Remembering Jean Briggs

October 4, 2016

The impact Jean Briggs left on the world of anthropology cannot be overstated; she changed how researchers working in Indigenous communities view themselves, and their work. However, those who knew her best will remember her for her sense of humour, strong will, and refusal to follow the grain.

Briggs passed away this summer at the age of 87, and she lived her life right up until her final days the way she wanted to.

“Jean was fiercely independent. That was her personality, and I think it was really important to her. She grew up in a time when women weren’t that prevalent in academia,” says Shelley Bryant, Briggs’ executor, neighbour, and friend. “I’m sure she was determined to show people that women could play enormous roles in anthropology. She changed the face of anthropology too, just a brilliant mind.”

Those who knew her knew that Briggs had a lifelong love of books. Her home in Petty Harbour, which she referred to as “the shoe” (as in “there was an old lady who lived in a”) was crowded with books. Her collection was immaculately cared for, with rare and interesting treasures of all kinds.

That is why at the 2016 Inuit Studies Conference the book room will be known as The Jean Briggs Memorial Book Room. The room will feature a corner devoted to Briggs, with images of Briggs, her photography, and work on display. There will be a book for friends, colleagues, and well-wishers to leave notes to her family, and a short video will play of Briggs accepting the 2014 Tribute Award from the MUN Pensioner’s Association.

“She’d love having the book room named after her,” says Briggs’ friend Andrea Procter. Briggs was an advisor to Procter during Procter’s Ph.D. studies at Memorial, but their relationship quickly developed into a deep friendship. “In her house she had these huge bookshelves, just walls covered in books and they were all organized. She was always surrounded by her books and they were really an important part as who she was. So I think celebrating her through her books is a fabulous way to remember her.”

Following an estate appraisal, some of Briggs’ one of a kind books and Inuit art collection will be up for sale during the Inuit Studies Conference. A portion of the proceeds of the sale will go toward digitizing, cataloguing, and preserving her notes and materials for Memorial University. Bryant says that Briggs would be happy to know some of her most prized possessions will be going to people who will truly appreciate them.

“I’ve been the executor of a few estates and certainly this one is the most interesting and most involved,” says Bryant. “It’s the kind of thing, for a lot of people, where you would open up a drawer and you’d see a bunch of papers, and you’d flip through it, but that’s not the way it is for Jean. For this estate you have to go through things with detail. I think there’s a good possibility that there might be an interest from a biographer. While we’re sorting through materials we’re having that kind of eye for things as well.”

When Bryant speaks of Briggs the joy in her voice is apparent. She would regularly have Briggs over for supper in her later years and helped provide her with care and support. Bryant says while Briggs could come off as abrasive at times, it always came from a place of truth and honesty, something she came to respect immensely.

“How I want to remember her is kind of evolving. It’s a really interesting opportunity to see some of her personal thoughts, and Jean’s life and personality was so rich,” says Bryant. “In a way I’m learning more about her now that she’s gone. You have a relationship with somebody as a neighbour, and a friend, and as a lawyer, and there are always sides of people that the person keeps to themselves. Or it takes a very long time and time together with somebody to really get to know them, but even so you never really know somebody. We’re seeing in this material that we are privileged and privy to, we’re seeing sides of Jean that were softer, than I would have sort of imagined.”

When Briggs first went to the Central Arctic in the 1960s at the beginning of her career as an anthropologist, her doctor remarked that she’d be better off staying at home and being a housewife. Years later upon the publication of her seminal book on working with Inuit in the North, Never in Anger, she sent a signed copy to the doctor letting him know that she did just fine - among other things.

“I first met Jean in 2005 when I was starting my Ph.D.,” explains Procter, “I’d known of her for much longer because everybody in the anthropology world knows Jean Briggs. At first it was kind of intimidating to meet her, but she was always very open and very engaging and very funny. She had a wicked sense of humour, you had to have a bit of a thick skin around her because she had that very, very blunt ability to just say the truth as she saw it, she was just wonderful.”

Procter says it was Briggs’ attitude towards education that really helped shape who she is as a researcher and as a professor. She would bring Briggs into her classes, and students would be amazed that someone from their textbooks was right there in front of them, willing to answer their questions.

“Jean would always engage me and other students in questioning what was going on, questioning our own experiences, and even questioning her. She never put herself forth as an expert. She was always very interested in the process of learning and the process of education. She taught me that we’re all involved in that process, whether you’re a professor or student.”

It seems everyone who met Briggs has a story to tell about her. The professor emeritus at Memorial University maintained a strong relationship to the university even after her retirement, and became a sort of legend on campus, often seen carrying around a large knapsack of books on her back.

“I met her regularly, but I never had a class with her. She was a tremendous personality-- a real character. She liked quiet spaces, I think from spending so much time in the wilderness,” says Memorial University archeology professor, Lisa Rankin, with a smile. “She was very opinionated but always in the most thoughtful way. She was a real force to be reckoned with. I had great admiration for her and definitely one of the first women to be working in the North and definitely inspiring to the rest of us who came after her.”

The Jean Briggs Memorial Book Room will be located in Chamber Studio (MU-1001) in the Memorial University School of Music building October 7-10 as part of the 2016 Inuit Studies Conference. Her artwork being sold can be viewed at a website set up by her estate.