Marius Barbeau

Marius Barbeau: The public face of “folk culture”

“They don’t just want the ribs, they want the whole experience.” Freddy’s BarBQue/ House of Cards, 2014

Marius Barbeau (1883-1969) nearly single-handedly shaped Canadian folk studies (including music) and ethnography. Quebec born (in 1883 in Ste Marie-de-Beuce, an 18th century municipality) of a farming family, he liked to play Irish jigs on his fiddle, and eventually studied at Oxford and the Sorbonne and joined the newly formed anthropology division of the Geology Survey of Canada in 1910. Under the direction of American anthropologist Edward Sapir, he and his colleagues promoted intensive fieldwork and brought “professional authority” to salvage ethnography efforts and the popularization of “traditional” cultures of Canada. Some writers would say Barbeau “created” a culture of modern Canada due to his very public work and long lasting career. His work, including texts, photographs, recordings and films on the Huron-Wyandot and Tsimshian and French-Canadians fills archives and there is a French Canadian arts and crafts museum named in his honor. He was the founding president of the Canadian Folk Music Society, now the Canadian Society for Traditional Music at York University. It maintains guides to archives and databases of music for all of Canada.

His work, and the ideology that drove “salvage” work raises interesting questions for roots musicians today.


Nass River Indians (reconstruction available at

Nass River Indians (1928)was made to be screened during one of the first exhibits of Native North American art in an art gallery. After this use, the film “disappeared.” Some footage survived and the film was “reconstructed.” The film is, the new titles announce, “an example of attitudes toward Aboriginal people in the 1920s.” The Nisga’a Lisims Government have added further contextualization…the film is ”part of the history of colonialism,” and reflects “cultural misconceptions” of the era. Indeed, it reflects the efforts and ideologies of early ethnographic filmmakers like Robert Flaherty and Edward Curtis who sought to portray a pre-contract society in contrast with a people impacted by the west.

In the first few frames, we are informed that Barbeau and Dr. Ernest MacMillan set out with camera and phonograph to record the “vanishing culture, the rites and songs and dances of Indians” along the Pacific Coast.

The black and white footage contains images of the Nass people as laborers in a “white man’s culture”: fishing, packing salmon, and working assembly lines. Barbeau uses these working men and women as evidence to support salvage ethnography’s antimodernist agenda. This is a “vanishing” culture, he suggests. “Civilization is overtaking the redman” the titles announce. The camera lingers on smiling cannery workers and babies in “perambulators” then moves to staged images of an old man dancing—one who remembers “pagan” dances. His isolated show of the “traditional” is contrasted with frames of Native people playing in a religious band. There is no analysis and the Nass River people have no voice.

The idea of “traditional” is, of course, a cultural construct. “Cultures” are always and have always been dynamic, changing, adapting, borrowing and giving. Those who romanticize the “traditional” are blind to the incredibly robust capacity people have to develop survival strategies, to maintain the stories and ideologies that they value, and to resist oppression and efforts to deny them even in the face of enormous loss. Stories and the music and the art transform and a people cannot be represented by selected, static artifacts and shards “collected” by those from the dominant culture who showcase and romanticize them, as well meaning as they were.

Barbeau not only promoted collection, but he was a popularizer. He worked with Canadian writers and artists (like Emily Carr, a EuroCanadian who made a name, in part, by painting ghostly representations of totem poles in the Pacific Northwest) made films, promoted reenactments and museums. Some say he created the idea of a multicultural rich Canadian culture (sans referencing the politics of colonialism and oppressive economic and political policies) and left a legacy that still holds sway over the imagination of, say, Americans. That romantic view of Canada and its purity I would argue still fuels the dreams of those whose default statement when things get bad back home always threaten to “move to Canada.” The “traditional” Canada he promoted was rural, simple, wise, simple and full of charm. One needs only read the histories of Canada to know how fraught reality was and is.

So what does this mean for roots musicians and present day “collectors”? And what does it mean that music is removed from hometown dance halls and kitchens to the stage, big tours, and appearance in venues that have nothing to do with its roots. I would argue that one might at the very least strive to understand the ideological as well as the musical truths and history of those pretty tunes and lyrics. Salvage musicology like salvage archaeology and salvage ethnography assumes that fragments and shards of traditional culture are important. No doubt in some ways they are. But a stand alone artifact out of context can mislead and without an understanding of the pulses of imperialism and capitalism that isolated and left it standing on the margins in the first place will warp the truth and vibrant reality of an ever changing cultural narrative from which the music sprang.


The Nass River Indians didn’t disappear. The Quebecois of Barbeau’s youth didn’t disappear. The Huron-Wyandot didn’t disappear. Cultural processes aren’t magical acts like rabbits in hats. As more and more “roots” music is packaged for history bereft consumers, it is even more important to understand and appreciate that.

Thanks to Linda Jessup, ……………..all who have written thoughtful critiques of Marius Barbeau’s work.

About Llyn De Danaan

LLyn De Danaan is an anthropologist and author. She writes fiction and nonfiction. Katie Gale: A Coast Salish Woman's Life on Oyster Bay was published by the University of Nebraska Press. She is currently a speaker for Humanities Washington.
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