Donald H. Mitchell

Date award received: 
Donald H. Mitchell
Donald H. Mitchell

It is rare to find a person who excels in all areas of a discipline,especially a discipline as diverse as archaeology. Don Mitchell's outstanding career in Northwest Coast archaeology began in the late 1950s when, as a recent graduate with a degree in commerce, he took night classes anthropology at the University of British Columbia. Leaning towards archaeology, he made himself known to Charles Borden, working on early sites in the Fraser Canyon. In 1963 this led to Don's M.A. thesis on the Esilao Site and the start of a distinguished 40 year career-a career which is by no means over.

Don's career is marked by a commitment to academic rigour, innovation in the Anthropological Archaeology of Northwest Coast economies, and an emphasis on public service and education. Don started to teach at the University of Victoria in 1965, three years before receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Oregon, and taught there until his retirement in 1995. He served as the first Chair of the Department of Anthropology and advanced to the rank of full Professor by 1984. The published version of his Ph.D. (Mitchell 1971) introduced the concept of 'Culture Type' to Northwest Coast archaeology. His detailed exposition of in situ cultural development in the Gulf of Georgia stands to this day as a model of elegant writing, attention to detail and interpretative caution. The concept of Culture Type was deployed to counter simplistic grouping of seasonal sites into archaeological phases which might collectively represent the archaeological signature of the annual round.

Although faunal analysis was not included in his Ph.D., Don later became a pioneer in the taking of column samples and other quantitative zooarchaeological techniques, and trained many of BritishColumbia's leading faunal analysts. The result was a significant step forward in the understanding long term history in ecological terms, a research focus which is now dominant in Northwest Coast archaeology. A happy by-product of his interest is the superb comparative skeletal collection he and Becky Wigen developed at the University of Victoria. Faunal analysis was well suited for Don's attention to detail and interdisciplinary approach: for example, he systematically gathered bird seasonality data for the Victoria area as no such data were otherwise available.

Don also pioneered the integration of ethnological, ethnohistoric and archaeological research. He realized that the ethnographic record was incomplete, and that other textual sources were essential to interpret the archaeological record. Through his ethnohistoric research, much of it done in collaboration with Leland Donald, Don made a lasting contribution to both Social Anthropology and History, and enhanced our interpretations of Northwest Coast prehistory.

Don's interests were focused on the Gulf of Georgia region, although he also worked in the Queen Charlotte Strait and in the interior of British Columbia. At the University of Victoria, he supervised 22 M.A. students, and served on the committees of countless others, including Ph.D. students from other departments and institutions.

The hallmark of any academic archaeologist is a record of strong publications. Don has more than 35 publications, and he is still going strong: his edited volume (with Pamela Smith) Bringing Back the Past: Historical Perspective on Canadian Archaeology has just been published (Smith and Mitchell 1998). He also presented numerous conference papers and guest lectures.

However, Don was no detached, ivory-tower academic. He played a full and important role in the development of the profession and in the dissemination of its results. Notably, he was involved in drafting and critiquing all aspects of British Columbia heritage protection legislation, serving on the Archaeological Sites Advisory Board from its inception, on the Provincial Heritage Advisory Board “Project Pride” hearings, and for many years on the board of the British Columbia Heritage Trust. He further served the profession as editor of the Canadian Journal of Archaeology from 1982 to 1985.

In a more public role, he served on the British Columbia Department of Education's Elementary Social Studies Revision Committee, which introduced Anthropology and Social Science into the Elementary School curriculum. He also produced a variety of public-educational materials, including several slide sets for teaching and a video on basketry. By encouraging Archaeological Society of British Columbia participation in the University of Victoria field school, Don made a significant contribution to the vigour of the local chapter of that society. Among his publications are many contributions to general reference works, including Volumes 7 (Northwest Coast) and 12 (Plateau) of the Smithsonian Handbook of American Indians, and to the Encyclopedia of World Cultures.

As Leland Donald has noted, all of Don's work is marked by careful attention to and respect for the data which he was trying to understand. He eschewed the dramatic and flashy generalization for less spectacular conclusions that are thoroughly warranted by the material. His abiding interests in teaching, research, administration, heritage advocacy, editing, writing, and public education have given all those with an interest in the anthropology and archaeology of the Northwest Coast a secure foundation upon which to build.

Quentin Mackie
with input from Leland Donald, Sharon Keen and Becky Wigen.

Reference cited
Smith, P.J. and D. Mitchell
1998 Bringing Back the Past: Historical Perspectives on Canadian Archaeology. Archaeological Survey of Canada Mercury Paper No.158, Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull.