Boas in the Age of BLM and Idle No More: Re-Evaluating the Boasian Legacy

This extended review is a collaboration between the Reviews and Field Notes sections of HAR.

Regna Darnell, Michelle Hamilton, Robert L. A. Hancock, and Joshua Smith (editors). The Franz Boas Papers, Volume 1: Franz Boas as Public Intellectual—Theory, Ethnography, Activism. 408 pp., 18 illus., index. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015.

William Y. Adams. The Boasians: Founding Fathers and Mothers of American Anthropology. 356 pp., 10 illus., bibl. Lanham, MD: Hamilton, 2016.

Ned Blackhawk and Isaiah Lorado Wilner (editors). Indigenous Visions: Rediscovering the World of Franz Boas. 416 pp., 28 illus., index. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.

Anthropologists and historians of anthropology readily acknowledge the role played by European empires in the making of the discipline. Although practitioners occasionally challenged existing power structures, they more frequently worked to inform and justify the dispossession, marginalization, murder, and enslavement of Indigenous and colonized peoples. These processes culminated in the Social Darwinist evolutionism of the Victorian period, which lent prevailing racial hierarchies a patina of scientific authority. This began to shift in the early twentieth century, when, amid a welter of social and cultural upheavals in Western society, anthropology’s imperial foundations appeared ripe for reconsideration. In America, the foremost proponent of these changes was the Jewish German-American anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942). Traditional disciplinary histories point especially to Boas’s pivotal rejection of evolutionary anthropological approaches in favor of viewing cultures as integrated wholes, apprehensible solely within the contexts in which they are produced and maintained. These protocols were disseminated broadly, with Boas’s students founding university anthropology departments throughout the United States. On these grounds, Boas is frequently celebrated as “a major turning point from the evolution and racism of the nineteenth century to the historical particularism and cultural relativism of the twentieth century.”[1]

This narrative of revolutionary Boasian triumph has been the subject of considerable questioning and criticism. Without denying Boas’s influence in shaping professional American anthropology, for instance, Regna Darnell has illuminated continuities with earlier institutions and interests—not least the Bureau of American Ethnology’s support for research in Indigenous religions, material cultures, modes of social organization, and especially languages.[2] There are also critical ideological continuities to consider. Cultural particularism, for instance, did not preclude dichotomizing cultures as “primitive” in relation to “modern” Euro-Americans.[3] To varying extents, this view informed the Boasian “salvage” enterprise, which scrutinized Indigenous testimony and cultural forms for remnants of putatively “authentic,” pre-colonialist cultural pasts, instead of working to understand these utterances as they were intended.[4] Boas and many inheritors of his legacy are thus heavily implicated in what Vine Deloria and Edward Said, most notably, have observed to be an anthropological tendency to deflect attention from dynamic political, economic, and social factors in the making of colonizer-colonized disparities toward explanations centered on cultural differences.[5] Worse still, these and related narratives have frequently overshadowed and even contradicted colonized peoples’ own versions of events.[6]

The Boasian paradigm, then, is at once culpable for ideas and approaches that conflict with much contemporary practice, while also being an indispensable point of departure for present-day anthropologists and others who have taken Boasian relativism in more reflexive and collaborative directions. Understandably, critical responses to Boas have varied. This essay considers numerous such perspectives embodied in three very different books. Altogether, they corroborate a turn in Boas scholarship away from a heroic spotlight on Boas himself, toward the numerous intellectual debates and social structures in which he was implicated. First, The Franz Boas Papers, Volume 1: Franz Boas as Public Intellectual—Theory, Ethnography, Activism, edited by Regna Darnell, Michelle Hamilton, Robert L. A. Hancock, and Joshua Smith, surveys Boas’s myriad preoccupations as an activist and interdisciplinary scholar. The second book, William Y. Adams’s The Boasians: Founding Fathers and Mothers of American Anthropology, provides an overview of the principal men and women anthropologists of the Boasian circle. The final volume, Indigenous Visions: Rediscovering the World of Franz Boas, edited by Ned Blackhawk and Isaiah Lorado Wilner, goes the furthest in democratizing the Boasian legacy by highlighting how Boasian ideas were anticipated, translated, or ignored by culturally and globally dispersed anthropological critics.

Collectively, these books also attest to the immanently fraught nature of writing and reflecting on a figure like Boas, who has done much to shape historical and contemporary attitudes toward human physical and cultural differences. These concerns are more charged than ever, with Boas’s adopted homeland visibly in the throes of persistent—indeed, resurgent—structures of racist and colonialist violence in which he and his followers were actively involved—as critics or, quite often, as accessories. Certainly, while national and global activism against systemic Black oppression—vocalized with heightened urgency in the wake of George Floyd’s brutal murder—is something Boas would have recognized, the engaged struggles of Black Lives Matter, Idle No More, and other organizations cast an equivocal light on the aloof culturalism for which Boasians are often renowned. The books examined here provide an opportunity for contemplating this legacy. In addition to indicating something of the thematic and disciplinary breadth encompassed in Boas studies, they also, I would argue, corroborate the promise of this field for conceptualizing anthropology’s vexed foundations and possible futures.

The Franz Boas Papers, Volume 1: Franz Boas as Public Intellectual—Theory, Ethnography, Activism is the first of numerous volumes forthcoming for the Franz Boas Papers Documentary Series. As such, it provides an introduction to the range of Boas’s political and intellectual concerns. The chapters in Part One of The Franz Boas Papers, on “Theory and Interdisciplinary Scope,” weigh Boas’s innovations as a theorist. Regna Darnell’s chapter, “Mind, Body, and the Native Point of View,” provides an overview of Boas’s influential The Mind of Primitive Man (1911). It is here that Boas provides the programmatic repudiation of hierarchical evolutionary thinking for which he is best known. Fusing approaches from the social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences, the book views both “primitive” and “modern” cultures as equally capable of rational knowledge. Moderns simply had more of it. Cultures as Boas saw them, Darnell argues, are thus far from the static and suffocating stereotypes they are frequently made out to be. On the contrary, as Herbert Lewis endeavors to show in “The Individual and Individuality in Franz Boas’s Anthropology and Philosophy,” Boas viewed all cultures to be possessed of individuals capable of innovating on existing knowledge inventories. Christopher Bracken, in “The Police Dance,” continues in this vein to show that Boas was acutely aware of how Indigenous cultures incorporate foreign influences, and of how this dynamic process made it impossible to definitively categorize peoples and races in relation to each other. These ideas spilled outside anthropology proper—into literary criticism, linguistics, and ethnomusicology, as chapters by J. Edward Chamberlin (“Franz Boas and the Conditions of Literature”), Michael Silverstein (“From Baffin Island to Boasian Induction”), and Sean O’Neill (“The Boasian Legacy in Ethnomusicology”) respectively demonstrate. In these chapters we learn how New Criticism eschewed ethnocentric literary assessments in favor of interpreting texts according to the standards that produced them; how Boas’s analyses of Indigenous languages pointed away from Eurocentric, evolutionary philology and toward modern structural linguistics; and how his studies of Indigenous music revealed the parochial nature of Western standard notation while also illustrating the idea of culture in microcosm. Musical parts, as Claude Lévi Strauss would later observe, are incomprehensible apart from melodic wholes.

The second part of the book, “Ethnography,” turns to Boas the ethnographer. Isaiah Lorado Wilner, in “Friends in this World,” zeroes in Boas’s relationship with the Tlingit-English guide George Hunt, who helped Boas collect information and materials. The knowledge Boas gleaned from this collaboration, Wilner demonstrates, reveals less about an Indigenous culture in the Boasian sense and more about Hunt’s own priorities—not least his poignant recollection of the healing rites and medicines administered to his Kwakwaka’wakw wife before she died, along with her recipes and food gathering practices, which he sent to Boas while grieving her loss. This contrasts starkly with the comparatively detached tenor of Boas’s letters to Hunt, and with Boas’s failure to so much as send Hunt copies of the publications they jointly produced. The next chapter turns to Boas’s Scottish collaborator James Teit. Teit, who was fluent in the Nlaka’pamux language, transcribed the names of many individuals, places, plant uses, and other information, which, under Boas’s guidance, were largely omitted from their published work. As Andrea Laforet discusses in “The Ethnographic Legacy of Franz Boas and James Teit,” such publications are thus poorly suited to the needs of present-day First Nations seeking to prove continuity of residence, knowledge, and land use in order to prevent the incursion of settler interests. Despite Boas’s and Teit’s sincere regard for Indigenous material well-being, Boasian ethnography was and remains an ineffective vehicle for these concerns.

This is not to dismiss Boas’s activism outright, and indeed, Part Three, on “Activism,” considers this aspect of Boas’s work and legacy more closely. David Dinwoodie (in “Anthropological Activism and Boas’s Pacific Northwest Ethnology”) and Robert Hancock (in “Franz Boas, Wilson Duff, and the Image of Anthropology in British Columbia”) argue that, whatever Boas’s deficiencies, his refutation of scientific racism was forceful in its time and, sadly, remains relevant for combatting anti-Indigenous discrimination today. Hancock cites the infamous 1991 ruling against Gitxan and Wet’suwet’en land claims, which drew upon pre-Boasian evolutionary thinking to nullify Indigenous land ownership. Joshua Smith, in “Cultural Persistence in the Age of Hopelessness,” examines Boas’s correspondence with US government officials in the 1930s, including Roosevelt himself, in which Boas denounced prevailing assimilationist policies. His vocal opposition to anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany, meanwhile, saw him blacklisted and his books banned from public circulation, as Jürgen Langenkämper chronicles in a chapter entitled “Franz Boas’s Correspondence with German Friends and Colleagues in the Early 1930s.” In “Franz Boas on War and Empire,” Julia Liss offers a more checkered assessment in considering how Boas’s politics were remarkably consistent through his career—including his “murky” attitude toward empire, on which his anthropological efforts largely depended (297).

Of course activists today need not be constrained by Boas’s views to make use of his work, and in Part Four, “The Archival Project,” we see how Indigenous groups have utilized this archive to carry out important historical, cultural, and political work. In his chapter “Anthropology of Revitalization,” the late Timothy Powell (d. 2018) details how the Boas archives and related papers at the American Philosophical Society (APS) have proven useful for numerous Indigenous-led initiatives, while Indigenous guidance has helped to ensure that APS digitization endeavors proceed in a culturally appropriate fashion. As Michelle Hamilton writes in her concluding chapter, “‘An expansive archive…not a diminished one,’” this consultation is especially crucial given the role played by evolutionary thinking in motivating the production of so many anthropological records.

As an introduction to Boas’s multitudinous labors, The Franz Boas Papers succeeds exquisitely. Challenges arise, perhaps inevitably, in what Hancock, citing George Stocking, identifies as a “division between historicism and presentism”—between, as Stocking writes, understanding “the past for its own sake” and studying “the past for the sake of the present” (254).[7] Drawing too fine a line between these approaches, however, risks overlooking the possibility that, under cover of apolitical “historicism,” scholars may actually be reifying the hegemony of certain historical perspectives over others, while overlooking demonstrable continuities in the interests and assertions of marginalized groups, as well as a dominant culture’s incentives for disregarding them.[8] As Stocking notes, analytical “presentism” is further necessary for understanding how and why historical figures violate later “criteria of rationality,” and for superseding frameworks that are ineffective or harmful.[9] With respect to Boas, difficulties are especially intractable surrounding his repeated use of the category “primitive” which, even when applied to Euro-Americans, draws rhetorical strength from its boilerplate association with Indigenous peoples and keeps prevailing attitudes very much in play. In essays by Darnell and Lewis, however, this usage of the term goes unchallenged (13, 34). O’Neill, on the other hand, glosses the Boasian “primitive” with the outwardly less polarizing term “preliterate,” without considering how this reinforces a colonialist print teleology or the contested nature of the very boundaries between “print” and “oral” cultures in colonial contexts (136).[10] Other contributions downplay Boas’s culpability in the unauthorized collection of Indigenous material culture and human remains. “Without excusing this behavior,” Chamberlin urges, “we should acknowledge that it was gathered up not in a demonstration of white superiority but as a celebration of what Boas considered truly great Indigenous art, from a tribal community that he thought was on its last legs” (76). Powell, for his part, considers the Boas archive amid the APS’s “long and distinguished history of collecting Native American cultures” (332). These chapters would have been well served by taking into account Indigenous and allied scholarship more closely attuned to the colonialist resonances of this language.[11] Such a move would complement the priority commendably accorded Indigenous mentorship in the administration of the Boas papers themselves.

Notwithstanding occasional slippages between actors’ and interpretive frameworks, The Franz Boas Papers preserves a current of analytical detachment pertinent to evaluating and acting upon the Boasian legacy. No such detachment characterizes The Boasians: Founding Fathers and Mothers of American Anthropology, authored by the late anthropologist William Y. Adams (d. 2019). The book opens with a discussion of American anthropology’s “grandfather” Franz Boas, before proceeding to chronicle the Boasian “founding fathers” and “founding mothers” who were consequential in shaping the discipline. Abbreviated sections discuss the Boasian “journeymen” and “handmaidens,” whose contributions were less momentous. The author, who studied under the Boasian Robert Lowie and knew several others on a personal basis, undertakes to survey this group “within the context of their own time” and to do so from the standpoint of a “second-generation Boasian, very possibly the last one surviving” (16-17). This in effect makes the book a primary as well as a secondary source.

The Boasians, Adams explains, did much to define anthropology as we know it. Under their watch, anthropology migrated from museums to universities, fieldwork predominated over armchair theorizing, and the idea of culture came into its own. Boasians directed most of their attention to what they called “traditional” Indigenous cultures, which they believed would shortly expire at the hands of Euro-American modernity. This enterprise usually involved pressing elder Indigenous “informants” for information regarding pre-contact cultural traits that could be contrasted with those of other groups. This fed into what Adams calls a “natural history” methodology, by which he means a “neutral, or non-judgmental” understanding of each culture on its own terms (32). Yet, the Boasians’ almost unwavering adherence to the past at the expense of the present, and traits instead of histories, meant that they often portrayed Indigenous cultures as fixed and idealized counterpoints to “modern” ones. Such a program, Adams argues, is traceable to the anti-taxonomical temperament of German idealism and, more proximately, to the freethinking German-American community of Kleindeutschland in Manhattan, to which Boas emigrated and where many of his students grew up. At the same time, the Boasians largely avoided political entanglements. This impulse declined, however, with the advent of a more activist and theory-driven post-Boasian anthropological paradigm. This period also witnessed the splintering of anthropology’s four fields, with physical anthropology and archaeology drifting apart from linguistic and cultural anthropology over the course of the twentieth century.

The bulk of The Boasians sets out to map the key players in Boasian anthropology, their work, and their relationships—to each other, their students, and the public at large. Boasian women, we learn, differed from the men in working not only to salvage distant memories, but also to observe—and in some cases, actively join in—ceremonies, crafts, and other occurrences happening right in front of them.[12] The wealthy Elsie Clews Parsons distinguished herself further by supporting other Boasians. Leslie Spier, meanwhile, was the only one to emulate Boas in pursuing all four fields of anthropology, Edward Sapir and Ruth Benedict wrote poetry, and Margaret Mead and Paul Radin stood out for attaining greater influence outside anthropology than within it. In addition to this disciplinary geography—Adams’s principal historiographical contribution—the book is engagingly written and packed with interpersonal anecdotes. Sapir, for instance, bucked the trend amongst Boasian men in not “sport[ing] a mustache” (158). These details veer occasionally into dubious territory, as with the book’s inordinate regard for Parsons’s sexual relationships. Although Parsons advocated for the decoupling of sex from the strictures of marriage and procreation, and was mutually non-monogamous with her husband, it seems gratuitous to speculate, as Adams does, regarding “what [Parsons] was like as a friend, a companion or a lover”—without details thankfully (italics added). Adams’s claim that Parsons possessed “a touch of the coquette in her propensity for attracting men by her easy familiarity, then keeping them at arms’ length when they got too close,” a “game” she “played […] for several years with Kroeber and with the artist Grant LaFarge” (247), moreover, is not borne out in the biographies Adams cites, and reads as an unfavorable commentary on Parsons’s reasoned assertion of sexual self-agency.[13]

The book also reveals why “presentist” criticism of the Boasian legacy on race is crucially necessary. Adams trivializes the professional difficulties faced by the Black scholar Zora Neale Hurston, for instance—the only non-white Boasian referenced in the book—by ascribing them to her “freewheeling personality,” financial “carelessness,” and “pie-in-the-sky projects.” Adams acknowledges that Hurston grew up in the Jim Crow South, but downplays her struggles against institutional racism with the assertion that “all her work conveys a certain sense of belonging to the black privileged class, such as it was,” and that her work failed to garner acceptance amongst the anthropological mainstream because she was “caught, like many black authors, in the no-man’s-land between black and white” (304-5). Adams adopts a similarly dismissive posture toward Indigenous-authored criticisms, supposedly based “less on the availability of more accurate data than on a desire to tell their story in their own way” (320). Criticisms of Lowie’s The Crow Indians (1935) expressed by Phenocia Bauerle, a scholar of Crow descent, Adams repudiates on the grounds that “like many Christianized Indians, she wants to make their aboriginal religion more palatable to Christians by suggesting that the Crow really only worshipped a single high god” (120). Adams simultaneously inflates the Boasian contribution to Indigenous revitalization by declaring that “young Indians today who seek to revive or revitalize their lost languages, have no place to turn but to that archive” (323; italics added). The author protests further at the “anonymous” and “ad hominem” charge that Melville Herskovits, who studied African cultures, used his position to diminish Hurston and other black scholars for their putative lack of “objectivity” (208). So far from being ad hominem or anonymous, the allegation appears in an editor’s introduction to a book Adams evidently did not consult.[14] Most jarring of all is Adams’ incessant usage of the term “primitive,” as both an actors’ and analytical category, to refer to Indigenous peoples and cultures. This language complements the author’s persistent recourse to “levels” of social organization or gradations of “complexity” that fly in the face of the Boasians’ reputed anti-evolutionary agenda. There is even something about the Boasians’ “natural history” methodology—ostensibly an equalizing mechanism—that doesn’t sit right when Adams notes that natural history as a field “included Native Americans no less than bears and birds and lizards” (211). Certain technical qualities of the book—its lack of an index, an above-average number of minor typographical errors, and overuse of direct quotes—also suggest a work that was rushed to press. While these features compromise the virtues of The Boasians as a secondary reference, however, they may well enhance its value as a primary source. As Adams’s own survey demonstrates, he would not be the first Boasian to stand accused of deriding Indigenous and Black scholarship, premising anthropological authority on at least a tacit evolutionary hierarchy, or prioritizing writerly quantity over other considerations. Such factors bear out the author’s claim to have been “indoctrinated in the pure Boasian paradigm, unfiltered through the lens of criticism” (17), and certainly make for an interesting book, although surely not as the author intended.

Something approaching the reverse of this characterization can be seen in the fourteen chapters of Indigenous Visions: Rediscovering the World of Franz Boas, edited by Ned Blackhawk and Isaiah Lorado Wilner. The volume sets out to incorporate insights from Native American studies, African American studies, and related fields, and affords greater attention to the roles played by Indigenous and other marginalized actors in shaping Boasian methodologies and developing anthropological alternatives. The four chapters comprising Part One, “Origins and Erasures,” concern the emergence of Boasian approaches in Africana, Indigenous, and European contexts. In “Franz Boas in Africana Philosophy,” Lewis R. Gordon argues that Boas can in fact be regarded as an Africana thinker, given how closely his work articulates with Africana thinkers like the Haitian anthropologist Anténor Firmin (who preceded Boas in questioning reductive, taxonomical approaches to human diversity, but of whom Boas does not seem to have been aware) and the American scholar and activist W. E. B. Du Bois. Harry Liebersohn’s chapter, “‘Culture’ Crosses the Atlantic,” turns to ethnomusicology—not as a Boasian legacy, but as conceived by the German psychologist Carl Stumpf, from whom Boas learned to appreciate music in its cultural context. Ryan Carr, in “Expressive Enlightenment,” similarly describes how the American ethnologist Daniel Garrison Brinton and Yavapai activist Carlos Montezuma fixed on the interdependency of language and culture independently of Boas. All three are thereby best understood as participants in a “wider discursive field” pertaining to the relationship between language and experience, and the ends to which this should be put (65). Pacific Northwest Indigenous individuals likewise worked to shape the Boasian conception of culture. In “Transformation Masks,” Isaiah Wilner relates the example of Annie Spencer’s family story, recounted for Boas, which interwove elements from her Tlingit mother and her adopted Kwakwaka’wakw homeland, and also of Boas’s discovery—via Hunt—that masks and dances were dynamic means of communication rather than inanimate vestiges of “primitive” culture. This potent and beautifully written chapter, which combines oral history and archival research, is among the best in a generally superb collection.

The following chapters in Part Two, “Worlds of Enlightenment,” focus more squarely on Boas himself. As Michael Silverstein explains in his contribution, “Of Two Minds about Minding Language in Culture,” Boas’s Handbook of American Indian Languages paved the way for more refined understandings of Indigenous languages by demonstrating how previous studies had been distorted by observers’ linguistic and cultural backgrounds. In “Rediscovering the World of Franz Boas,” James Tully similarly explores how Boas’s foundation in German humanism enabled him to apprehend the parochial nature of the purportedly universal “civilized/primitive vision.” Tully, however, appears to overlook the difficulties inherent in Boas’s persistent recourse to these categories and draws repeatedly on this terminology as part of his own analytical framework. Such representations call precisely for the critique in Audra Simpson’s appropriately titled chapter, “Why White People Love Franz Boas.” Simpson points out that, whilst laying waste to scientific racism, The Mind of Primitive Man in fact made a case for the assimilation of Indigenous peoples into the dominant culture. In so doing, Boas left prevailing racial and cultural hierarchies well intact, acquiescing to the violent dispossession of Indigenous lands and repudiating the idea of Indigenous sovereignty as effectively as his evolutionary anthropological forebears. 

Part three, “Routes of Race,” addresses how Boas and several of his students navigated the question of race. Martha Hodes, in her chapter “Utter Confusion and Contradiction,” ponders the ambiguities faced by Boas in his attempts to measure Native American complexions. These likely informed Boas’s criticisms of scientific racism but did not prevent him from utilizing terminologies of racial categorization, or even parroting occasional stereotypes. Benjamin Balthaser, in “‘A New Indian Intelligentsia,’” turns to the example of Archie Phinney, a Niimíipu student of Boas who completed his studies in Soviet Russia. By embracing a specifically Indian racial identity, Phinney thought—not unlike how Russian workers embraced the proletarian identity foisted on them—Native peoples could forge an “alternate modernity” that would better serve their interests (273). William Jones, of Meskwaki descent, who also studied under Boas, is the focus of Kiara Vigil’s chapter “The Death of William Jones.” While undertaking fieldwork in the Philippines, Jones moved easily between an Indigenous identity that enabled him to empathize with the Ilongot people he studied, and imperial arrogance that would see him killed in an act of Indigenous resistance akin to that which had motivated him to pursue anthropology in the first place. Eve Dunbar’s essay “Woman on the Verge of a Cultural Breakdown” provides a useful corrective to Adams’s commentary in proposing that Zora Neale Hurston was denied institutional support and forced into domestic work because white Boasians considered her to be, as a Black anthropologist, insufficiently “relativist.” In describing the figure of the Haitian zombie, Dunbar suggests that Hurston was reflecting on a being who experienced, like she herself did, the “horror of lacking a voice and the capacity to consciously decide one’s own fate” (252).

The concluding essays of Part Four, “Boasiana,” displace Boas further on the issue of culture. Sean Hanretta, in his chapter “The River of Salvation Flows Through Africa,” cites the examples of pan-African philosopher Edward Wilmot Blyden and a Ghanaian biological anthropologist named Raphael Ernest Armattoe. Whereas Blyden employed the concept of culture to speculate on the emancipatory relationship between Islam and Africans, Armattoe used it to argue for the superiority of Ewe culture and its duty to modernize the continent along African lines. Both projects, advanced in the name of liberating Africa from Western colonization, differ markedly from the more fluid understanding of culture advanced by Boas. In Brazil, as Maria Lúcia Pallares-Burke illustrates in “A Two-Headed Thinker,” the German anthropologist Rüdiger Bilden and his Brazilian counterpart Gilberto Freyre, both students of Boas, came to see the uniquely mixed-race country as a cultural “laboratory” for ameliorating human conflict (324). Christopher Heaney’s essay, “Seeing like an Inca,” rounds out the collection with a discussion of the Peruvian archaeologist Julio C. Tello. Born into a Quechua-speaking Indigenous family, Tello studied trepanned Incan skulls—commonly dismissed as products of violence or quackery—which he used to prove the existence of advanced medicine in the Americas prior to the Spanish conquest. Thought-provokingly, Heaney suggests that the turn toward Boasian cultural anthropology hampered any such attempt to do ethical justice to the collections of Indigenous remains in American museums.

Heaney’s essay concludes an altogether marvelous volume that pulsates with insightful and urgent scholarship. In prioritizing how Indigenous, Africana, and other actors translated Boasian ideas, utilized Boas as a vehicle for their concerns, or circulated their own ideas independently, Indigenous Visions not only enlarges the scope and spectrum of the “Boasian Circle.” It also reveals this coterie to have been merely one component—albeit a powerful one—of the wider world from which Boas drew sustenance, and in which his ideas took hold (wholly or in part), were resisted, or fizzled altogether beside alternative frameworks. In addition to being undoubtedly a milestone in Boas studies and the history of anthropology, its chapters also make varied contributions to Indigenous, colonial, imperial and global history, Africana studies, and related fields.

While the authors considered in this essay converge roughly on the subject of Boas and his anthropological legacy, they differ—in some cases dramatically—on what that legacy is and how it should be understood. Their intended audiences and historiographical agendas also vary significantly. The Franz Boas Papers addresses primarily Boas scholars, historians of anthropology, and others interested in the histories of the fields and political causes to which Boas contributed. As such, it marks an essential point of reference for Boas scholars and an auspicious start to the Franz Boas Papers series. Supplementary reading will be necessary, however, in order to more readily appreciate the stakes for racialized social groups in how Boasianism is historicized. The Boasians, on the other hand, would appeal chiefly to historians of anthropology for whom the existing biographies are insufficient of their own accord, and who would benefit from the overview of Boasianism the book provides. Yet even this historiographical contribution is undercut by what Indigenous Visions, especially, shows to be an infinitely more expansive, porous, and global constellation of influences that bear on the production and translation of Boasian ideas in diverse contexts. Such a comparison calls into question the very vocabulary of “Boasian” anthropology and the hagiographical lens it engenders. It also underscores the need for further histories that press against the self-described boundaries of the field by mapping zones of “Boasian” differentiation and convergence, and charting networks of resistance and reciprocal influence in new and unexpected directions.

Such innovations are wanted now as much as ever. With today’s spotlight on state-sanctioned violence toward Black people in the United States and other oppressed groups around the world, on the perseverance of monuments glorifying white supremacists and colonizers, and on the ongoing culpability of settler governments in projects of environmental racism and Indigenous displacement, many of the chauvinistic structures Boas challenged, and others to which he acquiesced, are on full and terrifying display. Boas scholarship and the history of anthropology, including the volumes described here, can be generative in confronting these issues. For, while these works are flush with achievements in critical intersectional writing and activism, they are likewise redolent with paths not taken, voices marginalized, and the wages of “impartial,” “apolitical” research for the communities implicated in our scholarship, and to which we belong.

[1] Nancy J. Parezo and Don D. Fowler, Anthropology Goes to the Fair: The 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007), 332. See also George W. Stocking, Jr., Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology (New York: Free Press, 1968); Stocking, Victorian Anthropology (New York: Free Press, 1987); Lee D. Baker, Anthropology and the Racial Politics of Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010); Mark Moberg, Engaging Anthropological Theory: A Social and Political History (London: Routledge, 2013), 130-54.

[2] Regna Darnell, And Along Came Boas: Continuity and Revolution in Americanist Anthropology (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1998).

[3] Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983); Philip J. Deloria, Playing Indian (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 116; Charles Briggs and Richard Bauman, “‘The Foundation of All Future Researches’: Franz Boas, George Hunt, Native American Texts, and the Construction of Modernity,” American Quarterly 51, no. 3 (1999): 479-528.

[4] Michael Harkin, “Past Presence: Conceptions of History in Northwest Coast Studies,” Arctic Anthropology 33, no. 2 (1996): 1-15; Paige Raibmon, Authentic Indians: Episodes of Encounter from the Late-Nineteenth-Century Northwest Coast (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 8, 45-46, 67-69.

[5] Vine Deloria, Jr., Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (New York: MacMillan, 1969), 78-100; Edward Said, “Representing the Colonized: Anthropology’s Interlocutors,” Critical Inquiry 15, no. 2 (1989): 205-25.

[6] Devon A. Mihesuah, ed., Natives and Academics: Researching and Writing about American Indians (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998); Mihesuah and Angela Cavender Wilson, eds., Indigenizing the Academy: Transforming Scholarship and Empowering Communities (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004).

[7] Stocking, “On the Limits of ‘Presentism’ and ‘Historicism’ in the Historiography of the Behavioral Sciences,” in Race, Culture, and Evolution, 1-12.

[8] To quote a recent tweet from Kim TallBear: “White people: ‘don’t judge the past by our contemporary standards.’ WHOSE past & contemporary standards? Pretty sure Black, Indigenous people, & others brutalized by white violence didn’t think it was ethical or cool in 1619, 1862, 1890, 1955. . .what took white people so long?” Twitter, June 11, 2020,

[9] Stocking, “On the Limits,” 9.

[10] Matt Cohen, The Networked Wilderness: Communicating in Early New England (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010); Kristina Bross and Hilary E. Wyss, eds., Early Native Literacies in New England: A Documentary and Critical Anthology (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008); Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality, and Colonization (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003).

[11] See, for instance, Amy Lonetree, Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012); Lorenzo Veracini, Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010); Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (New York: Zed Books, 1999).

[12] On gender and anthropological fieldwork, see Alice C. Fletcher, Life among the Indians: First Fieldwork among the Sioux and Omahas, ed. Joanna C. Scherer and Raymond J. DeMallie (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013); Carol A. B. Warren and Jennifer Kay Hackney, Gender Issues in Ethnography (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2000); Don Kulick and Margaret Wilson, eds., Taboo: Sex, Identity, and Erotic Subjectivity in Anthropological Fieldwork (London: Routledge, 1995); Warren, Gender Issues in Field Research (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1988).

[13] For further reading on Parsons, see Desley Deacon, Elsie Clews Parsons: Inventing Modern Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997); Rosemary Lévy Zumwalt, Wealth and Rebellion: Elsie Clews Parsons, Anthropologist and Folklorist (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992); Peter H. Hare, A Woman’s Quest for Science: Portrait of Anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1985).

[14] Jerry Gershenhorn, Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004).

Geoff Bil: contributions / website / / Department of History, University of Delaware


  1. This is a well balanced and incredibly helpful review of a great deal of work (considering that two of the three books reviewed are collections of essays).

  2. Well done! His work is more important than ever now in the present political climate.

  3. Well done and very informative. It is so crucial that anthropologists and other scholars re-visit the work on Boas because we again must make sense of state violence against BIPOC, immigration restrictions, white supremacy, etc.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.