The following is an excerpt from Visual Anthropology, Vol. 12, pp. 49-86
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Tin Cans and Machinery: Saving the Sagas
and Other Stuff

Lynda Jessup

Although little known today, the 1928 Canadian movie, Saving the Sagas, is an early example of a film recording the presence of the ethnographic fieldworker, in this case, the National Museum of Canada ethnologist Marius Barbeau (1883-1969) at work in the Nisga'a communities along the Nass River in northern British Columbia. This consideration of the film discusses the ways in which it represented those communities, first on its own and then, together with its contemporary Fish and Medicine Men, as part of Nass River Indians, the otherwise lost 1928 film from which
the two shorter films were subsequently made. Focusing on the latter film's relationship to government action concerning Aboriginal peoples, it concludes with discussion of the implications of this representation, which was produced originally for the National Museum to be shown first in conjunction with the National Gallery of Canada's 1927 "Exhibition of Canadian West Coast Art, Native and Modern."

Many years ago now, and more than half a century after Bronislaw Malinowski's visit to the Trobriand Islands, George Stocking published a photo-graph of the ethnographer at work in the field. Part of Stocking's study of this "culture-hero of the fieldwork myth," the photograph illustrates his dis-cussion of Malinowski as both a champion of such intensive study and, as a writer of rare capacity, the man who firmly established the authoritative place of "the Ethnographer" in the myth-history of anthropology. Carefully staged from the darkened interior of the ethnographer's tent, the pho-tograph pictures the scene just beyond the tent's opened flaps: a gathering of Trobrianders looking on as Malinowski, sitting in profile inside, works at his typewriter. Like other early pictures of ethnographers actually writing, it is an unusual image, its belated publication in Stocking's study supporting the sub-sequent suggestion that the production of such records of ethnographic text-making ran counter to "an ideology claiming transparency of representation and immediacy of experience". Now, viewed in the light of recent critical anthropology, they are seen as explicit illustrations of a colonial encounter, of an ethnographic authority rooted in Western frames of reference and, as femi-nist anthropologists have also argued, of an ethnography firmly grounded in masculine subjectivity.
This alone suggests reason for an inquiry into the now little-known 1928 film Saving the Sagas, a work ostensibly devoted to portraying the process of ethno-graphic record-making. Produced by Associated Screen News Limited, a com-mercial film producer in Montreal, the movie documents the ethnographic activities of Marius Barbeau and Ernest MacMillan among the Nisga'a of the Nass River region of British Columbia. Barbeau, an ethnologist at the National Museum of Canada in Ottawa (now the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa-Hull), and MacMillan, then principal of the Toronto Conservatory of Music, are depicted in their efforts to record "with camera and phonograph" what the movie's first intertitle describes as "the vanishing culture, the rites and songs and dances of the Indians along the Canadian Pacific Coast, north of Vancouver" Described in that first intertitle as an ethnographic text itself—"a screen recording" of this "vanishing culture"—the film is also an early example of ethnographic filmmaking, both within Canada and internationally.


Lynda Jessup received her doctorate in art history from the University of Toronto and is now teaching the history of Canadian Art at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Her recent research focuses on the politics of representation and the construction of a Canadian national art in exhibitions and exhibition programming in Canada during the 1920’s. She has published several articles on this subject in journals and edited books, and is now working on a series of articles dealing with early ethnographic films, exhibitions and cultural festivals.


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