"Haida culture never had a more devoted foreign student."; - Robert Bringhurst

At 27, John Reed Swanton had a shy and self-effacing manner. Possibly this disposition served him well as a listener when he arrived on the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1900 to conduct his first anthropological assignment for the Smithsonian Institution. A Harvard-educated linguist sent by Franz Boas, Swanton described himself as someone who "cordially loathed from the ground up the entire competitive system.";

Swanton was greatly assisted throughout his interviews by a young bilingual Haida named Henry Moody (c. 1871-1945). Swanton and Moody first interviewed Moody's father Job Moody, also known as Gumsiiwa, to test their methodology on September 29, 1900: Henry Moody repeated sentences, one or two at a time, and John Swanton carefully made his transcriptions. Their collaborative recording sessions with various storytellers often lasted six hours. In this way, from the fall of 1900 to the summer of 1901, Swanton was able to amass 40,000 lines of text. Tate not only produced the two foremost storytellers of the period-the crippled septuagenarian Skaay and the blind Ghandl in his fifties-he also served as the primary audience for recitations of their stories and songs.

Swanton published his first article called "Notes on the Haida Language"; in the American Anthropologist in 1902. An explanation of the alphabet he used in rendering Haida speech appears in Swanton's introduction to some of his work within the massive publications of the Jesup North Pacific Expedition, edited by Boas.

Unfortunately, after three-and-a-half years of interpretative work, Swanton was only able to publish approximately one-tenth of his Haida material. He lacked the aggressive personality needed to ensure others took his work seriously in an increasingly competitive field.

Among John Swanton's major Pacific Northwest publications are Haida Texts and Myths, Skidegate Dialect (1905), Contributions to the Ethnology of the Haida (1905), Haida Texts -- Masset Dialect (1908), Social Condition, Beliefs, and Linguistic Relationship of the Tlingit Indians (1908) Tlingit Myths and Texts (1909, Haida Songs (1912) and The Indian Tribes of North America (1952). A festschrift was printed in 1940 to honour Swanton's 40 years of work with the Smithsonian, but none of the articles celebrate his earliest work in British Columbia.

Swanton's unpublished southern Haida manuscripts were eventually brought to the American Philosophical Society Library in Philadelphia in 1942. He continued to work around the world as an ethnographer but he did not return to study the Haida or Tlingit. He died in 1958.

About a century after they were recorded, Swanton's versions of Ghandl's and Skaay's stories were revisited by Robert Bringhurst, who began to study the Haida language in 1982. A trilogy of works appeared, re-translated by Bringhurst. "Everything we have in the way of classical Haida literature comes through the transcriptions of one man,"; Bringhurst wrote, in reference to Swanton. Bringhurst's work was preceded by re-interpretations of Swanton in 1995 by John Enrico, arguably the foremost linguist in the field of Haida, but Enrico's work was published from the Queen Charlottes Islands and received less attention.


Swanton, John. Haida Texts and Myths, Skidegate Dialect (Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin, 29, Washington D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1905; New York: Johnson Reprint Co., 1970).

Swanton, John. Contributions to the Ethnology of the Haida (New York: Leiden, E.J. Brill Ltd., 1905; American Natural History Museum, 1909; New York: AMS Press, 1975).

Swanton, John. Haida Texts -- Masset Dialect (New York: Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History, Volume 14, Part 1, 1908; New York: AMS Press, 1975).

Swanton, John. Social Condition, Beliefs, and Linguistic Relationship of the Tlingit Indians (Twenty-sixth Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology, Washington D.C.: 1908).

Swanton, John. Tlingit Myths and Texts (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1909; New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1970).

Swanton, John. Haida Songs (American Ethnology Society, 1912).

Swanton, John. The Indian Tribes of North America (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 145, 1952; Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1968.

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2005] "Anthropology" "QCI" "1900-1950" "Music" "First Nations" "Classic"