This Anthropology Day, Let’s Remember George Hunt

This Anthropology Day, Let’s Remember George Hunt

It’s Anthropology Day, our discipline’s latest invented tradition! A time for reflection on chocolate mint and the values of our discipline, Anthropology Day 2018 is uniquely placed this year. Earlier this week, Cultural Anthropology ran a powerful and important reflection by David Platzer and Anne Allison on the tenuous situation anthropology is in as tenure track jobs continue to disappear. And, even more importantly, yesterday was the 164 birthday of George Hunt, the First Nations anthropologist who helped found modern American anthropology with Franz Boas. Hunt’s role in creating Boas’s corpus is increasingly being recognized today — indeed, Hunt’s entire family is now seen as contributing to some of anthropology’s most foundational and emblematic work. And yet no one could further from the Ivory Tower than Hunt, an outsider on the raggedy edge of England’s colonization of the Pacific coast. How does Hunt’s life and identity speak to the precarity that many now feel in anthropology? How could we imagine anthropology’s future if we say Hunt, not Boas, as the founder of American anthropology? What if, on this anthropology day, we recognized that anthropology’s future will look a lot like it’s past… and we embraced this fact?

Let’s begin with Platzer and Allison’s piece in Cultural Anthropology (or ‘SCA’ as I’ll call it). To simplify, this column makes two basic points: First, there are vanishingly little tenure track jobs in anthropology, so why and how can ‘we’ give people specialized training for a profession that, in essence, no longer exists? And, second, why are ‘we’  continuing to stigmatize people who don’t get tenure track jobs when it’s not their fault? Let’s call these problems first, ‘the vanishing academy’ and second, the ‘game of thrones’ mentality of academics at elite institutions.

You may have noticed the scare quotes I put around the word ‘we’ in the paragraph above. There’s a reason for that. As Caroline Yezer commented on the SCA website, people at elite, well-funded institutions are only just now realizing what most of us have known for a long time: The job market sucks. And if the worst thing that happens to you in life is getting a full time position as an experience research designer at Adobe, you’ll die a happy man. So I agree whole-heartedly with Platzer and Allison, but I do feel that the piece felt a bit out of touch.

For instance, it should not have taken contraction in the job market for those in the penthouse of the ivory tower to notice how profoundly messed up the culture of elite academics is: The need to become as famous as possible, the narrow definition of success as academic power, the snobbism and back-biting. It really is Game of Thrones. Of course, the academic scene is just one of many — I’m sure there are many subcultures where these sorts of attitudes develop. In addition to being unhealthy, the clubishness and factionalism of Casterly Rock set is also bad for research. It leads to a focus on who you publish with, not what you publish, and whose team will win the argument, not what the argument is. Also — although I don’t have time to substantiate this claim here — I think that security of tenure and guaranteed funding often allows academic thought to develop in ways that are important, but can sometimes become detached from its broader social context. This is not to say that I see Platzer and Allison as scions of House Lannister. On the contrary! As someone who has A Ph.D. form an elite institution and is working in an embattled state school, I’m glad that they are asking for us to change the institutional culture of the top end of the discipline. I’ve learned a lot at both kinds of institutions, as while I prefer the funding at the former, I feel that there is something more humane about the institutional culture of the latter.

As for the job market, it is true that it is shrinking to the point where even the upscale brands are having trouble placing students. This is not good, to be sure. Anthropologists need to fight agains the casualization of the academic workforce, support adjuncts, and insist on the importance of social science in college curriculums. But it is also worth recognizing that anthropologists have not always been academics, and that the best anthropology has not been done in anthropology departments. As Andrew Abbott has pointed out, most practitioners of sociology, anthropology, and other disciplines have historically been amateurs, not full time academics. They were local historians, hobbyists, and others — often wealthy others with spare time on their hands. It was not until after WWII that the massive and massively unusual growth of higher education that anthropology and other disciplines were taken over by professors. Indeed, one of the reasons that anthropology has been a ‘welcoming discipline’ for people who aren’t white men is because Kroeber, Boas, and others needed bodies in their programs to keep them going during the Great Depression. The over-production of Ph.D.s (which, given the Depression, really means: training anyone) in the early decades of the discipline ensured that when higher ed expanded, anthropologists were waiting in the wings, demanding to be given departments.

And of course, the academicization of anthropology obscures the fact that most of the people who do anthropologists are not professors, they are the people in what professors call ‘the field’ who are experts on themselves. This is something we forget when we draw a bright line around academic departments and say everything else is adjectivized anthropology, whether it be Practical, Applied, Citizen, Public, or Collaborative. We can see this most clearly in the case of George Hunt.

Boas and the Hunt family in 1894. The adults in the picture are: back row: Hunt, Lucy Homikanis Hunt, and Boas. In front: Anislaga Mary Ebbetts Hunt, Hunt’s mom. The From Bruhac 2014 “My Sisters Will Not Speak”.

George Hunt, Boas’s research collaborator and teacher, was born on 14 February 1854 at Fort Rupert British Columbia. His father was a fur trader and his mother was Tlingit. He married into a Kwakwaka’wakw family and spent his life as a professional cultural mediator, working with Boas, Edward Curtis, and others. His children continue to be prominent artists and cultural practitioners in Canada today. There is a large literature on Hunt’s relationship with Boas — 80% of “Boas’s” Kwakiutl Texts were actually written by Hunt, who spend decades corresponding with Boas. Increasingly today, scholars are recognizing the role that Hunt and his family had in creating American anthropology. Also:

Judith Berman, for instance, in “The Culture As It Appears To The Indian Himself” points out that for Boas the best anthropologist was an Indian. Half-trained white people from the East Coast who spent small dribbles of time out West could hardly be expected to provide the sort of detailed knowledge that someone like Hunt could. An insider who considered himself Tlingit, but also an outsider in several ways as well, Hunt has the mix of cultural expertise and distance necessary to start thinking reflexively about his culture. Hunt was reliant on Boas for money — he got paid by the letter — but he also found the work fascinating.  He clearly had a much better grasp of the poetry and quality of the texts he collected than Boas did. Boas and Hunt, on Berman’s account, had an uneasy and ambivalent relationship, relying on each other for somethings, feeling used by each other at certain points (especially Hunt), and yet also being friends — in other words, complex and real human beings in a complex and real relationship shot through with power dynamics.

Isaiah Wilner, in “Friends In This World” paints an even more agentive picture of Hunt. Carefully reading texts from Boas’s fieldwork, he shows how Hunt guided and controlled Boas during his time in Canada, using his presence to bolster Hunt’s authority and fame, an authority and fame that Hunt used to ensure that his children would inherit Kwakwaka’wakw rights and titles despite the fact that their father was Tlingit. On Wilner’s account, anthropology was just part of a larger project of indigenous world expansion, and potlatch was a way of re-membering indigenous communities in the wake of epidemics and colonialism. In this version of the story, cultural anthropology is a by-product of the potlatch!

Briggs and Baumann have a somewhat more critical view of Boas and Hunt, emphasizing that despite the role Hunt had in creating the Kwakitul Texts and other anthropological work, it was Boas who had the epistemic authority to sort them by genre, label them authentic or inauthentic, and shape what counted as the final text in what would become a canonical set of work. Their work reminds us that even thought Boas didn’t have some sort of direct, coercive power of violence over Hunt, he wielded tremendous power to shape knowledge about Indians, and that this power should be interrogated instead of being assumed.

Most recently, Margaret Bruhac has argued that we should not over-emphasize Hunt’s role in his work with Boas, since much of the information he gathered came from the women in his family, particularly his mother and his two wives. In fact, Hunt’s wife Lucy actually wrote a fair amount of the material Hunt’s letters to Boas! Moreover, many of the women in his life were high-ranking insiders in a way Hunt was not.  Just as it would be wrong to see Boas as the author of the Kwakiutl Texts and slight Hunt’s authorship, so too would it be wrong to emphasize Hunt’s authorship and erase the contributions made by the women around him.

What does all this mean for anthropology day, and for the discipline’s future? Anthropology in 2030 is going to look a lot more like anthropology in 1930 that it will like anthropology in 2003. No one is happy about that, and no one should be. But this anthropology day we need to stretch our imaginations out of the narrow confines of academic thinking to imagine a more capacious discipline, one in which there are more participants, more participation, and positions than we currently imagine possible. And one of the best ways to do this would be to look to our past, when professors were just a small part of the network that produced anthropological knowledge. Creating more egalitarian and collaborative relationships across institutional boundaries is not only the right thing to do. These days, it is an inevitability. Imagining George Hunt as the father of our discipline — or perhaps the ‘George Hunt Effect’ created by the multiple people who created and animated his texts — is a key way for us to imagine a future where we thrive despite increasing inequalities and, who knows, create an anthropology that ameliorates the inequalities that Hunt and his family encountered when they founded the discipline.

Happy anthropology day!


8 Replies to “This Anthropology Day, Let’s Remember George Hunt”

  1. “The anthropologist and Indian”??
    Do you also say “The anthropologist and White, Boas?” Why not “Tlingit academic and anthropologist?” Or any other more thoughtful illustration?
    I hope to god no one ever refers to me as “The anthropologist and Indian Savannah Martin.” Ugh.
    I continue to be disappointed by the writers at Anthrodendum, their Eurocentricity, and their lack of consideration of and respect for BIPOC.
    Just further evidence for the need to support more diverse scholars in Anthropology.

    1. Thank you for posting this Savannah. I know first hand the emotional labor involved with “educating” our privileged counterparts in cultural studies. I read this article and the one Rex wrote on Black Panther and have to say that I am disappointed, angry, hurt, and not surprised. For Rex to basically argue for us to “make anthropology great again” is truly disturbing considering our current national state and the history of anthropology. Rex’s uninformed and unreflexive analysis is indicative of the priveleged mediocrity that somehow passes muster in higher ed and if anything, Rex is proving his own point: the best anthropologists are outside the ivory tower and are not white men. Rex, I don’t know if your articles encourage me to stay in anthro and dismantle its colonial, white supremacist, patriarchal legacy or just say boy bye and leave the discipline all together. Unfortunately for those on the margins of anthro who don’t want to go back to 1930, these are the kind of issues we grapple with daily. I don’t expect you to understand but I do expect you to do your homework instead of masking your ignorance with shallow commentary and listen to voices like Savannah’s without question.

  2. I thought I did a good job describing his complex subject position, wedged in between a white father, a Tlingit mother and Kwakwaka’wakw in-laws and children. I think saying “the anthropologist and white, Boas” is fine, but given where whiteness was in Boas’s lifetime, “the anthropologist and Jew, Boas” might be better. Honestly, If you said “The anthropologist and white, Boas…” and then moved on in the next paragraph to describe him as a German Jew living in the United States, I wouldn’t be offended.

    1. Hey, Alex, good for you that you wouldn’t be offended. What a privilege you have.

      That doesn’t change the harm you do to others. Maybe you wouldn’t have an allergic reaction to peanuts, but that doesn’t mean that peanuts won’t kill someone who isn’t as privileged as you not to have a history of negative reactions to peanut encounters.

      If you aren’t picking up what I’m putting down: there is a history of oppression, genocide, and erasure of Indigenous peoples around the world, and misnaming and generalizing us is one particular reminder/reinforcement of that oppression and erasure. White people, like yourself, have not been subject to the same oppressive forces of colonization and the harms it brings.

      So when I tell you that you are wrong, you are wrong. Period. You are doing harm, I have told you plainly, and now that you know it, you have no excuse to continue knowingly harming others.
      Your choice to ignore my illustration of your missteps in favor of your own comfort and personal preferences would be a further illustration of this oppression and, frankly, white supremacy. Who says you get to decide what hurts other people, anyway?

    2. Also still agreeing with Savannah. Just because people writing in the early 20th century time might have used the general term Indian doesn’t mean it should be done today. Using the term Indian reinforces the idea that it is a salient category, when it’s not.

  3. Hi. Sorry for the delay on this. In an email Dick Power asked me to change the phrase “the anthropologist and Indian”. It’s now “the First Nations anthropologist.” Savannah, I apologize for offending you.

    1. First of all: This is not an issue of you “offending” me.
      This is an issue of your ease and comfort with generalizing and homogenizing hundreds upon hundreds of distinct cultural groups Indigenous to North America with your use of the colonial and inaccurate demonym “Indian.”

      You need to engage in the reflexivity that sociocultural anthropologists pride themselves in, and you need to examine why you felt not only comfortable, but entitled to use this term, arguing for its justification even in spite of my educating you as to your missteps.

      Secondly, and most importantly: it is hugely problematic that your decision to correct your wrong comes only after speaking to another White Man about this issue, rather than after being educated by the Indigenous Woman who brought this ignorant behavior to your attention in the first place.

      You have a lot more work to do.