DUFF, Wilson (1925-1976)




Author Tags: Anthropology, Essentials 2010, First Nations, Haida Gwaii

"His profound admiration for the arts of the West Coast was obvious at all times, and so was his anxious need, always unsatisfied, to penetrate their most secret meaning, even beyond the meaning assigned by the artists themselves... He was, one felt, tormented by problems related to the psychology--I would even say the metaphysics--of art." -- Claude Lévi-Strauss

QUICK REFERENCE ENTRY:

The mystical extent to which Wilson Duff devoted himself to his work as the first anthropologist to be fully employed by the provincial government of B.C., and as the curator of anthropology at the provincial museum in Victoria from 1950 to 1965, is legendary among those who knew him, but otherwise unknown to the general public.

Born in Vancouver in 1925, Wilson Duff committed suicide in 1976, in Vancouver, hoping to be reincarnated as an aboriginal from Haida Gwaii or the Tsimshian First Nation. Bill Reid had given Duff a silver medallion with a Haida design, with an inscription on the back saying “survivor, first class,” for his 50th birthday. Duff was wearing the medallion when he shot himself. Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote, “I wonder if it was not, after all, this desperate quest for infinite mysteries—perhaps because they were above all an exigency of his mind—that killed this unaffected, charming, altruistic and kind man, who was also a great scholar.”

Five years later, Donald N. Abbott and others edited The World Is as Sharp as a Knife: An Anthology in Honour of Wilson Duff (1981). The title was drawn from a poem by Wilson Duff of the same name. “There are no laws, / which you can trust to work. / There are just rules, / which you must make to work. / In the one hand, / you are holding the mirror. / On the other hand, / you are the mask. / Put on the mask and look in the mirror. What you see / (the mirror does not lie) / is that which is common to both, / the truth you can believe.”

Based on his fieldwork with six main informants in the summers of 1949 and 1950, Duff provided the first modern ethnographic study of the Cowichan group in 1952. He was involved with Mungo Martin in the reclamation of totem poles, and he chaired the Archaeological Sites Advisory Board from 1960 to 1966. Having served as a consultant for the Kitwancool in northern B.C., Duff served as an expert witness for both the Calder Case and the ensuing Nisga’a land claims case before the B.C. Supreme Court. According to “Wilson Duff’s Dystopia” published in 2010 by Maureen Flynn-Burhoe, “Duff published a guide to Victoria’s Thunderbird Park and he made an important contribution towards identifying personal art styles among aboriginal artists, particularly Charles Edenshaw. This work led others, such as Bill Reid, to believe that most of the finest carving on Haida Gwaii was accomplished by relatively few gifted artists.”

Following his preparation of the 191-page Arts of the Raven catalogue for a Vancouver Art Gallery exhibit in 1967, Wilson became obsessed with the notion of bringing together the only two stone masks known to exist from the Northwest Coast: one Tsimshian mask with closed eyes was kept in Ottawa and the other with open eyes was kept in Paris. In 1975 he and art gallery director Richard Simmins obtained permission from France to transport their priceless mask to British Columbia for a one-year period. Wilson Duff retrieved the twin mask from the Musée de l’Homme, bringing it to Vancouver; Hilary Stewart transported the mask from Vancouver to the Victoria Art Gallery where it was reunited with the mask from Ottawa.

“The sightless mask was lifted carefully and placed over the face of its seeing twin,” Stewart recalled. “...the two nested together in a close, snug fit. It was a deeply moving moment as the two masks came together again for the first time in a hundred years or more.” The mask from Ottawa had been collected by I.W. Powell at the Tsimshian village of Kitkatla in 1879; the “open-eye” mask was donated to the French Museum of Man by Alphonse Pinart. It was said to have been collected at Metlakatla or on the Nass River. After consulting with Musqueam Della Kew, Duff brought the stone masks together, one cradled by the other, each an equal part of a whole. He later wrote, “Life is a pair of twin stone masks which are the very same but have opposite eyes.” The masks represented the “living paradoxes in myth and life” that he believed were near the source of Northwest Coast aboriginal art.


FULL ENTRY:

Wilson Duff's immense contribution to the study and appreciation of Aboriginal art and culture of the Pacific Northwest can be easily under-appreciated. "Wilson Duff wrote more than he published," anthropologist Robin Ridington has noted, "and communicated to those around him more than he wrote." Duff was the first anthropologist to be fully employed by the provincial government of B.C. as its curator of anthropology at the provincial museum in Victoria (from 1950 to 1965). Based on his fieldwork with six main informants in the summers of 1949 and 1950, Wilson Duff provided the first modern ethnographic study of the Cowichan group in 1952. He was involved with Mungo Martin in the reclamation of totem poles and he chaired the Archaeological Sites Advisory Board from 1960 to 1966. Having served as a consultant for the Kitwancool in northern B.C., Wilson Duff served as an expert witness for both the Calder Case and the ensuing Nisga’a land claims case before the B.C. Supreme Court. As an avid photographer and a carver of no small skill himself, he published a guide to Victoria's Thunderbird Park and he made an important contribution by identifying personal art styles among Aboriginal artists, particularly Charles Edenshaw. This work led others, such as Bill Reid, to believe that most of the finest carving on Haida Gwaii was accomplished by relatively few gifted artists.

The mystical extent to which Wilson Duff devoted himself to his work is legendary among those who knew him. Following his preparation of the 191-page Arts of the Raven catalogue for a Vancouver Art Gallery exhibit in 1967, Wilson became obsessed with the notion of bringing together the only two stone masks known to exist from the Northwest Coast; one Tsimshian mask with closed eyes was kept in Ottawa and the other with open eyes was kept in Paris. In 1975 he and art gallery director Richard Simmins succeeded in obtaining permission from France to transport their priceless mask to British Columbia. Wilson Duff retrieved the twin mask from the Musée de l'Homme for a one-year period, bringing it to his home in Vancouver; Hilary Stewart transported the mask from Vancouver to the Victoria Art Gallery where it was reunited with the mask from Ottawa. "The sightless mask was lifted carefully and placed over the face of its seeing twin," Stewart recalled. "...the two nested together in a close, snug fit. It was a deeply moving moment as the two masks came together again for the first time in a hundred years or more." The mask from Ottawa had been collected by I.W. Powell at the Tsimshian village of Kitkatla in 1879; the 'open-eye' mask was donated to the French Museum of Man by Alphone Pinart, said to have been collected at Metlakatla or on the Nass River. After consulting with Musqueam Della Kew, Duff ensured the twin stone masks were henceforth stored together, one cradled by the other, each an equal part of a whole. He later wrote, "Life is a pair of twin stone masks which are the very same but have opposite eyes." The masks represented the "living paradoxes in myth and life" that he believed were near the source of Northwest Coast Aboriginal art.

Wilson Duff's books The Indian History of British Columbia: The Impact of the White Man (1964) and Images:Stone:B.C.: Thirty Centuries of Northwest Coast Indian Sculpture (1975) are cornerstones of British Columbia ethnology. The earlier work endures as the first comprehensive summary of the impact of immigrant settlement on B.C.'s First Peoples. It was proposed as a handbook in 1960 when Duff was Curator of Anthropology at the B.C. Museum and he was unable to complete and publish two other volumes to be called The Southern Kwakiutl and The First Hundred Centuries. In a reissued version of The Indian History of British Columbia, editors replaced the term Indian with First Peoples, First Nations or aboriginal peoples. Nootka was rendered as Nuu-chah-nulth, etc. The latter work Images:Stone:B.C. reveals Duff’s intensely spiritual approach to art, eschewing science for mysticisim, as influenced by Claude Lévi-Strauss belief that the so-called ‘savage mind’ was really a scientific mind that employed natural images rather than abstract symbols. “I would say that artist-thinkers of the Northwest Coast had created a sort of ‘mathematics of the concrete,’” Wilson Duff wrote, “which by the time the white man arrived had become an ‘advanced mathematics.’ Northwest Coast art, in addition to its previously-recognized functions of representation and decoration, had come to be an arena for abstract thinking, a half-secret dialogue, a self-conscious system for diagramming logical paradoxes in myth and life.”

Born in Vancouver on March 23, 1925, Wilson Duff committed suicide on August 6, 1976 in Vancouver, at age 51, hoping to be reincarnated as an Aboriginal from Haida Gwaii or the Tsimshian First Nation. Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote, "I wonder if it was not, after all, this desperate quest for infinite mysteries--perhaps because they were above all an exigency of his mind--that killed this unaffected, charming, altruistic and kind man, who was also a great scholar." For his 50th birthday, Bill Reid had given Wilson Duff a silver medallion with a Haida design with an inscription on the back saying “survivor, first class.” He was wearing the medallion when he shot himself to death. In appreciation, five years later, Donald N. Abbott edited The World Is As Sharp As A Knife: An Anthology in Honour of Wilson Duff (1981). The title was drawn from a poem by Wilson Duff of the same name. 'There are no laws, / which you can trust to work. / There are just rules, / which you must make to work. / In the one hand, / you are holding the mirror. / On the other hand, / you are the mask. / Put on the mask and look in the mirror. What you see / (the mirror does not lie) / is that which is common to both, / the truth you can believe.'

Other books by Wilson Duff are The Upper Stalo Indians of the Fraser Valley, British Columbia (1952), Histories, Territories and Laws of the Kitwancool (1959), Arts of the Raven: Masterworks by the Northwest Coast Indian. An Exhibition in Honour of the One Hundredth Anniversary of Canadian Confederation (1967), British Columbia Heritage Series: Our Native People (1952-1966), Bird of Paradox: The Unpublished Writings of Wilson Duff (1996).

[At least two of Wilson Duff’s books, The Indian History of British Columbia: The Impact of the White Man (1964) and Images: Stone: B.C.: Thirty Centuries of Northwest Coast Indian Sculpture (1975), are cornerstones of B.C. ethnology. Other books by Wilson Duff include The Upper Stalo Indians of the Fraser Valley, British Columbia (1952), Histories, Territories and Laws of the Kitwancool (1959), Arts of the Raven: Masterworks by the Northwest Coast Indian. An Exhibition in Honour of the One Hundredth Anniversary of Canadian Confederation (1967) and Bird of Paradox: The Unpublished Writings of Wilson Duff (1996).]

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
The Indian History of British Columbia: The Impact of the White Man

BOOKS:

Duff, Wilson. The Upper Stalo Indians of the Fraser Valley, British Columbia (B.C. Provincial Museum, 1952, 1973).
Duff, Wilson (editor). Histories, Territories and Laws of the Kitwancool (Provincial Museum, 1959).
Duff, Wilson. The Indian History of British Columbia, Vol. 1 The Impact of the White Man (Provincial Museum 1964, 1969, 1973, 1980; 1992, 1997).
Duff, Wilson. Arts of the Raven: Masterworks by the Northwest Coast Indian. An Exhibition in Honour of the One Hundredth Anniversary of Canadian Confederation (Vancouver Art Gallery, 1967). Catalogue.
Duff, Wilson & Bill Reid. Arts of the Raven: Masterworks by the Northwest Coast Indians (Vancouver Art Gallery, 1974).
Duff, Wilson. Images:Stone:B.C. Thirty Centuries of Northwest Coast Indian Sculpture (Saanichton: Hancock House, 1975). Drawings & photos by Hilary Stewart.
Duff, Wilson. British Columbia Heritage Series: Our Native People (Victoria: Provincial Archives, 1952-1966).
Duff, Wilson & E.N. Anderson (editor). Bird of Paradox: The Unpublished Writings of Wilson Duff (Surrey: Hancock House, 1996).

[BCBW 2010]