Dialogues of Culture and History on the Northwest Coast
“Outstanding . . . What Marshall Sahlins has done for the Hawaiians, Michael Harkin has done for the Heiltsuks.”—Sergei Kan, Dartmouth College.
In an incisive and wide-ranging critique of ethnohistory and historical anthropology, Michael Harkin develops an innovative approach to understanding the profound cultural changes experienced during the past century by the Heiltsuks (Bella Bella), a Northwest Coast Indian group. Between 1880 and 1920, the Heiltsuks changed from one of the most traditional and aggressive groups on the Northwest Coast to paragons of Victorian virtues. Why and how did this dramatic transformation occur? These questions, Harkin contends, can best be answered by tracing the changing views the Heiltsuks had of themselves and of their past as they encountered colonial powers.
Rejecting many of the common methods and assumptions of ethnohistorians as unwittingly Eurocentric or simplistic, Harkin argues that the multiple perspectives, motives, and events constituting the Heiltsuks’ world and history can be productively conceived of as dialogues, ongoing series of culturally embedded communicative acts that presuppose previous acts and constrain future ones. Historical transformations in three of these dialogues, centering on the body, material goods, and concepts of the soul, are examined in detail.
A valuable history of a little-known Indian group and a highly original investigation into the dynamics of colonial encounters, the nature of cultural memory, and the processes of cultural stability and change, this provocative study sets the agenda for a new type of ethnohistory.
Michael E. Harkin is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Wyoming. This is his first book.