Alice Ravenhill to John Laurie (Sept.15, 1941)


Alice Ravenhill to John Laurie (Sept.15, 1941)


A useful overview of the goals of the British Columbia Indian Arts and Crafts Welfare Society (BCIACWS) and how it came to be. Ravenhill responds to Laurie’s request for information on how to start up a Committee similar to by touching on the BCIACWS’ history; she advises him on steps he can take to make contacts within the provincial and federal governments. Mentions repeatedly the apathetic and contemptuous attitudes of the majority in Victoria towards Aboriginal people, as well as the steps she and the Committee have taken to try and combat these conceptions. She also discusses how policies drafted and enacted by the United States around interacting with Aboriginal People can function as useful models for shaping Canadian policy.


Alice Ravenhill


Royal BC Museum, BC Archives (F/!/R19)


Sept.15, 1941


Sep.15th 1941

Dear Mr. Laurie,

Your interesting letter of the 11th just reached me on the 13th and I hasten to acknowledge it because it will be a great pleasure to give you any help in my power, though I wish I had a report at hand of what my Committee has attempted since its formation 20 months ago, which would be better than an inevitably incomplete recapitulation.

I must explain that for 12 years previously I had tried to arouse interest in Victoria on the arts of our Northwest Coast tribes in some aspects unique, as is the craft of coiled and imbricated basketry in certain tribes of the Interior of the Province. I reproduced designs in needlework in multiple ways, but though specimens of my work have gone all over the world, Victoria is so pitifully contemptuous towards these our fellow Canadians that I made little headway, though it prepared my for my present office because I was being tutored by the man who knows more about our Indians in this Province than anyone else.

Then Anthony Walsh with whom I had corresponded on petroglyphs, came and asked me to form a Committee of which I enclose the latest list as well as our Objects, which, I may add are always expanding. At first I could only get three to help me, and at this moment only one member is equipped with a sound knowledge of our tribes, their skills, their conditions, and problems. The others are interested and attend the meetings, but all work devolves on me at 82 and Mr. Pickford, the member to whom I refer. Just when I felt overwhelmed a happy movement is lead – to the formation of a much more influential and energetic Committee in Vancouver, which should push on our work along the art and drama lines and thus relieve us here.

Now for our methods of work. In the first place make friends with the “Powers that be” so far as possible. I won over our “difficult” Inspector of Indian Schools, who is now most sympathetic, though I emulate agag in my “delicate” walks with him. We are in pleasant correspondence with all the Indian Agents of the Province, who seem in several cases most appreciative of our interest and very willing to give us any information in their power. Some are less so, and we have to overcome suspicion of interference. So far with complete success, though all do not offer cooperation. We wrote when our first small Committee was formed to Dr. McGill, Head of Indian Affairs for all Canada at Ottawa, and from the first our relations have been pleasant; indeed he has written twice to thank me on behalf of his Staff and himself for our small achievments. He paid me a personal call in August, when he was touring all the Western agencies, a difficult interview, for he left all the talking to me and not only wore a strictly official mask but was entirely non-committal; however, he stayed 45 instead of 15 minutes and a side winde has since blown me word he was quite impressed.

Now, we are trying to get at all the schools to [page break] find out what mutual training is being given both to boys and girls; what encouragement to the preservation of old forms of handicrafts of manual skills; whether children are encouraged to express their own ideas in these, pointing out their inherent gifts of keen observation, photograph memories, imagination, etc. Alas, too many teachers only want to reproduce their own training, lacking adaptation to the Indian temperament and crush originality. But this groundwork is a desirable foundation with the general public as well as teachers; the children are imbued with the idea of copying “white people’s conception emanating from the fountain head; but doomed to failure. The results in this province are disastrous in the majority; and white folk say openly the sooner these people disappear from disease and alcohol the better; yet it is we who are responsible.

So, we ask teachers to try and arouse pride in the young folk in the deeds and accomplishments of their forebears; to collect the remnant of their former arts, to get old designs from their parents and reproduce these accurately instead of aiming at Woolworth standards. Schools now ask us to let them have designs, and I prepared a series of large Charts showing 100 examples of our former Tribal arts on commission from Ottawa last year with an associated Handbook for use in Indian Schools; but though highly approved they have not so far been reproduced. This summer I spoke twice to the Teaching Sisters gathered for a Summer School at St. Ann’s Convent here and they were intensely keen (the Roman Catholics staff many schools in this Province) and asked endless questions. But it takes time. Then we are trying to get Legends dramatized for use in Indian schools at Christian or otherwise instead of “white man’s plays”; of this, doubtless Anthony Walsh spoke to you at length. The Director of School and Community Drama for B.C. who could exercise enormous influence in this object is not so far at heart convinced of its value; he does not understand adequately the Indian temperament should be given a chance thus to express itself in natural forms, which also bring out strong points otherwise overlooked. A start is advisedly made by inciting old people to recall their tales of long ago, describe costumes, etc. Perhaps in Alberta some of its legends have been collected and published; so far I have failed with a selection I made of fascinating myths, though powerful introductions were backing me with Macmillan and the Oxford University Press. People in the east lack an interest in us so remote, and our University also lacks any interest; now we contemplate bringing the matter before the Canadian Author’s Association, hitherto wholly aloof from the Native tribal possibilities.

Now, in Ontario 3000 Indian shave been lifted off Relief by the judicious revival and sale to tourists of tribal producers; this I have firsthand from Dr. McGill himself. Will his staff not advise you, for instance by giving you particular how this was accomplished.

Then, write to Mr. Kene d’Harmoncourt, Department of Indian Affairs at Washington, and ask for their most recent Report on the development of Indian industrion; of course they have ample funds and expert staff, which we have not; but these reports suggest ideas. I enclose a bald Agenda for our last Committee when I was miserable with the onset of influenza; this reference to commercial designs arose from articles in the London “Times” from Manchester Cotton Mills, using designs from all parts of the Empire and giving illustrations of home adopted from West Africa; we mean to get in touch somehow but I have been too unwell to do anything yet. You see how developments throng once a start is made. I have been a pioneer all my long life and curt in the right start must be taken with care, tact, patience, perseverance, making friends always and content to make haste slowly. We lack funds, in Victoria we have no support socially, yet we do forge slowly ahead, though the Press ignores us unless forced to insert microscopic reports; I believe you have much brighter chances in that line than is our fate. Most depends on the Secretary. I am too old; but so far help finds a [indistinguishable, end of fragment].




Alice Ravenhill, “Alice Ravenhill to John Laurie (Sept.15, 1941),” The Story is More than Itself, accessed November 20, 2019,