Get to know a researcher: History's Wendy Wickwire

Wendy Wickwire Sidney Booklaunch 2020
Book launch for Wendy Wickwire's At the Bridge: James Teit and an Anthropology of Belonging in Sidney, BC (June 2019). From left to right: Bonnie Campbell, Emma Joe, Hilda Belanger, John Haugen, Wendy Wickwire, Charon Spinks, Janice Antoine, Amy Charlie, Michael M’Gonigle, Grand Chief Percy Joe, Mandy Jimmie (Photo credit: Wendy Wickwire).

Historian Wendy Wickwire’s book, At the Bridge: James Teit and an Anthropology of Belonging, has received numerous accolades since it was published last year. The book most recently won this year’s Canada Prize in the Humanities and Social Sciences, from the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, and the Canadian Historical Association’s Clio BC award. Wickwire, an emerita professor in the Department of History, spent three decades researching James Teit, a prolific ethnographer and advocate for Indigenous Peoples’ rights. She talks to Stephanie Harrington about bringing the story of this little-known historical figure to the fore.

Firstly, congratulations on the success of your book! This has been a life’s work for you, one that stretches across your academic career, back to 1977 when you were a young researcher who stumbled across James Teit’s work for the first time. What is it about Teit that compelled you to tell his story? In other words, what made him stand out for his time?

I am so pleased to start with this question, Stephanie, because I think about it a lot. Here is the short version. What initially attracted me to James Teit was his deep and long-term connection to the land and its Indigenous Peoples. He also had an awareness of the destructive power of settler colonialism that was rare for his time (1880s-1920s).  I liked how he forged his own path at every turn: he married a Nlaka’pamux woman and immersed himself in her language and culture; he rejected the institutionalized religion on which he had been raised; and he joined the BC Socialist movement shortly after its founding in 1902 and became one of its most ardent members. In a letter to a friend in 1910, I found him complaining about the “the 99 per cent and the one per cent” in much the same way as we hear today. Another thing that struck me as important was his work with women at a time when most ethnographers focused largely on men.  The final straw was discovering Teit’s prominent role in assisting the Indigenous leaders across British Columbia to assert their claim that, until the contentious land-title issue was resolved by the British high courts, the settler project in BC stood on stolen land. With all of these threads in view, it was clear that a book-length biography was needed.

The book, although a biography, represents a journey of discovery for you too. The reader follows along as you learn about Teit. But we’re also getting an insight into your evolving understanding of the relations between settlers and Indigenous Peoples at this time. Can you talk more about this parallel process?

Yes, I am indebted to the Teit story for its role in drawing me into our region’s reserve communities and from there, into the region’s Indigenous history. My first foray into the massive Teit archive was via Teit’s song-recording project in south-central BC, which included more than 200 songs on wax-cylinders with accompanying notes and photographs. In the late 1970s (as part of my dissertation research), I took copies of these recordings to Indigenous communities in the southern Interior where, in addition to opening many doors, they triggered many poignant memories. I realized quickly that in order to appreciate the depth of this cultural legacy, I had to understand the history underlying it. I also had to understand the racism and the political struggles that the Indigenous peoples throughout the province endured in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century as they fought for their basic rights, especially in relation to their land-base. I tried hard to weave this history through the Teit story because I felt it was a history that all settler Canadians should know.

James Teit
James Teit poses with three Interior chiefs during a trip to Ottawa in 1916. From left are John Tetlanetza, Teit, Paul David and Thomas Adolph. (Photo credit: Frederick Lyonde)

You write that one of the reasons why Teit is little known for his work is because of the idea of “studied neutrality,” popularized by Franz Boas. The belief was that an anthropologist passed on objective data in a measured, intellectual style that was free of personal bias. This approach seems similar to how many academics approach research. What does decolonizing research mean to you? And did you consciously use decolonizing methodologies when writing this book?

As noted, my research for this book has deep roots. For so many years, I felt guilty about the time it was taking me to finish it. Looking back on it now, however, I think the delay was a good thing because it allowed me to immerse myself in the radical critiques that took hold in the social sciences and humanities through the 1990s and early 2000s. Today, decolonizing theories and methodologies are mainstays of most academic disciplines. Three decades ago, this was not the case. I was fortunate to get a head start on this path in 1979 when I took a course on the history of anthropology with Johannes Fabian. Unbeknownst to me, Fabian was part of a small circle of theorists who were advocating for radical epistemological change within the social sciences. He was at the tail-end of a book manuscript, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object which he had decided to test on the students in this class. One of his goals was to highlight the limits of “objectivity” and “studied neutrality” on the discipline of anthropology. I gained a critical awareness in this course that has kept me motivated to this day. Indeed, the book would not be what it is today if I had tried to write it without the flurry of post-colonial scholarship that emerged through the following decades.

Where have you toured this book? And what has the reception been like among Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities?

I have done only one book tour thus far. In mid-October, I took the book back to the communities that were so central to it, i.e., Merritt, Ashcroft, Spences Bridge and Lytton. All but the Ashcroft event were hosted by Indigenous community-members. The reception I received was wonderful. There were many rounds of appreciation from chiefs and elders; and everyone left with copies in hand. One woman at Lytton said she had read the book twice! Such enthusiasm has continued. I have received notes at the rate of about two per day from readers—both Indigenous and non-Indigenous—for over a year now.

How would you like history to remember Teit? And why does his story matter now?

Well, first off, I think that the discipline of anthropology owes Teit a huge debt for his pioneering efforts, particularly in the sphere of political and community-engaged research. It is shocking that in 2020, he has still not made it into their histories. I also think that all Canadians need to know the Teit story, if only to see the struggles that Indigenous peoples in BC faced in the early twentieth-century as they fought for their basic rights. All too often settler Canadians look on Indigenous resistance as a relatively new phenomenon. When viewed against the backdrop of the James Teit story, they will see it as a continuation of what has been going on for years and years. My hope is that readers will emerge with a deeper understanding of what a true commitment to “recognition and reconciliation” involves.

 Wendy Wickwire At the Bridge Book Cover