Barbeau, Marius

views updated

Marius Barbeau

Dedicating his life to preserving the traditional cultures of northernmost America, Marius Barbeau (1883–1969) was perhaps the most noted Canadian ethnographer of the twentieth century. Through his efforts, thousands of folk songs, tales, and other art forms reflecting the unique culture of Canada were recorded, catalogued, and preserved for future generations.

Ethnographer, anthropologist, and author Marius Barbeau devoted his life to preserving the cultural heritage of his native Canada, a country divided by language, heritage, and a vast terrain. Working under the auspices of the National Museum of Man in Canada after 1911, Barbeau recorded the songs, stories, and languages of the native peoples inhabiting northernmost North America at the turn of the twentieth century, while also devoting his attention to collecting the stories and songs unique to his own French-Canadian culture. A prolific author, he penned nonfiction, biographies, and novels such as 1928's The Downfall of Temlaham, 1944's Mountain Cloud, and Le Rêve de Kamalmouk, published in Montreal in 1948. His many nonfiction works include 1928's Folk Songs of French Canada, which he coedited with fellow anthropologist Edward Sapir, as well as The Tsimshian, Their Arts and Music, Quebec, Where Ancient France Lingers, and I Have Seen Quebec. Barbeau was fluent in French and English and authored a number of books in his native French; several of his books for general readers, such as 1936's Quebec, Where Ancient France Lingers and 1957's I Have Seen Quebec, were published in bilingual editions.

Barbeau's most noteworthy contributions to anthropology consist of the relationships he unearthed between contemporary culture and cultures of the distant past. In eastern Canada, he linked modern cultural practices to more ancient cultures—for instance, he revealed relationships between French-Canadian social habits and customs and those of medieval France, while the Tsimshian people were shown to retain cultural attributes dating from their Asian forbears. While spending much of his time in fieldwork in remote areas of Canada, Barbeau was not a reserved, closeted academic; he was enthusiastic about sharing his knowledge and discoveries with the general public through radio and television programs as well as through his many books and his frequent lectures at schools and other assemblies. In addition to anthropological advances, Barbeau's published contribution to the body of Canadian folk music—contained in Le rossignol y chante, En roulant ma boule and Le roi boit—can be considered on a par with the contributions to British balladry made by American musicologist James Francis Child in the mid-nineteenth century.

Inspired by Cultural Heritage

Frédéric Charles Joseph Marius Barbeau was born in Sainte-Marie-de-la-Beauce, Quebec, Canada, on March 5, 1883. His mother, Marie Virginie Morency, was an educated woman who introduced him to folksongs through her love of music; his father, farmer and horseman Charles Barbeau, was a ready source of folk stories and tall tales who also performed a vast repertoire of old-time fiddle tunes. Barbeau was a good student who exhibited a keen intellect and intense curiosity, and his parents realized by the time their son was eleven that his potential lay beyond life on the family farm. Consequently, they planned for him to one day attend college.

In 1899 Barbeau left home and enrolled at the College of Sainte-Anne-de-la Pocatièe, earning his bachelor's degree in 1903. From there he moved to Laval University, where he first planned to become a lawyer or a notary and return to his hometown to set up a law practice. Completing his studies in four years and admitted to the Canadian Bar in 1907, the twenty-three-year-old Barbeau unexpectedly won a Rhodes scholarship to study law at Oxford University in England. Although he arrived at Oxford with the intent of studying criminal law, Barbeau found the law lectures dull and cast about for a subject of greater interest. He found it in anthropology and for the next three years took classes in archaeology, anthropology, and ethnology at Oxford's Oriel College. Completing his thesis, The Totemic System of the North-Western Tribes of North America, in 1910, he earned a B.S. from Oxford, although his desire to learn continued.

While at Oxford, Barbeau's interest in the study of mankind had taken him across the English Channel to the École d'anthropologie and the Sorbonne at the University of Paris. At the Sorbonne Barbeau met Professor Marcel Mauss, an anthropologist who greatly influenced the young man's budding career. Returning home to Canada with his Oxford degree in 1911, Barbeau followed the advice of one of his teachers, Sir William Osler, who advised the young French Canadian to seek out Professor Fisher at the University of Ottawa. Osler encouraged Barbeau to pursue his calling creatively, as anthropology was a young field and there were few constraints on scholarship.

Began Lifetime of Study

Shortly after his return to Canada, with Professor Fisher's advice 26-year-old Barbeau joined the National Museum of Man, which was then a branch of the Canadian Geological Survey. He remained at the National Museum after it became an independent institution in 1927, serving as its staff anthropologist and ethnologist until his retirement in 1948 and continuing to work in its Ottawa offices until his death. In addition, he was an active member of many organizations dedicated to promoting and preserving the Canadian cultural heritage, such as the American Folklore Society, the Royal Society of Canada, the International Folk Music Council, the Academie cannadienne-française, and the Canadian Folk Music Society, the last which he helped organize in 1956. At Laval University he also helped to establish a folklore archive to serve future scholarship.

Although he had loved the songs and stories of French Canada since childhood, Barbeau's major interest lay in the tribal culture of Canada, particularly the Huron people living in the eastern region. Barbeau's first study for the Canadian Geological Survey involved the Huron and Wyandot tribes who lived near the Detroit River near Amherstburg, in southern Ontario. In order to prepare himself to communicate with these people, he traveled south to Oklahoma, spending three months living among the people of the Cayuga nation and recording clan names, stories, and tribal customs while learning the Huron language. Back in Canada, he began fieldwork at the Huron reservation in Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, a small town near Quebec City, where he spent many hours with an aged Huron named Prosper Vincent, recording the man's singing and storytelling on wax cylinders and in the shorthand he had learned as a student in Beauce. The wax cylinder gramophone had been invented by Thomas Edison and was at that time the only means of capturing speech while in the field. In 1912 Barbeau returned again to Oklahoma, spending four more months completing his work. Boas oversaw the publication of some of Barbeau's findings in the Journal of American Folklore; a more extensive representation, the book Huron and Wyandot Mythology, was published by Canada's Government Printing Bureau in 1915, and was based on Barbeau's first three years in the field.

Meeting with Boas Proved Influential

In 1912 Barbeau broke away from studying the Huron culture of the eastern North American woodlands and traveled west to British Columbia. There he spent time among the Salish, adding to his growing collection of songs. In 1914, noted Columbia University anthropology professor Franz Boas inspired Barbeau with a new channel for his work. Meeting while in Washington, D.C., attending a gathering of the Anthropological Association, the two lunched together and discussed the fact that many of the Huron stories incorporated elements from French folklore. Fascinated by this cultural exchange, Barbeau realized that the 1865 collection of French-Canadian songs compiled by Ernest Gagnon was limited by a Eurocentric attitude.

Determined to expand on Gagnon's historical record, in 1916 Barbeau traveled down the St. Lawrence River through Charlevois, Kamouraska, and Beauce counties and recorded hundreds of new songs and stories on wax cylinders. This was the first of many trips Barbeau would undertake in his dedication to broaden general understanding and appreciation of French-Canadian culture, and his findings were published in such books as Contes populaires Canadiens. His method for studying and classifying his findings required complex systematization and vast amounts of time: each recording was transcribed and then grouped with those determined to be variants due to similarities in refrains, melodies, and storylines. Versions were made in both English and French, and further interrelationships then established. Each variant was classified according to a numbering system devised by Barbeau to differentiate among the 13,000 different texts he assembled over his career.

Fueled by a ceaseless curiosity, Barbeau characterized himself as "an inveterate collector" who was "always grabbing." And the object of his search was never-ending. As quoted on the Canadian Museum of Civilization Web site, he once observed of his calling: "There are plenty of folk songs everywhere. We have only to turn, to go to a village, a concession somewhere and enquire, and we find that there are more folksongs, more folktale tellers all the time. It is surprising how they have been preserved in the memory of the old people.… you only have to gather these people together and start them in a veillée du bon vieux temps and they give you a good evening of old folksongs."

While French influences on eastern Canada continued to interest Barbeau, his position at the National Museum of Man demanded that his focus be on Canadian culture as a whole. Barbeau viewed social interaction as of equal importance as scholarship, and his personal interest in the people he interviewed contributed greatly to the esteem with which native Canadians held him. His fascination with their beliefs, their customs, their opinions, their morality, and their personal philosophy of life was not merely scholarly, and his visits among the tribes became anticipated events. Barbeau's novels, which he began writing in the 1920s, also promoted native culture by depicting Indian societies as thriving, self-sufficient communities with strong moral foundations and little need for the social and material trappings of Western civilization.

During his decades studying the country's music, legends, crafts, and social customs and structures, Barbeau spanned the continent, traveling from its east coast through the central prairies to points west. Moving north and westward, in 1915 he worked among the Gitksan and Haida tribes and spent eight seasons among the Tsimshian, a tribe making its home near the Alaskan border. Folk art became an interest in the 1920s, and he amassed a valuable collection of pottery, weavings, and paintings during his travels. In addition to native American artists, Barbeau promoted the works of Canadians such as sculptor Louis Jobin, painters Emily Carr and Cornelius Krieghoff, and Quebec wood carver Jean-Baptiste Coté.

Early in his career with the Canadian Geological Survey, Barbeau had the chance to interview members of a delegation of over a dozen tribal chiefs from western Alberta and the Rocky Mountain region, who had assembled in the Canadian capitol city to discuss tribal lands. During three weeks of interviews in Ottawa, Barbeau recorded and transcribed over sixty songs, establishing lifelong friendships with several of the chiefs in the process. The wax-cylinder recordings made of these sessions, as well as those from his other fieldwork, number approximately 3,000 and are now housed at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, near Ottawa.

In 1949 66-year-old Barbeau led a group of anthropologists to the village of Oshwegan, located in the Grand River Reserve near Hamilton, Ontario. There, over three seasons, he oversaw the study of Iroquois dialects and with the help of interpreter Charles Cook created the first comprehensive dictionary of Iroquois language variants, while also adding a number of songs to his collection during the tribe's White Dog music festival.

Created Archive for Posterity

Over his lifetime Barbeau is credited with amassing over 400 folk tales and 8,000 songs and recorded for posterity the native ceremonies, myths, languages and dialects, architecture, handicrafts, and other manifestations of the many unique native cultures of northern America. Not content with mere scholarship, he encouraged the use of his research by other scholars and made available many recordings of native and French-Canadian songs as a way of preserving the music from extinction. At his death his related collection of Canadian artifacts numbered over 2,000 pieces.

A prolific author, Barbeau shared his knowledge in over thirty books and hundreds of articles, some published in scholarly journals and many others appearing in magazines and newspapers for the enjoyment of the general reading public. As associate editor of the Journal of American Folklore from 1916 to 1950, he spread information regarding Canadian folk songs and myths throughout the whole of North America and edited ten issues of the journal that focused almost wholly on Canadian folklore. In his publications, he often called upon the talents of Canadian artists such as Emily Carr, A. Y. Jackson, and Ernest MacMillan in illustrating his many books.

Considered a pioneer in his field, Barbeau was honored on many occasions. He received the Prix David from the Quebec government on three separate occasions, earned the Gold Medal from the Royal Society of Canada, and was named a Companion of the Order of Canada. Barbeau was also honored with honorary degrees from his alma maters, the universities of Montreal—from which he earned a Ph.D.—Laval, and Oxford.

Following Barbeau's death on March 27, 1969, in Ottawa, Canada, at age 86, the Canadian Museum of Civilization celebrated the centennial of Barbeau's birth with a special exhibition, and two years later Canada's Historic Sites and Monuments Board named him a "person of national historic importance." A mountain on Ellesmere Island, the highest point in the Canadian Arctic, was dubbed Barbeau Peak in his honor. Barbeau's work has also been commemorated by the Marius Barbeau Museum, located in Quebec near where Barbeau was born and raised. Focusing on local history, the museum houses a collection of traditional crafts, religious objects, and items relating to maple syrup production, the area's chief product. His papers are archived at Canada's National Museum of Civilization, located in the capital city of Ottawa.


Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 92: Canadian Writers, 1890–1920, Gale, 1990.

Nowry, Lawrence, Man of Mana: Marius Barbeau, N.C. Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1995.


Canadian Folklore Canadien, Volume 17, number 1, 1995.

Journal of American Folklore, Volume 82, 1969.


Canadian Museum of Civilization Web site, (July 18, 2001).