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A remarkable man: the world of James Teit

by Alastair Hamilton -

Prehistoric peoples came to Shetland perhaps 5,000 years ago, as did the Vikings from about 800AD. In recent decades, many people have made the move to Shetland, writing a new chapter in their lives.

However, there have been times in the islands’ history when the flow was in the opposite direction. Hardship, lack of employment or the clearance of land for sheep compelled many to leave and to start afresh in – among other places – New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the United States, South Africa or, closer to home, the UK mainland. Much more recently, from choice, some Shetlanders have settled elsewhere and made their mark; as I recently explained, renowned fiddler Kevin Henderson is one example.

The second half of the 19th century saw high levels of emigration from Shetland and one of those who moved away was James Teit, who left for Canada in 1884, at the age of 19. His remarkable story is told by Wendy Wickwire in At the Bridge: James Teit and an Anthropology of Belonging, which – though not the first account of his life – is impressively comprehensive. We learn about his family in Shetland and their background; about the Shetland in which he grew up, and its profound influence on his thinking; and about his extraordinary impact in Canada. Given that impact, it’s surprising that his story isn’t better known.

it’s surprising that his story isn’t better known

Wendy herself came across his work when she was transcribing the songs of Canada’s Indigenous peoples, which were part of a complex musical tradition that was notable for the extent of improvisation. She discovered that Teit had recorded around 200 such songs on wax cylinders between 1912 and 1920. She also found out about his voluminous notes about those peoples, accompanied by photographs. As she puts it, “it was now clear that I was on the trail of a most remarkable ethnographer”, which led her to museums from Vancouver and Chicago to Boston, New York and Washington DC.

She was fascinated; and Teit’s work not only stimulated the research that led to the book, but gave her valuable insights into the lives of those Indigenous peoples, whom at one point she was to support as they campaigned against logging. In fact, it was Teit’s son, Sigurd, who suggested that she write about his father.

Teit’s upbringing in Lerwick tells us much not only about the man himself, but also about the cultural environment in which he grew up. He went to school at the Anderson Educational Institute, created by Arthur Anderson, a Lerwick man who had co-founded what’s now the P&O shipping line. It was known for the high quality of its teaching, but the young Teit was also exposed to the work of local historians including Gilbert Goudie and his own father, John Tait. James, it should be explained, changed the spelling of his surname in order to express his attachment to Shetland’s former Norse connections.

Wendy captures the late 19th century spirit of Shetland – and specifically Lerwick – especially well, characterising it as the Shetland renaissance. This was a time when some prominent Shetlanders were reflecting, with regret, on the replacement of older Norse law and customs with Scottish and British ones. There was deep discontent, too, over the survival of the truck system, essentially a kind of barter economy in which the merchants held all the cards. The insecurity of agricultural tenants was another part of the picture.

Those community leaders – and many of Teit’s young contemporaries – rejected any notion that Shetland was a place of “’low’ culture, crass dialects and quaint, illiterate fisher families.” Rather, they celebrated Shetland as a “’high’ culture of authenticity, depth and richness.” They wanted to rediscover and celebrate the islands’ Norse heritage and values.

Prominent among them, as Wendy so eloquently explains, was Arthur Laurenson, something of a universal man, steeped in history but equally well versed in contemporary European culture. Among his other achievements, Laurenson secured Norse names for the main streets in Lerwick’s late 19th century ‘new town’, laid out on a grid to the east of the overcrowded lanes that ran down to the harbour. He was also the driving force behind the extraordinarily ambitious decorative scheme for the new Lerwick Town Hall, which celebrated Shetland’s Norse history in stained glass windows that are among the finest secular examples in Britain.

There were other examples of this Norse renaissance, including a movement to reintroduce the old udal laws; and another legacy lies in the evolution of the Up Helly Aa fire festival, on which a notable Shetland poet, James Haldane Burgess, had left a permanent mark, partly through supporting the introduction of a replica longship and partly by writing the Up Helly Aa song, the chorus of which goes…

Grand old Vikings ruled upon the ocean vast,

Their brave battle-songs still thunder on the blast;

Their wild war-cry comes a ringing from the past;

We answer it “A-oi”!

Roll their glory down the ages,

Sons of warriors and sages,

When the fight for Freedom rages,

Be bold and strong as they!

When Teit arrived in Canada, he made his way to Spences Bridge, where his uncle had offered him a position in his store. It was a community whose relatively short-lived prosperity stemmed mainly from the construction of the Canadian Pacific railroad. In the years that followed, he also earned a living from trapping and briefly working as a miner.

Teit began to take a close interest in the Indigenous peoples (or Indians, a term that Wendy uses with the approval of those who self-identify as such). He explored the difficulties they faced; and it’s easy to understand why Teit made a connection between what he had absorbed in Shetland and what he found in Canada. In Shetland, he and his contemporaries had grown up in a community trying to protect and revive suppressed cultural traditions, laws and rights against a background of injustice and dispossession. In Canada, he was able immediately to identify with the Indian chiefs who were in dispute with the colonial authorities over land rights in particular.

it’s easy to understand why Teit made a connection between what he had absorbed in Shetland and what he found in Canada

Teit became close to those peoples and indeed was to marry a local woman, something that was not favoured among most colonists, nor for that matter by his family back in Lerwick. He committed himself to understanding their culture and traditions, mastering several languages. He didn’t forget his roots, though: he was active in the Orkney and Shetland communities in Canada and did make one visit to Shetland in 1902.

His studies took him all over British Columbia, and farther afield. He provided large amounts of material for a German-born anthropologist, Franz Boas, who was to become known as the “father of American anthropology”, with whom he collaborated for 28 years, though Teit’s efforts were seemingly given far less recognition than they warranted.

Teit became as familiar with the struggles of the Indians as with their culture. Wendy explains that the colonial government regarded any land that appeared unoccupied as ripe for occupation; clearances of people and the establishment of reservations became the norm and those – like Teit – who sought to advance Indigenous rights were seen as interfering agitators. His adoption of socialism as a philosophy would have made the authorities of the time even less sympathetic.

the colonial government regarded any land that appeared unoccupied as ripe for occupation

With his command of Indigenous languages, it wasn’t long before Teit began to act as an interpreter in discussions between local chiefs and government agents. When asked, he would also provide advice to the chiefs, though he generally encouraged them to make up their own minds based on the facts he presented. In 1912, he accompanied a group of chiefs to Ottawa, where they met the Prime Minister; but overall, the pursuit of land rights was an uphill struggle, made more difficult by a legal system that was unsympathetic to Indians and, bluntly, racism; for example, Ottawa hotels had refused to accommodate the chiefs.

Teit’s workload was extraordinary and his health began to deteriorate. He was diagnosed with cancer but was treated with radiotherapy, apparently successfully. However, he died not long afterwards, seemingly from another cause, in 1922.

Without his help, the chiefs found it impossible effectively to contest the government’s increasingly oppressive legislation: it was ruled illegal for Indigenous peoples to hire lawyers or raise money to challenge the government without the government’s permission. In the succeeding decades, the issue of land rights was essentially buried.

Wendy Wickwire expresses regret that so little has been done to uncover Teit’s achievements. She is being unduly modest, however, because this book, based on her own painstaking research, goes a very long way towards filling the void. Reviewers have rightly been generous. One called it “a remarkable book about a remarkable man…no one has understood what we now call truth and reconciliation better than James Teit.” Brian Smith, the Shetland Archivist who helped Wendy with her research in Shetland, said that “the story of the modest young man who began a new life overseas and became a helpmate to the Indigenous people in his new home is inspiring and engrossing…a tale told well.”

It really is an impressively thorough account of a Shetlander who made a real impact outwith the islands. Along the way, it offers some fascinating insights into the Shetland of his day and the islands’ formative influence on Teit; and it could hardly be more topical at a time when human rights around the world are again in the headlines.

Posted in: Heritage

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