Fieldwork in Fort Rupert


Boas and Hunt’s Fieldwork in Fort Rupert, BC, 1894

“I copy some of your notes for the Dance of 1894 while you was here. And find it Hard in some Plases But I think I can go throgh it and I think you will like them after I finish them all.”
— George Hunt to Franz Boas, 15 February 1896

After the Chicago World’s Fair closed its gates in October of 1893, Boas spent the next year unmoored. He had a temporary job to catalog the fair’s ethnological materials for the emergent Field Columbian Museum, but that spring the new museum director offered the permanent curatorial position to another candidate. In January 1894, while still in Chicago, Boas’s 9-month-old daughter Hedwig died in his arms. Grieving, and anxious about providing for his family and advancing in his profession, he arranged support from four institutions (the U.S. National Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, the Bureau of American Ethnology, and the British Association for the Advancement of Science) to conduct fall fieldwork on the Northwest Coast.1 The two museums paid him to collect materials for “life group” dioramas of Kwakwaka’wakw people, exhibits he would prepare in 1895.2 The centerpiece of the 1894 trip was three weeks in Tsaxis (Fort Rupert) during November and December. Fort Rupert was the home of George Hunt and the Kwagu’ł band of Kwakwaka’wakw. Besides collecting, Boas’s main goal in Fort Rupert was to document the interrelated rituals that comprise the Kwakwaka’wakw Winter Ceremonial, including the Hamat̕sa (“Cannibal Dance”) that had captivated him early in his career and at the fair.3

The fieldwork was fruitful but exhausting for both Boas and Hunt. They attended scores of feasts, potlatches, and T̕seka dance initiations, which occurred daily and often into the night. The village was crowded, as the Kwagu’ł had invited two nearby bands to participate: the Gusgimaxw from Quatsino Sound and the ’Nak’waxda’xw from Blunden Harbour. Hunt was Boas’s artery to the community and these new experiences. For one, Boas lived in an unfinished room behind Hunt’s family home. After Boas arrived, Hunt recommended that Boas hold his own feast right away. Boas complied, hosting 250 people in order to show respect, gain credibility, and secure invitations to the seasonal activities (Fig. 1).4 “I get quite a different impression of these feasts, witnessing them, from that I had formed only hearing of them,” wrote Boas to his wife.5 Throughout the visit, Hunt worked with Boas after events to help him interpret the speeches and allay confusion about the proceedings. Between ceremonies, Boas took extensive notes (written in his idiosyncratic shorthand), translated Kwak̓wala, corrected transcriptions of songs and stories made in Chicago, and collected materials—all aided by Hunt.6 Boas also hired a photographer from Victoria, Oregon C. Hastings, who took 144 “good pictures.”7 While many of these images were reproduced directly in the 1897 volume, some were touched up or amalgamated to inspire “documentary” illustrations of ceremonial events.

Fig. 1. Boas actually sponsored two feasts during his 1894 fieldwork in Fort Rupert. His photographer was only present for the second, depicted here.
Negative 336115, American Museum of Natural History (the source for Boas 1897: Plate 7).

Boas and Hunt’s notes from this three-week immersion in Kwakwaka’wakw culture comprise a significant portion of the 1897 book. The corpus of material, recorded in multiple media (including text, drawing, and photography), is among the earliest of its kind resulting from the now-standard anthropological method of “participant observation.”8 Even though Boas credits Hunt in the book’s preface as providing “the great body of facts” therein, Boas represents the work as his own eye-witness account and obfuscates Hunt’s participation in key passages. Boas’s promotion of his data-gathering and authorship as independent and objective gave the 1897 report a gloss of greater “authenticity,” which Boas likely desired as an anthropologist still establishing his reputation. Boas left Fort Rupert in early December 1894, drained but happy with the results, and eager to return to his family in New York.9

By Laura Allen


  1. Hinsley and Holm, “A Cannibal in the National Museum,” 308–309; Cole, Franz Boas, 156–169.
  2. Cole, Captured Heritage, 139. On the trip, Boas also collected other objects that appear in the 1897 volume, including ceremonial items he purchased at curio shops in Victoria and from the Nisga’a in northern British Columbia (Accession #1895-4, Anthropology Division Archives, American Museum of Natural History). Throughout, he also measured the heads of Native people. This anthropometric work supported his critique of scientific racism by demonstrating the wide range of physiological variation among a given population (e.g., “Human Faculty as Determined by Race,” Boas’s 1894 vice-presidential address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science).
  3. In Fort Rupert, Boas would witness the Hamat̕sa in a local context for the first time (Hinsley and Holm, 312).
  4. Rohner, The Ethnography of Franz Boas, 177–180, 188; Cole, Franz Boas, 170. In the 1897 book, Boas uses the image in Fig. 1 to illustrate the purchase of a Copper using trade blankets as currency, but does not disclose his role as the host of the event where it occurred (Jacknis, “Franz Boas and Photography,” 21, 23).
  5. Rohner, 179.
  6. Ibid.,178–83. For a treatment of how Boas distilled his field notes into ethnographic text, see Hatoum, “‘I Wrote All My Notes in Shorthand’.”
  7. Rohner, 190; Jacknis, 10.
  8. Hatoum, 227. The 1894 fieldwork in fact represents the longest period Boas spent in a single Northwest Coast village during his career (Cole, Franz Boas, 170).
  9. Rohner, 180, 189­–90; Cole, Franz Boas, 173.