Alice B. Kehoe

Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus, Marquette University

Memoirs of Women and Harvard

Victoria R. Bricker. Transformational Journeys: An Ethnologist’s Memoir. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 106, part 5. 344 pp., illus. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2017.

Becky Cooper. We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence. 512 pp., notes. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2020.

That Harvard’s Department of Anthropology did not favor women is well-known. So well-known that some of it is pure myth. Contrary to a common story, women were not required to sit outside classrooms listening through the door. David Browman, who researched and wrote most of Anthropology at Harvard,[1] discovered that up until about 1925, professors could, if they wished, offer separate meetings of their classes, one for men and one for women. Harvard had a School for the Collegiate Instruction of Women that in 1893 became Radcliffe College, with its own campus and classrooms. During the 1920s, women began sitting in classrooms with men.[2] Women who earned an Anthropology PhD at Harvard received a Radcliffe diploma until 1963. Mine, in Spring 1964, may have been the first Harvard diploma in Anthropology issued to a woman.

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Weight versus Power in Texts

Alfred L. Kroeber, Anthropology: Race, Language, Culture, Psychology, Prehistory (New York: Harcout, Brace and Company, 1948).

I was sixteen, browsing the shelves in the public library downtown in Mount Vernon, New York—a suburb just north of the Bronx—when I pulled out a thick tome, Anthropology, by A. L. Kroeber. Taking it home, I read it through, all 856 pages. ANTHROPOLOGY!  Everything in the world, everything could be studied through Anthropology!  Humans are ubiquitous. 

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Researching A Passion for the True and Just

Editor’s Note: Alice B. Kehoe works in both archaeology and American First Nations histories, seeing the continuum between American archaeology and the histories of the nations whose sites are studied.  She explains here how her training in Boasian anthropology prepared her to write A Passion for the True and Just: Felix and Lucy Kramer Cohen and the Indian New Deal.

In the late 1970s, I began to read key works in history/philosophy of science, attempting to figure out Lewis Binford’s naïve notion of scientific method that was somehow attracting disciples in American archaeology.[i] Not until, decades later, when I read Mark Solovey’s account of Cold War strategy promoting the physical sciences,[ii] and George Reisch’s description of McCarthyism curtailing humanistic dimensions of philosophy of science,[iii] could I understand how Binford’s cold “objective” version of archaeology fit the tenor of the time, winning National Science Foundation funds and graduate students. Binford’s “New Archaeology” was also deeply colonialist, abjuring any historical approach to “prehistoric” America (endnote 5). Barry Barnes and Steven Shapin’s Natural Order woke me up.[iv] Rationality is, as Peter Novick would have said, a “noble dream.”[v] Cultural context is key.  

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Arsenic and Old Pelts: Deadly Pesticides in Museum Collections

All museums use pesticides and preservatives, though their health impacts are not always known; ethnographic collections can thus pose a health risk. Here we  open one cold case file, in which we believe a prominent American anthropologist may have directly suffered from such effects. Our own experience and inquiries confirm this hunch.

Clark Wissler fell ill in 1905, soon after he began working in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. At some point during the period of Wissler’s illness, Museum Director Henry Fairfield Osborn recommended that his own physician examine Wissler. But despite this additional medical consultation, the illness persisted and was never successfully diagnosed—making him appear frail until 1928 when it mysteriously cleared up. The symptoms were severe enough to cause Wissler to give up his fieldwork on the Blackfeet Reservation. Continue reading

‘Shamanism, Discourse, Modernity’ by Thomas Karl Alberts

Thomas Karl Alberts. Shamanism, Discourse, Modernity. 286 pp., refs., index. New York: Routledge, 2016. $122 (hardback), $54.95 (e-book). First published 2015 by Ashgate.

Alberts, of Cape Town, South Africa, chooses “shamanism” to be the linchpin of a detailed history of an anthropological trope increasingly popular and politically engaged. Because “shamanism” is universalized as a component of “the primitive,” its usage closely followed the development of anthropology within imperial regimes, and its current proliferation ties in with indigenous rights and environmental projects. Alberts goes farther, citing Foucault at numerous points about modernity’s universalizing epistemologies versus its acknowledgements of contingencies. The term “modernity” seems to refer to an Enlightenment search for new knowledge as the means of establishing universal types and laws, forever pushed on by contingent particulars brought up to critique these projections (14-15). The strength and value of this book is in its critiques, packed with historic and contemporary detail.

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