Marius Barbeau

Last updated
Charles Marius Barbeau
Marius Barbeau2.jpg
Born(1883-03-05)March 5, 1883
Ste-Marie-de-Beauce (later Sainte-Marie, Quebec, Canada
DiedFebruary 27, 1969(1969-02-27) (aged 85)
Nationality Canadian
Occupation ethnographer, folklorist
Awards Order of Canada

Charles Marius Barbeau, CC FRSC (March 5, 1883 February 27, 1969), also known as C. Marius Barbeau, or more commonly simply Marius Barbeau, was a Canadian ethnographer and folklorist [1] who is today considered a founder of Canadian anthropology. [2] A Rhodes Scholar, he is best known for an early championing of Québecois folk culture, and for his exhaustive cataloguing of the social organization, narrative and musical traditions, and plastic arts of the Tsimshianic-speaking peoples in British Columbia (Tsimshian, Gitxsan, and Nisga'a), and other Northwest Coast peoples. He developed unconventional theories about the peopling of the Americas.


Life and career

Youth and education

Frédéric Charles Joseph Marius Barbeau was born March 5, 1883, in Sainte-Marie, Quebec. [3] In 1897, he began studies for the priesthood. He did his classical studies at Collège de Ste-Anne-de-la-Pocatière. In 1903 he changed his studies to a law degree at Université Laval, which he received in 1907. He went to England on a Rhodes Scholarship, studying at Oriel College, Oxford, from 1907 to 1910, where he began his studies in the new fields of anthropology, archeology and ethnography, under R. R. Marett. [4] During the summers he would attend École des hautes études de la Sorbonne and École d'anthropologie. In Paris he would meet Marcel Mauss who would encourage him in his anthropological studies. [3]

Field work

Marius Barbeau transcribing the melody of a folk song recorded on phonograph cylinder, 1949 Marius Barbeau records folk songs.jpg
Marius Barbeau transcribing the melody of a folk song recorded on phonograph cylinder, 1949

In 1911, Barbeau joined the National Museum of Canada (then part of the Geological Survey of Canada) as an anthropologist under Edward Sapir. He worked there for his entire career, retiring in 1949. [5] (The GSC subdivided in 1920. From that period, Barbeau was with the Victoria Memorial Museum, later renamed in 1927 as the National Museum of Canada).

At the beginning, he and Sapir were Canada's first and only two full-time anthropologists. Under those auspices, Barbeau began fieldwork in 1911–1912 with the Huron-Wyandot people around Quebec City, in southern Ontario, and on their reservation in Oklahoma of the United States, collecting mostly stories and songs. [3]

In 1913, the German-American anthropologist Franz Boas, then affiliated with the American Folklore Society (AFS), convinced Barbeau to specialize in French-Canadian folklore. Barbeau began collecting such material the following year. [3] In 1918, Barbeau became president of the AFS. [6]

In 1914, Barbeau married Marie Larocque. They had a family together.

Beginning in December of 1914, Barbeau carried out three months' fieldwork in Lax Kw'alaams (Port Simpson), British Columbia, the largest Tsimshian village in Canada. He collaborated with his interpreter, William Beynon, a Tsimshian hereditary chief. [2] The anthropologist Wilson Duff (who in the late 1950s was entrusted by Barbeau with organizing the information) has called these three months "one of the most productive field seasons in the history of [North] American anthropology." [7]

Barbeau and Beynon had a decades-long collaboration. Barbeau wrote an enormous volume of field notes—which are still mostly unpublished. Duff has characterized this as "the most complete body of information on the social organization of any Indian nation". [7] Barbeau eventually trained Beynon in phonetic transcription, and the Tsimshian chief became an ethnological field worker in his own right. Barbeau and Beynon conducted field work in 1923–1924 with the Kitselas and Kitsumkalum Tsimshians and the Gitksan, who lived along the middle Skeena River. In 1927 and 1929, they had field seasons among the Nisga'a of the Nass River.

In 1929, Barbeau removed the Ni'isjoohl memorial pole, hand-carved in the 1860s, from a Nisga'a village. The pole depicts the story of Ts'wawit, a warrior who was next in line to be chief before he was killed in a conflict with a neighbouring nation. The Nisga’a nation says the pole was taken by Barbeau without its consent while members were away from their villages for the annual hunting and food harvesting season, and it was later sold it to the museum in Scotland. In August 2021, a delegation of Nisga'a leaders travelled to Edinburgh to request the transfer of the 11-metre pole back to their territory. The museum said its board of trustees approved the First Nation's request to transfer the pole to its home in northwest B.C. Chris Breward, the director of National Museums Scotland, said in a statement the institution is pleased to reach an agreement allowing the pole to be transferred to its people and the place where its spiritual significance is most keenly understood. [8]

Barbeau is a controversial figure as he was criticised for not accurately representing his Indigenous informants. In his anthropological work among the Tsimshian and Huron-Wyandot, for instance, Barbeau was solely looking for what he defined as "authentic" stories that were without political implications. Informants were often unwilling to work with him for various reasons. It is possible that the "educated informants," whom Barbeau advised his students to avoid, did not trust him to disseminate their stories. [9]

Academic career

In 1942, Barbeau began lecturing at Laval and at the University of Ottawa. In 1945, he was made a professor at Laval. He retired in 1954 after suffering a stroke. He died February 27, 1969, in Ottawa.


Barbeau also did brief fieldwork with the Tlingit, Haida, Tahltan, Kwakwaka'wakw, and other Northwest Coast groups. He emphasized trying to synthesize the various migration traditions of these peoples, in order to correlate them with the distribution of culture traits. He was trying to reconstruct a sequence for the peopling of the Americas. He was an early champion of the theory of migration from Siberia across the Bering Strait. [2] This narrative, while recognized as largely accurate by modern anthropologists and geneticists, [10] is still strongly disputed by many Indigenous nations who claim origin in North America.

His more controversial theory is that the Tsimshianic-speaking peoples, Haida, and Tlingit represented the most recent migration into the New World from Siberia. He believed that their ancestors were refugees from Genghis Khan's conquests, some as recently as a few centuries ago. In works such as the unpublished Migration Series manuscripts, the book Alaska Beckons, and numerous articles with such titles as "How Asia Used to Drip at the Spout into America" [11] and "Buddhist Dirges on the North Pacific Coast", [12] he eventually antagonized many of his contemporaries on this question. His thesis has been discredited by analysis of linguistic and DNA evidence.

Under Beynon's influence, Barbeau promoted the idea among western academics that the region's oral histories of migration have real historiographic value. They were long discounted because they did not conform to European traditions as accounts. Barbeau and Beynon's theory has been proven to have some merit, when taken with evidence-based data such as climate, astronomical and geological events.

Barbeau was an early proponent of recognizing totem poles as world-class high art. His opinion that they were a post-contact artistic development has been decisively disproved. [7] [13]


Barbeau's primary contribution to ethnomusicology was primarily around collection. [14] He was interested in music from a young age receiving musical education from his mother. Through his career,he would be concerned with music's influence on anthropology. He would be named one of the first Canadian ethnomusicologists [15]

Barbeau was concerned with having all Canadians experience folk music. He often used trained Canadian musicians as folk music performers to bring the music to a wider audience. He received minor criticism for utilizing an American singer, Loraine Wyman. [16]

In 1915, Barbeau would initiate the Museum collection of French-Canadian songs. Later in 1916, he set off on a recording expedition along the St. Lawrence river. His objective was to record every French Canadian folk song. He returned with notation for over 500 songs and some folk legends. [17]

Recognition and legacy

Sign about Marius Barbeau in Gatineau. Mariusbarbeau.jpg
Sign about Marius Barbeau in Gatineau.

Cultural legacy

Barbeau was a prolific writer, producing both scholarly articles and monographs, and books that presented Québecois and First Nations oral traditions for a mass audience. Examples include The Downfall of Temlaham, which weaves ancient Gitksan oral traditions with contemporary contact history. His The Golden Phoenix and other collections for children present French-Canadian folk and fairy tales.

From his fieldwork and writings on all aspects of French-Canadian creative expression, numerous popular and scholarly publications were produced. His work is credited with contributing significantly to the rise of Québecois nationalism in the late 20th century. [18]

Awards and honours

Between 1916 and 1950, Barbeau served as associate editor of the Journal of American Folklore. During that time he edited ten issues of the journal which primarily focused on Canadian folklore. [3]

In 1922, Barbeau became the founding Secretary of the Canadian Historical Association. In 1929 he became a founding board member of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.

In 1950 Barbeau won the Royal Society of Canada's Lorne Pierce Medal. In 1967 he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada. [19] In 1969, Barbeau Peak, the highest mountain in Nunavut, was named after him. [3]

In 2005, Marius Barbeau's broadcasts and ethnological recordings were honoured as a MasterWork by the Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada. His extensive personal papers are housed in the former National Museum of Man, since 2013 known as the Canadian Museum of History. [20]

In 1985 the Folklore Studies Association of Canada established the Marius Barbeau Medal to recognize persons making remarkable contributions to Canadian folklore and ethnology. [21]


An authorized bronze portrait bust of Barbeau was created by Russian-Canadian artist Eugenia Berlin; it is installed in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada.

Selected works

See also


Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Totem pole</span> Monumental carvings by Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest

Totem poles are monumental carvings found in western Canada and the northwestern United States. They are a type of Northwest Coast art, consisting of poles, posts or pillars, carved with symbols or figures. They are usually made from large trees, mostly western red cedar, by First Nations and Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast including northern Northwest Coast Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian communities in Southeast Alaska and British Columbia, Kwakwaka'wakw and Nuu-chah-nulth communities in southern British Columbia, and the Coast Salish communities in Washington and British Columbia.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tsimshian</span> Indigenous people of the northwest coast of North America

The Tsimshian are an Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Their communities are mostly in coastal British Columbia in Terrace and Prince Rupert, and Metlakatla, Alaska on Annette Island, the only reservation in Alaska.

The Gispwudwada or Gisbutwada is the name for the Killerwhale "clan" (phratry) in the language of the Tsimshian nation of British Columbia, Canada, and southeast Alaska. It is considered analogous or identical to the Gisgahaast clan in British Columbia's Gitxsan nation and the Gisḵ'ahaast/Gisḵ'aast Tribe of the Nisg̱a'a. The Nisg̱a'a also call this group the Killerwhale Tribe, though the Gitxsan use the term Fireweed clan; Gisgahaast means literally "people of the fireweed."

The Laxsgiik is the name for the Eagle "clan" (phratry) in the language of the Tsimshian nation of British Columbia, Canada, and southeast Alaska. It is considered analogous or identical to identically named groups among the neighboring Gitksan and Nisga'a nations and also to lineages in the Haida nation.

The Ganhada is the name for the Raven "clan" (phratry) in the language of the Tsimshian nation of British Columbia, Canada, and southeast Alaska. It is considered analogous or identical to the G̱anada (Raven/Frog) Tribe of the Nisga'a nation in British Columbia and the Frog clan among B.C.'s Gitxsan nation. The Gitxsan also sometimes use the term Laxsee'le to describe the Frog clan.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gitxsan</span>

Gitxsan are an Indigenous people in Canada whose home territory comprises most of the area known as the Skeena Country in English. Gitksan territory encompasses approximately 35,000 km2 (14,000 sq mi) of land, from the basin of the upper Skeena River from about Legate Creek to the Skeena's headwaters and its surrounding tributaries. Part of the Tsimshianic language group, their culture is considered to be part of the civilization of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast, although their territory lies in the Interior rather than on the Coast. They were at one time also known as the Interior Tsimshian, a term which also included the Nisga'a, the Gitxsan's neighbours to the north. Their neighbours to the west are the Tsimshian while to the east the Wetʼsuwetʼen, an Athapaskan people, with whom they have a long and deep relationship and shared political and cultural community.

The Gitga'ata are one of the 14 tribes of the Tsimshian nation in British Columbia, Canada, and inhabit the village of Hartley Bay, British Columbia, the name of which in the Tsimshian language is Txałgiu. The name Gitga'ata in the Tsimshian language means "people of the cane". The Gitga'ata, along with the Kitasoo Tsimshians at Klemtu, B.C., are often classed as "Southern Tsimshian," their traditional language being the southern dialect of the Tsimshian language. Most Tsimshian-speakers in Hartley Bay today, however, speak the form of the language shared by villages to the north. Their band government is the Hartley Bay Indian Band, aka the Gitga'at First Nation.

The Kitkatla or Gitxaala are one of the 14 bands of the Tsimshian nation of the Canadian province of British Columbia, and inhabit a village, also called Kitkatla, on Dolphin Island, a small island just by Porcher Island off the coast of northern B.C. Because of their location, the Kitkatla have sometimes been called Porcher Island Indians. They were also, in the early contact period, called the Sebassa tribe, for their paramount chief at the time, Ts'ibasaa. The name Kitkatla derives from the Tsimshian name Gitkxaała, from git- and kxaała, since they are the farthest from the mainland of the Tsimshian tribes. Another name for themselves is Git lax m'oon in recognition of the land they lived on: the islands and inlets of this rugged piece of coastline.

Kitselas, Kitsalas or Gits'ilaasü are one of the 14 tribes of the Tsimshian nation of British Columbia, in northwestern Canada. The original name Gits'ilaasü means "people of the canyon." The tribe is situated at Kitselas, British Columbia, at the upper end of Kitselas Canyon, which is on the Skeena River. It was once a great trading nexus, just outside and upriver from the city of Terrace. It is the most upriver of the 14 tribes and it borders the territory of the Gitxsan nation.

The Giluts'aaẅ are one of the 14 tribes of the Tsimshian nation in British Columbia, Canada, and one of the nine of those tribes making up the "Nine Tribes" of the lower Skeena River resident at Lax Kw'alaams, B.C. The name Giluts'aaw means literally "people of the inside". Their traditional territory is the area around Lakelse Lake, near present-day Terrace, B.C., at the Skeena River.

The Gitando are the youngest of the 14 tribes of the Tsimshian people in British Columbia, Canada. It is one of the nine of those tribes making up the "Nine Tribes" First Nation of the lower Skeena River resident at Lax Kw'alaams, British Columbia. The name Gitando means the people of weirs. Their traditional territory includes the watershed of the Exstew River, a tributary of the Skeena River. Since 1834, the Gitando have been based at Lax Kw'alaams, following establishment of a Hudson's Bay Company trading fort there. They are closely related to the Gispaxlo'ots, another of the Nine Tribes, who have an adjacent territory.

The Gits'iis are one of the 14 tribes of the Tsimshian nation in British Columbia, Canada, and one of the nine of those tribes making up the "Nine Tribes" of the lower Skeena River resident at Lax Kw'alaams, B.C.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">William Beynon</span>

William Beynon (1888–1958) was a Canadian hereditary chief of the Tsimshian Nation and an oral historian; he served as ethnographer, translator, and linguistic consultant to many anthropologists who studied his people.

The Laxgibuu or Laxgyibuu is the name for the Wolf "clan" (phratry) in the language of the Tsimshian nation of British Columbia, Canada, and southeast Alaska. It is considered analogous or identical to identically named clans among the neighboring Gitksan and Nisga'a nations.

Ligeex is an hereditary name-title belonging to the Gispaxlo'ots tribe of the Tsimshian First Nation from the village of Lax Kw'alaams, British Columbia, Canada. The name, and the chieftainship it represents, is passed along matrilineally within the royal house called the House of Ligeex. The House of Ligeex belongs to the Laxsgiik.

Marjorie Halpin was a U.S.-Canadian anthropologist best known for her work on Northwest Coast art and culture, especially the Tsimshian and Gitksan peoples.

Wilson Duff was a Canadian archaeologist, cultural anthropologist, and museum curator.

Constance Cox was a Canadian schoolteacher of part Tlingit ancestry who lived and taught with the Gitksan First Nation in northwestern British Columbia and served as interpreter for several anthropologists.

John James Cove was a Canadian anthropologist known for his work with the Gitksan First Nation of northern British Columbia. He was a Professor of anthropology and sociology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.


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  18. Handler, R (2021). "In Search of the Folk Society: Nationalism and Folklore Studies in Quebec". Culture. 3 (1): 103–114. doi:10.7202/1084163ar. S2CID   252800176.
  19. Office of the Governor General of Canada . Order of Canada citation . Queen's Printer for Canada. Retrieved 24 May 2010
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  21. Folklore Studies Association of Canada, Marius Barbeau Medal Archived 2010-04-27 at the Wayback Machine