Conversion versus Ethnography: Adrien Gabriel Morice and the Western Dene

Daniel Sims

Abstract


Conversion versus ethnography—how can one be both a missionary and an ethnographer? Is there not an inherent contradiction between trying to radically change a culture and society through religious conversion, while simultaneously trying to “scientifically” record the same culture and society? Yet, many missionaries found themselves in the situation of attempting to preserve via their academic writings the very cultures and societies they condemned and sought to change in their religious career. This article is about one such missionary, Adrien Gabriel Morice, Oblate missionary to the Tsilhqot’in (Chilcotin), Dakelh (Carrier) and Tse Keh Nay (Sekani) of northern central British Columbia. It examines how he dealt with this inherent contradiction and concludes that not only did it hinder his conversion of First Nations, but also prevented him from making the academic move from Enlightenment ethnology to social Darwinism and Boasian anthropology. Nevertheless, despite the fact that this inherent contradiction cost him his mission post at Stuart Lake in 1903, Morice benefitted from his first-hand experience at that post and became influential as an ethnographer with regards to Dakelh social organization, religion, burial practices and gender. In this achievement, he was able to leave a lasting legacy despite the inherent contradiction between his role as a missionary and as an ethnographer.

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