TATE, HENRY WELLINGTON, Tsimshian writer; m. with at least one daughter; d. 24 April 1914 in Port Simpson, B.C.
Henry Tate is known to us only in glimpses before 1903, when Franz Boas* engaged him in writing the narratives which were the basis for the monumental Tsimshian mythology (1916). As a well-dressed and poised young man in his mid twenties, he is included in a snapshot of Thomas Crosby and his Methodist mission schoolchildren at Port Simpson. The print, which identifies him as “interpreter and assistant teacher,” is not dated, and it can only be deduced that it was taken in the early 1880s. The next glimpse is in the letter Tate penned (with Samuel Bennett) to the Missionary Outlook in 1894. It describes the Band of Christian Workers, the native evangelical branch of Crosby’s mission, and their winter venture with Captain William Oliver of the steamer Boscowitz to preach outside Port Simpson, it being “the first time that we . . . have started out by ourselves to carry the Gospel.”
In spite of this close connection with Crosby, it seems likely that Tate also worked with William Ridley, the Anglican bishop of Caledonia, who initiated a translation of the Gospels into Tsimshian, published in 1886; for it was Ridley’s orthography that Tate used in writing his texts for Boas.
Tate presumably acquired his middle name when he was adopted by his maternal grandfather, the influential chief Arthur Wellington Clah, as “sister’s son,” a move of undoubted significance in the Tsimshian matrilineal system, though the precise motivation in this case is unknown. One important consequence is known, however: it was through Clah’s receiving a letter from Boas (who had been given Clah’s name by a Kwakiutl consultant, George Hunt*) and his passing it on to Tate that the fruitful connection was made between the famous anthropologist in New York City and his resourceful Tsimshian informant. Tate rose to the opportunity for employment and wrote out about 2,000 pages of narratives in the next ten years.
A great deal more would be known about Tate if his first letter to Boas, introducing himself, was not missing. Boas’s reply of 13 May 1903 is extant, and is full of practical matters, arrangements for payment, and specific requests for stories. The first preserved letter from Tate is a year later, after he had supplied several substantial myth texts and was about to respond to Boas’s request for the Raven cycle. He expected to finish it within the year, but he had just returned from the Nass River, where he had been fishing, and was about to begin fishing on the Skeena, “so I hope you shall have patience.”
The patience was there, and the results impressive, in spite of the difficulties. Marius Barbeau* put his finger on one of the problems, Tate’s “corrosive diffidence,” as he put it in a review of Tsimshian mythology. Tate, he had discovered, was “not in the habit of taking down the stories under dictation. He was loth to divulge to other natives that he was really writing them down at all. Our assistant [William Beynon* (Kuskin)] knew only of his ‘keeping a little book at home for those things.’” This comment reveals a discreet and sensitive Tate, not a slavish recorder of the oral tradition but a presenter of the stories as he had absorbed them. Beynon, whose prestige as a native anthropologist is secure, summed it up more positively to Barbeau in a letter of 19 March 1918: Tate “did not have the full confidence of all his informants . . . nor money to pay them. In spite of that he seems to have done well.” And in a late letter to anthropologist Philip Drucker on 8 March 1954 Beynon expressed how much he had treasured Tsimshian mythology through the years. Tate, he said, had “certainly done wonderful work, and deserves a great deal of credit.” Any student of the Tsimshian and their mythology will echo these sentiments.
In addition to Tsimshian mythology: based on texts recorded by Henry W. Tate, ed. Franz Boas (Washington, 1916; repr. New York, 1970), Tate’s stories appear in Tsimshian texts (new series), ed. Franz Boas (issued along with Haida songs, ed. J. R. Stanton, as American Ethnology Soc., Pub., 3, Leyden, N.Dak., 1912; repr. New York, 1974), and in a recent edition prepared by the author from Tate’s original manuscripts, The porcupine hunter and other stories: the original Tsimshian texts of Henry W Tate, ed. Ralph Maud (Vancouver, 1993). The letter by Tate and Sam[uel] Bennett was published as “The Indian work: a missionary trip” in the Missionary Outlook (Toronto), new ser., 14 (1894): 86–87.
American Anthropologist (Washington), new ser., 19 (1917): 548–63 (Marius Barbeau, review of Tsimshian mythology). C. [R.] Bolt, Thomas Crosby and the Tsimshian: small shoes for feet too large (Vancouver, 1992).