George Hunt, ethnographer, museum acquisitions collector (born 14 February 1854 in Fort Rupert, BC; died September 1933 in Fort Rupert). George Hunt is best known for his work with anthropologist Franz Boas; together they documented the language, rituals and customs of Hunt’s people, the Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwakiutl). Hunt's rich ethnographic notes and cultural object collections provided the first ethno-history of the Kwakwaka'wakw culture.
Early Life and Work
George Hunt was born in 1854 at Fort Rupert, British Columbia, a trading post and Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwakiutl) settlement. His father, Robert Hunt, was a Hudson's Bay Company fur trader, and his mother, Mary Ebbetts (Ansnaq), belonged to the Raven clan of the Taantakwáan (Tongass) tribe of the Tlingit nation.
Hunt spoke both English and the Kwak'wala language. He served as an interpreter and guide to researchers, politicians and business people who came to work in the northwestern coastal area of British Columbia. His first role as interpreter was with Superintendent of Indian Affairs Israel Powell in 1879. From 1911 to 1914, Hunt also assisted famed photographer Edward S. Curtis during the filming of In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914). He advised on casting, directing and provided costumes. This melodrama focused on the Kwakwaka'wakw of BC’s northern Vancouver Island and central coast region, and featured Kwakwaka'wakw actors.
George Hunt is best known for his career working as an interpreter and guide for anthropologist Franz Boas for over 40 years (see Anthropology). Hunt assisted Boas with his research during the Jesup North Pacific Expedition (1897–1902). Led by Boas and sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History, the Jesup Expedition researched the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America and the Eastern Coast of Siberia. Assisted by Hunt, Boas documented the cultures that many anthropologists feared would soon be lost to acculturation and colonialism.
During the expedition, Hunt described the social and cultural practices of the Kwakwaka'wakw to Boas and introduced him to traditional ceremonies, including the potlatch. Hunt also helped him collect cultural objects, take photographs and record oral histories. While Boas acknowledged Hunt as an interpreter and research assistant in his published works, he rarely credited him with authorship. Nevertheless, Hunt’s work during the expedition helped to produce an ethno-history of the Kwakwaka'wakw that is still referenced by scholars today.
The 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago
In 1893, George Hunt helped Franz Boas create an exhibit about the Kwakwaka'wakw as part of a larger anthropology display about Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest for the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Hunt collected hundreds of cultural objects for the exhibit and traveled to Chicago with a group of 17 Kwakwaka'wakw volunteer performers from Fort Rupert, BC. Boas and Hunt erected a replica Kwakwaka'wakw village at the fair in which performers demonstrated ceremonial dances, arts and other traditions.
While exhibit organizers claimed to create authentic portrayals of Indigenous cultures and traditional ways of life, the exhibits mostly conformed to 19th century, colonial stereotypes about Indigenous peoples as "exotic" and "anti-modern," as did similar displays of Indigenous peoples in world exhibitions during this time, such as those at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair and the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. However, while the Kwakwaka'wakw exhibit reinforced entrenched stereotypes about Indigenous peoples, the Kwakwaka'wakw, including Hunt, who himself performed during the exhibit, also declared their cultural persistence. They asserted Indigenous mobility and professed their political defiance against the forces of colonization.
The Acquisition of the Yuquot Whalers’ Shrine
During his ethnographic work in 1902, George Hunt learned about the Yuquot Whalers’ Shrine (or Washing House) from the Mowachaht First Nation of the Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) people. The shrine had great spiritual significance; it was considered a burial place for chiefs and was used for certain hunting rituals. The shrine included 92 carved wooden figures and 16 human skulls.
Intrigued, Hunt travelled to see it, but was refused by the guardians of the shrine — only the chief whaler could access the building. Claiming he was a shaman, Hunt was granted brief access to the shrine, during which time he took a photograph and sent it to Franz Boas.
Wanting it for his collection, Boas requested Hunt acquire the shrine. After negotiating with the Mowachaht keepers of the shrine, Hunt relocated the building and its contents to New York, where Boas was to display the cultural objects. While Hunt was pleased with the collection he had acquired, the Mowachaht believed the shrine had been wrongfully removed. To this day, the Mowachaht continue their attempts to repatriate the shrine.
George Hunt’s rich ethnographic notes and cultural object collection provided an impressive groundwork about traditional Kwakwaka'wakw culture. Hunt greatly assisted Franz Boas and other leading Northwest Coast fieldworkers and cultural object collectors of the 19th and early 20th centuries.