College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Liberal Arts Matters

Notes From the Field

By Dr. Sue Kenyon, April 27th 2001


When Steve first asked me to give the "last lecture," I thought this was an administrative euphemism saying I was about to be "terminated". Then he pointed out that Paul Valliere and Steve Perrill, my predecessors for this singular honor, are both still alive and kicking, and I began to see that it could actually be a way to enjoy myself and hopefully add something to this wonderful event.

My mandate was a lecture on exactly what I wanted - a tall order. As most of you know what I most like talking about is anthropology, and that is certainly a topic you now all know something about. However I have discovered that many people know little about how we actually DO anthropology. You know that we study other cultures and travel a lot, but HOW? In fact the core of our discipline is a methodology subsumed by the term "fieldwork." As students of culture, we go "to the field", which is often a total misnomer. I have worked on an island, in a desert and in a town, but never in anything that fits the notion of field. However that be, once there we learn to live as "the natives" do -and this is where the fun really starts. Much of what happens to us never makes it into print, and indeed is often never discussed because - to be quite blunt - anthropologists are frequently made to look foolish or perhaps even more often spend the time making themselves look foolish.

So tonight I thought I'd like to share with you all some Notes from the Field, scientific accounts from my own fieldwork, about which I have generally tried to keep quiet. Tonight I will come clean and admit, for the first time publicly, to some of the experiences I have had which reveal that the basis of anthropology is never as clean-cut as our descriptions of it would suggest.

Fieldwork on the Northwest Coast

Some of the most important fieldwork I ever did - and which I rarely get a chance to talk about nowadays - was when as a graduate student I went off to do research in British Columbia. As a Brit, I felt that what made American anthropology unique was the presence of large population of "others", the native Americans, who had helped shape the early body of the discipline. This was where I wanted to learn about culture and alterity, and so, following a famous anthropological tradition, in 1972 I went off to work on the Northwest Coast, with a people known to outsiders as "Nootka." They inhabit a number of still isolated villages along the west coast of Vancouver Island, and although a substantial body of information about them was available from the eighteenth century, when Captain Cook and other explorers visited their shores, virtually nothing was known about them since that time. I had written a master's thesis about an Englishman who was captured by them in 1803 and was enslaved for several years before he was able to escape. In the peculiar way in which things work, someone at the Canadian Museums heard about this thesis and called me up to ask me if I would like to go and "do some summer fieldwork" with them. Of course I jumped at the opportunity, submitted a highly academic grant proposal to the Museum - and was surprised when she called again and said they would be happy to fund my research, but warned me not to be too ambitious. In fact she suggested that I look on this more as a reconnaissance trip. She also provided me with a list of band-chiefs among the Nootka, but said that otherwise there was virtually no basic information about the Nootka, on how many of the villages were still occupied and what they were doing nowadays. A report on this type of demographic information was what the Museum would like me to write. This all seemed very straightforward to me. I wrote to the chief of the most northerly Nootka band, reasoning that this was likely to be the most isolated and therefore the most interesting place to work, and asking for permission to visit to do some historical research. Then I waited for a reply.

Of course, none came. At the advice of my professor, who did not seem in the slightest surprised, I left as planned. I flew to Victoria, and there found that I could contact the band, known as the Kyuquots, by short wave radio and telephone combined. Amazingly I was put right through to the chief, Jackie, who turned out to be a woman, and learned that she had received my letter and discussed it with the people. They were less than enthusiastic about my visit, but she suggested I come anyway and talk to them myself. She gave me directions to Kyuquot, a fishing community two days away, by bus up the east coast of Vancouver Island, and by sea planes across the spine of the island, and up the extremely rugged west coast. As an aside, when I was last in BC I was a little hurt to see that one of the planes we used, a Russian Tupolev bi-plane, is now in a museum!

After a day of breathtaking flying up the extremely unspoilt West Coast, we landed in Kyuquot in the sea and glided towards a dock on one of what I saw from the air was a group of small occupied islands. Jackie met me and told me that the Indians were really anxious about my arrival and a meeting was planned almost immediately in the schoolroom on another island, known as Actis, or popularly the Other Side, which was on reserve land. Her husband took us over in his fishing trawler and my nervousness increased as I heard ME being discussed on the shortwave radio. "The white woman is here.... she is going over to the other side.... what is she doing here? What does she want?" It took a while for everyone to assemble, but almost before I could catch my breath, I found myself addressing a large room full of men, women and children. Feeling totally unprepared, I tried to present a coherent statement of my interest in Northwest Coast history, my concern that the Kyuquot peoples voices were left out of this, and my desire to write a fuller historiography of the area which incorporated these. Then I was asked to wait outside.

Once I left the room, bedlam broke out. For the next half hour, it sounded as if everybody in the room was talking at once. My anxiety level soared by the minute - until finally everybody started leaving. Without looking at me or addressing me, they streamed out of the room and headed for their boats. Jackie and her family came last, looking grim-faced. "Sorry," she said, "they have voted they don't want to work with you. You'll have to leave."

I was crushed. First day on the job as an anthropologist had ended in total failure. I had never heard of anyone being voted out of "their" field, let alone within hours of arriving. All the ethnographies I had ever read suggested that fieldwork was a seamless experience in which the anthropologist was happily accepted as one of the natives. How could I be so hopeless, such a failure, before my career as a fieldworker had even started? Whatever could I do next? How could I face my fellow graduate students next semester, or my professor who had successfully worked with native peoples in British Columbia for more than 30 years?

Jackie and her family took me back to their house, urging me to stay a day or two till I could get a plane out. They fed me tea and tried to cheer me up but I was overwhelmingly depressed by what had happened. However nothing is ever as it seems. Suddenly the door burst open and in marched an angry looking young woman, who I learned was named Sophie. "Who do they think they are?" she demanded. "Nobody will tell ME what to do." Turning to me, she added "My mother was a rain shaman. Come and have breakfast tomorrow and I'll tell you about her." Over the next hour, several other people arrived, like Sophie indignant at what they saw as the band's high-handedness, and told me THEY were prepared to work with me, arranging for me to go over to their places and trying, in small ways, to make me feel welcome.

And so my career as a fieldworker did get started. It was much much later that I was able to appreciate my first lesson in village politics, but over the next few weeks I learned that attempts to introduce non-Indian democratic procedures like voting sat very uneasily over older, well-tried patterns of reaching decisions or resolving conflict. At first I was alarmed, but later amused by the tendency to resolve many issues over the short-wave radio. Everybody kept their radios on, at home, on their boats, when working outside, and listened to the conversations being carried out by their neighbors. When something sounded a bit more dramatic or potentially exciting, they stopped what they were doing and turned up the volume. In this way quarrels between brothers, arguments between neighbors, accusations and countercharges, were followed by the whole community even as they behaved indifferently to what was going on around them. People rarely came to blows, other than verbal blows. The time Sophie slept with someone's husband, for example, was literally broadcast throughout the village, as the wronged wife yelled abuse and various friends chimed in to add their support and understanding of the affair. Sophie no doubt was widely criticized in person too, and perhaps even felt some remorse for her actions. It is highly unlikely that the relationship developed in view of all the public scrutiny.

That summer I stayed for almost three months in Kyuquot and I also visited all the other Nootka villages down the coast. Despite my inauspicious start, I was able to learn a lot about Kyuquot, past and present. I came to understand that local history was regarded as sacred knowledge, and as such could not be shared with outsiders, but not everything related to the past was included as sacred knowledge. For example I learnt a lot about the growth of Kyuquot, and also about its role in the Last War. When people first started offering me stories about this, I racked my brains to remember what action there had been in British Columbia in World War 2, not least because people spoke of the events of this time in the present tense. Finally I came to realize that they were talking about the last Indian War on this coast, which occurred around 1853; and that the stories I was being given involved not the narrators but their forebears, several generations removed.

At the end of the summer, a delegation of those who had most opposed my presence initially, came and apologized. Justifying their earlier attitudes as grounded in Red Power, but acknowledging that they no longer thought I was a great political threat, they promised that when I returned they would help me however they could.

And so I returned to Kyuquot two years later, this time with a baby in tow. Alistair was less than a year when we arrived and he learnt to walk and talk in the village. This time we were given a house known as "the house in the Middle of the Village" on the oldest occupied island of "the Other Side," from where I had been banned two years earlier. The owner of the house, Joe Johny, had been killed in a logging accident a year before and his wife had gone back to her village for the mourning period. No Indian would live in the house for a couple of years, but thought that I might not be so troubled by Joe's restless spirit. Joe had been a good friend to me on my earlier visit and I suspected he would not bother me. I also knew the rent would help his family. The house provided me with a central spot for participating in village life and observing all its comings and goings from my front window, which overlooked the bay, and was flanked by all the other 25 houses in the village.

This time I stayed for about eight months, during which I was able to get the material needed for my dissertation. However, this stay, like the first, was never the seamlessly smooth research experience I had anticipated. From the outset, things tended, well, to happen. We had not been settled in to our home for long when we woke one night to a sharp bang. I sat up with a start and recognized it was gun shots ricocheting against my walls. A few minutes later another shot whistled by, seemingly just above my head. Someone was shooting at my house. I crawled to the window but it was very dark and I could see nothing. I waited there for a long time but there were no more shots and finally I fell asleep again. The next morning I wandered over to the neighbors and asked John Vincent, who lived next door, if he had heard anything. Well, yes, he replied, he had been out shooting sea gulls in front of his house but out to sea, not at my house. Later I asked the new band-chief if I was quite safe. "Oh of course," he answered. The only problem with John Vincent was that his was the War Chief's house; he was a war chief with nothing to do. Every so often he went off the rails a bit, but it was nothing to get alarmed about.

I realized there was nothing I could do if John decided to take to the warpath by suddenly attacking from next door. In Canada, Indian villages on reserve land were outside federal jurisdiction so I, like the rest of the community, depended on community conscience to inhibit any violence. This usually worked. However, there was a delicate balance between non-interference in other people's lives and a general looking out for community well being.

The fragility of this was very apparent to me when one evening I had an unexpected guest; a white fisherman tied up his boat at the dock and marched over to my house, carrying a large whisky bottle. He had heard about me over on the other side, he said, and come to visit. After a few drinks he told me he knew I was a prostitute servicing the Indians (his expression) and had come to take a turn. By this point things were turning ugly, though Alistair had not yet woken up. The man was refusing to leave, and started chasing me with the bottle; once I realized he was the worse for whisky, I picked up a piece of wood and started chasing him, at the same time yelling loudly for help. Alistair, woken by the noise, also started to yell. The village was a very small place but nobody responded. I was finally able to get the man out of the house, and pushed a chest against the door (it had no lock). The man's boat remained tied up at the dock all night but finally left the following day. Again I wandered over to John Vincent's place. Did you hear the noise at our house last night? I wondered. "Yes," he replied, "that was quite a ruckus. Sounded like you were having a real party." I tried to explain that I had been yelling for help but I don't think he ever believed me. And I also know it would have been very difficult for any one in the village to interfere in what would have been seen as a domestic quarrel in which they had no business.

Not long after this, I saw John Vincent's boat leaving Kyuquot. His seven children were all over at my house that afternoon, playing with Alistair, and running in and out of the house. "Where are your parents fishing today?" I asked their older daughter, Janet. "Ah, not fishing," she answered, "they've gone to my grandparents in the next village, a day's journey by boat."

" When are they coming back?"
"I dunno... maybe two or three weeks."
"And where are you all staying?"
"Well, here, of course."

This was when I first properly understood the concept of communal parenting. My first reaction was indignation - "Well, they could have told me they were going or asked me to babysit" - but I soon realized it was no big deal in Kyuquot. I fed everyone tea that day and a couple of them did sleep over on the couch and the spare room. The rest wandered off to play with other children and stayed in various houses in the village. When their parents returned a couple of weeks later, everyone was glad to see them and this was clearly a perfectly usual event.

One day, I decided we had to have time out. Actis, the island where we lived, could be walked around in an hour and a half. I felt that it was Alistair and I who lived under a microscope rather than the other way round; everything we did was common knowledge in the community. So I went and borrowed Adolphe Leo's motor boat, packed a picnic and we headed up the inlet to a beach I had visited some time earlier looking for clams with a group of Indians. I found it without too much trouble, and pulled up the boat, letting Alistair paddle and run along the sands. It was wonderfully relaxing to lie quietly in the sun, make sandcastles, sing and shout..... Suddenly there was a crashing sound behind us. I somehow knew immediately we were in danger. I scooped Alistair up and virtually threw him into the boat, grabbing what else I could as I pushed the boat off the beach into the water. As I jumped in myself and started rowing furiously away from land, I saw the size of the black bear that had come charging through the woods onto the beach. And then I also noticed, stumbling behind her, a little black cub. Two mothers and their cubs, both trying to avoid trouble.

Time did not necessarily fly by in Kyuquot, but all too soon we were coming towards the end of our stay. In September, several of the families left the village to move down the coast for their children to attend school. I had finished working with the families remaining in Actis and was traveling "to the other side" by boat each day, to work with some of the older people there. Adolphe Leo kindly continued to rent me his motor dinghy each day and Janet, the 12 year old from next door, would come with me to keep an eye on Alistair and take him to play with other children. One morning, we set off as usual across the bay on a journey that usually took us 20 minutes. It was cool and the air was damp but we were all wearing life-jackets-cum anoraks and did not feel the cold. As we rounded the headland, Janet pointed to a strange boat, anchored off another of the islands. "Look, Chusan, Mounties." We waved at the strangers, who were still a ways off but not lying in the direction we were heading. Then Janet spoke again. "They're waving us over." In a panic I realized we were being summoned. I turned the boat in their direction and headed over to them, trying to slow down as I approached but instead speeding up so that we nearly rammed them. They grabbed the boat, looked at each of us in turn, and then asked "Who are you?" I gave them my name and, when they asked what I was doing leaving an Indian village so early in the morning, I explained a little about my research. They cut me off. Did I not know it was illegal for a white to live in an Indian village? Now this was not true. The police were unable to enter the village unless asked, which was why they were hiding just out of sight, waiting for the first person to leave the village. On the other hand, one could be invited, as I was, to stay in a village. I decided to let that pass. They tried a new tack. Was this my boat? When they learned it was not, they wanted to know how many life jackets we had. I told them we were all wearing life jackets - but this was the wrong answer. The boat would hold twelve people and therefore needed twelve life jackets. One of the officers was busy scribbling on a pad, and leaning over, handed me a note. When I read it, I suddenly realized I was being given a REAL summons. I was being charged with operating a boat inadequately equipped. The officer told me brusquely I had to appear in court in Tashis (two days away by boat) within the week, or I would be held in contempt. Furthermore I should return immediately from where I had come and not go wandering round the ocean in such an inadequate state.

I couldn't believe what had happened. I restarted the boat's engine and we returned the way we had come. I felt close to tears; I barely had enough money to last me for the rest of my research but this trip to court would clean me out and there was no way I would be able to return to finish my work. I still did not have enough to write a dissertation, and moreover I felt it was letting down all my Indian friends. By now, virtually everybody had allowed me to interview them, they had shared their fish with me and taught me how to smoke and dry it. They had included me in all the community events and even rewarded me with gifts of food at the potlatch ceremonies held that summer. I OWED them a reasonable report or book after all their help.

As we slowly returned to the village, I became aware of what was happening on shore. I had never seen anything quite like it during my stays in Kyuquot - and indeed much later I realized that this was what I had read about in accounts of important ceremonial visitors arriving from outside villages. People were coming out of all the houses and walking slowly down towards the dock. Everyone had witnessed, with their binoculars, my meeting with the mounties and had realized what had happened. They had told me before that the Mounties make a sudden visit to the area every couple of years and arrest an Indian on some bogus charge, just to teach the people a lesson. This year they had got me. The mounties cover was blown, all thanks to me. Suddenly I was the hero of the hour. Everyone was waiting for me on the dock, to hug me and sympathize - and quite a few to laugh! Janet shared all the details and word was quickly relayed by radio to people on the other side so they too would stay home to avoid any sort of interaction with the mounties.

The police stayed around for several days but were not able to find any other victims. Before they left, I found the officer who had issued my charge and persuaded him to give me a month to appear in court; in that way I would be able to finish my work. He told me that I was clearly guilty and that I risked imprisonment but would definitely be fined, probably $500-$1000, something the Indians agreed with from bitter experience. They all thought this experience was hilarious and teased me unmercifully for the rest of my stay. But it was clear that I had prevented any of them being caught this time, and their joking was now tinged with affection.

Finally I was ready to leave Kyuquot and flew to Tashis for my day in court. Alistair and I were seated on the bench with the other criminals: two young Indian boys who were variously accused of throwing stones at salmon, and fishing in an illegal spot. Nobody spoke in their defense, though I knew full well that poor Indians, without western fishing tackle, continue to catch salmon by stunning them, a traditional skill that takes a great deal of expertise. I also knew of the claims made by Indian bands to be able to use their traditional fishing sites. None of this was raised in court, however, and each of the accused was fined $500. Then it was my turn. With Alistair happily charging round the court-room, I listened to my offense being read out by the judge (the accusing officer did not appear): operating a boat with inadequate life jackets. The judge asked if I had anything to say in my own defense. I explained that we were all wearing life jackets should any disaster have overtaken us, and that there would have been nowhere to stow any extra life jackets. The judge ignored this, but leaning forward asked:

"Young lady, if your boat had gone down, do you know how long you would have survived in that water? Fifteen seconds, that is all!" So much for the value of a regulation life preserver. Then he banged his gavel, said "Guilty as charged. Fined $5." The good news was that I was not to be imprisoned and could afford to pay my fine. The bad news was that I have a police record in Canada (which I presume I still have); and the double standard of justice, of which the Indians had talked so bitterly, was clearly alive and well.

The people of Kyuquot were anxious to hear news of the trial, which we relayed via radio; and Indian politicians in the area were later to use it as a pretext for forcing reform of the local legal and jurisdictional administration. All that happened after I left. but I like to think that my involvement, my fieldwork, not only yielded a dissertation and later a book about Kyuquot, but also contributed in some small way to improving local Indian-White relations. However, that is probably wishful thinking, pure ethnocentrism. Indians of this area are still struggling to get recognition of their land and community rights. In all likelihood, the best that can be said for me is that I saved one Indian, one year, from being sent to jail on trumped-up fishing charges.


Maybe you are beginning to see certain parallels emerging in all this. It took me a while - but I am now very aware of how fieldwork is in fact just like teaching. We all obsess about our methods and our failures and only in retrospect gain some perspective on our accomplishments. We DO, I hope, get better at it, though this also took me a while, in both enterprises. Altogether, I suppose I have more than ten years of field experience, though not all of that is on the Northwest Coast. Perhaps I have fewer mishaps now than when I started, but it certainly never proceeds smoothly.

Few of us as professors get voted out of the classroom after the first day - but I bet none of us here have forgotten our first batch of student evaluations when we felt that this was basically what the students were saying to us. Each harsh comment was a veritable "knife to the heart," which left us wondering how we could ever have the nerve to go before a class again.

Very few of us get chased by black bears into the ocean - or if so, it is only figuratively. And though we are frequently misunderstood I hope that none of us are accused of prostitution in the discharge of our duties. I also hope that very few of get arrested in the pursuit of pedagogical excellence. But we can probably all agree that for the most part the similarities are really there. We enter the classroom knowing pretty much what we want to do, and after the semester is over, we usually make sense of it in our own minds, as we reflect on what went on, what worked well and occasionally, what did not work so well.

But during the actual semester? the process of teaching the course? In teaching, as in fieldwork, we use ourselves as the main instrument for accomplishing our objectives and this is something we cannot be taught beforehand. It can only be learnt through hard earned personal, often bitter experience. Like in the field, real life in the classroom is messy, unpredictable and highly stressful. Even if we have taught the class many times before, and especially if we rely on old, well-worn notes, we can never anticipate how this new group of students will fail to grasp what we are trying to do and may succeed in disrupting our brilliant agendas. And that perhaps is where the real parallels lie. If we are prepared to engage ourselves as intensively as we expect of others, it is in the messiness of everyday life, whether it be in the field or in the classroom, that the real creativity of our endeavors truly lies. Out of what appear to be unmitigated disasters, CAN emerge some of the most fruitful, stimulating and challenging insights, that we as scholars and teachers are privileged to experience.

So, next time things don't go too well in C&T, let's all remind ourselves of just that!