Invisible partners: Recovering relationships in early anthropological research

Margaret Bruchac, an assistant professor of anthropology at Penn, at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, NM. (Photo credit: Jason Ordaz, with permission from SAR.)

Margaret Bruchac wants anthropologists to reconsider what they think they know about Native Americans and First Nations peoples—and perhaps what they know about anthropology itself.

An assistant professor of anthropology, Bruchac is coordinator of Penn’s Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative. Her provocative new book, “Savage Kin: Indigenous Informants and American Anthropologists” looks at the social relationships between five prominent early 20th-century anthropological collectors and their Indigenous collaborators, and the ways in which those relationships shaped anthropological scholarship and directly affected the lives of Indigenous people.

In her extensive work with North American tribal nations—including repatriation of objects in museum collections—Bruchac, who is of Abenaki descent, says she “crosses back and forth” between Indigenous communities and anthropological researchers. “Many of the Native people I work with would tell me about objects that had mysteriously gone missing or stories that had been mistranslated or misinterpreted.” Those losses and errors often influenced the anthropological data, based on what early collectors prioritized, and the interpretations and theories prevalent at the time.

“I found myself wondering if anthropological research, especially ethnography as we know it, was in fact an objective practice, or whether it was a complicated set of fraught social negotiations and unbalanced encounters that produced certain types of information and privileged certain kinds of data over others,” she says. “That was the foundational question for the book—can we trust what these early anthropologists collected?”

One of those early collectors was Penn’s own Frank Gouldsmith Speck, a long-standing chair of the anthropology department. A protégé of Franz Boas, Speck worked with Native nations in the U.S. and Canada and developed an especially close working relationship with members of the Mohegan tribe in Connecticut.

Speck was so comfortable among the Mohegans, and so adept at learning Indigenous languages, that a myth developed among his students and colleagues that he had been adopted by the tribe as a child and that he had Native ancestry himself. The problem with that kind of incorrect assumption, says Bruchac, is that it “erases the important contributions these Native people made, and it takes agency away from the communities he worked with.”

One of Speck’s closest collaborators was Gladys Tantaquidgeon, a member of the Mohegan tribe whom he sponsored as a student at Penn—she was the first Native American student, and the first female field research assistant in the department. Despite ample evidence of her contributions to research, Tantaquidgeon was nearly hidden in the Speck papers in various archives.

Omissions like this are all too common in the records of early 20th-century anthropologists, Bruchac says, and frequently led to the loss or misinterpretation of research, with major implications. Questions of land use and ownership, documentation of language and spiritual practices, the protection of archaeological sites, the granting or denial of federal tribal recognition—all could be affected by inaccurate or incomplete scholarship.

“Anthropology as a discipline, and anthropologists individually, created the categories that shape how we look at Native authenticity today,” Bruchac notes.

To learn more about the contributions of early 20th-century Indigenous informants, Bruchac scoured the archives of universities, museums, research libraries, and private collections for materials that preserved their thoughts and motivations. To her surprise, she discovered a wealth of material—correspondence, notes, photographs, and objects—that documented long-running partnerships between Native individuals and specific anthropologists, some lasting for as long as 30 or 40 years. Interlocutors like George Hunt (Tlingit) and Jesse Cornplanter (Seneca), for example, were generous contributors.

A key characteristic of these interactions, she found, was reciprocity.

“Time and again,” says Bruchac, “I found that Native informants were offering some kind of relationship as much as anything else. They were not just saying, ‘Here, record our language, take these stories, take these objects.’ They were initiating encounters that in some way served them individually or collectively.”

There were cases where people were facing starvation and sold objects for money to survive. In a few cases, Native people handed over objects to protect them. Bruchac says that many Native people were not merely passive observers of scientific studies; they were well aware of the fact that they were living in a world that was rapidly changing without their consent.

The effort to piece together a fuller picture of Indigenous participation in their own ethnology is an example of what Bruchac calls “restorative methodologies.” The idea stands in contrast to “salvage anthropology”—a one-sided effort to preserve something seen as in danger of vanishing. “The irony is that salvage anthropology was designed to capture what was being lost, but it often became an agent of loss in itself,” says Bruchac.

Bruchac’s book has been enthusiastically received—the first edition sold out within three months, and a second printing is underway. In September, the Council for Museum Anthropology selected “Savage Kin” for the inaugural CMA Book Award, noting, “This book will not only push the discipline to rethink our received disciplinary histories, but will also encourage other scholars to take more seriously the complicated legacies within archival and museum collections.”

In effect, “Savage Kin” turns the tables of ethnographic research, asking readers to “anthropologize the anthropologists.” Bruchac hopes it will provoke conversations, inspire more thorough reexaminations of early collections, and identify breakages that can potentially be repaired.

“Theories that were really influential in the early 20th century have an effect that continues to the present,” says Bruchac. “We need to recognize that some of those theories were constructed without consideration of their impact on the people who were being studied. We are still grappling with the resonance of that today.”

This story, by Jane Carroll, originally appeared in Omnia magazine