People / Wilson Duff

Anthropologist, curator. Wilson Duff was born in Vancouver on March 23, 1925. He received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of British Columbia (1979) and a Master of Arts in Anthropology from the University of Washington (Seattle), where he studied with Erna Gunther (1951). Duff was the Curator of Anthropology at the Royal British Columbia Museum (1950-1965), after which he took a position as Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. Duff was a founding member of the British Columbia Museums Association, serving as Vice-President (1962-1963) and as President (1963-1965). He consulted on the development of the National Museum of Man in Ottawa, was on the planning committee for the Vancouver Museum, chaired the provincial government’s Archaeological Sites Advisory Board (1960-1966), and served on the provincial Indian Advisory Committee (1963-1976). As a result of fieldwork undertaken in Gitksan and Nisga’a communities, Duff was called as an expert witness in the Nisga’a land-claim case Calder vs. Attorney General of British Columbia (1969) and also testified in Regina vs. Bob and White (1964).

Duff is remembered for his research on First Nations cultures of the Northwest Coast, particularly, the Tsimshian, the Gitxsan, and the Haida. His focus later shifted to the art of these tribes. Indeed, he was part of a coterie of scholars, including Bill Holm and Harry Hawthorn, working to bring international attention to Northwest Coast art. He is also well known for his work preserving the last remaining totem poles from Kitwancool and abandoned villages in Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands). Along with his assistant curator, Michael Kew, Duff brokered an agreement with the Gitksan community of Kitwancool in which some of the village’s totem poles would be brought to the Royal British Columbia Museum for preservation in exchange for replicas and the publication of the Kitwancoo people’s histories, territories, and laws in 1958. Duff took his own life in 1976.