Written prior to an era when academics were self-censored by political correctness, Smoke from Their Fires: The Life of a Kwakiutl Chief (1941) is a refreshingly frank and classic autobiography of Kwakiutl Chief Charles James Nowell, co-produced with Clellan S. Ford of Yale University, when Nowell was age seventy. [Ford received some preliminary guidance for the project from Franz Boas but Ford remains better known around the world for co-writing Patterns of Sexual Behavior in 1951.]

Based on interviews conducted in 1940, Smoke from Their Fires includes a 40-page introduction to Kwakiutl culture and some very candid comments from Nowell about sexual behaviour and family customs such as child care. Drawings of a grizzly bear and a killer whale were contributed by Alfred Shaughnessy from Kingcome.

Born in 1870 at Fort Rupert, Nowell acquired the names Charles James from Reverend Hall while attending the Anglican school at Alert Bay. He married the daughter of Nimpkish chief Lagius around 1895 and received the name Hamdzidagame ("you are the man that feeds other people";). In 1899 he began assisting freelance museum collector Charles Frederick Newcombe by offering to collect skeletons for him. Despite some antagonism between the two men, Newcombe persuaded Nowell to be among a group of Kwakiutl and Nootka who attended an exhibition held in St. Louis in 1904. Their entourage included Nowell's friend Bob Harris from Fort Rupert, the shaman Ateu (or Atlieu), his daughter Annie Ateu and others.

Nowell and his companions appeared in ceremonial regalia at the fairgrounds at Forest Park, five miles west of the Mississippi River, as representatives of the "singularly light-colored fisherfolk"; of Vancouver Island. Afterwards Newcombe brought Nowell, Ateu and Harris to Chicago for a month where they proved themselves useful by identifying and describing Kwakiutl materials that had been gathered by the museum.

Ford's rendering of Nowell's fascinating life story, Smoke from Their Fires, is a landmark volume in B.C. non-fiction, the first full-length biography presented in the form of an autobiography.


Ford, Clelland Stearns & Charles James Nowell. Smoke from Their Fires: The Life of a Kwakiutl Chief (Yale University Press, 1941; Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1968).

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2005] "Classic"