First-Rate Biography of Indigenous Culture Advocate

Winnipeg Free Press, December 1, 2012 | Go to article overview
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First-Rate Biography of Indigenous Culture Advocate


DIAMOND Jenness is an important figure both for the development of anthropology in Canada and because of his pioneering studies of indigenous culture and history.

There has never been a full account of Jenness's life and work, but now, over 40 years after his death, University of Winnipeg senior scholar Barnett Richling has given us a first-rate biography.

Jenness was born and grew up in New Zealand, leaving in 1908 to study classics at Oxford. He soon decided to specialize in the relatively new field of anthropology.

While there he was the classmate of a number of pioneer anthropologists, including the Canadian Marius Barbeau.

In 1912 he began his career doing field work among the indigenous people of New Guinea. While he was visiting in New Zealand after returning from New Guinea he received a telegram from Edward Sapir, the head of the anthropology division of the Geological Survey of Canada, inviting him to join a three-year expedition to the Canadian Arctic to be led by Manitoban Vilhjalmar Stefansson.

He accepted the position and thus began his work in Canada, where he spent the rest of his life. The Arctic expedition employed 70 men and six vessels and was completely funded by the Canadian government. Prime Minister Robert Borden wanted to establish Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic. There was also great interest in the rich natural resources of the region, and many saw Stefansson's project as a way to accomplish these things.

Jenness was more concerned with the indigenous people of the Arctic. During the years he spent with the expedition, he lived with a number of different Inuit groups and did some archeological investigations.

He was a man of his time and sometimes his attitudes toward the Inuit, as revealed in his writings, would now be considered disrespectful and dismissive.

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