The First Nations' first sites

Peoples of the Northwest Coast
May 12, 2000

With their house ("totem") poles, great canoes and elaborate carved boxes and masks, the peoples of the northwest coast of North America have inspired generations of museum-goers. Their complex social and economic life has also inspired a long history of scholarship, and they are a standard feature on undergraduate anthropology courses as "complex hunter-gatherers". For members of the public, students or anthropology instructors, Peoples of the Northwest Coast will be a most useful and interesting resource - indeed, it is intended primarily for these audiences.

This is a densely detailed summary of archaeological research on these peoples, which is a major achievement. The authors have synthesised information from a broad range of published and unpublished site reports to produce the cultural descriptions and histories that comprise much of this book. Given the size of the geographical region they are covering - not to mention the difficulty of extracting unpublished reports from busy field archaeologists - this is a major undertaking. They have also done much to translate archaeological jargon into recognisable (although still rather technical) English.

Kenneth Ames and Herbert Maschner have taken the interesting approach of dividing the book thematically rather than strictly chronologically, so that in addition to descriptions of the cultural sequences on the coast as revealed in the archaeological record, chapters focus on the pre-contact coastal environment and its resources, subsistence practices, household and social organisation, ritual and status, warfare, and art. There are profuse and quite wonderful illustrations ranging from detailed maps to drawings of fishing hooks, and intriguing discussions of archaeological evidence showing the development of northwest coast lifeways, social stratification and artistic styles. The level of detail included is useful but not overwhelming for the non-specialist.

There is an interesting tension in this work over the issue of history and the construction of knowledge about the past. The authors state emphatically that their main theme "is that hunter-gatherers have long and rich histories", and their detailed archaeological reconstructions certainly support this. The work, however, is presented as a rather distanced, academic history of these peoples. It is introduced by a reference to Captain James Cook's arrival on the northwest coast in 1777 and continues for several pages with a list of European contacts and early historic sources for the area. From the beginning, it is set up as an outsider's, onlooker's view of the past. The perspectives of First-Nations people themselves on the past or their participation in the shaping of knowledge about their past(s) is only hinted at throughout the text: occasionally by a photograph of an excavation showing First-Nation onlookers or participants, for instance. There are few connections between the archaeological pasts so carefully excavated and inferred in this text and the pasts so treasured by First-Nation peoples today.

The authors might reply that this is a work about the "archaeology and prehistory" of the northwest coast, as their title suggests. Indeed, the few false notes in the text occur when they stray out of archaeological evidence and into historic materials: 18th and 19th-century sketches, paintings and photographs are used for their ethnographic details, for instance, without comment on the artists' intended exoticism or saleability of the images; beaded designs on ceremonial regalia shown in a remarkable photo of a Tlingit group are captioned as having floral designs from central Canada, when all the pieces show a distinct coastal or interior British Columbia style only very indirectly derived from Algonquian floral imagery. A bit more ethnohistorical research would have shored up these elements considerably.

While the archaeological material and sequences are absolutely solid and beneficial, the book would have been greatly enlivened by the incorporation of perspectives derived from recent collaborative research with First-Nation peoples, such as those being done for the Sto:lo First Nation, or by Aldona Jonaitis or Julie Cruikshank. True, there are enormous gaps in knowledge between the present and the distant past, but the generalist reader is presumably interested in the living as well as the dead. One wonders, at the end of the book, what the peoples of the northwest coast think about their histories, and about such presentations of it as Ames and Maschner's.

Used in connection with historical and contemporary materials, however, this would be an excellent book for a course on hunter-gatherers. Such broad syntheses as this are rare, and there is especially little material for complex areas such as the northwest coast. It will be a significant and most useful addition to archaeological and anthropological libraries.

Laura Peers is lecturer in social anthropology, University of Oxford.

Peoples of the Northwest Coast: Their Archaeology and Prehistory

Author - Kenneth M. Ames
ISBN - 0 500 05091 0
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £24.95
Pages - 288

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