Columbia Library columns (v.34(1984Nov-1985May))

(New York :  Friends of the Columbia Libraries.  )



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  v.34,no.3(1985:May): Page 3  

Legends and Myths of the Tsimshian


^EVERAL thousand pages of manuscript recording Tsim¬
shian customs, legends, myths, proverbs (a reckless person
is one who "wants to die with all his teeth"), stories, and
linguistic practices in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library
have recently attracted attention because the Metlakatla Indian
community in Alaska has printed five volumes of stories from
the collection in a campaign to sustain its native heritage. The
materials were collected by AA'illiam Beynon, fluent in both
Tsimshian and English (his mother was Tsimshian, his father
non-Indian), sent to Franz Boas during the 1930s, and donated
by him to the Library. Until the Alaska publications, the Beynon
papers appear to have been disregarded. They constitute a re¬
markably wide-ranging record of Tsimshian culture, gathered
and annotated by a man with intelligent curiosity, good human
judgment, and literary sensitivity.

The last quality particularly interests me. Thanks in good
measure to the inspiration of Boas, anthropologists collected
thousands of accounts from a multitude of diverse Indian groups
and analyzed many of them for social, religious and cultural
significance. Almost never did Boasians consider seriously the
literary quality of the narratives they had recorded. Folklorists
and structural anthropologists of Levi-Strauss's persuasion on
principle disregard those qualities by which a story functions as
a unique work of art. But in the past decade some linguists, folk¬
lorists, and anthropologists, notably Dell Hymes, Dennis Tedlock,
and Barre Toelken, have begun to study traditional Native Amer¬
ican narratives as works of art. Their work has upset preconcep¬
tions about the nature of oral literature, which in the scholarly
community for two generations have been dominated by Ho¬
meric studies originated by Milman Parry. Native American

Opposite: Tsimshian totem poles in Kilwaukool, British Columbia,1909.

  v.34,no.3(1985:May): Page 3