Book Review of During My Time, Florence Davidson Edenshaw: A Haida Woman

Margaret Blackman’s During My Time, Florence Edenshaw Davidson, A Haida Woman focuses on the life of Florence Davidson a well-respected and influential Masset Haida woman known as Nani, or grandmother, to her community. Apart from the relationship of “collaboration and friendship” (Blackman, 1982) that emerged due to Blackmans interest in Haida culture this work was also inspired by interest in Haida life history as told from a female perspective, which in the past had been lacking. While this ethnography is an intimate look at the lived experience of Florence Edenshaw Davidson, and to some extent those around her, it also educates the reader on topics of acculturation and agency. Chapters one through three are written from the perspective of Blackman. Chapter one is dedicated to educating the reader on the importance of life histories “In short, Florence Davidson’s life weaves through a significant period of many traditional practices and the rebirth of others” (Blackman, 1982). Chapter two; The Haida Woman, gives a brief history of the Haida people using “…scattered data from ethnographic and historic sources and from Florence Davidson’s remarks upon Haida women in ‘the olden days’ to form a picture of the cultural position of traditional Haida woman” (Blackman, 1982). Chapter three gives some family background while stating some of the customs and traditions adhered to in Haida society. It is not until Chapter four that we begin to hear history from the perspective of Davidson herself. In these chapters Florence’s discusses members of her family, the devastation of small pox, her childhood, menstruation, marriage, subsistence, travel, the passing of womanly knowledge, family dynamics, child birth, death, the church, entertainment and working to name a few topics. The last two chapters contain a discussion, again from the perspective of Blackman, of issues discussed throughout the ethnography and finally an epilogue.

This ethnography has many of the characteristics needed to make a good student ethnography insofar as it contributes useful information concerning the inner workings of Haida society, it uses a native point of view-although only in the latter half of the book-, it focuses on the everyday life of Florence, native concepts and discourse are present but not in a way that makes the reader feel inadequate and the majority of data used in the work comes from extensive fieldwork. Additionally this ethnography also includes theory through examples of acculturation and agency, includes the centrality of culture, namely Haida, and interest in cultural policy and politics.

Both Maria Tippett of the University of BC writing from a work called BC studies and Mary Lee Stearns of Simon Fraser University writing from a work called Ethnohistory comment negatively on the bias present by Blackman. While I can admit that a bias is present I do not have the same problems with the acknowledgement of said bias Tippett and Stearns have. We can clearly see how bias and personal interest can shape how a story is told when we come across statements such as “To a large extent my own interests biased the life-history I have obtained” (Blackman, 1982). Although this may be seen as a major pitfall of the work I would argue that many ethnographers indulge and explore their own interests during fieldwork but may not admit this in the actual work. The fact that Blackman states her bias is a positive for me; without this statement the bias would have been present but unnoticeable to the reader. An additional bias that presents itself but is left out of the grievances Maria Tippet and Mary Lee Stearns list is the bias of Davidson herself; “… Davidson avoided discussing such things as illicit sexual liaisons, witchcraft or feuds between families” (Tippett, 1983). This acknowledgement from Blackman shows that although biases from the ethnographer can impact the work that an additional bias may come from those who are being studied as well. This bias however remains largely unacknowledged by many scholars. Both Tipper and Stearns both from highly acclaimed universities fail to give light to this particular bias.

Tippets review is in my opinion is especially harsh. To the comment “Since we see little of this and much of Blackmans interest in Haida cere-monial life, what do we have in the end: the life of a Haida woman or an account of what the ethnologist wants to know about”? (Tippett, 1983). Although Blackman may have directed discussion towards topics that were of interest to her Davisson did the same thing. An ethnography cannot be solely a story told from the perspective of one person as two people are intimately involved. The inclusion of herself (Blackman) to such a large degree into the work can make the reader skeptical as to who is being represented. As the reviews from both Tippett and Stearns are dated, coming from a time wherein inclusion of the self is seen as a major taboo in terms of ethnographic writing I would argue their reviews are a product of their time, emphasizing issues that are not as problematic today.

One area I found to be lacking in this ethnography was critical focus. Blackman leaves much of the critical thinking up to the reader which in some ways made it harder to recognize when such a critical analysis should take place but also means that Blackman is not using her own judgments to analyze the experience of Florence. The absence of critique from Blackman can be helpful when trying to teach students to think critically but sensitively about what they are reading. However I do wish that Blackman made more of an effort to elicit critical response from Edenshaw as a means of accomplishing a critical analysis without placing her own bias and perspective on the issue.

A good audience for this ethnography would be a first year university student beginning to learn about how colonization impacts a community and the ways in which said people express agency despite devastating discrimination. This ethnography also highlights how generalizations can be made. Arguably people have and will continue to suggest that the lives of Haida woman are expressed in this work but this is the experience of one Haida woman. Florence is a respected member of the community of considerable status and means, not every Haida woman will have had the same experience.

For me questions surrounding agency and resistance arise; what is it? What constitutes resistance/agency? Conversely questions concerning complete acculturation also arise. The fact that this work focuses on the view of one woman also brings to question what the lived experience of other Haida women entailed at this time; specifically in what ways can this work be generalized to the rest of Haida society?

Bibliography:

Blackman, Margaret B., and Davidson, Florence Edenshaw. During My Time : Florence Edenshaw Davidson, a Haida Woman. Seattle : Vancouver: University of Washington Press ; Douglas & McIntyre, 1982.

Stearns, Mary Lee. “During My Time: Florence Edenshaw Davidson, A Haida Woman (Book Review).” Ethnohistory 32, no. 2 (1985): 193-95.

Tippett, Maria. “During My Time: Florence Edenshaw Davidson, A Haida Woman (Book Review).” BC Studies 59, Autumn (1983): 67-69

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s