Microfilm of historical Tsimshian First Nations records found on a farm in northwestern BC
The serendipitous discovery of four reels of microfilm containing extensive historical records of the Tsimshian First Nations has caused a stir among Northwest BC Indigenous communities and academia.
The microfilm emerged last week at Tea Creek Farm in the village of Kitwanga, about 1,230 kilometers northwest of Vancouver. Laborers Joel Letendre and Noah Beaton found it in a trash can while cleaning out the workshop on Noah’s father Jacob Beaton’s farm.
The information on the scrolls is a rare collection of the works of Tsimshian chief and historian William Beynon, active from 1912 to the 1950s. In academic circles, Beynon’s work on Tsimshian history is considered unprecedented in scope and detail. Much of it is held by the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia and the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que.
Each of the four boxes found in Tea Creek is labeled with Beynon’s name and volume numbers.
Jacob Beaton, whose name is Tsimshian, is still trying to process the meaning of the discovery.
“It’s phenomenal,” he told host Carolina de Ryk on CBC Daybreak north.
“We’ve had many, many messages from people who wanted to take a look – indigenous people from here, because he … documented the Sm’álgyax-speaking cultures, not just Tsimshian, but also Nisga’a and Gitxsan. “
A “de facto repatriation”
Chelsey Geralda Armstrong, assistant professor of indigenous studies at Simon Fraser University, says Beynon’s field notes and research are among the most complete accounts of Tsimshian and Gitxsan life in the early 20th century.
Geralda Armstrong was “devastated” when she learned of the discovery of the Beynon scrolls at Tea Creek Farm. She says “it could be a really big deal” if some of the information on those reels wasn’t previously released.
Even if other copies exist in museums, their value is still immense from their point of view.
“For Jacob to find these, even if they aren’t all brand new, is kind of like this de facto reverse where it’s in the hands of community members now and it’s kind of up to them how they keep it, how to make them accessible,” said Geralda Armstrong. “So you kind of feel like it’s a gold mine.”
Beynon’s work provides unfiltered reports in the Sm’álgyax language
According to archived information from the Canadian Museum of History, Beynon was born in Victoria in 1888 to a Welsh father and a Nisga’a mother. Although Beynon was educated in Victoria, his mother insisted that he learn to speak Tsimshian. She also taught him the duties of a hereditary chief, a position he inherited as a young man from his maternal uncle.
In 1915, Beynon was hired as an interpreter by the ethnographer Marius Barbeau and worked with Barbeau for more than 40 years, recording and translating myths and songs of the Coastal Tsimshian, Southern Tsimshian, and Gitxsan peoples.
Geralda Armstrong says that one of the qualities that makes Beynon’s work so unique and valuable as a historical record is that it was not filtered through a non-Indigenous lens.
“Unlike other anthropologists when he interviewed elders and others [Sm’álgyax speakers]”He did it in Sm’álgyax,” she said. “He spoke to them in the language, and then he even wrote in his notes – on one side he had the Sm’álgyax verbatim and then on the other side he would immediately translate it into English, and stuff it’s this unadulterated text, so to speak.”
The Tsimshian First Nations include the Kitselas Band, the Kitsumkalum Band, the Metlakatla First Nation, the Gitga’at First Nation and the Kitasoo Band in the Prince Rupert area of northwestern BC. The Tsimshian estimate their number at 45,000 people.
Reels made their way to Tea Creek from the United States
The scrolls discovered in the Tea Creek Farm store appear to have sunk into obscurity over the past two years.
They came into the Beaton family thanks to Jacob Beaton’s mother, Patricia Vickers, who gave them to them in 2006 while she was doing research for her doctorate in interdisciplinary studies in the USA.
Vickers says she was in Oklahoma City when linguistic anthropologist John Dunn gave her the roles. Vickers brought them home and kept them, she says, hoping to find a machine to display them on. Finally, a few years ago, she sent them to grandchildren Noah and Ezra because of their interest in languages.
Vickers says she didn’t realize the value of what was in those four boxes.
Now she’s just glad they showed up.
“I’m happy, and what I really care about are those who are working to keep the Tsimshian, Gitxsan, and Nisga’a languages alive so that we can have access to them,” she said.
The aim is to make roles more available to indigenous peoples
Jacob Beaton says they were careful with the roles. He says they opened a box to see what was inside. You pulled a piece of reel out of this box but left the other three closed to protect the contents.
The crates are currently in a safe, dry location.
Jacob says he has reached out to the Royal BC Museum in Victoria to see if they can gather more information about the scrolls and determine if they have already been digitized.
If there isn’t a digital version, he would like to know if it’s possible to “participate in it somehow, see it digitized and maybe something more available”.
“I really hope that the microfilms … can contribute to the cultural revival that is underway here and elsewhere,” he said.
“Just the fact that they’re so hard to find and so valuable – there’s so much information out there for that [Beynon] caught. I think that’s the next step for us to make it more accessible to the indigenous people here who want to relearn our culture.”