It is important to describe my familial connection to Charles James Nowell, a point that brought me to read this book and no doubt influenced my understanding of it. My Great Great Grandfather was Owadi (Thomas Nowell) and was born in 1840 and died in 1921. Owadi was Charles’ older brother who took the role of raising him because their father, Malitsas, went blind. The name Nowell came from an Englishman who wanted a godson in Canada. After being baptized the name Nowell was born. Owadi was the head chief of the first clan of the Kwixa tribe. Owadi’s grandfather (mother’s father) was the younger brother of Tlakodlas (Tlakwudlas), the head chief of the second clan of the ‘Namgis (41). My grandfather, Joseph Lewis Isaac, was the son of Dorothy Isaac (nee Nowell) and Benedict Isaac.
Image: Great Great Grandfather O'wadalagalis (Thomas Nowell).
Smoke from their Fires offers a very brief introduction to the Kwakwaka’wakw culture followed by a first-hand account by Charles of his life. Clellan Ford successfully showed the life of a Kwagu’ł man through the narration of Charles James Nowell with minimal anthropological ‘analysis.’ Charles tells his story after a lifetime of learning the English language and experience studying through the lens of an ethnographer. This undoubtedly influences his mostly objective, detached delivery, instead of a personal accounting that would have provided more emotion and connection to his life. I found Ford’s footnotes and introduction to be very Eurocentric in nature, which was typical of anthropologists at the time where the conjured threat of extinction of a dying race was consistently put forth to fuel interest in a superfluous research field. Although one must consider the popular theories of the time, the book is filled with references to the ‘primitive, inferior ways’ of the Kwagu’ł. In fairness, Ford’s work could be considered on the progressive side of a flawed argument based upon the hierarchy of man and the perceived eventuality of Kwagu’ł assimilation. This challenges the reader to find meaning within today’s more progressive thought on Indigenous peoples, while not eliminating the underlying importance of Charles’ experiences.
Smoke from their Fires provides a valuable accounting of the responsibilities and system of governance of a Kwagu’ł tribe through the perspective of a noble family during a difficult period of Western assimilative attempts. Despite these pressures, Charles James Nowell skillfully masters elements of Western culture, especially those of speaking and writing English, that benefit him and his people most. He finds himself a leader in the fight against the potlatch ban (along side William Roberts and Moses Alfred). Charles was a skillful advocate and traditionalist for the cultural integrity of his people, all the while maintaining European allies whose mandate was to eliminate the practices considered backward at the time. I encourage those interested in the personal accounts of the Kwakwaka’wakw to find (it is out of print) and read this book.