Born in Scotland in 1827, James Deans was also the first of the highly committed 'ethnologists' to live among Aboriginals for an extended period. Franz Boas was better trained and made more varied studies than Deans, but Boas never spent more than two weeks in any one B.C. location other than Victoria. James Deans lived among the Haida for fourteen months from 1869 to 1870, having arrived on the Queen Charlottes Islands one year after a terrible smallpox epidemic.

James Deans rose to social prominence after he was commissed to hire artists in Skidegate to produce models of their houses for a replica of a Haida village that was erected at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. The popularity of his appearances at this fair's Columbian Exposition-during which he provided daily 'readings' of the totem poles-prompted Deans to publish his only book, Tales from the Totems of the Hidery (1899) at age 70.

Deans submitted numerous articles to the American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal in the 1890s. Here he frankly describes his own level of expertise and observes the extent to which lives of the Haida were radically transformed during his own knowledge of them: "The first thing I found I had to learn was the style of their carvings. 'What is that bird on top of that column?' I would ask. 'That is a raven.' 'And that one over there? It is an eagle,' 'What is that one with its wings spread?' 'It is the thunder bird.' 'What is that animal cut out on the base of these columns?' 'That is the beaver.' And so forth. After awhile I got to know the one from the other. My next step was to ask why they were carved on the columns. The answer I got was, 'Everything you see carved on them has a story.' 'Tell me the 'story of this one, please.' The answer came, 'I do not know it,' or, 'I will tell you bye-and-bye,' or, 'Give me something and I will tell you all.' I was prepared to wait, or to give, or do anything; yet after all, I got but little. However, a little here, and a little there, a little now, and a little then, after a number of years, amounted to something. Even then, the field is so vast that, after all my trouble, I must own I know but little...

"...a great change has come over these people within the last five years. Also the age of the carved columns has passed. Some are being cut down for fire-wood, numbers fall through age, or are shaken down by the earthquakes and high winds which periodically visit these coasts and islands. A few costly marble ones, erected in the village burying ground and streets, are still standing. No new ones are raised. Everyone's ambition, now a-days, is to have a beautiful marble tombstone erected to his or her memory, with an inscription, giving the name, supposed age and date of death. Some even go so far as to have one ready, with a blank space for the date, and sometimes the cause of death to be filled in by their relations, after that event.

"A few years ago, when I returned to Victoria, at the close of my summer's work, I got $40 in hard cash from an old man in order to get him a tombstone. From him also I got a drawing of his crest which was the above mentioned Thunder bird, or as it is called in the native, Hadap El-anga. This he wished to have engraven above the inscriptions, giving his name and date as near as possible of his birth, and where it happened, with the usual blank space for the remainder. The stone he received in due season, where it was stowed away, there to wait until required. I give this story to show the change taking place amongst these people. And with it close my introduction, and describe the villages as they appeared in the heyday of the totem period.";

James Deans died in 1905.


Deans, James & Oscar Lovell Triggs (editor). Tales from the Totems of the Hidery (Chicago: International Folk-Lore Association, 1899).

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2005] "QCI" "First Nations" "1850-1900" "Folklore"