Known for her extensive field research among the Inuit, the internationally respected anthropologist Jean L. Briggs died July 27, of congestive heart failure at the age of 87. Her pioneering work of ethnography Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family (1970), was based on a year and a half of research and fieldwork that she conducted on a remote Arctic shore in the mid-1960s, documenting the behaviour, language and culture of the Inuit who lived there.
Far from adopting the usual academic, detached tone, she took a more personal approach, documenting her own emotions, assumptions and responses. Key to her innovative style, Dr. Briggs said, was the idea that "not knowing is not scary, it's productive."
Inuit Morality Play: The Emotional Education of a Three-Year-Old, another example of her ethnography, won two prestigious awards after it was published in 1988. It continued her exploration of social control, naming, childhood socialization, and emotional expressions and concepts. The two books became and remain classics.
They represent just a fraction of her writing, which included key work on a groundbreaking dictionary of Utkuhiksalingmiut Inuktitut, including (and preserving) 34,000 words. She began compiling this in 1970, eventually building a massive database of word components (known as word-bases and affixes) which she meticulously checked and rechecked.
She was eventually joined by co-researchers and co-authors at Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) and the University of Toronto, and supported by five grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). The dictionary was completed in 2015.
Dr. Briggs, who taught at MUN for 47 years, "had two main passionate researches: psychological anthropology and intensive linguistic research," according to her colleague Dr. Adrian Tanner, who shared her interest in indigenous hunter/gatherers. "Jean as an anthropologist-linguist understood the way words are used in a cultural context."
For example, the Utku nuances include saying you "don't feel like" doing something, instead of saying you "don't want to" do something, which is considered very rude.
"When I arrived in Chantrey Inlet in 1963, I knew only six words of Inuktitut: 'yes,' 'no,' 'I don't know,' 'have some tea,' 'have some more tea' and 'thank you,'" Dr. Briggs said in an interview after the dictionary was published.
At the same time, she quickly perceived that much communication was non-verbal. "The significant signs are so tiny. If you read the screenplay of Atanarjuat [Zacharias Kunuk's 2002 feature film, which was based on an Inuit legend], you will see some of the signs pointed out – like the movement of the eye that means an urgent 'no.' I didn't see the movement of the eye that meant an urgent 'no.'"
Most of Dr. Briggs's fieldwork was with camp-dwelling Canadian Inuit, but she also visited Alaskan Inupiat and Siberian Yupik.
She also wrote a number of autobiographical essays about the development of her "ways of thinking and of doing anthropology, especially fieldwork," she wrote on her website. "I have no allegiances to any particular brand of theory; my interpretations tend to develop from the ground up, using as data personal experience and perspectives expressed, verbally or behaviourally, by the actors in an accumulation of small specific incidents."
As a student of the eminent cultural/psychiatric anthropologist Cora DuBois, Dr. Briggs was a product of "the American tradition of women anthropologists, [which included] Margaret Mead," Dr. Tanner said.
"Everybody told her not to go [to the Arctic]. Jean insisted, and the camp was very far off the beaten track. Even for a male anthropologist, that was not normal. She was a pioneer and she was there for several years, it was a major commitment and the connection was kept right up to the end."
Jean Louise Briggs was born May 28, 1929, in Washington, D.C., the oldest of four children of Margaret (née Worcester) and Horace W. Briggs, a Swedenborgian clergyman. She grew up in Maine and Newton, Mass., and studied at Vassar College (BA, 1951), Boston University (MA, 1960), and Harvard University (PhD, 1967). She lived in New Hampshire, Maine, Israel, Siberia, Alaska, Italy and Nunavut, and joined MUN's department of anthropology in 1967.
"Jean was always very generous in coming to share her fieldwork experiences with my undergraduate classes – the students loved her visits – and also in participating in departmental seminars," said Dr. Robin Whitaker, who arrived as the youngest professor in the department as Dr. Briggs was leaving. Dr. Briggs was an engaging speaker: For example she was featured on a popular two-part instalment of CBC Radio's Ideas.
Dr. Whitaker also noted that when Dr. Briggs arrived at MUN, then one of two women in the department, she was listed in the calendar as "Briggs, Miss J.L., MA Boston, PhD Harvard" while the men simply had their names, initials and degrees. "In other words, MUN felt that a woman's marital status was significant enough that it had to be listed in the university calendar."
Dr. Briggs was often asked about being a woman in what was considered to be a male domain.
"My being a woman did have an influence in some ways," she said in the interview. For example, in living with a family in Chantrey Inlet, a man would have been expected to go hunting with the other men, but she could stay with the women and children without making the men anxious. She was also allowed to stay up later than other family members so she could work on her notes.
There were potential hitches, though. She recalled a conversation from this first foray into the field, when she asked a missionary's wife about families she could potentially live with. "There are two men down there looking for wives," the missionary's wife said.
"That wasn't exactly the role I had in mind for myself," Dr. Briggs replied. Instead they located a household where there was already a wife, so she could be a daughter.
An ardent environmentalist determined to live close to the land, Dr. Briggs designed and – with the help of friends – built a two-storey house in Maddox Cove (just outside of St. John's, pop. 950). It was a kilometre from the main road, but she refused to build a road to the house. All construction materials, including big bags of cement, had to be carried there. She had no running water, instead relying on a nearby stream. She only recently installed electricity.
"She had an impractical romantic streak on how to live, and resisted a lot of modern things," Dr. Tanner said. "Like a lot of anthropologists, she learned how to live from her research; she had a sleeping platform, not a bed, like an Inuit dwelling."
She had also incorporated four Victorian fireplaces, which she loved, into the blueprint.
She managed to live independently there until a few years ago, when she sold the house but not the land. Its sale could have brought a lot of money, but she left it to a nature conservancy so that it would be protected.
Independence was central to her character. Dr. Briggs never married. It probably wouldn't have suited her. "She had a prickly personality," Dr. Tanner said. (Dr. Briggs would say, "I don't like leading and I don't like following.")
"As she acknowledged in her first book, Never in Anger, she had difficulty controlling her emotions and was unaware how inappropriate that was in some contexts. She had strong dislikes as well as likes," Dr. Tanner said.
A hiker and photographer, she seemed never to stop observing the natural world around her. "We had a shared interest in non-human animals and their emotional, communicative and cognitive lives," Dr. Whitaker said.
"We often swapped stories about the birds at our feeders and discussed books or articles we had read about the minds of birds and other animals. I remember that I had more fascination with jays than Jean did – she found them pushy and ill-disciplined in comparison to the crows, who she saw as more orderly."
Dr. Briggs was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for Psychological Anthropology, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Bergen, in Norway.
"She obviously loved Newfoundland," Dr. Tanner said. "Her stature, her many awards, her books which always sold very well, meant she could have taught at any school, but she stayed at Memorial."
As she told The Telegram in 2003, her personal motto was: "Everything that happens is data. Mistakes are a good thing. You can learn more from making mistakes than from getting it right."
Dr. Briggs leaves her three younger siblings, Bill (Jean), Hod (Mary Ann) and Meg, as well as many nieces and nephews.