1471 In search of a deeper meaning

Wilson Duff: Coming Back, A Life
by Robin Fisher

Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2022
$39.95 / 9781550179750

Reviewed by Rob Hancock


A casual observer might be surprised to learn that Wilson Duff’s life had been the subject of two operas and a novel before the first full-length biography was written about him. On the one hand, this fact makes perfect sense, given that Duff’s life (1925-1976), as it had commonly been represented and understood by his colleagues and other observers, provided plenty of fodder for dramatization. On the other hand, given the professional role and profile that Duff held during his career and after, it is curious that it has taken nearly a half-century after his death for a comprehensive consideration of his life and work to appear.

At the outset, I need to be frank about my own stakes in this conversation. As an undergraduate student at UBC, I took two transformative courses from the late Marjorie Halpin, a student of Duff’s who introduced me firsthand to aspects of his life and work and who encouraged me to do further work on him. Spurred on by this, I had proposed to write an intellectual biography of Duff for my doctoral dissertation in the early 2000s. However, I received word from a trusted mentor who had connections with some of his former students that nobody would be willing to talk to me about him at that time so I completed a different project. I learnt from this experience that Duff’s life and career still raised sensitive issues and feelings — and unresolved questions — more than a quarter-century after his death.

Wilson Duff (right) with his mother Annie (née Hislop) and brother Ron, 1940s. Photo courtesy Marnie Duff

In light of these sensitivities, Robin Fisher is uniquely well-suited to undertake such a project at this time. Born in New Zealand, Fisher has spent nearly a half-century researching and writing about British Columbia after coming to Canada to undertake a PhD in history at UBC, with Duff serving as a member of his supervisory committee. His dissertation, published as Contact and Conflict: Indian-European Relations in British Columbia, 1774–1890 (1977, 2nd ed. 1992), built on some of the analytical and interpretive insights of Duff’s work and represented a significant contribution at the time to the history of relationships between Indigenous people and settlers on the North Pacific coast. As well, Fisher had earned the trust of Duff’s surviving family, who recruited him to undertake the biography project and shared family materials with him to supplement those in archival collections. This family collection, along with the extensive interviews conducted by Fisher, make for an especially rich representation of Duff and his work, which might not have been possible if the project had been undertaken by anybody else.

At the same time, some academics might object that Fisher’s closeness to the subject threatens the value of “objectivity” and introduces potential conflicts of interest. But if a biographer does not feel a connection with their subject it becomes difficult to imagine or understand why they would invest so much time, effort, and energy into such a project, particularly one focussed on a man who was profoundly reticent in many ways to offer explanations for his thinking (p. 233). Fisher deserves praise for taking on the task of writing about a man like Duff, who was simultaneously so private and so connected to such a large number of people over so many years.

L-R: L. Barnes, Ken Welch, Murray Stroud (pilot), and Wilson Duff (navigator), members of a Royal Canadian Air Force Liberator bomber crew in India, ca. 1945. Photo courtesy Marnie Duff
Wilson Duff and Percy Gladstone — Bill Reid’s uncle — from Skidegate at their graduation from UBC, 1949. Gladstone had also been an RCAF wartime navigator. Courtesy Collyne Bunn

Fisher has crafted a relatively straightforward structure for his narrative, offering a series of ten chapters in largely chronological order that lay out the general arc of Duff’s life. The first seven cover his childhood and family in interwar Vancouver, the time he spent as a navigator in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War, his studies at university after returning from the war, his work as a civil servant at the British Columbia Provincial Museum (BCPM, now the Royal British Columbia Museum), and his teaching career at UBC. The final three chapters move away from a stricter chronology to focus on three key analytical issues, both in Duff’s work and in crafting his biography: his study of meaning in Haida art, the difficult reception his ideas received in the last five years of his life, and his decision to commit suicide. From Fisher’s analysis, three key aspects of Duff’s life and work emerge.

Duff as a student archaeologist drawing a wall profile at the conclusion of a deep shell midden excavation, 1949. Courtesy of UBC Museum of Anthropology, Archives image ao60242, Herb Watson fonds

First, Duff was always a teacher. His ability to absorb, retain, and transmit knowledge was apparent as early as his air force training, when after completing his training as a navigator at the top of his class he was offered, but declined, an opportunity to become an instructor for future groups (p. 51). In his days at the BCPM, he shared his knowledge not only with school groups on formal tours but also with random members of the public who found their way into the collections, then housed in the legislative buildings (pp. 115, 117). Taking an approach that was not common at the time — a theme to which I will return below — Duff intentionally exposed settler audiences to Indigenous perspectives on land and legal issues because they were “messages that Wilson believed settler society needed to hear” (p. 174). He taught about these issues, and many others, based on knowledge and perspectives drawn from his experience working on behalf of First Nations (pp. 207, 204, 205), engaging students with his personal reflections on, and emotional connection with, the communities, materials, and topics (pp. 188, 208). Fisher argues that Duff “took several different approaches to developing a conversation between First Nations peoples and newcomers, and then making it a better conversation” (p. 307), and education — whether in the museum, the university, or public settings — was clearly a central part of his efforts in this area.

Mask carved by Wilson Duff, as taught by Mungo Martin, early 1950s

Building on this, the second main theme is the attention, care, and concern that Duff displayed in seeking to use his knowledge, experience, and positions to be useful to Indigenous people (pp. 181, 185) — the other party to those conversations. In the context of legal contestation over the ownership of Haida totem poles from Ninstints, Duff asserted that “there was a … powerful moral imperative to recognize Indian rights and ownership” of them (p. 146). This sense of moral imperative extended to other aspects of Duff’s work and career, both back to his earlier ethnographic research (where Fisher argues that “Wilson was not just an observer, and he participated in a more profound way than was normally meant by that ethnographic formula” [p. 130]), and collections work (where Fisher argues that “[t]otem pole restoration was the outcome of negotiations in which the Indigenous people had interests and agency. Wilson did not take the poles without permission” [p. 158]), or forward to his work as an expert witness in support of Indian rights and title claims made in court.

L-R: Wilson Duff, Harry Hawthorn, and Bill Reid contemplate the totem poles at SG̱ang Gwaay (Ninstints). Photo courtesy Museum of Anthropology, UBC
The Haida box, now at the American Museum of Natural History, known as the “Final Exam.” The design fascinated both Wilson Duff and Bill Reid

This combination of moral imperative and innovative work combine to lead to the third theme, which is that Duff the person and his work are marked by a sense of untimeliness or existing out of time. Fisher notes Duff always “followed his own pathways of thinking” (p. 240), and Duff recognized this fact in himself, writing in one of the letters he composed before committing suicide that “I am out of step with the times” (p. 298). While in that case he might have been thinking specifically about his personal life, this was also the case in his professional life. Fisher observes that “…being Wilson, he was ahead of that time and place. At a time when Indian people were not encouraged to speak and were seldom heard by settler society, Wilson was listening” (p. 160). This orientation was particularly apparent in Duff’s ethical approach to working with Indigenous knowledge holders (p. 214) and his theoretical and practical concerns about appropriation of Indigenous culture (pp. 308-309). At the same time, especially toward the end of his life, Duff “was thinking at a different level but found that others, even old friends, were not prepared to go there with him” (p. 268), and realized that “[w]hile he was connecting with the past and finding reassurance about the future, his messages in the present were not always working so well” (p. 271).

Wilson Duff, ca. 1965. Photo courtesy UBC Archives

In his analysis, Fisher advocates strongly against presentism, or looking at the past in terms of the present. He cautions about using current mores and values to judge decisions and actions of people in the past (pp. 11, 307, 308) and expresses concern about how approaching history from this perspective has two key impacts on people’s understanding and appreciation of Duff’s work: “The first is the impulse to judge the work of historical figures by today’s standards. In the effort to take history to the cleaners, people from the past are found to be wanting by our current doctrines. The second comes from the loss of historical memory that leads to the claim today that ideas and approaches are new, when in fact that they were developed by those who went before” (p. 11). At the same time it is important to extend this perspective to the sources used to provide context; for example, Fisher’s representation of the work and impact of Franz Boas, a key figure in the founding of anthropology as a discipline in North America and in the intellectual genealogy of Duff’s academic mentors at the University of Washington, where he did his MA, draws solely on a source that focuses on criticisms of Boas rather than those seeking to understand his work on its own terms and in its own context (pp. 94-95).

Wilson Duff, ca. 1975. Courtesy Sheila McTaggert

Fisher’s work on Duff has many strengths. He offers a compelling portrait of Duff the man and has created a rich historical context, particularly in depicting Duff’s early life in Vancouver and experiences during the Second World War in vivid detail. His unflinching discussion of Duff’s suicide provides a long-missing corrective to “the fiction and the academic gossip,” often promulgated by colleagues, surrounding Duff’s life and his choice to end it the way he did (p. 10). By supplementing his archival and documentary research with an extensive series of interviews, he has added an incredible amount of detail that would not otherwise be available. Even though as a historian Fisher might be an outsider to the discipline of anthropology, as a former student of Duff’s he is an insider to the networks of people with firsthand knowledge of and insights into Duff’s life and career.

Robin Fisher at SG̱ang Gwaay

While there is still space for other scholars to address Duff’s anthropological ideas more deeply in the context of the discipline from an insider’s perspective, both in terms of their connections and in terms of their influence, Fisher has provided essential and irreplaceable personal and professional context for such subsequent work. There have not been many full-length biographies of Canadian anthropologists, and none that I am aware of that focus on researchers of Duff’s generation, even though such work provides essential context for Indigenous nations, scholars, and lawyers seeking to use anthropological research from the past to help resolve current issues and claims. In this context, Fisher has done extremely important work.

Fisher has also demonstrated the importance of outside perspectives on people’s lives, remarking at one point that “[a]s was usually the case, Wilson’s colleagues thought more highly of him than he thought of himself” (pp. 197-198). He reminds us that Duff’s work was ultimately about understanding and communication, particularly about issues affecting Indigenous people (p. 17), but I think that this actually describes Duff’s approach to his work more generally and reflects the threads of complexity and holism that run through his entire career (p. 311). Looking back, Duff’s life, work, and death are neither wholly knowable nor completely inexplicable; as Duff himself himself reminds us, “there’s a deeper meaning if you’re willing to be open minded” (p. 282). In searching for those deeper meanings, some things can only be made sense of after the fact.


Rob Hancock

Dr Rob Hancock is Cree-Metis on his mother’s side and English Canadian on his father’s, but was born and raised, and is grateful to live and work, on lək̓ʷəŋən territory. He is the Associate Director Academic in the Office of Indigenous Academic and Community Engagement at the University of Victoria, where he is also an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology.


The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

A book display at Chapters, May 2022

8 comments on “1471 In search of a deeper meaning

  1. I was delighted to read this book about Wilson Duff. It has been a long time coming. This is a thoughtful and welcome biography of a complex and insightful man who made a tremendous contribution to the future acceptance and appreciation of Northwest Coast indigenous peoples and their cultures….out of the Box!

  2. This is a book I’ll be buying. I met Wilson only a few times, when I transferred to UBC as a 3rd year anthropology student in 1974. My housemate that year was thrilled to have been chosen to be his research assistant. Wilson was a god to both of us, and like all gods, he proved to be flawed when close-up. My housemate had to quit her assistant position part way through the year. His ideas about sexual imagery in NWC art were to me obvious for some examples, and for others transcending to an obsession. I presume that is what drew scorn from the larger academic community, and I know it was repulsive to many Indigenous elders of the time, who were often socially conservative.

    I’m still amazed by his prescience and brilliance on all sorts of topics, from the effects of sea level changes on the archaeology of coastal BC to contact and colonial demographics and pre-contact population estimates, given the state of overall knowledge of such topics at the time.

  3. Dr. Robin Fisher will be speaking on his book at the Vancouver Historical Society’s May lecture, Thursday May 26th at 7 pm at the Museum of Vancouver. It will also be livestreamed, and recorded, on the VHS YouTube channel

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