Jim McDowell's unprecedented, interdisciplinary study Hamatsa: The Enigma of Cannibalism on the Pacific Northwest Coast (1997) requires special attention as the only thorough and sober examination of literature pertaining to reports of cannibalism, and practice of ritual (symbolic) cannibalism, and how the two have been frequently confused and misinterpreted. "Kwakiutl cannibalism,"; McDowell writes, "did not represent the type of gastronomic custom that may have existed among certain aboriginal societies in Africa or the South Sea Islands. On the contrary, the eating of human flesh was abhorrent to all Northwest Coast Indians. It was precisely this loathing that made the gruesome rite all the more powerful.";

In compiling the history of European perceptions of allegedly cannibalistic behaviour among coastal Indians, particularly the Kwakiutl, McDowell takes great care to stress that ritual cannibalism is very different than gustatory cannibalism. He repeatedly advises the reader to mistrust the sensational viewpoints of early explorers and cautions the reader to consider motives for apparently bloodthirsty behaviour. "When most of us encounter the word cannibalism, we tend to assume that the only practice being addressed is the one implied by the term's literal meaning: human use of human beings as tasteful, nourishing food. But this is just one of the forms man eating appears to have assumed in the distant past. Known as gustatory or dietary cannibalism, it seems to have occurred rarely, if at all, in certain isolated, widely separated, mainly prehistoric cultures... We still tend to equate cannibalism only with isolated, culturally restricted acts of eating human flesh. But, in its ritualistic forms, such behaviour - both simulated and actual - conveyed profound metaphors for timeless metaphysical messages about spiritual renewal.";

The first European to declare in print that Northwest Coast Aboriginals engaged in cannibalism was the German sailor Heinrich Zimmerman who served under Captain James Cook aboard the Resolution. In 1782, Zimmerman published his journal in which he stated the Mowachaht at Nootka Sound had "dried human flesh which they ate with relish and which they wished us to try."; One of the first English-speaking mariners to make much the same claim was the American sailor on the same voyage, John Ledyard, who recorded in his 1783 book that that hospitable Aboriginals had offered a roasted human arm and that he had tasted it. "We intimated to our hosts that what we had tasted was bad,"; he wrote. When Captain Cook's journal was published posthumously in 1784, describing his month-long stay at Nootka Sound in 1778, he described considerable trade in body parts but stopped short of ascribing the practice of cannibalism because he himself hadn't witnessed it. James Strange, the second English captain to visit Nootka, recorded meeting Chief Maquinna's son in law, Callicum, who tried to sell him three hands and a head. Callicum supposedly told Strange these items were good for eating. Callicum "very composedly put one of the hands in his mouth and, stripping it through his teeth, tore off a considerable piece of flesh, which he immediately devoured with much apparent relish.";

As the ensign who served under Captain James Strange, Alexander Walker later interviewed John MacKay, the first European to see how the Indians at Nootka lived during the winter months when their most important ceremonies were held. Walker's much revised journal, unpublished until 1982, offers rare eyewitness testimonies. "We saw many bare skulls in the possession of these people and one [with] the flesh and hair upon it; and which was still bloody. They ate part of this raw before us, and as usual expressed the highest relish for the food. Upon another occasion they produced an arm half roasted, feeding on it in the same manner."; In 1788, the English fur trader John Meares recorded his outright suspicions of cannibalism. "We were very much disposed to believe that Maquinna himself was a cannibal."; Meares learned from two chiefs that Maquinna feasted on a slave 'every moon.' In 1789, the second mate aboard the Lady Washington, Robert Haswell, also avowed cannibalism occurred at Nootka. "These people are canables and eat the flesh of their vanqu[i]shed enemies and frequently of their slaves who they kill in cool blud.";

In 1789, Spanish explorer Esteban Jose Martinez reached Nootka where his crew noted Maquinna ate little boys and girls captured in war. In March of 1803, Maquinna massacred the crew of the English brigantine Boston except for two sailors, an older seaman named John Thompson and a 19-year-old armourer, John Jewitt. The journal Jewitt published after his two years in captivity contains the first detailed descriptions of how Maquinna's winter rituals and grisly practices might, in fact, have been religious ceremonies.

After analyzing early explorers' accounts with skepticism, McDowell notes the first person to conduct an ethnographic study of Northwest Coast Indians was Gilbert Malcolm Sproat in 1861. After living with Indians in the Alberni area and learning their language, Sproat was similarly convinced, from hearsay and from observing ritualistic sacrifices, that cannibalism existed. Much-travelled Methodist minister and mariner Thomas Crosby first reported in his memoirs the tradition of the hamatsa: ceremonial man eaters in secret societies; geologist and ethnographer George Dawson found remnants of cannibalistic rites and Norwegian ethnographer Johan Adrian Jacobsen also observed cannibal dance ceremonies in Quatsino Sound.

The anthropologist Franz Boas and his informant George Hunt outlined the hamatsa traditions derived from the legend of Man Eater at the North End of the World and Boas claimed the Kwakiutl custom of devouring men was introduced by the Heiltsuq or Heiltsuk that resided from Gardner Canal to Rivers Inlet. George Hunt provided extensive personal evidence of contemporary hamatsa ceremonies, including testimony from Hamasaka, the principal hamatsa at Fort Rupert, that he had participated in 32 corpse eating feasts. In 1902, Hunt photographed a re-enactment of a hamatsa initiate ceremony. Relying on Boas' documentation, controversial ethno photographer Edward S. Curtis also staged a series of photos between 1910 and 1915 to illustrate the legacy of cannibal practices. In 1930, Boas tried to incorporate similar scenes into his documentary film, The Kwakiutl of British Columbia. McDowell uses the first half of his book to very cautiously lead the reader to presume hamatsa ceremonies existed as a sophisticated form of ritual cannibalism.

The attribution of cannibalism has often occurred as a projection of moral superiority. McDowell cites Freud's 1913 work, Totem and Taboo, in which Freud theorizes that primordial incest is the foundation of totemism and religion. Freud examined the psychoanalytic origins of cannibalism by suggesting that when the earliest stage of human society was the 'primal horde', the violent and jealous father kept all the females for himself and drove his sons into exile and sexual celibacy. Taking their revenge, the rebellious sons killed and ate the primal father. "The violent primal father had doubtless been the feared and envied model of each of the brothers,"; said Freud. "In the act of devouring him they accomplished their identification with him, and each of them acquired a portion of his strength."; Freud suggests the sons regularly commemorated and replicated the original patricide by ritual slaughter and consumption of a totemic animal. According to McDowell, Freud said in 1946 that this mythical totemic feast "which is perhaps mankind's earliest festival"; marked the crucial turning point in the evolutionary development of human beings - the "beginning... of social organization, or moral restrictions, and of religion."; In further chapters McDowell examines how Freud's viewpoint enhances the significance of ceremonial cannibalism. "Totemic religion,"; said Freud, "not only comprised expressions of remorse and attempts at atonement, it also served as a remembrance of the triumph over the father. Satisfaction over that triumph led to the institution of the memorial festival of the totem meal, in which the restrictions of deferred obedience no longer held.";

If this all seems far out, just think of Catholics eating wafers and drinking Christ's blood in church. McDowell concludes the winter potlatch, highlighted by the cannibal dance, unites all creatures within a unitary, coherent system of behaviour that reflects a basic morality. "The Kwakiutl,"; he writes, "believed that humans survive only because the spirits gave them food. In return, people were obligated to give lives, in the form of human souls, to the spirits. The transformation of rebirth occurred through two processes: vomit and fire."; He posits that the cannibal dance ceremony - still practiced in derivative forms - re-enacts the primal conflict between hunger and its submission to collective ritual, between narcissistic desire and socialization. "The taming of hamatsas,"; McDowell says, "resembles the socialization of children."; Once humans have reaffirmed their willingness to allow the reborn spirit to live among them, the hamatsa retires to the sacred inner room and vomits up the transformed flesh, "an act symbolic of his transformation from a destructive to a creative being.";

McDowell compares the hamatsa to medieval knights sent to slay dragons; emissaries sent to confront the embodiments of darkness, the forces we fear most. Because he feels contemporary 'First World' society is well on its way to devouring itself, McDowell believes ritual cannibalism - as a metaphor for our condition - provides a valuable perspective from which we may be able to forge new respect for our environment.

A former teacher in the United States, McDowell served as the first director of the Carnegie Centre in Vancouver when it was transformed into an inner-city community centre. He is also the author of Peace Conspiracy, Yoshiru Fujimura: A Warrior-Businessman (Irvine, California: McBo Corporation, 1993). It's the true story of an obscure Japanese naval commander who unsuccessfully plotted Japan's early exit from World War II in the spring of 1945. A peace activist in his later years, Fujimura founded the Jupiter Corporation which specialized in aircraft and aerospace equipment. He died in 1992. As well, McDowell has published a study of the Spanish explorer José Narvaez.

His illustrated book The History of Sidney Island's Three Names (JEM Publications, 2011) provides an account of the island's Saanich and colonial names, and challenges its current designation.

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Father August Brabant: Saviour or Scourge?
Hamatsa: The Enigma of Cannibalism on the Pacific Northwest Coast
Jose Narvaez, The Forgotten Explorer, Including His Narrative of a Voyage on the Northwest Coast in 1788
Uncharted Waters: The Explorations of José Narváez (1768-1840)


Peace Conspiracy, Yoshiru Fujimura: A Warrior-Businessman (Irvine, California: McBo Corporation, 1993).

Hamatsa: The Enigma of Cannibalism on the Pacific Northwest Coast (Ronsdale, 1997).

José Narvaez: The Forgotten Explorer. Including his narrative of a voyage on the Northwest Coast in 1788 (Spokane: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1998).

The History of Sidney Island's Three Names (JEM Publications, 2011). 978-0-9699140-3-7 $16.00

Father Augustin Brabant: Saviour or Scourge? (Ronsdale, 2012) $24.95 978-1-55380-189-4

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2012] "War" "First Nations" "Classic" "Spanish"