Marius Barbeau

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Charles Marius Barbeau
Marius Barbeau1.jpg
Born (1883-03-05)March 5, 1883
Ste-Marie-de-Beauce (later Sainte-Marie, Quebec, Canada
Died February 27, 1969(1969-02-27) (aged 85)
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Nationality Canadian
Occupation ethnographer, folklorist
Awards Order of Canada

Charles Marius Barbeau, CC FRSC (March 5, 1883 – February 27, 1969), also known as C. Marius Barbeau, or more commonly simply Marius Barbeau, was a Canadian ethnographer and folklorist[1] who is today considered a founder of Canadian anthropology.[2] A Rhodes Scholar, he is best known for an early championing of Québecois folk culture, and for his exhaustive cataloguing of the social organization, narrative and musical traditions, and plastic arts of the Tsimshianic-speaking peoples in British Columbia (Tsimshian, Gitxsan, and Nisga'a), and other Northwest Coast peoples. He developed unconventional theories about the peopling of the Americas.

Barbeau is a controversial figure as he was criticised for not representing his indigenous informants. In his anthropological work among the Tsimshian and Huron-Wyandot, for instance, Barbeau was solely looking for “authentic” stories that were without political implications. Informants were often unwilling to work with him for various reasons. It is possible that the "educated informants,” who Barbeau told his students not to work with, did not trust him to disseminate their stories.[3]

Life and career[edit]

Youth and education[edit]

Frédéric Charles Joseph Marius Barbeau was born March 5, 1883, in Sainte-Marie, Quebec. In 1897, he began studies for the priesthood at the Collège commercial, Frères des Écoles chrétiennes. In 1903 he changed to study for a law degree at Université Laval, which he received in 1907. He went to England on a Rhodes Scholarship, studying at Oriel College, Oxford from 1907 to 1910, where he switched to a career in the new field of anthropology. He studied under R. R. Marett.

Field work[edit]

In 1911, Barbeau joined the National Museum of Canada (then part of the Geological Survey of Canada) as an anthropologist under Edward Sapir; he worked there for his entire career, retiring in 1949. (The GSC subdivided in 1920, so that from that point on Barbeau was with the Victoria Memorial Museum, later renamed in 1927 the National Museum of Canada.)

At the beginning, he and Sapir were Canada's first and only two full-time anthropologists. Under those auspices, Barbeau began fieldwork in 1911-1912 with the Huron-Wyandot people around Quebec City, in southern Ontario, and in Oklahoma of the United States, mostly collecting stories and songs.

In 1913, the German-American anthropologist Franz Boas, then of the American Folklore Society (AFS), convinced Barbeau to specialize in French Canadian folklore. Barbeau began collecting such material the following year. In 1918, Barbeau became president of the AFS.

In 1914, Barbeau married Marie Larocque. They had a family together.

Beginning in December of that year, Barbeau carried out three months' fieldwork in Lax Kw'alaams (Port Simpson), British Columbia, the largest Tsimshian village in Canada, in collaboration with his interpreter, William Beynon, a Tsimshian hereditary chief. The anthropologist Wilson Duff (who in the late 1950s was entrusted by Barbeau with organizing the information) has called these three months "one of the most productive field seasons in the history of [North] American anthropology."[citation needed]

It led to a decades-long collaboration between Barbeau and Beynon, and the anthropologist writing an enormous volume of field notes—still mostly unpublished. Duff has characterized this as "the most complete body of information on the social organization of any Indian nation."[citation needed] Barbeau eventually trained Beynon in phonetic transcription and the Tsimshian chief became an ethnological field worker in his own right. Barbeau and Beynon followed their 1914 trip in 1923-1924 with field work on the middle Skeena River with the Kitselas and Kitsumkalum Tsimshians and the Gitksan. In 1927 and 1929, they had field seasons among the Nisga'a of the Nass River.

In 1922, Barbeau became the founding Secretary of the Canadian Historical Association. In 1929 he became a founding board member of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.

Academic career[edit]

In 1942, Barbeau began lecturing at Laval and at the University of Ottawa. In 1945, he was made a Professor at Laval. He retired in 1954 after suffering a stroke. He died February 27, 1969, in Ottawa.


Barbeau also did brief fieldwork with the Tlingit, Haida, Tahltan, Kwakwaka'wakw, and other Northwest Coast groups. He was always more focused on the Tsimshian, Gitksan, and Nisga'a.[when?] He emphasized trying to synthesize the various migration traditions of these peoples, in order to correlate them with the distribution of culture traits. He was trying to reconstruct a sequence for the peopling of the Americas. He was an early champion of the theory of migration from Siberia across the Bering Strait, a narrative still strongly disputed by many Indigenous nations who claim origin in North America.

His more controversial theory is that the Tsimshianic-speaking peoples, Haida and Tlingit represented the most recent migration into the New World from Siberia. He believed that their ancestors were refugees from Genghis Khan's conquests, some as recently as a few centuries ago. In works such as the unpublished Migration Series manuscripts, the book Alaska Beckons, and numerous articles with such titles as "How Asia Used to Drip at the Spout into America" and "Buddhist Dirges on the North Pacific Coast," he eventually antagonized many of his contemporaries on this question. His thesis has been discredited by linguistic and DNA evidence.

Under Beynon's influence, he promoted the idea among western academics that the region's oral histories of migration have real historiographic value. They were long discounted because they did not conform to European traditions as accounts.

He was an early proponent of recognizing totem poles as world-class high art, but his view that they are a post-contact artistic development has been decisively disproved.

Recognition and legacy[edit]

Sign about Marius Barbeau in Gatineau.

Cultural legacy[edit]

Barbeau was a prolific writer, producing both scholarly articles and monographs and books which presented Québécois and First Nations oral traditions for a mass audience. Examples include The Downfall of Temlaham, which weaves ancient Gitksan oral traditions with contemporary contact history. His The Golden Phoenix and other collections for children present French-Canadian folk and fairy tales.

His fieldwork and writings on all aspects of French-Canadian creative expression led to numerous popular and scholarly publications. His work is credited with contributing significantly to the rise of Québécois nationalism in the late 20th century.

Awards and honours[edit]

In 1950 Barbeau won the Royal Society of Canada's Lorne Pierce Medal. In 1967 he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada.[4] In 1969, Barbeau Peak, the highest mountain in Nunavut, was named after him.

In 2005, Marius Barbeau's broadcasts and ethnological recordings were honoured as a MasterWork by the Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada. His extensive personal papers are housed in the National Museum of Man, which was renamed in 1986 as the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and was renamed again in 2013 as the Canadian Museum of History.

The Marius Barbeau Medal was established in his name in 1985 by the Folklore Studies Association of Canada to recognize remarkable contributions to Canadian folklore and ethnology.[5]


An authorized bronze portrait bust of Barbeau was created by Russian-Canadian artist Eugenia Berlin; it is installed in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada.

Selected works[edit]

  • (1915) Huron and Wyandot Mythology. Ottawa: Geological Survey of Canada.
  • (1923) Indian Days in the Canadian Rockies. Illustrated by W. Langdon Kihn. Toronto: Macmillan.
  • (with Edward Sapir) (1925) Folksongs of French Canada. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • (1928) The Downfall of Temlaham. Toronto: Macmillan.
  • (1929) Totem Poles of the Gitksan, Upper Skeena River, British Columbia. Ottawa: National Museums of Canada.
  • (1933) "How Asia Used to Drip at the Spout into America," Washington Historical Quarterly, vol. 24, pp. 163–173.
  • (1934) Au Coeur de Québec. Montréal: Zodiaque.
  • (1934) Cornelius Krieghoff: Pioneer Painter of North America. Toronto: Macmillan.
  • (1934) La merveilleuse aventure de Jacques Cartier. Montréal: A. Levesque.
  • (1935) Grand'mère raconte. Montréal: Beauchemin.
  • (1935) Il était une fois. Montréal: Beauchemin.
  • (1936) The Kingdom Saguenay. Toronto: Macmillan.
  • (1936) Québec, ou survit l'ancienne France (Quebec: Where Ancient France Lingers.) Québec City: Garneau.
  • (with Marguerite and Raoul d'Harcourt) (1937) Romanceros du Canada. Montréal: Beauchemin.
  • (1942) Maîtres artisans de chez-nous. Montréal: Zodiaque.
  • (1942) Les Rèves des chasseurs. Montréal: Beauchemin.
  • (with Grace Melvin) (1943) The Indian Speaks. Toronto: Macmillan.
  • (with Rina Lasnier) (1944) Madones canadiennes. Montréal: Beauchemin.
  • (1944) Mountain Cloud. Toronto: Macmillan.
  • (1944–1946) Saintes artisanes. 2 vols. Montréal: Fides.
  • (1945) "The Aleutian Route of Migration into America." Geographical Review, vol. 35, no. 3, pp. 424–443.
  • (1945) "Bear Mother." Journal of American Folklore, vol. 59, no. 231, pp. 1–12.
  • (1945) Ceinture flechée. Montréal: Paysana.
  • (1946) Alouette! Montréal: Lumen.
  • (1947) Alaska Beckons. Toronto: Macmillan.
  • (1947) L'Arbre des rèves (The Tree of Dreams). Montréal: Thérrien.
  • (1950; reissued 1990) Totem Poles. 2 vols. (Anthropology Series 30, National Museum of Canada Bulletin 119.) Ottawa: National Museum of Canada. Reprinted, Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull, Quebec, 1990.
  • (1952) "The Old-World Dragon in America." In Indian Tribes of Aboriginal America: Selected Papers of the XXIXth International Congress of Americanists, ed. by Sol Tax, pp. 115–122. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • (1953) Haida Myths. Ottawa: National Museum of Canada.
  • (1954) "'Totemic Atmosphere' on the North Pacific Coast." Journal of American Folklore, vol. 67, pp. 103-122.
  • (1957) Haida Carvers in Argillite. Ottawa: National Museum of Canada.
  • (1957) J'ai vu Québec. Québec City: Garneau.
  • (1957) My Life in Recording: Canadian-Indian Folklore. Folkways Records
  • (ed.) (1958) The Golden Phoenix and Other Fairy Tales from Quebec. Retold by Michael Hornyansky. Toronto: Oxford University Press.
  • (1958) Medicine-Men on the North Pacific Coast. Ottawa: National Museum of Canada.
  • (1958) Pathfinders in the North Pacific. Toronto: Ryerson.
  • (et al.) (1958) Roundelays: Dansons à la Ronde. Ottawa: National Museum of Canada.
  • (1960) Indian Days on the Western Prairies. Ottawa: National Museum of Canada.
  • (1960) "Huron-Wyandot Traditional Narratives: In Translations and Native Texts." National Museum of Canada Bulletin 165, Anthropological Series 47.
  • (1961) Tsimsyan Myths. (Anthropological Series 51, National Museum of Canada Bulletin 174.) Ottawa: Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources.
  • (1962) Jongleur Songs of Old Quebec. Rutgers University Press.
  • (1965–1966) Indiens d'Amérique. 3 vols. Montréal: Beauchemin.
  • (1968) Louis Jobin, statuaire. Montréal: Beauchemin.

See also[edit]


  • Cove, John J. (1985) A Detailed Inventory of the Barbeau Northwest Coast Files. (National Museum of Man Mercury Series, Canadian Centre for Folk Culture Studies, Paper 54.) Ottawa: National Museums of Canada.
  • Wilson Duff (1964) "Contributions of Marius Barbeau to West Coast Ethnology," Anthropologica (new series) 6 (1): 63-96 doi:10.2307/25604600 from JSTOR
  • MacDonald, George F., and John J. Cove (eds.) (1987) Tsimshian Narratives. Collected by Marius Barbeau and William Beynon. (Canadian Museum of Civilization Mercury Series, Directorate Paper 3.) 2 vols. Ottawa: Directorate, Canadian Museum of Civilization.
  • Nowry, Laurence (1995) Marius Barbeau, Man of Mana: A Biography. Toronto: NC Press. ISBN 1550211005
  • Orford, Emily (1986) “Anthropologist’s field work on west coast began in 1914,” In Western People, 23 January 23, 1986.
  • Orford, Emily (1984) “Charles Marius Barbeau: Photo-ethnologist of coast Indians.” In Victoria Times-Colonist: The Islander, May 13, 1984. 10-11.
  • Slaney, Frances M. (2000) "Working for a Canadian Sense of Place(s): The Role of Landscape Painters in Marius Barbeau's Ethnology," In Excluded Ancestors, Inventible Traditions: Essays toward a More Inclusive History of Anthropology, ed. by Richard Handler, pp. 81–122. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.


  1. ^ Lynda Jessup; Andrew Nurse; Gordon Ernest Smith (2008). Around and about Marius Barbeau: Modelling Twentieth-century Culture. Canadian Museum of Civilization. pp. 207–208. ISBN 978-0-660-19775-3. 
  2. ^ R.J. Preston. "Charles Marius Barbeau". Retrieved September 29, 2013. 
  3. ^ Harrison and Darnell, J & R (2006). Historicizing Canadian Anthropology. Vancouver: UBC Press. 
  4. ^ Office of the Governor General of Canada. Order of Canada citation. Queen's Printer for Canada. Retrieved 24 May 2010
  5. ^ Folklore Studies Association of Canada, Marius Barbeau Medal Archived 2010-04-27 at the Wayback Machine.

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