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J. E. Michael Kew (1932-2020)

Professor J. E. Michael Kew (Mike to those of us who knew him), was born in Quesnel, BC in 1932, and departed this life on November 22, 2020 in Vancouver, BC.  He was one of the North West Coast anthropologists, along with Wilson Duff and Wayne Suttles, who were part of the core of the Department of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in the late 1960s and in the 1970s at a formative time in the department’s history, and he remained as a positive and influential professor there until the end of the 1990s. His official UBC retirement date was January 2, 2000. Mike Kew will be remembered as a thoughtful and kind colleague, to whom people looked for his thoughts on department issues and on anthropology broadly. He was especially valued for his way of putting complex issues into simple, enlightened language. His research, beginning with his 1970 University of Washington Ph.D., had a practical element—he aimed at producing something useful for the Coast Salish and other Indigenous peoples with whom he worked. After teaching briefly at the University of Saskatchewan he joined UBC where he played a formative role in the development of applied anthropology at UBC. His publications concerned the resurgence of winter ceremonials, spirit dancing, community studies of fish runs and fisheries, and how governments might work successfully with First Nations. Much of his work was aimed at understanding historic and contemporary Coast Salish art in collaboration with Indigenous artists and culture bearers. Mike’s influence stretched from archaeology to activity for the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) located on UBC’s Vancouver campus. He also served as Director of the Museum of Anthropology for a year while Michael Ames, the usual Director, was on leave. Mike Kew took part in the historic 1950s CBC trip to Haida Gwai with artist Bill Reid that resulted in some of the totem poles now on display at MOA. His work, overall, supported and documented the revitalization of Musqueam and other Indigenous communities, both politically and culturally.

In 2015, Mike Kew’s academic legacy was formally honoured in the context of the Dean of Arts Award given to a Professor Emeritus who has made a significant contribution to the Faculty (nominated by Prof. Patricia Shaw). With this award, Mike was recognized for his lifelong contributions to scholarship related to Musqueam cultural traditions and for his commitment to mobilize that knowledge to support the reclamation of Musqueam Indigenous heritage.

Mike Kew (third from left) with others attending the award dinner on July 21, 2015 at which he was honoured as the recipient of the Dean of Arts Award for a Professor Emeritus who has made a significant contribution to the Faculty. (Pictured left to right: Jill Campbell, Director, Language & Culture Department, Musqueam Indian Band. Barbara Williamson, wife of Mike Kew and  former instructor in Anthropology/Sociology, Michael Kew, Patricia Shaw, Professor in Anthropology, Larry Grant, Musqueam Indian Band, Gage Averill, Dean, Faculty of Arts, Geraldine Pratt, Professor in Geography and Associate Dean of Arts, and Rodney Sieg, Vancouver lawyer representing the law firm Taylor Jordon Chafetz, involved in donating the award. Present at the event but not in the photo, Chief Robert Joseph. (Photo courtesy of Patricia Shaw)

In addition to his research and scholarship Mike is remembered for his generous mentorship of many graduate students. Students went to Mike to learn how to do something well in research approaches and how to do good in difficult situations. While Mike Kew was always supportive of students and supportive of Indigenous research in the North West Coast region and throughout Canada, he did not allow students to take an easy route or make simplistic analyses in their work. Instead he frequently encouraged them to keep in mind that it was not enough to be on the ‘right side’ of an issue, and that findings needed to be based on thorough, solid scholarship that explored the multisided and multifaceted complexity of context and issues.

Mike’s mentoring of graduate students included those he supervised, those he taught, those who worked with him as a teaching assistant (TA), and many others through occasional advice. One of his former graduate student TAs, Dr. Thomas (Tad) McIlwraith now a university professor himself (at the University of Guelph), remembered Prof. Kew as pivotal in his own development. He indicated he had twice been a teaching assistant for Prof. Kew for an anthropology course on Indigeneity with sessions taught in the Museum of Anthropology, saying that; “in the course of that work, he helped me think more clearly about research in Indigenous contexts at a foundational time in my career”.

Showing his work and contributions continued long after his UBC retirement, Mike published a broadly informative and wide-ranging autobiographical piece, “Reflections on Anthropology at the University of British Columbia” in the Spring 2017 issue (no. 193) of the journal BC Studies. This article documents many activities conducted under the auspices of the UBC Department of Anthropology (and former combined department of Anthropology and Sociology) and the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) over the decades from the 1950s to recently, and also asks probing questions regarding intellectual and cultural property rights, respectful protocols, appropriation, and other deeply important issues that were and are at the core of colonial policies and practices in academic disciplines, educational institutions, and museums.

There yet remains a noteworthy anecdote of Mike Kew’s life. In the 1950s there were two young students named Mike in anthropology at UBC, both involved in overlapping anthropological projects, Mike Ames and Mike Kew. Both would later become long-time professors in the Department of Anthropology at UBC, and both went on to have prominent roles in the evolution of anthropology as a discipline over the next half century. In their student days they were humorously nicknamed and referred to as “Aimless” and “Clueless,” although everyone knew through everything they went on to accomplish and do, that Mike Ames was never “Aimless” and Mike Kew was never “Clueless”.

Mike Kew married Dellavina (Della) Francis Charles of the Musqueam Nation who predeceased him, and later married Barbara Williamson. He is survived by his second wife Barbara Williamson, sons Nathan and James of Musueam, and many extended family members.

Millie Creighton, R. G. Matson, Bruce Miller, and Patricia Shaw

Featured Image: Mike Kew during fieldwork at the Mouth of the Chilcotin (MOC) in June, 1974. (Photo courtesy of R.G. Matson)

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