QUICK REFERENCE ENTRY:

The youngest daughter of Sir James Douglas, the most powerful man in British Columbia for almost two decades, Martha Douglas Harris became the first female author to be born in B.C. As a storyteller, she was greatly influenced by her half-Cree mother, Lady Amelia Douglas, from whom she inherited a respect for aboriginal legends.

Out of deference to her parents' sensitivities about their mixed-race backgrounds, Harris waited until both her parents had died before adapting six of her mother's Cree stories and 14 Cowichan stories for History and Folklore of the Cowichan Indians (1901), the first collection of aboriginal stories to be commercially published from B.C.

Harris stated she compiled the 20 stories to protect and recall the "native dignity and wholesome life"; of the Cowichan band on Vancouver Island. This collection predated Pauline Johnson's better-known Legends of Vancouver by ten years.

Martha Harris's affinity for aboriginal culture was not merely sentimental. Harris maintained friendships with families living on the Songhees Reserve, and her collection of aboriginal basketry is now housed at the Royal British Columbia Museum. In response to the relocation of the Songhees people to Esquimalt, following the government acquisition of the valuable Songhees Reserve lands, Harris openly expressed her dismay and consternation in a letter to the editor of the Daily Colonist in 1912.

Born in 1854, three years after her father became Governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island, Martha Douglas married colonial official Dennis Reginald Harris during a lavish wedding in 1878. As a member of the Vancouver Island Arts and Crafts Society, she exhibited her still lifes and portraits as a "paintress."; Also a woodcarver and lacemaker, she co-founded the Lace Club of Victoria in 1919. Other charter members of the club included Emily Carr and photographer Hannah Maynard. To promote hand spinning with B.C. wool, Harris taught other women how to weave and encouraged the local production of spinning wheels in Victoria. Her own spinning wheel was donated to Helmcken House in the 1930s.

Harris learned to apply native plant dyes to wool acquired from sheep breeders in Summerland, Chilliwack and on Vancouver Island, leading to the formation of the Women's Institute Weavers' Guild, later known as the Victoria Handweavers' and Spinners' Guild. She also laid the groundwork for the Island Weavers Plant, a commercial undertaking created by Enid Murray at Esquimalt in 1933, the same year that Harris died.

FULL ENTRY:

Martha Douglas Harris, youngest daughter of the most powerful man in British Columbia for almost two decades, Sir James Douglas, and a half-Cree mother, Lady Amelia Douglas, from whom she inherited a deep respect for Aboriginal storytelling, waited until her parents had died before adapting (rather than translating) six of her mother's Cree stories and 14 Cowichan stories for History and Folklore of the Cowichan Indians (1901), the first collection of Aboriginal stories commercially published from British Columbia. It predated Pauline Johnson's better-known Legends of Vancouver by ten years. Some of the information that follows about her was gleaned from original research undertaken by Tusa Shea, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Victoria, who contributed to the exhibition catalogue "A Woman's Place: Art and the Role of Women in the Cultural Formation of Victoria BC, 1850's - 1920s" (2004-2005).

Martha Douglas Harris had a mixed race heritage that was not widely discussed during her lifetime. Her father James Douglas was born in British Guiana in 1803 as the son of a Creole (half-black) mother and a Scottish-born merchant. Amelia Douglas was born at Fort Assihniboine, Rupertsland, in 1812, as the daughter of North West Company fur trader William Connolly and his Cree wife Miyo Nipiy. At age nine she moved to New Caledonia (interior British Columbia) where her father was a chief factor for the recently reorganized Hudson's Bay Company. At Fort St. James in 1828 she married one of her father's clerks, James Douglas, who chose the site for Fort Victoria in 1842 and became the first governor of the mainland colony of British Columbia in 1858. Known as 'Old Squaretoes' for his stiff, autocratic manner, he was knighted upon his retirement in 1864 and he died in Victoria in 1877. Lady Amelia Douglas was a shy woman who had six children who survived into adulthood. She died in Victoria in 1890.

Born in 1854, three years after her father became Governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island, Martha Douglas Harris married colonial official Dennis Reginald Harris during a lavish wedding in 1878, not long after her father died. She collected her versions of Aboriginal stories throughout her lifetime but postponed publication of her Cowichan and Cree stories out of deference to her parents' sensitivities about their racial backgrounds. Harris stated she compiled the 20 stories to protect and recall the "native dignity and wholesome life"; of the Cowichan tribe on Vancouver Island. She ended the collection with six of her mother's stories including "the Adventures of Hyas."; When Harris was in England taking classes for elocution, drawing, French, composition and music, her father wrote to her, "I have no objection to your telling the old stories about 'Hyass' but pray do not tell the world they are Mamma's.";

Martha Harris's affinity for First Nations culture was not merely romantic. She gathered a collection of Aboriginal basketry that is now housed at the Royal British Columbia Museum and she maintained friendships with First Nations families living on the Songhees Reserve. In 1912 she expressed her dismay and consternation in a letter to the editor of Daily Colonist in response to the relocation of the Songhees people to Esquimalt following the government's purchase of the valuable Songhees Reserve lands. Specifically she described the plight of her friend Tom James, a Cowichan who had married a Songhees woman. "If by law a white man acquired land by adverse possession of 12 or 20 years," she argued, "why has Tom James not acquired an equally good right by 34 years' undisputed possession?... Must the government conjure up technicalities to find an excuse for depriving this man and his wife of their equitable claim?"

Trained for feminine gentility in England, Harris attended a ladies school called Lansdowne House between 1872 and 1874. She also received drawing and needlework lessons at the Anglican Ladies Collegiate School (later known as Angela College) and briefly studied painting in 1887 with Georgina de l'Aubinière. As a member of the Island Arts and Crafts Society, she frequently exhibited her traditional still-lifes and portraits as a 'paintress.' Her interests in the arts was remarkably diverse. Also a lacemaker, she formed the Lace Club of Victoria in 1919 with her friend Hilda Napier in order to encourage pillow lace-making and the techniques of Carrickmacross and Limerick Point. Other charter members included Emily Carr and Hannah Maynard. Harris also sang in the church choir and participated in musical theatricals under the direction of her music teacher Mrs. Macdonald. To promote hand spinning with B.C. wool she taught other women how to weave and encouraged the local production of spinning wheels in Victoria. Her own spinning wheel was donated to Helmcken House in the 1930s. She learned to administer native plant dyes to wool acquired from sheep breeders in Summerland, Chilliwack and on Vancouver Island, leading to the formation of the Women's Institute Weavers Guild, later known as the Victoria Hand Weavers Guild. She also laid the groundwork for the Island Weavers Plant, a commercial undertaking created by Enid Murray at Esquimalt in 1933. As a founding member of the Island Arts and Craft Society in 1909, she learned wood carving from Edinburgh-born George Selkirk Gibson who provided decorative carvings for the residences designed by Samuel Maclure, including the Dunsmuir estate of Hatley Park.

Martha Douglas Harris died in 1933. A reprinted version of her work features the original watercolour sketches of local Aboriginals by her friend Margaret C. Maclure (wife of architect Samuel Maclure) who died in 1938, and an introduction by Paul Lindholdt of Eastern Washington University, who suggests the stories seem to function in many instances to exert male control but it "would be wrong to consider these stories mere male moralities, though. They offer sturdy pictures of the material cultures and social structures of nineteenth century Cowichans and Crees. They remind of antique times when the tissue of reality separating men from minks was thinner, when righteous sea lions could take revenge on human beings, when a child might voluntarily go feral to join a wolf pack and thereby gain great powers."; Harris admitted of her stories, "When written down, they lose their charm which was in the telling. They need the quaint songs and the sweet voice that told them, the winter loaming and the bright fire as the only light-then were these legends beautiful.";

BOOKS:

Harris, Martha Douglas. History and Folklore of the Cowichan Indians (Victoria: The Colonist Printing and Publishing Company, 1901; Spokane: Marquette Books, 2004).

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2014]