1319 Heiltsuk ceremonial songs

To Impersonate the Supernatural: Music, Ceremony and Culture of the Bella Bella
by Anton Frederik Kolstee

Vancouver: Granville Island Publishing, 2020
$24.95 / 9781926991146

Reviewed by Mark Turin


To Impersonate the Supernatural draws heavily from the author’s 1988 doctoral dissertation from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Ethnomusicologist, educator, and musician, Anton Frederik Kolstee died in December 2020 at the age of 71, a victim of COVID-19, the virus behind the seemingly never-ending pandemic that continues to transform all of our worlds.

This unusual book can be read at two levels, one descriptive and analytical, the other reflexive and inescapably political. The first track offers a traditional — and by now rather dated — comparative and structural survey of the richness of ceremonial and nonceremonial musical traditions among the Heiltsuk. Bringing together historical and contemporary data to support his analysis, Kolstee proposes that the Heiltsuk First Nation of Bella Bella, British Columbia, be considered “cultural innovators” or “brokers” (p. 113), and the most significant musical and ceremonial group on the Northwest Coast during the 19th Century. This is a well-substantiated if bold claim, and the book’s chapters offer an analysis of the characteristics and encodings of song types across the region. Kolstee’s thesis is that the ceremonial song repertoire of the Heiltsuk is made up of four distinct musical styles and that a four-part organization is ubiquitous in Heiltsuk musical patterning.

Anton Kolstee (1949-2020). Courtesy Kolstee family

At the same time, To Impersonate the Supernatural works somewhat subversively as a trenchant critique on the nature of scholarly authority, offering a meta-commentary on the ethics of ethnographic research by outside scholars who work on or with Indigenous communities in what is now Canada. The back cover of the monograph foreshadows what lies within, noting that “copyright and cultural property protection exists on material owned by the Heiltsuk First Nation of British Columbia.” The text opens with Kolstee’s two-page Acknowledgements, in which he outlines the nature of the permission he was granted to undertake this work, and notes that the “texts and translations of songs are themselves of a sacred nature” and that these are therefore “not being reproduced for mass consumption in this book.” Readers interested to know more are directed to contact the Heiltsuk Cultural Education Centre in Bella Bella.

William Housty. Courtesy Salmon Nation

Much is distilled in the carefully-worded Foreword that follows, co-authored by Jennifer Carpenter of the aforementioned Heiltsuk Cultural Education Centre and William Housty, a commanding Heiltsuk intellectual and leader who currently serves as Chair of the Board of Directors of the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department. “This has not been an easy foreword to write,” note Carpenter and Housty, welcoming “the opportunity to place Anton’s thesis in a broader cultural content and how it relates to Heiltsuk life and values” (p. ix). They go on to remind the reader of the importance of recognizing Heiltsuk Elders as the knowledge holders and transmitters that they are and have always been, a fact still so regularly overlooked because “the outside world sees and cites the work of academics as an authority.”

Academic work, Carpenter and Housty contend, must remain “open to critique, updating, and corrections of fact.” Most centrally, they underscore that To Impersonate the Supernatural should not be read as a “definitive statement about music, ceremony, and culture of the Heiltsuk.” The reader is then advised that Granville Island Publishing was instructed to remove “the full appendix of Heiltsuk song texts, translations, and musical notations at the request of the families of the song owners and cultural advisors” which had been included in the initial draft manuscript (p. x). All in all, this is a far cry from the standard fare of a gushing Foreword that extolls the many virtues of the book that follows. Instead, these few pages situate Kolstee’s study within the particular cultural, temporal and political moment of its creation.

Cultural imperialism. A Heiltsuk mask on an American postage stamp, 1980

Kolstee’s objective is to describe the relationship between Heiltsuk musical patterning and other systems of relationship in Heiltsuk culture and to document the importance of the Heiltsuk in the Northwest Coast music “area” during the nineteenth century (p. 1). In order to realize his goal, the author applied for and was granted a teaching position in the Bella Bella Community School for the 1978-1979 school year during which sojourn he also met with many community members and re-recorded tapes of Heiltsuk music. While many scholars choose to contribute to the community they study — and the dual role of teacher and ethnographer is by no means unusual — something about Kolstee’s description of his methods conveys a sense of surreptitious anthropology: fieldwork conducted under the guise of employment.

Bella Bella, October 2019: the first Heiltsuk Big House opening in 120 years. Image Courtesy of Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department via BC Museums Association
Heiltsuk territory. Courtesy Heiltsuk Nation

Perhaps unsurprisingly, for a thesis written over 30 years ago, the language in this monograph — particularly how Kolstee engages with Heiltsuk agency and emic cultural understandings — could have benefitted from some refreshment and refinement. Throughout the text, the author relies on descriptions that reinscribe a deficit model of Indigenous culture, focussing on absence rather innovation or transformation, such as: “given the absence of data relating to Heiltsuk nonceremonial song performance practice, we must largely define this realm negatively, that is, as lacking all the typical features of ceremonial song performances” (pp. 70-71). Moreover, when outlining how Heiltsuk “attempt to impersonate the supernatural…imitating their ancestors” (p. 6), Kolstee’s writing is marred by an objectifying paternalism. Lest readers conclude that I am judging Kolstee by the norms of the current moment rather than the intellectual climate when this text was created, we must remember that the book was published 2020. In addition, Kolstee urges his readers to engage: “We must be critical” (p. 29), he writes, and he himself is, particularly of earlier scholarship which he identifies as being “incomplete and non-critical” (p. 29). Cherokee scholar and writer Daniel Heath Justice offers us helpful tools here, and warrants citing in full in this regard:

“Critical,” then, isn’t about negativity or simply challenging ideas in a reactive way, but to insist on the relationship between our intellectual practice and our everyday lives. It’s an unwillingness to accept claims based on arbitrary or coercive authority or clichéd received wisdom, but to use all the tools at our disposal to expand possibilities for ethical, thoughtful inquiry. It is a commitment to confronting oppressive and limiting social structures while also imagining possibilities for better ways of co-existing and flourishing in the world. In so doing, however, it necessarily requires us to rigorously question our own perspectives, ways of thinking, and areas of study in pursuit of better, more accountable, and more ethically engaged ways of thinking and doing in the world.[1]

In sum, To Impersonate the Supernatural is an awkward book, as uncomfortable to read as it is challenging to review. On the one hand, Kolstee’s appreciation of Heiltsuk musical and creative accomplishments is beyond doubt, and he makes a sincere effort to locate the cultural moment that he observed in a wider historical trajectory and regional context. At the same time, his writing is overshadowed by the dark clouds of academic privilege and hubris. This is perhaps best distilled in the very last paragraph of the book, where he generously dedicates the text to his sister “who made it happen,” additionally noting that the text is “for the future youth of Bella Bella” (p. 229). “It is up to you,” Kolstee instructs, uncomfortably, “to learn from this book and begin singing and dancing the songs of your ancestors” (p. 229). Fortunately, Heiltsuk youth are doing just that — as they always have — long before this book exhorted them to do so.


Mark Turin

Mark Turin is an anthropologist, linguist and occasional radio presenter, and an Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia. He is cross-appointed between the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies and the Department of Anthropology. For over twenty years, Dr Turin’s regional focus has been the Himalayan region (particularly Nepal, northern India and Bhutan), and more recently, the Pacific Northwest. Turin is very privileged to have had the opportunity to work in collaborative partnership with members of the Thangmi-speaking communities of eastern Nepal and Darjeeling district in India since 1996, and since 2014 with members of the Heiltsuk First Nation through a Heiltsuk Language Mobilization Partnership in which UBC is a member. Turin writes and teaches on language reclamation, revitalization, documentation and conservation; language mapping, policies, politics and language rights; orality, archives, digital tools and technology. He is the author or co-author of four books, three travel guides, the editor of 12 volumes, and he edits a series on oral literature. Twitter: @markturin


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Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Anton Kolstee

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of BC books and authors in all fields and genres. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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[1] Daniel Heath Justice. 2017. “What Is the Critical in Critical Indigenous Studies?” The Raven 5:34

3 comments on “1319 Heiltsuk ceremonial songs

  1. I met this man Anton while he was gathering the heiltsuk songs. I would like to get copies of all songs gathered. I would like to learn to drum and sing. If anyone can direct me in right direction.

    1. Hi Willis, good to hear from you. I would suggest that you contact the book’s publisher Jo Blackmore at Granville Island Books. Her email address can be found at the press website. Good luck with your studies! — Richard Mackie, editor, The BC Review

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