James Teit with his first wife, Antko. (Nicola Valley Museum and Archives)

James Teit with his first wife, Antko. (Nicola Valley Museum and Archives)

Google the name “James Teit” and at least 18 hits will pop up on your screen — a testament to the fame of this Nicola Valley man.

James Alexander Tait (which he later changed to Teit to honor his Norse roots) was born in the Shetland Islands, on the northerly tip of Scotland, in 1864. While growing up, he developed an intense interest in the old myths of Shetland and began to research the mystical Norsemen, an education that foreshadowed things to come later in his life.

When James was only seventeen, he began his arduous journey to Spences Bridge. There he worked part-time in the local store as well as at the nearby orchards. But his passion — and most of his income — came from his work as a hunter and a guide. He  soon he got to know many of the local Aboriginal people in the area.

A local columnist in Spences Bridge wrote of Teit: “While yet a youth, he became interested in the Indians. He hunted and fished with them, shared their adventures, their hardships, and their entertainment, smoked and drank with them. He became acquainted with their habits and thoughts, their traditions, their superstitions, their folklore, their craftsmanship.”

He met and married Lucy Antko in 1892. Little is known about Lucy, other than she was a Thompson Indian. She died in 1899 of either pneumonia or tuberculosis and the couple had no children.

In 1894, James met a man who made such an impression on him that it marked a turning point in his life. Franz Boas was a German-American anthropologist who was in British Columbia on a field trip. Now fluent in the Thompson language, Teit proved his worth to Boas by explaining to the First Nations in the area that Boas wanted to interview them. They trusted Teit and agreed to work with the anthropologist. Together the two men travelled on horseback to their many small villages. In total, Boas was able to study 123 native people. He was delighted to hear that Teit was inspired to work on a study on the Aboriginals that compared and analyzed the characteristics of these people and the relationships between them (this is known as “ethnology”).

Teit, who was well educated with a penchant for science, soon became a recognized authority on the First Nations bands in British Columbia. He became fluent in many of their languages. He was often employed by the government in its dealings with the tribes, while still being in great demand as a guide.

Boas and Teit teamed up once again in 1897 on a project funded by the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The two men were assigned to study relations between the populations of the Pacific Northwest. Boas relied heavily on Teit and the two studied archeological sites, taking photographs, recording stories and songs on an Edison wax cylinder recorder and listening to explanations of designs on woven baskets, jewelry and masks that had a variety of uses.

The James Teit display at the Nicola Valley Museum and Archives. (Nicola Valley Museum and Archives)

The James Teit display at the Nicola Valley Museum and Archives. (Nicola Valley Museum and Archives)

During this time Teit maintained a rigorous field research and writing schedule which resulted in major works. He authored four publications for the American Museum: The Thompson Indians of B.C., The Lillooet Indians, The Shuswap and The Mythology of the Thompson Indians.

His personal life took a romantic turn in 1904 when he married Leonie Josephine Morens, the daughter of Leon Morens, a stock owner and dairyman of Spences Bridge. The couple had five children — Eric, Magnus, Sigurd, Thor and Inga.

Teit continued on with his work with the Aboriginal people by organizing meetings, working toward land claims and working as a counsellor, spokesperson and interpreter. In 1911 he accompanied a delegation of Interior Salish Chiefs to Ottawa to help them render their appeals and arguments. He became so close to the people that his writings began to reflect sympathy and compassion. An article in the July 28, 1982 Merritt Herald said, “He tried to change the Indians’ belief that they were doomed to extinction.”

Teit worked for many organizations throughout the world at various times, including the famous Smithsonian Institute. As a result he was often unable to spend as much time with his family as he would have liked.

The Teits moved to a house on Quilchena Avenue in Merritt in 1919. His neighbours recalled that even after James Teit’s death in 1922, at the young age of 58, the First Nations chiefs used to come and visit his wife out of respect. He is buried in the Merritt Cemetery.

James Teit left an accurate, well chronicled legacy of the Thompson native bands which is now on display in the National Museum of Man in Ottawa and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.

To commemorate the life and times of James Teit, the Nicola Valley Museum and Archives in Merritt has one of the best exhibits that gives residents and tourists a glimpse into the life of this famous man.

Among other things, there are 20 binders full of Teit’s photocopied works, a mural painted by Susan Stevenson in 1994 and various native baskets which were passed through the generations. Also displayed are many personal items that once belonged to James A. Teit and his family: a camera, hunting/trophy knives, a diary from 1910, Teit’s Bible and many native artifacts and books and publications written by and about Teit.

For more information on the history of Merritt and the Nicola Valley, call or come and visit the Nicola Valley Museum and Archives, 1675 Tutill Court, (250)-378-4145. You can also visit our website at www.nicolavalleymuseum.org., or follow us on Facebook.