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Northwest Coast Ceremonialism: The Works of J.A. Jacobsen (1853-1947)

Aaron Glass


Johan Adrian Jacobsen (1853-1947), a Norwegian sailor, spent much of the 1880s collecting ethnographic specimens for traveling shows and museums. His most well known collections were from the Arctic and Northwest Coast of North America. In an attempt to publicize his adventures and legitimize his collections for scholars and curators, he wrote a few articles in German about the people he had visited, especially the so-called secret societies among the Nuxalk [Bella Coola] and Kwakwaka’wakw [Kwakiutl]. Although somewhat amateurish, these reports represent a transition in genre between travel accounts and professional ethnography, and are valuable for informing our understanding of early Northwest Coast anthropology.

The translation of the works of Jacobsen from the original German was done by Richard Bland (University of Oregon). The original illustrations mentioned in the introduction could not be reproduced here.

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I. Introduction

1The name of Johan Adrian Jacobsen (1853-1947) is likely unfamiliar to most anthropologists or students of American Indian studies, outside of the few specialists on the history of museum collecting along the Northwest Coast. While not a trained ethnologist, Jacobsen—along with his younger brother Fillip (or Philipp)—helped assemble numerous important collections from the region in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Like many explorers, collectors, settlers, missionaries, and colonial agents of the period, he engaged in ethnographic description as a supplement to his museum-based work. Jacobsen, a Norwegian by birth, wrote primarily in German, and he published a few books about his adventures as well as a number of ethnological articles for both popular and scientific periodicals (see publication list below). Aside from one translated volume (Jacobsen 1977) and a couple of articles by Fillip (Bland 1997; Bland and Simonds 2004), none of this material has been available in English. Reproduced here are translations of three of Johan Adrian Jacobsen’s related articles regarding the ceremonial life of the First Nations of the Northwest Coast. While they suffer from Jacobsen’s amateur approach to ethnology and insufficient grasp of indigenous linguistics, they represent an important historical moment in the emergent ethnography of the region (especially regarding the Nuxalk [Bella Coola] and Kwakwaka’wakw [Kwakiutl]), as earlier colonial literature began to give way to professional anthropological treatment. In this brief introduction, I situate these articles within Jacobson’s career, in terms of concurrent anthropological work, and against later ethnographic perspectives, and I suggest a few criteria by which one might begin to evaluate the cultural descriptions offered within.  

  • 1  Details of Jacobsen’s life prior to 1881 come primarily from an autobiographical essay included as (...)
  • 2  This collection is extremely valuable due to its antiquity, its large and comprehensive nature (bo (...)

2Johan Adrian Jacobsen was born in 1853 on the Norwegian coast near Tromsø, where he grew up in a family of fishermen, raised on boats at sea but not otherwise formally educated.1 His older brother traveled the world, returning with tales of far away lands and exotic people. In 1874, Jacobsen joined this brother in Hamburg, where he learned German. After a couple of restless years at sea— spent mostly in South America, where he increasingly referred to himself as “Captain” despite his young age—Jacobsen returned to Hamburg, where he then met Carl Hagenbeck, the purveyor of a well-known zoo and Völkerschauen, an ethnic exhibition of living peoples (Ames 2009). Having previously displayed a group of Patagonians, Hagenbeck commissioned Jacobsen to gather Greenland Eskimo and Lapps, as well as their material culture, for ethnographic exhibition throughout Europe. Impressed with Jacobsen’s skills as captain and collector, Adolf Bastian, director of Berlin’s Museum für Völkerkunde and Germany’s first professional ethnologist, hired him in 1881 to make a collection among the Northwest Coast tribes of North America, whom Bastian himself had recently visited. Between 1881 and 1883, Jacobsen sailed the Pacific Coast from California to the Arctic collecting objects for Bastian and the Berlin museum, laying the foundation for the largest such collection in Europe to this day (Bolz and Sanner 1999; Haberland 1989; Cole 1985).2

  • 3 Erna Gunther, in her 1977 translation of Jacobsen's book, gives the name as Adrian Woldt, and this (...)

3Jacobsen published brief accounts of his journey (Jacobsen 1883) and his collection (Jacobsen 1884a) in the Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, Germany’s premiere anthropological journal, and he began to give illustrated slide lectures on his adventures. In 1884, his field diaries, notes, and lectures were written up and published in German by a Berlin journalist and amateur ethnologist named Adrian Woldt (Jacobsen 1884b; translated in Jacobsen 1977).3 This volume certainly had currency in nineteenth-century European ethnological circles and—along with a partial, illustrated catalogue Bastian published the same year—provided the only significant textual accompaniment to Berlin’s extraordinary new collection. The book included Jacobsen’s early attempts to describe the shamanic and ceremonial activity that often accompanied the use of masks and other objects he collected. In fact, some of the longest index entries in the 1977 edition are for “Feasts and Dances” and “Shamans,” indicating Jacobsen’s personal fascination and possibly his intuition about public and scholarly taste for the exotic. At a time when professional German ethnologists, such as Arthur and Aurel Kraus and Franz Boas, were also exploring Alaska and the Arctic, Jacobsen emerged as a notable if amateur authority on the coastal region.

  • 4  Two of Jacobsen’s early activities would have a profound impact on Franz Boas and thus the history (...)

4Though Hagenbeck had wanted Jacobsen to bring a group of Kwakwaka’wakw back to Germany in 1882, this proved impossible at the time. However, a few years later, he was able to work with his brother Fillip—by then resident on the central coast of British Columbia—to coordinate a troupe of nine Nuxalk, who spent a year touring Germany under the auspices of Hagenbeck’s exhibitions (Haberland 1988, 1999; Cole 1985:67-73).4 Their regular program of staged performances included what Jacobsen called “shaman” dances as well as the “Hamatsa” and the “Nutlamatla,” all of which he later discussed in the articles included here. Although he does not disclose this fact in the articles themselves (which only once mention the tour directly), a significant degree of Jacobsen’s first-hand exposure to ceremonial performance was likely provided on this German tour rather than in situ in coastal villages. In fact, an illustration in his 1891 article reproduced a photograph taken of the Nuxalk in Berlin over the winter of 1886, although the misleading caption and textual reference suggest that it depicts an actual—and Kwakwaka’wakw—ritual episode.

5Before, during and after the Nuxalk tour, the Jacobsen brothers gathered a second large collection from the coast, which they hoped—but failed—to sell in toto to the highest museum bidder. Some items went to commercial dealers, but the brothers’ amateur status as ethnologists made newly professionalizing anthropology curators increasingly skeptical, especially as trained collectors such as Boas became active in the region. Much of this second collection was finally exhibited in Hagenbeck’s commercial concession on the Midway—the entertainment zone—at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago (where Boas also set up Northwest Coast displays in the Anthropology Building), and then sold to the city’s newly established Field Museum. During the decade between 1885 and 1895, Jacobsen tried desperately to find full time work in a German museum, leading expeditions to Siberia (1884-85) and Indonesia (1887-1888), and working for other international expositions (Penny 2002: 87-88). Yet his lack of anthropological bona fides, and the paucity of ethnographic “data” accompanying his collections, ultimately locked him out of the scientific and museum establishments. After 1895, he went into the hotel management business and quickly faded from the ethnological scene.

  • 5  The specific objects used to illustrate these articles come from the first, Berlin museum collecti (...)
  • 6  During the late 1880s and early 1890s, Boas published frequent articles in anthropological and pop (...)

6It was during this last decade of collection activity that Jacobsen published the three articles reproduced here, as well as others listed below. In these publications, one can readily discern Jacobsen’s attempt both to claim ethnological value for his second collection while he was trying to sell it to museums, and to argue for his own anthropological credentials as he sought a permanent position.5 His directly stated challenges to the early reports of Boas make clear that Jacobsen was attempting to stake his own claim as an ethnographic authority on the region (1891).6 Befitting the emergent participatory-observation methods of the new discipline of anthropology, his primary rhetorical strategy was to emphasize his long-term presence on the coast and his “eye-witness” accounts of the ceremonies described. On occasion, Jacobsen directly criticized previous European writers for failing to either witness or closely investigate the scenes they described (1891; 1892). However, careful reading reveals that many of Jacobsen’s published descriptions actually came to him second-hand from his brother as well as traders, missionaries, and First Nations assistants or interlocutors. In his attempt to broaden his field of apparent expertise, he inaccurately extrapolated much of his (or, more properly, Fillip’s) experience with the Nuxalk to other coastal cultures, an error that he shared with many early ethnographic writers (and to which I return below).

7Like other ethnographers, Jacobsen also mined previous publications for material, in some cases repeating anecdotes wholesale. Such recursivity in ethnographic description tends to imply scientific validity by suggesting independent corroboration, although it really just masks a direct citational process (see Glass 2006; 2009). To take just one instance, the story of the medicine man’s young victim from 1894 is borrowed from Jacobsen’s 1884 book (1977: 72), and was hearsay to begin with. In other cases, he seems to have changed his position on matters; for example, in 1884 (1977: 30), he suggested that Hamat’sa evolved historically from eating dogs, to consuming freshly killed slaves, to feeding on aged corpses, but in 1891 he suggested that these distinctions marked different types of Hamat’sa. This narrative strategy of revision might be read as evidence of Jacobsen’s continued engagement with the cultures under advancing states of his own sophistication, yet I believe such discrepancies rather reflect his poor understanding of the practices in question.

8In general, Jacobsen’s articles represent a transitional moment and corresponding genre in ethnographic writing, as travel accounts by explorers, missionaries and settlers gave way to the more refined reports by trained anthropologists. As such, they share many traits with both genres, though Jacobsen had clear ambitions toward the latter. Against the moralizing judgments of colonial authorities, he adopts a more distanced, seemingly “objective,” ethnographic tone. This is especially evident in his prolonged and rather gruesome accounts of ceremonial cannibalism and violence. Although historical change is mentioned occasionally (more on this below), Jacobsen tends to write in the ethnographic present, and it is often difficult to distinguish practices that were occurring in the 1880s and 90s from those that had already become moribund, even if they were still reported by Natives or other observers. Imitating an anthropologist of the day, he makes brief nods toward ethnological generalization or typology—expressing concern over a theory of “religious belief” (1891) or offering a cross-cultural comparison of “holiness” concepts (1892)—but these tend to be thin and unproductive. He mostly sticks to description, offering very few attempts at functional explanation or interpretation.

  • 7  The “Kosiyut” (kwusiyut), which was unique to the Nuxalk, has cultural analogues among other coast (...)

9Some of Jacobsen’s descriptive narratives seem fairly accurate—his account of Hamat’sa choreography (1891) still rings true today, sans bloodshed—but the lack of specific cultural, geographical, and historical context makes them difficult to evaluate. One of the key ways that Jacobsen’s articles distinguish themselves from earlier Northwest Coast reports is through his frequent use of indigenous terms, although this became more common with the advent of professional anthropology around this time. For example, Jacobsen’s 1884 book was the first nineteenth-century text to include the term “Hamatsa” to identify the so-called “cannibal dances,” and the first to describe them among the Kwakwaka’wakw in particular (Glass 2006). Prior to this time, most authors referred very imprecisely to all such ceremonies, among various tribes from Oregon to Alaska, as “tamanawas” (borrowed from Coast Salish terminologies), and regularly used terms such as “conjuror” and “sorcerer” to describe everyone from masked dancers to ceremonial healers. For the latter personages, Jacobsen substitutes the more ethnologically oriented terms “secret society” (Geheimbünde) and “shaman” (Schaman), however he fails to establish clear definitions or sociological boundaries for the categories of phenomena, much less his chosen exemplars. For example, neither the 1892 nor 1894 articles ever really define what exactly the “Kosiyut Society” is, but rather invoke various sociocultural possibilities (a specific supernatural being; a class of spirit beings; a quality of “sacredness” or “powerfulness”; a specific human social or ceremonial organization; a class of separate organizations; a type of ceremony, etc). While the Nuxalk concept of “Kosiyut” may in fact be intellectually vague or semantically expansive, Jacobsen’s account of it seems more a muddle.7 The rich descriptions end up obscuring rather than clarifying the indigenous situation.

  • 8  The problem with generalizing from the Nuxalk to other groups is exacerbated by their rather anoma (...)

10Aside from his lack of theoretical or methodological rigor, Jacobsen’s greatest overall problem is in fact terminological. Despite his best ethnographic intentions, his lack of understanding of indigenous linguistics results in the serious conflation of different tribes, different ceremonies, and different social organizations. He regularly generalizes from one tribal group to the next, the two most frequent exemplars in these articles being the Nuxalk and Kwakwaka’wakw (which he sometimes renders as “Quakjutl”). This is most apparent with his use of Nuxalk terms with which he is most familiar.8 At other points, he properly distinguishes the Kwakwaka’wakw “Hamatsa” (Hamat’sa) from the Nuxalk “Alla Kotla” (Elaxotla), but then reverts to using only “Hamatsa” to describe all cannibalistic dances on the coast (1891). He also attributes central coast cultural features to the rest of region, such as when he mentions the presence of “four secret societies” (1891), a classificatory scheme that only accurately characterizes the Tsimshian (and to a lesser extent, perhaps, their immediate neighbors). Thus he generates equivalency between, for example, the “Nutlo-matla” (1892; 1894) of various tribes that happen to use similar sounding terms to designate different social and ceremonial organizations. On the basis of faulty logic and a shallow comparison of traits (interaction with fire), he equates a shamanic spirit (“Kle-sat-pli-lánna”) among the Nuxalk with what were hereditary dance associations (“Nun-lehis-stalath”) among the Kwakwaka’wakw (1894). Jacobsen fails to distinguish the fact that masks were particularly associated with shamanic healers on the northern coast (especially among the Tlingit and Haida), but were more characteristic of hereditary dance societies on the central coast (especially among the Kwakwaka’wakw and other Wakashan speakers). And so on.

11This poorly articulated relation between the specific and the general also applies to the illustrations, most of which are drawn from the Berlin collection. Jacobsen rarely specifies whether the particular object illustrated is referred to in the text, or only objects of the same basic type. This is especially troubling as ceremonial items were (and are) highly restricted and often hereditary prerogatives on the Northwest Coast, and were in most cases unique to their owners. Moreover, many image captions lack tribal attributions altogether (especially those from 1891), heightening the misleading sense of cultural interchangeability. I already mentioned Jacobsen’s use of a staged Berlin photograph to illustrate his description of an actual ritual, but further along the spectrum of ethnographic misdirection, the “Medicine man in full costume” pictured in his 1894 article was in reality a museum manikin and not a person at all. While not unique to Jacobsen or these articles, such imprecision reduces the anthropological utility of the reports.

  • 9  To be fair, many anthropologists of the day—including Boas—wrestled with terms such as “secret soc (...)
  • 10  For the aid of readers of his 1884 book, Erna Gunther provided a glossary of place names as spelle (...)

12As demonstrated, Jacobsen deploys a limited sense of anthropological concepts, especially those clustered under the loose and rather fuzzy designations of “secret society,” “medicine-man,” and “shaman.”9 As a result, he never clearly delineates the sociological boundaries of the phenomena—their diagnostic traits, social structures, or defining qualities—for any one tribal group, much less the various groups in the region. For instance, he seems to acknowledge that at least one type of “medicine man” is a paid vocation (1894), but he does not clarify how this is distinguished from hereditary positions (more characteristic of chiefly or dance guilds) or spirit possession (more characteristic of shamanism). The result of all this is that Jacobsen ends up conflating various practices—from masked spirit impersonation to hereditary crest display, from shamanic healing techniques to dramaturgical effects by dance attendants—that all include a degree of private knowledge and sleight of hand, or that are spoken of (to his ears at least) with similar terminology. While it is certainly true, in many coastal societies, that indigenous terms surrounding both shamanism and dance ceremonials invoked “healing,” “spirits,” and “secrets,” Jacobsen draws parallels between what were quite distinct practices, lumping all of them under the general umbrella terms of “secret society” and “medicine man.” What’s really missing is an advanced sense of both history and sociology, such that patterns of diffusion, borrowing, inversion, and transformation might be brought to bear in order to disentangle the mass of apparently similar visual, linguistic, and performative phenomena. In a sense, these articles are most useful for contemporary specialists—either Northwest Coast anthropologists or First Nations themselves—who can read between the lines and, based on latent details and approximated orthographies, tell when Jacobsen is describing healers and when dancers, and whether among Tsimshian, Nuxalk, Kwakwaka’wakw, or other communities.10

  • 11  To make matters more complicated, in many cases an individual’s membership crosses these boundarie (...)
  • 12  Jacobsen’s tendency to recognize diffusion may have come as a result of his encounters with Bastia (...)

13Despite these myriad flaws, scattered throughout the three articles are also some rather perceptive observations about what were in reality highly complex cultural practices. In some cases, Jacobsen proved attentive to important social and ceremonial features that previous reporters missed, even if he did not elaborate on his comments. For instance, on occasion (1891; 1894) he suggests a key linkage between regimes of restricted knowledge—the strictly guarded aura of “secrets” surrounding certain fraternal associations—and the political hierarchies based on stratified grades of rank, class, status, or prestige that characterized Northwest Coast societies. In some cases, such secrets (or at least procedures that maintain the illusion of secrets) are kept within lineage or kinship groups, in others amongst vocational types, and in yet others between ceremonial performers.11 Jacobsen also notes the importance of connecting ceremonial objects to specific narratives, legends, and songs, although he tended not to collect such discursive or textual data himself. In this case, he may have been responding to critics such as Bastian and Boas who earlier took him to task for such omissions. Although not trained to analyze or interpret them properly, he does occasionally (1891) suggest paths of diffusion by which certain material forms, narrative motifs, or ritual practices circulated along the coast.12 In his accounts of the gory cannibal or shaman dances—in which performers apparently attacked and sometimes consumed dead bodies—much of the earlier, colonial obsession with savagery is tempered by clear statements regarding the sophisticated use of simulation, substitution, and occlusion (1891), although he never fully explores the cultural, psychological or political ramifications behind such distinctions. In a few places (1891), Jacobsen seems to acknowledge the extreme complexity of the ethnographic phenomena he has tackled and the difficulty he has putting the disparate material in proper order. While in some ways a reflexive sign of intellectual challenge, this is also a classic rhetorical strategy when writing for potential patrons; certainly Boas ended many of his early reports with pleas for continued financial or logistical support in order to complete the work of ethnographic salvage before—as they always said at the time—it was too late.

14In this context, however, Jacobsen’s amateur status may also have served him well, at least for our contemporary purposes. Partly because he was not a trained anthropologist or fully institutionalized museum collector, Jacobsen’s accounts are relatively free from some of the familiar tropes of salvage ethnographers, who tended to erase the signs of modernity and colonial context in order to actively reconstruct past, presumably “pure” cultural patterns. The few hints at actual historical conditions in the late nineteenth century may ultimately prove to be a more valuable contribution to the period’s anthropological literature than his questionable ethnography. His 1884 text is replete with fascinating insights into the specific social relations of collecting and the different responses from various indigenous communities and individual brokers. Likewise, these articles reveal some of the various intercultural dynamics at play, from the selective use of trousers under ceremonial regalia (1892), to the persistence of religious belief despite aggressive missionization (1892; 1894).

15One of the anecdotes illustrating the latter point is pregnant with ethnohistorical data that help us to understand the very specific sociocultural relations active on the coast at the time, but which are often absent from classic ethnographic treatments. Jacobsen (1892) describes the arrival of a group of “Christian Tschimpsians” (likely, the Tsimshian of Metlakatla) at the Kwakwaka’wakw village of Fort Rupert in the summer of 1886. The northerners were en route to Victoria, presumably to trade or work in the provincial capital. Upon hearing the drums and singing of a ceremony on shore, the canoe-bound travelers painted their faces and, according to one of their women, “were so carried away by it that my companion and I involuntarily began to dance.” This narrative speaks of differential responses to colonial infringement, whereby this community of Tsimshian converted around 1865, while this community of Kwakwaka’wakw rejected missionization. It also reveals the ethnographic reputation that the Kwakwaka’wakw were garnering—already in 1890—for being the ceremonial “traditionalists” on the coast compared to other groups at the time, a reputation they continue to promote for themselves today. Finally, it suggests that even the “Christianized” Natives maintained a latent degree of cultural belief and practice, and were just waiting for moments such as this intertribal (and intercultural—remember, Jacobsen was there too!) encounter on the beach to bring the “old ways” back into the present—their present of 1886.

16Despite his lack of ethnographic rigor, anthropological sophistication, and linguistic accuracy, Jacobsen’s articles are valuable contributions to the ethnography of specific communities—especially among the Nuxalk—that have been less written about, even if they end up being the most helpful for current specialists. They also provide a useful glimpse into indigenous cultural diversity on the late-nineteenth-century Northwest Coast, as well as into the transitional narrative structures of ethnography as colonial travelogue gave way to professional anthropology in the region.

17Translator’s Note:

18The diacritics in these translations were copied directly from Jacobsen’s German text. I would suspect that Jacobsen would have used diacritics compatible with typical German orthography of the period. Since he was not a trained linguist, the reader should use caution in assigning specific sounds to the letters.---Trans.

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Bibliography: General

Ames, Eric (2009) Carl Hagenbeck's Empire of Entertainments. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Bland, Richard L. (1997) “The Sissauch Dance.” Arctic Anthropology 34(2):28–44. [A translation of Fillip B. Jacobsen's “Sissauch-dansen.” Ymer. Svenska sällskapet för antropologi och geografi, pp. 1–23. Stockholm, 1895.]

Bland, Richard L., and Ann G. Simonds (2004) “Philipp Jacobsen in British Columbia.” British Columbia Historical News 37:2:20–27. [A translation of Philipp Jacobsen’s “Reiseberichte aus unbekannten Teilen Britisch-Columbiens.” Das Ausland: Wochenschrift für Erd- und Völkerkunde 47:921–928, 1891.]

Boas, Franz (1897) “The Social Organization and Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl.” U.S National Museum Annual Report for 1895. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Bolz, Peter and Hans-Ulrich Sanner (1999) Native American Art: The Collections of the Ethnological Museum Berlin. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Cole, Douglas (1985) Captured Heritage: The Scramble for Northwest Coast Artifacts. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Glass, Aaron (2006) Conspicuous Consumption: An Intercultural History of the Kwakwaka’wakw Hamat’sa. PhD Dissertation in Anthropology, New York University.

----- (2009) “Frozen Poses: Hamat’sa dioramas, recursive representation, and the making of a Kwakwaka’wakw icon.” In Christopher Morton and Elizabeth Edwards (eds). Photography, Anthropology, and History: Expanding the Frame. London: Ashgate Press (2009). Pp. 89-116.

Haberland, Wolfgang (1988) “’Diese Indianer sind Falsch:’ Neun Bella Coola im Deutschland Reich 1885/86.” Archiv für Völkerkunde 42: 3-67.

----- (1989) “Remarks on the ‘Jacobsen Collections’ from the Northwest Coast.” In José Luis Peset (ed.) Culturas de la Costa Noroeste de América. Madrid: Turner Libris.

----- (1999)  “Nine Bella Coolas in Germany.” In Christian Feest (ed.) Indians and Europe: An Interdisciplinary Collection of Essays. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Jacobsen, Johan Adrian (1977) Alaskan Voyage 1881-1883: An Expedition to the Northwest Coast of America. Translated by Erna Gunther from the German Text of Adrian Woldt (1884). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kennedy, Dorothy and Randall Buchard (1990) “Bella Coola.” In Wayne Suttles (ed.) The Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 7:The Northwest Coast.Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

McIlwraith, T.F. (1948) The Bella Coola Indians. Two Volumes. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Penny, H. Glenn (2002) Objects of Culture: Ethnology and Ethnographic Museums in Imperial Germany. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Bibliography: Johan Adrian Jacobsen (*= translated here):

1883 “Reise nach der Nordwestküste von Amerika” [Journey to the Northwest Coast of America]. Zeitschrift für Ethnologie XI:525-531.

1884a “Ethnologische Gegenstande aus seiner im Alaska‑Territorium zusammengebrachten Sammlung” [Ethnological Objects from His Collection Made in the Territory of Alaska]. Zeitschrift für Ethnologie XVI:221‑224.

1884b Capitain Jacobsen's Reise an der Nordwestküste Amerikas, 1881-1883, zum Zwecke ethnologischer Sammlungen und Erkundigungen, nebst Beschreibung persönlicher Erlebnisse, für den deutschen Leserkreis bearbeitet, von A. Woldt. [Captain Jacobsen’s Journey to the Northwest Coast of America, 1881-1883, for the Purpose of Making Ethnological Collections and Obtaining Information, as well as Describing his Personal Experiences, adapted for the German readership by A. Woldt] Leipzig: Max Spohr.

1890 “Bella-Coola-Sagen” [Bella Coola Legends]. Das Ausland: Wochenschrift für Erd- und Völkerkunde 63(18):352-354.

*1891 “Geheimbünde der Küstenbewohner Nordwest-America’s” [Secret Societies of the Coastal Inhabitants of Northwest America]. Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 23:383–395.

*1892 “Der Kosiyut-Bund der Bella-Coola-Indianer’ [The Kosiyut Society of the Bella Coola Indians]. Das Ausland: Wochenschrift für Erd- und Völkerkunde 65(28):437-441.

*1894 “Der zweite Typus der Geheimbünde bei den Nordwest-Americanern“ [The Second Type of Secret Society among the Northwest Americans]. Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 26:104–115.

1896 Reise in die Inselwelt des Banda-Meeres [Journey in the Island World of the Banda Sea]. Bearbeitet von Paul Roland. Mit einem vorwort von Rudolf Virchow. Berlin: Mitscher & Rostell.

1931 “Die weiße Grenze: Abenteuer eines alten Seebären rund um den Polarkreis” [The White Border: The Adventure of an Old Salt around the Arctic Circle]. Leipzig: Brockhaus.

1977 Alaskan Voyage, 18811883: An Expedition to the Northwest Coast of America. Translated by Erna Gunther from the German Text of Adrian Woldt (1884). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

n.d. Unter Indianern und Eskimos [Among the Indians and Eskimos]. Berlin: Hillger [1912].

n.d. Unter den Alaska-Eskimos. Erlebnisse und Forschungen [Among the Alaska Eskimos. Experiences and Investigations]. Berlin: Ullstein [1925].

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1  Details of Jacobsen’s life prior to 1881 come primarily from an autobiographical essay included as an appendix in Jacobsen (1977).

2  This collection is extremely valuable due to its antiquity, its large and comprehensive nature (both across tribal groups and types of objects), and for the fact that it was made before Franz Boas began his hugely influential career in Northwest Coast ethnology.

3 Erna Gunther, in her 1977 translation of Jacobsen's book, gives the name as Adrian Woldt, and this has been reproduced in the literature ever since. However, a reference by Woldt's colleague Max Bartels in the 1893 book "Medizin der Naturvölker" identifies him as August Woldt (my thanks to Peter Bolz for pointing this out to me).

4  Two of Jacobsen’s early activities would have a profound impact on Franz Boas and thus the history of anthropology. In 1883, Bastian hired Boas—who had just finished his dissertation research on perception of the environment among the Inuit of Baffin Island—to catalogue Jacobsen’s collection. Northwest Coast material culture contrasted so significantly with that of the Inuit that Boas became interested in relating objects to the intellectual, narrative, and linguistic patterns that characterize cultures, and given the serious limitations in Jacobsen’s collection records, he resolved to collect stories related to the objects he would later obtain himself. Then in 1886, Boas had a chance to work with the Nuxalk in Berlin, where he became interested in the highly complex Northwest Coast languages. These two experiences led Boas to shift his field to Northwest Coast studies, and he made his first summer fieldtrip to British Columbia following the completion of Jacobsen’s Nuxalk tour.

5  The specific objects used to illustrate these articles come from the first, Berlin museum collection, but the ethnographic information contained in them was general enough to have applied to his second, private collection as well.  

6  During the late 1880s and early 1890s, Boas published frequent articles in anthropological and popular journals as well as scientific reports in America, Britain and Germany, but it was not until 1895 that he published his first book of narratives (in German), and not until 1897 that his first monograph-length report was printed (in English). He too was seeking permanent employment during this time (but in America rather than Germany), and developing a strong publication record was a beneficial step toward academic or curatorial appointment.  

7  The “Kosiyut” (kwusiyut), which was unique to the Nuxalk, has cultural analogues among other coastal peoples. In as much as the term refers to a particular series of masked ceremonial prerogatives linked to spirit beings, it is similar to what the Kwakwaka’wakw identify as t’seka (“Tseka”, “Tsetseka,” or “Tseaka” in older orthographies), or the Winter Ceremonials. Both groups had an opposing series of ceremonials that were more based in the display of hereditary, chiefly prerogatives, which the Nuxalk called Sisawk (or “Sisaok”), and which the Kwakwaka’wakw call tla’sala (“Tlasila”) or dlawalaxa (“Dluwalaxa”). Unlike the Kwakwaka’wakw, Jacobsen wrote very little about the Nuxalk in 1884, and his accounts of them come largely from his brother Fillip, as he occasionally discloses in the articles (see Bland 1997; Bland and Simonds 2004). Although Boas and others published short ethnographic reports on the Nuxalk through the turn of the twentieth century, the first major monographic treatment was McIlwraith’s (1948), based on fieldwork in the 1920s. For more information on the Nuxalk, and for further citations, see Kennedy and Buchard (1990).

8  The problem with generalizing from the Nuxalk to other groups is exacerbated by their rather anomalous socio-linguistic and historical status on the Northwest Coast, as they are Salishan speaking late-comers to the region that are entirely surrounded by Wakashan and Athabaskan speaking societies. In many ways, they present significant exceptions to central coast social, ceremonial, and cosmological structures.

9  To be fair, many anthropologists of the day—including Boas—wrestled with terms such as “secret society,” utilizing them while trying to qualify their application somewhat. Subsequent ethnographers, such as Philip Drucker, substituted the term “dancing societies” in order to avoid the vagueness and possibly amateur connotations of the earlier term.

10  For the aid of readers of his 1884 book, Erna Gunther provided a glossary of place names as spelled by Jacobsen, along with their geographic or tribal referents (see Jacobsen 1977). In most cases he retained these spellings in his later articles, including those translated here.

11  To make matters more complicated, in many cases an individual’s membership crosses these boundaries, especially among certain groups (like the Kwakwaka’wakw) that have more flexible, bilateral marriage and descent patterns.

12  Jacobsen’s tendency to recognize diffusion may have come as a result of his encounters with Bastian, whose brand of historical anthropology also—and more fruitfully—influenced the development of Boasian anthropology and museology (see Penny 2002).

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Electronic reference

Aaron Glass, “Northwest Coast Ceremonialism: The Works of J.A. Jacobsen (1853-1947)”European journal of American studies [Online], 5-2 | 2010, document 3, Online since 24 March 2014, connection on 01 December 2022. URL:; DOI:

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Aaron Glass

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