General Articles


Hunting recipes, songs and legends with camera, pencil and recorder, Marius Barbeau is hot on the trail of that strange beast—the Canadian

HUGH KEMP May 1 1948
General Articles


Hunting recipes, songs and legends with camera, pencil and recorder, Marius Barbeau is hot on the trail of that strange beast—the Canadian

HUGH KEMP May 1 1948


Hunting recipes, songs and legends with camera, pencil and recorder, Marius Barbeau is hot on the trail of that strange beast—the Canadian


ON THE third floor of Canada's National Museum in Ottawa there works a man who looks greatly like a professor. He has a large

Einsteinlike head framed by a halo of silver hair ind held with dignity on a short, sturdy body. He has the face of a Breton voyageur-a long thin nose, blue eyes of the sea and perpetually tanned skin. His mouth is soft and sensitive, the mouth of a poet, which, among other things, he is.

The back of his head is very large so that his hats sit upward and forward and seem to be there

as a bit of a joke. A wit has contended that it is, in reality, a private museum filled with totem poles, hooked rugs, wood carvings and spinning wheels.

The man is extraordinary and the office in which he works is extraordinary too, containing two wooden statues by the famous Quebec carver, Jobin, a wooden angel by Henri Angiers, some small groups of Haida Indian figures in slate, a hooked rug worked by the painter Emily Carr from an old army blanket, two or three paintings, several small totem poles, numerous green filing cabinets and a violent Indian painting of a ghost.

The surroundings suitably express the man. He is Dr. Marius Barbeau, anthropologist, folklorist,

absent-minded professor, sparkplug to many Canadian artists, voluminous author, unconventional lecturer and occasional baby sitter.

For 37 of his brimful 64 years, Marius Barbeau has been the anthropologist at the National Museum. His work there has earned him an honorary fellowship at Oxford University and a doctorate from the University of Montreal. Frequently he lectures to the American Academy for the Advancement of Science and contributes to scientific journals in America, Great Britain and France. Recently he was a Canadian delegate to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization meeting in Mexico City.

Each May Dr. Barbeau gets his annual hair cut, a close-crop |>erformed either by one of his daughters or by himself with the aid of a mirror and long shears. He takes off his city clothes (which include some extraordinarily colored accessories, jackets two sizes too small and plus fours10 years after the rest of Canada dropped them). He puts on a pair of creaseless corduroy pants and still brighter accessories. Then he heads for the field.

Usually he gets to his field headquarters by automobile, an invention he discovered in 1935. Before that he did most of his traveling by bicycle, an overloaded vehicle which enabled him to observe nature better and to improve his health as he went.

He did most of the

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Rockies on two wheels; was the first man ever to cycle from Banff to Lake Windermere—across two divides and through a snowstorm.

His equipment is fairly light: a stock of small red books, a camera (he takes up to 2,000 pictures in a summer) and a recording machine for folk songs and language oddities. The recording machine he uses must have been one of the first ever built. It looks like the “His Master’s Voice” trademark and uses cylinders similar to those of a dictating machine. Barbeau prefers it to newer models because it is simpler and less fragile.

Mainly his research job is one of interviewing. He asks people about their customs, their stories, their songs, their handicrafts, their clothes, their language, their recipes, etc. He pays the Indians of the West and the peasants of Quebec three dollars a day for their time. They talk freely for this and, if asked, sing into Dr. Barbeau’s little machine.

Northwest Invasion

IN THE world of anthropology Marius Barbeau is noted chiefly for contributions in these two fields—among the Indians, and his own people of French Canada. His most important investigations have concerned the migrations of Asiatic peoples to the North American continent, which explain the Indian and Eskimo populations already here when the Europeans first checked in. In this, his findings challenge the generally accepted theory that these migrations ceased entirely about 2,000 years ago. In Dr. Barbeau’s belief, this intercontinental traffic has never actually stopped; still goes on via Bering and the Aleutians. Shortly he will publish his evidence in a book to be called “A Bridge Between Two Worlds.”

The evidence now rests in a dozen filing cabinets in the Museum. It is contained in scores of small red-covered books of identical size, filled with millions of words written in a tiny immaculate shorthand representing 30 years of field research.

In preparing his case, Marius Barbeau has journeyed several dozen times up the northwest coast of British Columbia, through the Queen Charlotte Islands and far up the Nass and Skeena rivers into the Indian country northwest of Prince Rupert. His studies have concerned particularly the culture of the Dene Athabascan stock (a large anthropological division embracing perhaps 40 Indian tribes)—their language, songs, myths, social organization, etc.

Some indicative examples of his findings are:

The dirge songs of the Northwestern Indians are unmistakably Buddhist in origin.

The languages of some tribes use pitch accents (where the same word spoken in high or low tones has a different meaning). This is a Mongolian characteristic.

Many of their folk songs are based on Asiatic themes. Barbeau wrote down 20 such songs; later sang them to a Chinese professor at McGill, who confirmed their Eastern origin.

The totem poles of the Northwest Coast have as one of their most popular themes the legend of Perseus and Andromeda. This is a classical myth which spread from Europe into Asia and then across into North America. By assembling countless such clues and comparing them with the known facts of Asiatic fife through various stages in history, Dr. Barbeau arrives at his broad deductions.

The second most important area of Dr. Barbeau’s work has been in French Canada and more in the field of folklore than that of anthropology. Anthropology is defined as the study of the natural history of man—physically, racially and culturally. Folklore is a study of traditional arts and crafts, which are handed down by example and by word of mouth, rather than in writing. Both studies ask the same question: Where did we come from and what were we like on the way?

Through Barbeau’s researches in French Canada (mainly in Charlevoix County and in the Saguenay and Gaspé areas) he has given back to France herself a considerable knowledge of part of her past

herself a considerable which had been

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forgotten there, but which has been lying here in the New World for several centuries, preserved as under a blanket of snow. The exhibits in this case include folk tales and folk songs (some of them unchanged from medieval times), art treasures of the convents and monasteries, wood carvings, techniques of weaving and language.

Barbeau, a gay little man who goes among the people with humility and charm, gets a maximum of co-operation in a minimum of time. All researchers arc not as thoroughly welcomed. Last summer a lady folklorist from Paris found herself under considerable suspicion on the Gaspé coast. She was thought to be a spy.

From these summer journeyings, Dr. Barbeau has brought back some fine collections. In his files he has the lyrics of 10,000 French and Indian folk songs heard in Canada. These are all broken down by subjects, such as: drinking songs (very many), work songs, war songs, love songs (a multitude) and marriage songs (only a few). And on his wax cylinders he has recorded more than 5,000 of these songs, sung by old men of the tribe and by old men and women of the Quebec villages.

Other interesting collections: old

Quebec pottery, Quebec hooked rugs, Quebec silverware, exceptionally beautiful embroidery from the convents, carved wooden figures and Indian masks and totem poles. A prized hoard which Barbeau feels should be put to practical use, is that of 500 traditional French recipes. He is quite willing to offer it to the Quebec Hotels Association for distribution to its members. Tourists, he feels, would be more interested in this native cuisine than in the American-type dishes they usually get.

Kickapoo War Dance

The most exciting moments of Barlieau’s scientific and poetic life have happened during his summer journeys. His most hazardous episode occurred far up the Nass River in northwest B. C. in 1929. He was going upstream in a flat-bottomed craft, in company with a boat expert named Stevens, an interpreter and the Chief of the Eagle Clan. The scenery was rugged; the water swift and treacherous. Coming up to a bend in the river, Barbeau went •to the front of the boat, mounted his tripod and stood up to start shooting pictures. He looked down into his view finder; found himself staring into the yawning meuth of a great whirlpool. He sat down.

On another occasion, when he was in search of totem poles, he entered a settlement in the same area known as “the forbidden village.” It was inhabited by a tribe who were strictly against the white man. For a while everything was fine, but then some of the more ructious Indians brewed up some kickapoo joy juice, got very tiddley, fired three gun shots and drove the tribal dogs and horses through the anthropological tents. Barbeau and party left in the morning.

His most exciting experience in Quebec was the discovery of the great wood carver, Louis Jobin. He had heard of Jobin many times before he first visited his shop in Ste. Anne de Beaupre in 1925, in company with artists Arthur Lismer and A. Y. Jackson. But he was hardly prepared for the quality of the work. The three visitors found the 81-year-old carver at work in his shop, but willing enough to lay off for a while and talk.

Good Buy in Poles

In a courtyard behind the shop, Jackson noted a carved angel with lyre standing exposed to the elements. “It’s like a Michelangelo,” he breathed. Jobin was less enthusiastic. The carving had been done for a parish church, he explained, but the priest had rejected it after discovering he could buy one cheaper in plaster. Jackson wanted it for the Toronto Art Gallery; asked Barbeau how much he should offer. Barbeau suggested $20. “No good,” said Jackson. “At that price the directors won’t think it much good. Offer him 75.” Jobin thought this a huge joke and roared, “Seventyfive dollars for an angel thrown out of paradis!” However, the deal was closed and the statue now stands in the Art Gallery in Toronto.

Each autumn Barbeau returns to Ottawa, shaggy-haired, nut-brown and happy. And after him, by boxload and carload, come the properties he has purchased in the field. He buys for the National Museum, for himself and for any other museum that will give him a budget.

He loves to buy totem poles; has made satisfactory deals for a full score of them at prices ranging from $200 to $1.000. The best buy was a magnificent 80-foot pole from the Nass River country, which he picked up for the Toronto Museum for $400. Today it would probably fetch a thousand. Another fine pole, an Eagle’s Nest Totem, now stands 66 feet high in a park in Quebec. Two recent acquisitions were the 45-foot Wolf and Grizzly Bear poles which now flank the doors of the Ottawa Museum.

The poles are usually brought down by river to the railhead, from where

they travel east by flatcar. If too long for a flatcar they are sawed in the middle and re-joined at their destination.

Sadly enough, most of the fine properties brought back for the National Museum by Dr. Barbeau have not been installed there because of lack of space. They have rested through the years, under dust and in some danger, ¡n a ramshackle old building on Ottawa’s Kent Street.

Throughout Dr. Barbeau’s working life he has been racing to get his research completed before his sources died off and publish his findings before he himself moves on. Each time he has gone back to one of his hunting grounds, it has been to find fewer of the old-timers left who can recall the old songs and stories. As it is, however, he has acquired so much material that his writing has not quite kept pace— despite his amazing total of 50 fulllength books, more than 30 pamphlets and reports, 60 books and booklets in collaboration, and more than 450 magazine articles.

Seven Jobs at Once

His writings include scientific tracts, Indian myths, Quebec folk tales, a number of collections of folk songs (words and music), a novel and a one-act play. Some of the better known titles: “Indian Days in the Canadian R®ckies,” “The Downfall of Temlaham,” “Alaska Beckons,” “Changing Quebec,” “The Kingdom of the Saguenay,” “Quebec Where Ancient France Lingers,” “Romancero du Canada,” “Coté the Wood Carver,” “Saintes Artisanes.”

Barbeau can keep six or seven jobs going at once without strain. He puts every hour of every day to use and has worked out his own techniques for the conservation of energy. He inscribes his minute writing on small sheets of paper, four by six, so that his arm won’t have to travel fur across the page. Writing entirely with the wrist and barely pressing on the pen, he is able to go on for hours without tiring.

Office hours (when he is in Ottawa) are from 9 to about 5.30. He walks hack and forth from his home, about six blocks away and walks home for lunch. To handle the ideas that develop in his head while he is strolling, he carries a bundle of index cards in his pocket; stops frequently in midsidewalk to jot down a sentence or-two.

When he arrives home in the evening, usually about six, he drops down for a 15-minute nap. Right after supper he goes up to his room and climbs into bed. There he works on his little sheets till about 10 and then falls asleep. At 2 a.m. he wakes again and writes for another couple of hours before dozing off once more. At 6 he is up for the day. More mechanical jobs he saves for trains and hotel rooms. Proofreading is a train specialty.

In 1944 he wrote a novel, “Mountain Cloud,” in which the prose had a simple, fablelike quality. It was the story of Pierre Cadieux, a trader who married a Tahltan Indian girl and tried to adapt her to white ways. Instead, he himself became absorbed

his anthropology and folklore classes at the University of Montreal. At other times his lecture schedule takes him to Laval University and to various platforms in the United States and Canada.

As a lecturer there is never anything cap and gown about him. He is eloquent in both speech and gesture. Sometimes he is a first-rate showman.

When he is thoroughly warmed up to his subject, he becomes a symphony conductor. With his head well back and his arms and small neat hands tracing graceful and orderly patterns through the air, he moves convincingly through the anthropological scores.

He never gives the same lecture twice. Early in his career, when he found that a certain speech got a rousing response, he went right out and did it again. Invariably it fell on its face the second time round. Now he improvises his way through the same subject matter. “It is necessary,” he says, “to keep the sense of adventure in a lecture.”

He lectures——and writes—with equal facility in English and French.

The other week he spoke in Ottawa to a diplomatic group made upofEnglish and French members. Puzzled at first about what language to use, he finally hit upon a popular solution. “The romantic and poetic parts of my talk 1 gave in French . . . and the essentially practical portions in English.”

Some of his most popular talks are given in connection with an institution known as the “Mardi Universitaire” held by Laval University. These are lectures to the general public and Barbeau’s special topic is the French language in Quebec Province. In this connection he uses as a target an organization known as the “Société de Parler Français,” whose aim in life is to prove that Quebec French came from a particular area of France and is uniform throughout the province. Barbeau holds that there are a great many regional differences and to prove his point he rounds up people from various counties and has them on the platform with him. “Then,” he says, “1 become merely the Master of Ceremonies. We do some research in public.” His guests tell stories and sometimes sing. Barbeau picks out t he regional phrases and accents and proceeds to beat up the “Société de Parler Français.” The audience love it.

Marius Barbeau is himself a French Canadian. He was born in the village of Ste. Marie Beauce in 1883 and from his parents inherited a spirit which he describes as “a combination of something wild and something very tame.”

His mother was a sweet and cultured woman, a skilled musician and embroiderer. She had taken her vows as a nun, right up till the final vow; had spent seven years in a convent. She understood and sympathized with Marius’ soft and poetic nature.

Third Choice Career

His father was a fiery big man with some O’Brien blood in his veins, from a grandmother who had come out to Canada on one of the plague ships of the 1830’s. He was a horse lover and breeder. He had little sympathy for

at Ste. Anne de la Poeatiere; stayed six years. When he came out of there it was expected that he would go on to train for the priesthood. He shifted course; went on to law at Laval University and came out with a licentiate and a B. A. in 1907.

It was expected then that he would ret urn to the parish and begin to set up in practice. Again he shifted course, this time as the result of an unexpected happening. At the university a friend of his named Louis St. Laurent was offered a Rhodes Scholarship but turned it down—and has done very well without it. Second choice for the scholarship was Barbeau. He went on to Oriel College, Oxford, but found criminal law distasteful. For no particular reason he switched to anthropology and took summer courses in Paris at the Sorbonne.

He took a fancy to Egyptology but one of his professors persuaded him that it was best to go where his roots were; back to Canada to do original research.

When Marius Barbeau returned to Canada in 1911 there was a job waiting for him. The Department of Mines was just, then setting up the National Museum and had need of a Canadian anthropologist.

Barbeau’s career at the Museum has been essentially a happy one, in spite of one long drought of indifference toward the institution. “For 30 years,” says Barbeau, “they thought I was an Indian.” One eminent politician paid the Museum a visit one day, looked around him and snorted, “Why keep all this space just for wooden whales?” When there was no money for Government publication of his work, Barbeau obtained permission to get outside publication. When there was no money for exhibits, he bought them himself. The departmental Treasury officers had little imagination. In the words of Dr. Barbeau: “Masterpieces had to be

pushed down their throats.”

When he was 30, Barbeau contracted typhoid fever and almost died. His nurse brought him back to health and shortly after they were married.

They had two daughters, Dalila (now married to Arthur Price, young Canadian artist at present free-lancing in Hollywood) and Helene (now married to Marcel Rioux, an assistant anthropologist).

Children and Pottery

Meanwhile the Barbeau house slowly became a museum in itself. It is a three-story brick building on Ottawa’s MacLaren Street, simple and conservative in its outside lines, but impregnated with character within.

The hall is Indian, with tapestries and masks on the walls. The drawingroom is dedicated to Canadian artists, with early and late pieces of Emily Carr prominently featured. The dining room is filled with Canadian pottery and silverware and plain Jacobean oak furniture.

Even the garage is a part-time museum. A visitor went to park there once and came face to face with the pulpit of an old Quebec church.

The house is a gay one with visitors swirling in and out in a most casual coming and going. Few scientists come to Ottawa without paying a call on Marius Barbeau and they are as apt as not to find the noted anthropologist sitting in bed with his little papers. Often his two young granddaughters are there, tumbling about with abandon.

He is completely at the mercy of the children; happily takes them on shopping expeditions along Sparks Street, or serves as baby sitter when their mothers go out.

Sometimes in the spring the Barbeau family go for drives into the country. Papa throws a shovel and pick into the hack of the car and while the others are picnicking he disappears into the hush. When the picnic is over the passengers usually find that their places in the car have been filled with oddlooking shrubbery which Dr. Barbeau is transplanting to his garden.

The family all take Papa as they find him; never try to predict what next.

About the little things he is the absent-minded professor. He loses hats, umbrellas and rubbers. He miscalculates social engagements. Most of his friends—and he has a great many —have stories about Barbeau arriving at their homes a week too early or too late for a dinner he has agreed to attend.

Science came first even on his wedding day. Barbeau’s best man—the noted archivist Gustave Lanctot— found him staring into a store window on Sparks Street when he should have been 12 miles away in Britannia preparing for the ceremony. Lanctot approached Barbeau and ticked him off. Barbeau went right on staring at a beautiful rug which was on display in the window. Finally he sighed and turned to his best man. “When I get hack from my honeymoon,” he said, “I will still be married. But this rug will be gone.”

Discovery of an Artist

Apart from the satisfactions of anthropology, Barbeau needs little to be happy. He carries with him a sense of beauty and a bird on his window sill, or a particular leaf on the tree outside, will entrance him for an hour. He will tell a friend about it with the comment, “I contemplated the beauty for as long as I could . . . but then I was losing time, so I went back to work.”

Since the 1920’s Marius Barbeau has been a force in the lives of some of our most able painters; Emily Carr, A. Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer, Edwin Holgate, Langdon Kihn, Peggy Nickol, Florence Wild and many others.

He persuaded artists to go along with him on his field trips, paint what appealed to them. Through Sir Henry Thornton, then president of the Canadian National Railways and an art patron, he procured rail passes for interested artists.

Barbeau’s greatest single contribution to Canadian art was the discovery of Emily Carr. But he fights shy of the word “discovered,” preferring to say, “I helped to ojien the window outwards.”

He jierformed an equally imjiortant catalytic function for the Bouchard family of Quebec. He took a close look at their hooked rugs, then put them in touch with Patrick Morgan and prosperity at Murray Bay. Similarly he pushed the painting of Marie Bouchard, who went on to considerable prominence.

Barbeau has foraged in the field of music as well, but without as much gratification. He has long felt that his enormous collection of native music should be an inspiration to Canadian comjxisers. Thus far none have utilized it.

He has offered the use of this collection to the heads of several Canadian conservatories, hut they have proved indifferent. “From the standpoint of music,” says Marius Barbeau, “Canadians are simjily colonials. Our conservatories are but mills for the production of technical education.”

Two other typical Barbeau quotes: “I am like the frog in the fable who swallowed all the water in the world.

I have swallowed all of the songs in Canada. Now some young composer must come along and plunge his sword into me and release this music for the good of all.” And finally, “We have the resources; what we lack are people of the upper classes who are possessed of ^culture.”

If Marius Barbeau were the director of a conservatory, every student would Hearn to compose. “I would recreate I or my students the conditions that existed in the time of Beethoven, of ^Mozart and of Bach, when there were no valises heavy with printed scores. If they wished to render music they would have to create it for themselves. I would establish a whole class of composers who would do nothing but work on our native materials . . . and they would have to leave a good many of the cadenzas unwritten, so that the performer, too, would have to be a composer.”

It is a theme which runs through H great deal of Barbeau’s thinking: creative art for the use of all and nol just for the few. Art to give greater character, greater diversity and interest to every individual.

' In this connection he practices what

he preaches; has composed several original songs, made arrangements of 20 French-Canadian songs which have been used in concerts and harmonized a number of Indian melodies. “I have an ear for the discordant,” he admits.

With his 65th birthday just past, Barbeau feels that he has reached the late spring of his life. Time is running out a little and now he is trying to complete some of his plans. He hopes to write a minimum of two books a year until he reaches the age of 85, at which time he may go on the semiretired list.

He has three new volumes coming out soon: a large work on totem

poles; the major work on his most significant theme, “A Bridge Between Two Worlds”; and a large text entitled, “North Americans, Their Backgrounds.” Projected beyond that is a new book on Emily Carr.

At 65, Marius Barbeau is still brimming with tanned good health. But he is beginning to slow down just a little. It shows up mainly in his lecturing. Now he finds that after being a steady hour on the platform . . .“I have so many more things to say, but alas, I find I have no breath.” it