C. Marius Barbeau


By J.M.S. Careless

An esteemed founder of Canadian cultural anthropology – ethnologist, folklorist, and ceaseless collector – Marius Barbeau made outstanding contributions to the understanding and preservation of both Quebec and first peoples’ heritages in Canada. His work on Quebec folk traditions, songs, and texts, however, would loom larger. He was born in 1883 at Ste-Marie-de-Beauce on the Chaudière, across the St. Lawrence from Quebec City, in what was certainly a bastion of rural French-Canadian culture and, like many another academically promising Canadien of that era, he studied for the Catholic priesthood but later switched into law.

He excelled in law at Quebec’s Laval University; in fact, he was chosen as a Rhodes scholar to attend Oxford University in the Anglo heart of the British Empire. As an Oxford student in the early twentieth century, Barbeau was powerfully attracted by the emerging discipline of anthropology and thereafter, with a highly successful degree in anthropology, he was recommended to the young National Museum of Canada which became his home base from 1911 to the late 1960s. In sum, over the half century that followed his return to Canada, Marius Barbeau, with close to a thousand publications along with many more renderings of folk songs permanently preserved at the Museum, was the dominant figure in the recording of Quebec social and cultural traditions. While sharing his own treasured store of artifacts and knowledge with the people through books, popular lectures, and scholarly teachings, he also established the Archives de folklore at Laval University. In these various ways, he preserved vital work on the Canadian past.

Marius Barbeau worked at Canada’s National Museum for over one half century. When he was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, he became interested in anthropology. Viewed in this scene examining an early Quebec wood sculpture, Barbeau was an enthusiastic collector of folk traditions germane both to rural Quebec as well as Canada’s native peoples. A world-renowned ethnologist, his much-respected name was given to the highest mountain in the Canadian Arctic. Barbeau Peak rises to a height of 8,760 feet on Ellesmere Island. [Photo, courtesy National Archives of Canada/PA-149993]

With perseverance, he examined as well the ethnoculture of Canada’s first nations, especially in British Columbia where he gave particular attention to the Tsimshians of the northwest coast. Here, with William Benyon, a noted hereditary native chief, he built up an invaluable, ethnographic census. Even though Barbeau’s own interpretation of Tsimshian tribal myths depicting a journey within living memory from an ancient Asian homeland did not stand up to later anthropological science, his pioneering work in his field nonetheless proved invaluable in keeping alive old native memories of times long vanished.

Marius Barbeau – eager, eloquent, and deeply learned – was important as a Canadian ethnoscientist for well over half a century – in fact, until his death in 1969 when he received warm tributes and honour for his own tireless journeying across a widespread anthropological Canadian past. Today both academics and students worldwide are indebted to the poignant legacy left behind by this prodigious scholar of Canadian culture.

J.M.S. Careless

Charles Marius Barbeau (1883-1969) studied originally for the priesthood at the College de Ste-Anne-de-la-Pocatiere but eventually took a law degree at the Universite de Laval in Quebec City and then received a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University, where he completed a degree in anthropology in 1910. In 1911 he became an assistant ethnologist, joining the noted linguist Edward Sapir in the newly established anthropological division of the Geological Survey of Canada. The fledgling anthropological division has since evolved into the Canadian Museum of Civilization, located in Hull, Quebec, across the Ottawa River from the capital, Ottawa.

Barbeau’s first assignment as ethnologist was to collect Huron songs from an old friend of his, the Abbe Prosper Vincent this he did in April and May of 1911. In June and July of that year he collected additional ethnographic material from Mary McKee, a Wyandotte living in southern Ontario. From September 14 through November 18 he undertook field work in Northeast Oklahoma. The following year, 1912, from April 20 though August 3, he continued his field work and story collection in Oklahoma. Thus the material making up his collection is the result of slightly less than six months of linguistic work.

The stories were collected and transcribed phonetically in Wandat by the Canadian anthropologist and folklorist Marius Barbeau in the years 1911-12. The forty stories in the collection, along with others collected only in English, were published in an English version Huron and Wyandotte Mythology in 1915. This work appeared in a French translation Mythologie huronne et wyandotte in 1994, a quarter century after Barbeau’s death.

Barbeau never returned to Oklahoma. His later career centered on the Northwest Coastal Indians of Canada and on French-Canadian folklore. Nonetheless, he brought his Wyandotte material together for publication in English as Huron and Wyandotte Mythology, in 1915 and probably began work on the bilingual edition of the forty stories at about the same time. However, the bilingual edition, eventually published as Huron-Wyandotte Traditional Narratives, did not appear until 1960, eleven years after his formal retirement and only nine years before his death. A French translation Mythologie huronne et wyandotte appeared in 1994, a quarter century after Barbeau’s death.

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