Academic journal article The Canadian Geographer

Vanishing the Haida: George Dawson's Ethnographic Vision and the Making of Settler Space on the Queen Charlotte Islands in the Late Nineteenth Century

Academic journal article The Canadian Geographer

Vanishing the Haida: George Dawson's Ethnographic Vision and the Making of Settler Space on the Queen Charlotte Islands in the Late Nineteenth Century

Article excerpt


A score of individuals sit huddled in the underbrush, each tightly wrapped in the dye-banded wool of a Hudson Bay Company blanket (Figure 1). Above the blanket hems, attentive faces--some elderly, many quite young--peer at us, unflinchingly meeting our gaze across the historical gulf that separates our time from theirs. In the background their dwellings rise above the twisted thicket of vegetation--large houses of unadorned cedar planks facing the open water just visible in the middle distance along the image's right edge.

The subjects of this provocative image were the Kwakwaka'wakw inhabitants of Forward Inlet, an arm of Quatsino Sound located on Vancouver Island's northwestern coast. The date was 18 September 1878 and the photographer was George Dawson, the Geological Survey of Canada's principal surveyor in British Columbia (BC) during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Following an extensive and productive exploration of the Queen Charlotte Islands, (1) Dawson had come to Forward Inlet in search of the rich coal seams that several tantalizing rumours and his own geological instincts told him were there. As was his practice, Dawson occupied himself with a careful reconnaissance of the inlet's coal-bearing rocks throughout the day before visiting the native village with his photographic equipment in the evening, once his official obligations had been met. Dawson's interest in documenting these Kwakwaka'wakw villagers was not unprecedented. In addition to being one of Canada's leading geologists, Dawson had become something of an amateur ethnographer in the course of his BC field work. Whenever circumstances permitted, Dawson recorded myths, collected vocabularies, observed ceremonies and photographed the native villages and peoples he encountered. Indeed, the Forward Inlet photograph was merely one of many ethnographic images that Dawson had produced over the course of the 1878 field season.

Something, however, is not right with this particular image. The figures in the foreground have the blurred features and undefined edges of ghostly apparitions. Fewer than half a dozen faces have discernable expressions and several of the individuals appear as little more than smoky voids against the crisply-rendered vegetation and dwellings in the background. Dawson's field notes offer an explanation: '[I] had endless difficulty in getting them [the villagers] to understand what was wanted, to go to the right place, & finally to sit still. The photo if it turns out visible at all I fear will be a very poor one' (Cole and Lockner 1989, 530). Dawson's pessimism was based on his recognition that late nineteenth century field cameras required subjects to remain absolutely stationary during the long exposures in order for images to be rendered crisply and clearly. Of course, for a native community that was unaccustomed to posing for the camera and was both uninterested in and disconnected from the final product, the inclination to sit completely still for several minutes at a stretch was understandably low.

As unintentional as it was, however, Dawson's photograph nonetheless depicted these villagers as strangely ethereal and decidedly ephemeral. Indeed, looking at the photograph, it is hard to escape the perception that these people are dissipating into the air before our eyes--vanishing, quite literally, into the woodwork that will continue to stand sentinel over Forward Inlet after their passing. It is an arresting effect, creating a melancholic image richly tinged with pathos and loss.


Dawson's photographic 'mis-take' at Forward Inlet thus provides an ideal point of departure for this article because it serves as an especially apposite visual metaphor for his ethnographic vision--a vision that Dawson articulated explicitly not long after his visit to Quatsino Sound:

   [T]he ultimate fate of the Red Man of North America is absorption
   and extinction: just as European animals introduced into Australia
   and other regions, frequently drive those native of the country
   from their haunts, and may even exterminate them, and as European
   wild plants accidentally imported, have become the most sturdy and
   strong in our North American pastures; so the Indian races seem to
   diminish and melt away in contact with the civilization of Europe
   . … 
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