Explorer Wade Davis starts UBC stint with talk on world cultures

Wade Davis trades his explore's hat for a professor's tweed jacket at UBC | Photo by Martin Dee

Wade Davis trades his explore’s hat for a professor’s tweed jacket at UBC | Photo by Martin Dee

Former National Geographic explorer-in-residence Wade Davis has travelled extensively, immersing himself in remote cultures and learning their worldviews. This fall, he’s back in his birthplace, Vancouver, as a professor of anthropology at UBC. On Sept. 14, he will present a talk at the Museum of Anthropology called The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, also the name of his 2009 book.

As an ethnobotanist, anthropologist, author, photographer and filmmaker, Davis’ time among the sea navigators of Polynesia, the Amazon’s Barasana river people and the Penan people of Borneo – just to name a few – has spawned 17 books and numerous articles, documentaries and lectures. But above all, he sees himself as a storyteller.

“I don’t mean storytelling in a disparaging or self-deprecating way,” says Davis, who earned his PhD from Harvard, “I really do think that the most important thing to do is disseminate to the public the insights that scholars achieve.”

World knowledge disappearing with language loss

One of Davis’ key insights is that many cultures are dying out – fast. Most telling of this, says Davis, is that half the world’s 7,000 languages, many of which are only kept alive today by a small population, will disappear within our lifetimes. According to him, a different tongue vanishes about every two weeks, each one a storehouse of knowledge that will die with the last speaker. In his book, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World (based on his CBC Massey Lectures series), Davis stresses that the myriad of cultures in existence are “not failed attempts at modernity, let alone failed attempts to be us.” Davis sees the different cultures as unique manifestations of human creativity and answers to the question of what it means to be human and alive.

In recent years, B.C. has seen people working to document and revitalize local First Nations languages. A current exhibit at the Royal BC Museum, Our Living Languages: First Peoples’ Voices in BC (running from June 2014 to June 2017), is showcasing what those efforts look like. Davis says linguists haven’t yet agreed on how much of a language needs to be extant for it to survive, but that doesn’t mean the efforts
are futile.

“Even if, for example, the Haida Gwaii as a people will never again use their language as their daily language of discourse, the very fact that those efforts are being made is good for all of humanity; it’s also particularly good for the morale of the Haida people as they engage in this incredible gesture of cultural rebirth that is ongoing,” he says.

Cultural views on development

Then there’s the matter of preserving the land, which many Indigenous cultures feel responsible for protecting. In Wayfinders, Davis places our modern attitude – that raw resources are to be consumed as we please – next to the Indigenous people’s deeper connection with the earth. An example of local concern is the Red Chris open-pit copper-gold mine slated to open this year on Todagin Mountain. Located near Iskut in Northern BC, it is home to a large stone sheep population and other wildlife, such as caribou and grizzly bears. According to Davis, the local Tahltan First Nation were told Red Chris has been engineered in the same way as the Mount Polley mine in Central BC, a detail now particularly disquieting in the wake of Mount Polley’s tailings pond leak on Aug. 4.
That breach spilled millions of cubic metres of contaminated water into local waterways, and prompted a water and fishing ban in the area for several days.

Davis has said he’s not anti-development but that it’s a matter of where it’s done. Todagin Mountain is in the region known to the First Nations as the Sacred Headwaters, the source of three major salmon rivers. The site of Red Chris is also near his family fishing lodge where he has spent his summers for nearly three decades.

“If people only knew where Red Chris was being placed, this wildlife sanctuary in the sky. It really is like drilling for oil in the Sistine Chapel,” he says.

Encouraging public engagement with anthropology

When it comes to these contrasting views on development, it’s not about who’s right or wrong, Davis says, but that each culture has a different way of approaching this place we call home. It’s this anthropological lens that he will encourage his students at UBC to share with the public.

“That’s the kind of license I want to give my students, to encourage them to publish, make films, etc. That’s one way we can make anthropology, and other academic disciplines for that matter, increasingly relevant in the world,” says Davis.