‘Savage Kin’ by Margaret Bruchac

Margaret M. Bruchac, Savage Kin: Indigenous Informants and American Anthropologists. With a foreword by Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel. Native Peoples of the Americas, edited by Laurie Weinstein. 280pp., notes., archives, bibl., index. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2018. $35 (paperback), $35 (eBook)

Kinship, both the social practice of specifying relationships among peoples and the study of these social relations, has undoubtedly shaped the development of disciplinary anthropology. Its influence ranges from participant observation (“adoptions” of anthropologists into groups) all the way to the reflexive turn, where the constellations of kin relations might bound the conditions of possibility in an ethnographic study. For anthropologists, kinship-thinking often goes hand in hand with fieldwork as an initial mode for understanding the social and cultural lives of others.

Flipping this script, in Savage Kin: Indigenous Informants and American Anthropologists, Margaret Bruchac applies kinship study to the history of US anthropology, tracing the relationships between anthropologists and their indigenous counterparts. Here, inverting the racialized, historical use of “savage” terminology, anthropologists become the “uncouth” and “uncivilized”: interlopers who stumble and bumble through cultural interactions and cannot see beyond their own career-building and object-collecting aspirations. Bruchac’s study consists of five case studies, each focusing on a particular relationship between an anthropologist and the Indigenous intellectuals with whom they worked, as well as an initial chapter on the social milieu of anthropology at the turn of the twentieth century and a more theoretically-oriented conclusion.

Her historical method is a form of “reverse fieldwork” wherein scholars visit the archives to uncover the stories, social relationships, and even “secrets” of prior anthropologists. Bruchac engages in careful analysis of an informant’s proximity and intimacy with the community they purport to represent, parsing anthropologist-informant relationships with a fine-toothed comb. She is interested in the historical impact of cultural representation (and appropriation) by singular and peripheral figures, which include white anthropologists as well as enterprising Native men and women with differing degrees of connection to their heritage communities. This method and focus allow Bruchac to offer an important re-examination of the legacies of “salvage” anthropology, contrasting philanthropic posturing with the politics of scholarly attribution. Though many historians of anthropology have long suspected it, Bruchac shows the irony that “the salvage project caused some of the very losses it was predicated upon” (15).

The first chapter gives a broad overview of the anthropological scene around the turn of the twentieth century while also interweaving instances of Indigenous peoples’ participation in Americanist anthropology—as collaborators, informants, and intellectuals. She presents the reader with an analytical maxim: we must understand an informant’s relationship with their tribal group or nation in order to assess the underlying goals of working with anthropologists. This approach allows her to foreground the individuality and complexity in her subsequent case studies, emphasizing that Native informants had rich and diverse experiences rather than a homogenous “traditional” identity.

In Chapter 2, Bruchac shows the influence of Tlingit women on George Hunt, who worked as Franz Boas’s primary informant in the Pacific Northwest. Hunt’s wives, Lucy Homikanis and Tsukwani Francine, provided intimate and detailed information to their husband in areas where he lacked sufficient experiences. For instance, his second wife Tsukwani, a wi’oma or high-ranking Kwakwaka’wakw woman, gave Hunt greater access to secret societies. In turn, their respective expertise allowed him to provide more ethnographic data to Boas, who paid Hunt for information by the page. Boas and Hunt’s access to sacred knowledge, Bruchac asserts, was ultimately “enabled and mediated primarily through their association with privileged female insiders” (46). When published as part of the scientific, ethnographic record, the restrictions of compartmentalized knowledge dictated by Tlingit kinship were erased along with the originating informants (including Hunt, though to a lesser degree).

The next case centers around the entangled lives of Beulah Tahamont (an Abenaki actor and model) and Arthur Parker (a mixed-race Seneca and English archaeologist, museologist, and anthropologist). Tahamont became a celebrated Native model, actively cultivating her image as a representative Indian to secure modeling and acting roles. Tahamont later married Parker, who used not only Tahamont’s cultural savvy but his own mixed-race identity in service of his budding anthropological career. Bruchac reveals Parker’s desire to become a respected intellectual (by both the white and Native elite) and the violations endured by his family and friends through his aspirations. Thus, the chapter juxtaposes the “assimilated modernity” of Parker against the adroit “cultural performance” of Tahamont. These diverging identities caused Parker and Tahamont to drift from one another (they eventually divorced), but Bruchac traces their subsequent uses of indigenous identity to support divergent careers (Parker positioned himself as a representation of an “evolved” Seneca man; Tahamont eventually circled back to Abenaki ethnography, but on her own terms).

Tahamont and Parker’s daughter, Bertha Parker, comes to the fore in Chapter 4. Bertha was mentored by archaeologist Mark Harrington, who proved to be a collaborative fieldworker, supporting his young charge to make a name for herself in the field. Bruchac gives a wonderful overview of Bertha’s successful archaeological career, portraying her compassion and cultural savvy in the field, and her later stint as a co-organizer for the California Indian Rights Association. By untangling her legacy and giving a humanizing portrait of Bertha Parker, Bruchac importantly repositions her in the history of archaeology and Native activism.

In the fifth chapter, Bruchac conveys the ethnographic exchange relationship between Seneca intellectual Jesse Cornplanter and white anthropologist William Fenton. Cornplanter, interested in forging ties with an anthropologist to put his “thoughts to paper, his stories into books, and his carvings into museums” (118), found in Fenton a willing collaborator who could also support him financially. A harmonious initial relationship turned sour, however, as Fenton sought to make himself a gatekeeper of Seneca anthropology. Traditional knowledge keepers like Cornplanter, whom Fenton saw as increasingly “Americanized,” were among those barred from entry. Fenton’s boundary-work around anthropological scholarship continued well into the reflexive period of American anthropology: in the 1980s, he requested two panels with Native presenters be rejected because their contributors lacked the scholarly credentials to present to professional anthropologists; and in the 1990s, he resisted the rising interest in repatriation policies because Native people were not “reliable custodians of their own history” (139).

Chapter 6 addresses the posthumous supposition that Anglo anthropologist Frank Speck had indigenous ancestry, or at least that he had been raised by Native peoples as a young boy. Bruchac puts this notion to rest and in so doing asks the reader to contemplate the history of anthropologist “adoptions” and integrations into the social fabric of a Native community. “Fictive kin” relationships could benefit anthropologists by allowing them to intimate unique insight into indigenous life. While Speck never overtly claimed indigenous ancestry, like many other anthropologists of the past, he seemed to enjoy being mistaken for Native and rarely corrected the error. Bruchac argues that the myth of Speck as Native has obscured his unwavering support for Gladys Tantaquidgeon, the Mohegan anthropologist. Bruchac’s nuanced account of Speck and Tantaquidgeon’s interconnected social and scholarly lives reveals that Speck himself would have lamented Tantaquidgeon’s eclipse. Sometimes the mythic tropes haunting the discipline of anthropology deepen the under-recognition of indigenous collaborators and scholars.

Bringing texture to the discipline’s history—and bringing mythic figures down to earth—is a noble goal for the history of anthropology. Indigenous intellectuals had diverse aims and aspirations, even if these were unappreciated by their anthropological interlocutors. Bruchac’s case studies recuperate erased Native intellectuals who negotiated the forms of cultural preservation that have long been remembered only as “salvage” products of academic anthropology.

Because several of Bruchac’s case studies focus on erasure of Native contributions to scientific publications, a question arises about the potential perils of “recuperation” within a scientific regime: Does the recovery of Native contributions to anthropology place additional value on scientific knowledge as a dominating epistemology? Though anthropology may be many things today, it is still a system of knowledge that values the publication or conveyance of ethnographic information. Bruchac’s “reverse fieldwork” historicizes the intellectual labor involved in ethnographic data production and the relationships that facilitate its accumulation, then traces subsequent moments of appropriation and erasure. By focusing on relationships at the heart of knowledge extraction, she points to paradigmatic differences between indigenous knowledge systems and scientific accumulation; “recuperation” becomes an act of recognition of the transformation of indigenous knowledge into scientific knowledge and its silencing effects. This could have been drawn out further, for recognition of the effects of ethnographic knowledge extraction can only bring us so far in understanding how different indigenous peoples conceptualized anthropologists and their extractive efforts. It appears that Bruchac couldn’t escape the problem that academic presses must ultimately cater to an academic audience. At HAN, we too struggle with the audience question, with the aspiration for a diversity of viewpoints versus its reality.

Bruchac’s recuperative efforts are admirable, and the case studies offered by Savage Kin can serve as a model for historians of anthropology. As we uncover anthropology’s archives, Bruchac reminds us of the need to trace our kin: for when we do, we see clearly that the production of ethnographic knowledge is rooted in the historical coalescence of cross-cultural relationships.

Adam Fulton Johnson: contributions / website / afjhnsn@umich.edu / History and STS, University of Michigan

1 Comment

  1. jordi wilfredcabanes

    February 1, 2023 at 10:59 pm

    Más que interesante mirada !

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