Author Tags: 1900-1950, Anthropology, First Nations, Women
Alice Ravenhill was one of the first authors to champion the rights of Aboriginals in British Columbia. She founded the Society for the Furtherance of B.C. Indian Arts and Crafts in Victoria in 1939, later renamed the B.C. Indian Arts and Welfare Society, and produced a book-length study of Aboriginal designs called A Cornerstone of Canadian Culture: An Outline of the Arts and Crafts of the Indian Tribes of British Columbia (B.C. Provinical Museum, 1944). In addition to writing wrote one of the first sympathetic overviews of Aboriginal culture for provincial school curriculum, The Native Tribes of British Columbia (1938), she contributed to the Native Voice newspaper in the 1940s and collected 52 legends for Folklore of the Far West (1953).
Born in Snaresbrook, Essex, England in 1859, Alice Ravenhill became acutely interested in home economics and child care as a domestic sciences graduate of the British National Health Society. Rising to the position of Secretary of the Royal British Nurses' Association (1894-1897), she lectured in Home Economics at the University of London and became the first woman elected as a Fellow of the Royal Sanitary Institute. She participated in social welfare initiatives prior to her immigration to Canada in 1910, whereupon she commenced a nine-year series of lectures throughout Canada and the United States. Returning to Victoria in 1919, she became closely associated with Victoria College at Craigdarroch Castle. As the precursor to the University of British Columbia, Victoria College was an appendage of Victoria High School that had opened in 1903 with an affiliation to McGill University. Ravenhill developed Women's Institutes in B.C. and became increasingly interested in Aboriginal art and culture in the 1920s, encouraging the adaptation of First Nations designs for hand-crafted rugs and needlework that were marketed to tourists. "To each article I attached a label giving the source of the design, it's tribal origin and its significance," she recalled.
Ravenhill's elementary school curriculum text The Native Tribes of British Columbia (1938) was one of the first serious examinations of the social and cultural traditions of Aboriginals in the province. A year later she co-founded the Society for the Furtherance of B.C. Indian Arts and Crafts with Major Bullock-Webster, Alma Russell and Madame Sanderon Maugin "to bring to the notice of the public, the innate merits and deep-rooted artistic talents of the Indian people by means of Exhibitions of their Arts and Crafts, Folklore, Music, Drama and Dance" and "to arouse the Indians themselves to a realization of their true place in the social organiation of this country, and to encourage them to work for, and to take advantage of, the opportunities which are offered under the revised Indian Act, and to prepare themselves for community service." Ravenhill received an honorary doctorate from the University of British Columbia in 1948 and an honorary doctorate from the American Association of Home Economics in 1950. Including a draft of her Memoirs of an Educational Pioneer (1951), her papers are stored at UBC Special Collections. She died in 1954.
According to bookseller David Ellis who specializes in the sale of First Nations books: "The Society for the Furtherance of BC Indian Arts and Crafts was initially formed in 1940 as a committee at the suggestion of Anthony Walsh, of the Inkameep Indian School, B.C. The society was founded by Alice Ravenhill. Its objectives were primarily ‘to promote the revival of the latent gifts of art, drama, dance and song, as well as certain handicrafts, among the Indians of this Province.’ The committee became a society in 1941 with objectives ‘to compile a schedule and pictorial record of authentic specimens of totem poles, pictographs, petroglyphs and other tribal arts and crafts; to compile a bibliography on B.C. Arts and Crafts; to collect new material in the form of drawings, photographs or written records of B.C. Indian Arts and Crafts; to encourage commercial use of these and all other authentic B.C. Indian designs; to gather records of B.C. Native Music; to compile a bibliography of B.C. Native Mythology and Drama; to encourage Pupils of Indian Schools and Tribal Experts in the revival of their latent gifts of Arts, Crafts and Drama, with a view to improve their economic position, to restore their self respect, and to induce more sympathetic relations between them and their fellow Canadians; and to publish leaflets, books and articles in harmony with the work of the Society.’ The first members of the committee were Major Bullock-Webster, Douglas Flintoff, A.E. Pickford, Madame Sanderson Mongin, Miss Cave-Brown-Cave, Alma Russell, Betty Newton, and Alice Ravenhill as secretary. Projects completed were the publication of The Tale of the Nativity, a selection of stories told to Anthony Walsh by his students that includes artwork by Sis-hu-lk (Francis Baptiste); charts of examples of various tribal art forms; exhibitions; and letters and meetings with members of government. In 1951, the society incorporated and changed its name to the British Columbia Indian Arts and Welfare Society."
Ravenhill, Alice. The Native Tribes of British Columbia (Victoria: Charles Banfield, 1938)
Ravenhill, Alice. A Corner Stone of Canadian Culture: An Outline of the Arts and Crafts of the Indian Tribes of British Columbia (Victoria: B.C. Provincial Museum, 1944).
Ravenhill, Alice. The Memoirs of an Educational Pioneer (Toronto: J.M. Dent and Sons Ltd., 1951).
Ravenhill, Alice. Folklore of the Far West, With Some Clues to Characeristics and Customs (Victoria: Indian Arts & Welfare Society, 1953).
[BCBW 2005] "Anthropology" "First Nations" "1900-1950" "Women" "First Nations"
Meet Mr. Coyote
Submitted by Mary Leah de Zwart
For me, as I believe for many Canadians, the history of Indian Residential Schools is shame-and-cringe-inducing. What if there was a true story about residential schools that showed white people not acting badly? Or, as in the case of Alice Ravenhill and Noel Stewart, acting with good intentions within the confines of the system? In December of 1940 Ravenhill wrote a letter to Stewart, a teacher at St. George’s Indian Residential School in Lytton, B.C. She wanted information about an article in the Vancouver Daily Province that had featured a legend of the Animal People by Stewart and artwork by Reynold Smith, an 11-year old student at St. George’s. Did Stewart have any more artistically-gifted students?
Alice Ravenhill was a late bloomer when it came to aboriginal art. English-born in 1859 (the same year that Charles Darwin published “Origin of the Species”), she had an early life of privileges and private school followed by a brilliant career as a social reformer in England in the early years of the twentieth century. At the age of 52, she immigrated with her sister to Vancouver Island to housekeep for their brother and nephew. Ravenhill expected her sojourn to last for only three or four years, and then she would be free to return to England. The Great War intervened, and she spent the next forty-odd years trying to find her place in Canadian society. In 1926 a request by the British Columbia Women’s Institute for hooked rug designs based on native designs led her to the archaeological holdings of the Provincial Museum. Here she spent fourteen years of independent research tutored by W.A. Newcombe , one of the foremost (if unrecognized) experts in the field. In 1939 she and Anthony Walsh, a teacher at the Inkameep Indian Day School, had founded the Society for the Furtherance of Indian Arts and Crafts (later renamed the B.C. Indian Arts and Welfare Society). One of the Society’s main aims was the promotion of the “latent artistic talents” of aboriginal students, and its first project had just been completed, the publication of “The Tale of the Nativity”, written by Walsh’s students and illustrated by Francis Jim Baptiste, a twenty-year old former Inkameep student and award-winning artist.
Noel Stewart replied that Reynold Smith was one of six outstanding artists in his class of thirty-four at St. George’s, and several stories illustrated by his students had already been published in the Vancouver Sun, the Family Herald and the Winnipeg Free Press as well as the Province newspaper. “I am the first teacher to come here that has made any attempt to develop the Indian Art”, he wrote, “and it’s the first year in the history of our school that any students work has appeared in print”. Stewart claimed that he had brought the students’ own legends back to them; “They had not known any until I dug them up this fall”. Stewart made it clear that he used artistic license in the writing: “I make my characters actually live,” he wrote to Ravenhill, “[and] it may reduce the legends point of view.” Stewart indicated that he had read the works of James Teit, an ethnologist who recorded many legends and traditions of the Thompson Band, “We agree quite a lot.” The indisputable authorities on the subject, the Nlaka'pamux, were not consulted.
An example of Stewart’s interpretation efforts can be seen in a wooden plaque that he sent to Ravenhill with the following description:
[The picture] is of Mr. Coyote taking his Sunday Service. Please note how heartily the Coyotes are singing. The choir of 8 golden birds came from Heaven to each meeting. These birds were great singers. They were taught to sing in Heaven and they taught the Animal People on earth. After each service they returned to Heaven.
Stewart complimented Ravenhill on her recently published school textbook entitled “The Native Tribes of British Columbia”. She lamented to Stewart that she had hit a roadblock with her next project. “I can’t get a publisher to issue a collection of the legends of this Province I selected from the hundreds hidden in the archives” . He replied that he and his boys had prepared a booklet of about thirty-five stories on the Animal People in the fall and had sent them to an American publisher. This horrified Ravenhill”: “It seems to us a thousand pities to give to wealthy America this early fruit of B.C. Indian art, to which we urgently need to draw attention.” Would he be interested, she asked, in a booklet to sell for twenty-five cents in paper cover “with some such title as ‘Meet Mr. Coyote’?”
As it happened, the American publisher rejected a story about the purification ceremony of the Thompson tribe. “This is a true enough custom,” Stewart wrote to Ravenhill. “Even our old Indians today still believe in a yearly washing of sins. [The publishers] also desire other evidences of which I regard as ridiculous.” He put together ten legends and drawings and sent them off to Ravenhill. Thus “Meet Mr. Coyote” was created.
Ravenhill committed the Indian Arts and Welfare Society to print one thousand copies. At the last moment before publication she informed Stewart that she wanted to omit the names of the five boys who drew the pictures. “The public is so careless in its superficial reading that the names ‘Jimmie Johnson’, ‘Dan Phillips’ etc. would be accepted as those of white Canadians.”
Stewart responded by return mail with the “Indian” names that the boys had immediately chosen for themselves. Jim Johnston became Wah-und (“quick”); Reynold Smith, Moo-mah (“bright”); Joe Dunstan, Sis-malt (“good-looking”); Oliver Stewart, Che-ma (“like a white boy”) and Willie Spuzzum, Spup-aza (“old in ways”).
The stories presented a kind, gentle Coyote, different from his usual portrayals as a lascivious trickster. The drawings made the book particularly attractive. Who could resist a trio of coyotes sitting around a campfire smoking sacred tobacco, or Mr. and Mrs. Coyote on a friendly walk with Brother and Sister Skunk? “I have very much fallen in love with Mr. Coyote,” wrote Anthony Walsh after he received his copy. Stewart personally sold at least 100 copies up and down the Thompson Valley. He was anxious to ensure that his students were recognized for their work and reminded Ravenhill that the book was made more saleable because the boys had a hand in the pie; “In fact so many people have written for more details of these boys. They seem to want to make certain we are not just using the boys [sic] names without justification”.
When Noel Stewart first started working on “Meet Mr. Coyote,” the Reverend Adam Ralph Lett was Principal at St. George’s. Stewart found Lett to be supportive of his art endeavours, “though of course he doesn’t understand ‘Art’ or delve into the legends as I’d like him too, he says he has no objections to my doing as I desire.” When Lett retired in July of 1941, Stewart was appointed Acting Principal and hoped that he might be asked to take over the position. After Dr. Harold McGill, the Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs, visited St. George’s in September of 1941, Stewart wrote to Ravenhill, “I have had the place cleaned up really well, and all the rules put into force which in my estimation is the correct ones for running a school.”
Stewart’s appointment did not happen because the Anglican Church maintained a policy of putting only clergymen into the principalships of residential schools. He didn’t like it: “I don’t see why these places should have a clerical head anyways. After all we are instructing children, and why use a parson for it. We would not send a white child of 6 to 15 to the parson for all his religious teaching etc.”
Reverend Charles Hives was appointed as Principal in October of 1941. Hives came from the well-known Shingwauk Residential School at Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario and declared that he wanted to replicate it at St. George’s.
Christmas leave was cancelled for both teachers and students, and animosity began to build. Before long, three teachers and the cook had left. One of the teachers was Edith Walkem, the first aboriginal person to graduate from Normal School in British Columbia. Hives forbid Stewart to have his students make Christmas cards for sale: “Not one bit of craft work has been done since [Hives] came and he is just in a terrific confusion – blaming everyone but himself.”
Finding time to do art in the residential schools was difficult. In keeping with the assimilationist policy of the Indian Affairs Branch, pupils spent only half-days on schoolwork, and the other half doing farm or household chores. Stewart’s pupils were only allowed to draw for one hour on Friday afternoons. “How they enjoy it,” he wrote to Ravenhill, “They seem to be all doing ‘bucking horses’ or such.”
Noel Stewart considered that he had a special gift for working with his young charges. “I see the good in all,” he wrote. When Ravenhill met him after three years of letter writing, she was disappointed to find him high strung, self-conscious and rather plump, but as she wrote to Anthony Walsh, “His heart is in Indian work….He seems to win Indians’ confidence and brings zeal with him; aware how much he can gain as well as give.”
Stewart was not the only person who could not get along with Hives. Captain Gerald Barry, the Provincial Inspector of Indian Schools, had visited St. George’s shortly after Hives had taken over and the two had definitely not clicked. Barry suggested that Stewart resign in his own best interest and take a position at the Metlakatla Day School, up on the North coast by Prince Rupert. But with “Meet Mr. Coyote” coming out shortly, Stewart couldn’t bring himself to do it. “When I asked the boys if I should leave, they all broke down.”
The Metlakatla Day School might have been a good idea. Noel Stewart frequently struggled with the constraints of the Residential School system. “I’m only a pivot in a wheel,” he wrote. “Res Schools are not the Day Schools.” He expressed empathy for his young charges, writing to Ravenhill, “Some of this Res school life is hard on the kiddies (I think). I often wonder how we would re-act if in their shoes.”
Writing to Alice Ravenhill, Anthony Walsh speculated that the opposition Stewart encountered at St. George’s “may be a blessing in disguise, in that he may return to day school work, where he will have much more freedom of action.”
In January of 1942, Stewart finally resigned from St. George’s and obtained a teaching position in a public school at Spence’s Bridge, forty kilometers further up the Thompson valley. He wrote a letter to Ravenhill explaining his reasons for leaving. “The principal of St. George’s in my estimation is only a brute and not fit to be in charge of so many fine boys and girls. Whatever the govt. may think of him can only be from the fact they don’t really know him. I am truly sorry for the kiddies under his vile leadership.”
Stewart tried his best with what he called the “wild whites” at Spence’s Bridge. “I can still do good,” he wrote to Ravenhill. “The Indians of this valley seeing me here keep asking me why did I leave their boys at Lytton and come here. I daren’t tell them truth why or they’d probably demand their children from there – like the Walkems did.” Edith Walkem’s brother Clarence had followed Stewart to the school at Spence’s Bridge. Stewart considered Clarence Walkem to be the finest student he had ever had, “full of life and humor.”
Stewart wanted to get Reynold Smith out of Lytton School; “He is too fine for Hives,” Stewart wrote. Whether that happened or not is unknown. Stewart did not find another group of students with the talents of his St. George’s boys. A year later, Ravenhill remarked on Stewart’s complete breakdown in health, “I urge him not to give up hope; again and again in my long life I have regained ability to work when doctors told me to the contrary; but I do not know the cause of his ill-health so it behoves [sic] me to be careful in trying to infuse hope.”
“Meet Mr. Coyote” did not have a second printing although it was distributed to schools and libraries throughout the province. Noel Stewart resurfaced in 1948 to collaborate with Anthony Walsh on a presentation about teaching art to native children at the First Annual Conference on Native Issues at UBC. After that point he vanished from the public record. Alice Ravenhill continued to be involved with the Society for the Furtherance of Indian Arts and Crafts until January of 1944 when she suffered an accident that kept her confined to bed and wheelchair for the last ten years of her life. Although she completed her autobiography in 1951, when she was well over ninety years old, she was unable to bring together any more projects with the pure simplicity of “Meet Mr. Coyote”.
In the 1960s and 1970s St. George’s School became infamous for the horrific sex abuse scandals that forced it to close down and eventually caused the Anglican Diocese of the Cariboo to go bankrupt. “Meet Mr. Coyote” was one positive event in a chilling history. Haig-Brown and Nock, 38 in their publication With Good Intentions, describe a number of Euro-Canadians who recognized the unfairness and injustices of the treatment of Aboriginal peoples. Viewed from the present day, Ravenhill and Stewart appear naïve in their efforts to encourage aboriginal art; they held stereotyped opinions and patronizing attitudes; they tromped clumsily around aboriginal cultures and traditions. Still, working within the constraints of their time, they deserve recognition for their efforts to bring the art of aboriginal children to the forefront in an unforgiving past.
Haig-Brown, Celia and Nock, David. With good Intentions: Euro-Canadian and Aboriginal Relations in Aboriginal Canada. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2006.
Meet Mr. Coyote. Victoria, BC: Society for the Furtherance of B. C. Tribal [sic] Arts and Crafts. n.d.
Provincial Archives of British Columbia, Society for the Furtherance of British Columbia Indian Arts and Crafts, Add. MS – 1116, Box 1.
Stewart, Noel. “Days of the Animal People,” Vancouver Daily Province. November 30, 1940, 22.
University of British Columbia Library, Rare Books and Special Collections, Alice Ravenhill Fonds. Box 1, File 8.
[First published in BC History, 2011; reprinted by permission of author.]