It has been well known since Marius Barbeau’s review of the first edition of Franz Boas’s Tsimshian Mythology in 1917, that something was seriously amiss with Boas’s alleged “translations” of the stories gathered by his chief Tsimshian informant, Henry Tate. But what, exactly, was it that Boas was doing with Tate’s stories? It is this question that Ralph Maud sets out to address in Transmission Difficulties.
Boas’s original misrepresentations of the more than 2,000 pages of material he received from Henry Tate have been denied by the ethnographic establishment for more than eighty years. His distortion of Tate’s stories has been rationalized, to date, as “cultural relativism”—any loss of Tate’s original material in this ethnographic “collaboration” between Native informant and European scientist was “unavoidable,” due to the presumably equal “cultural differences” between them. This, Maud argues convincingly, is not the case at all. The fact that Boas paid Tate for his stories by the page, and furthermore instructed Tate specifically on what stories, and even on what kinds of stories he was to gather and submit, created a profoundly unequal relationship between these two men, which resulted in an inevitable and pre-determined “authentication” of the Native material by the European ethnographer.
Transmission Difficulties unfolds like a gripping, real-life mystery story. It leaves the reader with a whole new vision of what the relation between European colonials and Aboriginal inhabitants in the Americas might have been, and still might be.