Ira Jacknis, 1952-2021

Editor’s Note: With sadness, the History of Anthropology Review notes the death of Ira Jacknis, research anthropologist at the Hearst Museum at Berkeley. He was a valued contributor to this publication and a supportive member of our Advisory Board. Ira reflected on his own career and current projects as part of changing interests in the history of anthropology for HAR’s online relaunch in 2016; his essay, “Doing the History of Anthropology as the History of Visual Representation” is available here.

We are grateful to Ira’s longtime collaborator, Professor Regna Darnell, for the following reminiscence.

I have known Ira Jacknis since he was a graduate student. Our work intersected in multiple contexts and locations. Ira and I shared interdisciplinary interests in Native Americans, collaborative research, objects, museums as sites of interpretation and contemporary engagement, public education, audiences among multiple publics, and the history of anthropology. Ira’s integration of these topics appeared seamless because it grew out of personal experience rather than grand theoretical models in a vacuum. 

Because our experience was different, we pursued these common interests with different primary emphases. For me the glue was the history of anthropology, engaging with Indigenous communities in collaborative relations that drew on linguistic anthropology, and the contextualized meanings embedded in discourse. For Ira, the common thread was museum practice. Ira became a museum anthropologist after completing his dissertation and moving to the Hearst Museum of Anthropology as “research anthropologist,” a position that provided him with a lifelong baseline for eclectic research of his own choosing that resulted in wide-ranging publications. His dissertation The Storage Box of Tradition: Kwakiutl Art, Anthropologists, and Museums, 1881-1891 appeared in 2002.

Ira’s BA in anthropology and art history was awarded summa cum laude. An internship at the Smithsonian with William Sturtevant introduced him to the challenges of archival research—and he was hooked. He went on to graduate school at the University of Chicago with a committee that represented the range of his interests. Nancy Munn was an art historian with a theoretical bent, Ray Fogelson a consummate ethnographer and ethnohistorian specializing in the southeast, especially Georgia, and George W. Stocking Jr., the historian of anthropology whose writing for an audience of anthropologists established HOA as a legitimate subfield of anthropology. Ira’s work in HOA went beyond that of his mentor, because he was interested in the minutiae of anthropology and how anthropological understandings emerged on the ground from the experience of practitioners.

He became perhaps anthropology’s best theorist of how things hang together as institutions, ideas, and networks of scholars and publics. I met him in the context of my work on Daniel Brinton at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, and the links between Philadelphia, Stewart Culin, and the Brooklyn Museum. All of these connections led back to the Field Museum and the University of Chicago, as well as to my own work on Edward Sapir and to a lesser degree, Boas and other Boasians. For Ira, the salient figures were Alfred Kroeber and Robert Lowie, as California articulated with the Boasian home base in New York. I moved to Canada in 1969 after my PhD at Penn, establishing another set of connections less salient for Ira, though he did explore the permeability of the border for the Northwest Coast cultural area.

Ira was a modest man who knew his own worth and did not feel compelled to blow his own horn. He chose his projects carefully and offered his advice freely when he felt his expertise would be helpful and his efforts taken seriously. Ira was a frequent contributor to the Franz Boas Papers: Documentary Edition, Critical Studies in History of Anthropology, and History of Anthropology Annual series at the University of Nebraska Press. As series editor for all of these, I valued especially his meticulous editorial skill behind the scenes, as a reviewer of manuscripts with a remarkable ability to integrate disciplinary, areal, topical, and institutional connections to which more narrowly specialized reviewers would be oblivious. His reviews to authors were phrased kindly so as not to embarrass or antagonize the recipient. He often waived his right to anonymity so the conversation could continue less formally.

Like the many scholars with whom he collaborated and whose work he supported, and his colleagues and friends, I will miss him.

Regna Darnell: contributions / website / / Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology and Founding Director of First Nations Studies at University of Western Ontario


  1. Christopher Heaney

    October 19, 2021 at 11:11 am

    I am so sorry to hear of his passing. He was generous with this junior scholar, and I’m very grateful for that kindness. My condolences to his family.

  2. Mohamed-Hashim-Elkareem

    October 21, 2021 at 10:31 am

    Yesterday, October 20th, 2021, I attended a conference discussion at PENN, where DR. Watkins along with a heavy-intellectual-circle of African-American scholars, I became aware of the work of generations, the first generation, of African-American Anthropologists. I knew nothing about this heavy intellectual history of our forefathers and foremothers, where I stand proud to become familiar with their work and life contributions to humanity. Through, digging deeper into Watkin’s research work and publications, I came upon HAR, and another world unraveled for me. It is where I read about the passing of Dr. Ira Jacknis, and where I made a vow to myself to read more about his left intellectual legacy and model my own development as a Museum Studies Master Student who is aspiring to do his doctoral degree in Museum Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, after the footsteps of DR. Jacknis. May your should rest in peace. My condolences to his family. And last, as an Archivist, let us take care of Dr. Jacknis’s papers and research documents to be preserved for millions of the next generations. If HAR needs work on that, I would volunteer my time to do some work on this task as a graduate student.

    Graduate Student Looking for A Doctoral PhD program on African and Black American Heritage and Culture and Museuology.

  3. Samuel J. Redman

    December 4, 2021 at 1:40 pm

    I join others here in sharing my condolences following the news of Ira’s passing. Jacknis was profoundly helpful and generous to many junior scholars, myself included.

  4. I am so very sorry to hear this sad news. Ira was a cherished mentor whose energy and excitement around his multi-faceted interests was endless. He was a profoundly important part of my development as a scholar and I will miss him greatly.

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