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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The tsimshian crest system : a study based on museum specimens and the Marius Barbeau and William Beynon field notes Halpin, Marjorie Myers


This thesis is about the relationship of art and society. Specifically, it investigates Tsimshian crest art and its relationship to social organization. The analytical framework is structural, with explanatory formulations derived in part from the writings of Claude Levi-Strauss and Victor Turner. The study is unusual in that it is based upon museum specimens and records, data not often perceived as amenable to treatment within the context of contemporary social anthropology. It is also the most systematic examination of Northwest Coast iconography yet undertaken. The data include the field notes of Marius Barbeau and William Beynon, collected from the Tsimshian between 1914 and 1957, and preserved in the National Museum of Man. These data were used to construct an iconographic framework or grid within which Tsimshian objects in museums can be identified as crests. The crest system was analyzed as a series of statements about Tsimshian social structure. There are several hundred distinct named crests in the Tsimshian system (these are listed in an appendix), which is considerably more elaborate than the crest systems of their neighbours, the Haida and Tlingit. This elaboration was principally produced by the application of a series of "operators" (attributes) to crest animals in order to produce new forms. Thus, the Haida had a single raven crest, while the Tsimshian had over a dozen (White Raven, Split Raven, All Copper Raven, etc.). Still other forms were produced by merging features of different animals into composite "monsters." This complexity of forms is related in the thesis to a parallel elaboration and complexity in social structure, notably the greater elaboration of ranking and chieftainship in Tsimshian society. An analytical distinction was developed between "crests of differentiation" and "crests of integration." Crests of differentiation are totemic; that is, they employ distinctions between natural species in order to express differences between human descent groups. Crests of integration are iconographically monsters, which blur the natural (species) distinctions upon which totemic systems are based, in order to express integrative tendencies in social organization at both clan and "tribal" levels. A sub-category of complex monster crests was defined and shown to be related to a cannibal theme in Tsimshian mythology. The cannibal was interpreted as a metaphor expressing the redistributive function of the chiefly role. Representations of complex monsters were found on totem poles, house front paintings, frontlets, and raven rattles (the face on its "stomach"). A number of these representations are illustrated. While the focus of the study is crest art, a non-crest iconographic system based on spirit (naxn>’x) names was also defined and illustrated. This iconographic system is presented as the first ethnographically substantiated interpretation of Tsimshian masks.

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