The Enigma of Cannibalism of the Pacific Northwest Coast

300 pages,
ISBN: 0921870477

Post Your Opinion
Eating One Another in B.C.
by Brian Brett

How does that line go, the one from Sweeney Todd? "The history of the world, my sweet-is who gets eaten and who gets to eat." I can't think of a quote more appropriate for Jim McDowell's Hamatsa.
His premise is simple, but attractive: despite the numerous reports of cannibalism among the Native people of the Northwest Coast, the actual record shows the claims were based on hearsay, open to interpretation, or made with ulterior motives-and if any cannibalism did occur it was of a ritual, not a gustatory kind.
While some people may think cannibalism is cannibalism, McDowell does a fine job of illustrating its different forms and the cultural conditioning surrounding them. Unfortunately, late in the book he gets a little carried away, almost going so far as to praise the hamatsa rite, or cannibal dance, as a cure for practically everything from biological engineering to pollution. He suddenly slips into the stereotyping and platitudes he has been carefully avoiding throughout his study, and drops such clinkers as "renew the Tao (norms) of the past," a simplification which I'm sure would surprise most Taoists.
This New-Agey last chapter is one of only a few minor flaws in this comprehensively researched history of a skirmish in the clash between European and Native cultures. The breadth and depth of McDowell's scholarship are evident on almost every page. I have been reading this material for close to twenty years, and going back through my texts, I was unable to catch any significant historical error. Well done, indeed.
The crucial section is his dissection of the historical record from Captain Cook onwards, journal by journal, examining once again the morass of accounts that until the last few years had been taken at face value. This is followed by an overview of the European attitude towards cannibalism: the "cannibal complex" of our own culture.
An important point he makes is that, not only on the Northwest Coast, but all over the world, many of the reports of gustatory cannibalism among aboriginal peoples are unwitnessed hearsay or exaggerated, and in most cases, both. The accusation of cannibalism was a way of treating foreign peoples as "other", a way of proving their inferiority and justifying the ugly sins of colonialism.
In fact, there have been European witnesses to cannibalism among aboriginal peoples. A notorious incident involved the Wacusu who lived near the Congo River. During what was perhaps Henry Morton Stanley's most infamous expedition, his officer James Jameson witnessed (some would say took part in) and made drawings of the murder and eating of a young girl, an incident that began with what he thought was a dare over some pieces of cloth. Jameson, according to one scholar, was the inspiration for Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
I did find myself wishing McDowell would expand further on the fact that cannibalism is also an excuse for conflict and status among and between Native peoples themselves, and not just another example of Europeans justifying the ransack of the cultures they discovered and overwhelmed. After all, the term came from the mispronunciation of Carib, the name of the people that Columbus first encountered, and the initial accusations made against them were by the Arawaks, their traditional enemies, not the European explorers.
Similarly, the charges against Chief Maquinna of Nootka were often made by other Native people, and many of the accusations were the result of normal power politics between villages and between individuals within villages on the West Coast.
Still, the intruders were looking for evidence of savagery. Perhaps the oddest, almost humorous (if the results weren't so tragic) component in McDowell's thesis is, that the European traders and explorers were so obsessed with the topic that the Native people assumed the Europeans were the cannibals and, desperate to buy some of the explorers' superior technology, brought them children and pieces of trophy flesh (heads and hands) for barter.
Now there is no doubt that several of the West Coast tribes were slavers and trophy hunters, and sometimes collected the heads (one lesser chief, Callicum, even claimed to sleep on a pillow made of the heads of his victims) and right hands of their enemies, but McDowell goes a long way towards proving that these offerings as food were meant to please the Europeans, for the purpose of exchange, not for the Natives' own consumption.
All in all, McDowell skates through the racism and the preconceived notions that each culture developed concerning the "other", especially when dealing with a subject as sticky as cannibalism. It has taken us hundreds of years to begin shifting the focus from European opinions of Native culture to learning from the First Peoples themselves. There is still a long way to go, and with this extensive study McDowell does his share in illustrating the necessity for shifting the point of view, though he does have a tendency to make the hamatsa rite the most important in the winter ceremonials when, truly, it should be considered as only one of many threads.
My greatest fear when starting to read this book was that McDowell would be enveloped by the new political correctness that has overtaken some people involved with Native cultures, and that we would end up with a mushy Rousseau-style whitewash, but he is much more intelligent than that, even if he does quote extensively the wacko anthropologist William Arens, who speculated that cannibalism around the world is merely a figment of the white man's imagination, and Aaron Glass, who postulates that the Kwakwaka'wakw hamatsa ceremony was really about eating the white intruders who "ate" them. I think the record is clear that some form of ritual cannibalism (if not gustatory) existed when Cook arrived. McDowell steers away from these far-fetched apologists towards common sense and a deeper understanding of this important ceremony and its history.
At the same time I admired the various ways he steps around the deathtraps that can ensnare anyone writing on this subject. For instance, nomenclature is a nightmare. As most people are now aware, many of the names bestowed on Native people, and in fact on entire cultures, were inflicted by arrogant white people who couldn't be bothered to learn how to pronounce the words correctly. One case that McDowell cites in his notes is amusing. Nu-tka in the native Nuu-chah-nulth tongue means "go around". Two researchers claim that, in all likelihood, the people were instructing Cook to move to a safer anchorage, and not identifying themselves as "Nootka".
McDowell, for the purposes of clarity, uses the standard divisions that unfortunately even most of our best anthropologists have accepted, yet at the same time is careful to note without fanfare throughout the text the names that the Native people have reclaimed, so that we can follow the arbitrary divisions while still having the authentic names at hand.
Recently, in a letter to B.C. Bookworld, McDowell wondered why the book hasn't sparked more controversy. I was surprised by the letter. The answer is obvious. His combination of comprehensive research and common sense (apart from a few minor lapses) has created a text which, I think, will become an accepted classic on the misconceptions that can arise when two cultures meet on the winter bays of the West Coast.

Brian Brett lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C.; we believe him to be neither a ritual nor a gustatory cannibal.


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us