, Man.), 8 (1988): 183–204; “‘We shall drink from the stream and so shall you’: James A. Teit and native resistance in British Columbia, 1908–22,” CHR, 79 (1998): 199–236. Lincoln Wilbar, “British Columbia for the sportsman,” Travel and Exploration (London), October 1909: 279.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Wendy Wickwire, “TEIT, JAMES ALEXANDER (Tait),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 4, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/teit_james_alexander_1884_15E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/teit_james_alexander_1884_15E.html
Author of Article:   Wendy Wickwire
Title of Article:   TEIT, JAMES ALEXANDER (Tait)
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2005
Year of revision:   2005
Access Date:   December 4, 2023