An Obituary for Alfred Kroeber (or…Can American Indians Speak?)

An Obituary for Alfred Kroeber (or…Can American Indians Speak?)

Image: The title “Kroeber Hall” being removed at the University of California-Berkeley on January 26, 2021. (Photo Credit: Irene Yi)

In 2017, the theme of the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association was “Anthropology Matters”. I didn’t hear folks criticize the theme too much, but I wondered who had chosen it in the age of “Black Lives Matters” to make a point about the value and substance of anthropology. It was a bit … tacky … mostly because it was attracting attention to a discipline (anthropology) that has often treated human lives as if they do not matter.

Over the last few days, I have returned to this conversation about anthropology’s “mattering” in the aftermath of a recent building name change at University of California – Berkeley. Throughout 2020, petitions came from students, staff and faculty to eliminate the name of Alfred Kroeber from the building that houses the Department of Anthropology. The petitions focused on one main point: Kroeber’s insistence on collecting Native American remains, matched with his role in ethnic cleansing (e.g. pronouncing particular American Indian nations “culturally extinct”), made him a symbol of human disenfranchisement that should not be celebrated by the University. On January 26, 2021, the deed was done.

The story of Kroeber’s career is long and complicated. However, his legacy revolves around his treatment of a Yahi man known as “Ishi”. Kroeber placed Ishi into his laboratory for several years at Berkeley where he (Ishi) swept floors and otherwise remained imprisoned within the University. In those years and subsequent to Ishi’s death in 1916 from tuberculosis, Ishi remained a staple of anthropological conversations because he was labeled “the last wild Indian”. Ishi’s brain ended up in the hands of the Smithsonian. Ishi, as an anthropological specimen, warranted the objectification of American Indian bodies in burial sites across the United States. His life and his body were studied by a nation of anthropological foragers who were shepherded by the logic of Kroeber.

Last week, as the story of the name change reached a national audience, I was interested in hearing how journalists summed it up. CNN titled their article about the event: “UC Berkeley removes the name on a school building over an anthropologist’s controversial past”. The Los Angeles Times editorial board titled their editorial: “How UC Berkeley can make up for Native American disrespect”.

“Disrespect”? Let’s try “genocide”.

The CNN article quotes famed anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes who, back in July 2020, wrote a letter to the Berkeley campus newspaper. In this letter, she asserts:

I was deeply distressed to learn about an administrative plan to remove the name of AL Kroeber from Kroeber Hall. The decision was not discussed with the anthropology faculty. Moreover, the ‘statement’ on Alfred Kroeber was woefully misinformed and in the pop style of social media “cancel culture”, based on shaming and removing public figures thought to have done something objectionable or offensive. But ad hoc censoring without a process including factual knowledge, evidence, and research has no place in a public university.

Scheper-Hughes’ resistance to “cancel culture” is newsworthy. There are plenty of testimonies of anthropology’s role as a culture of cancellation. Do you remember the shift in leadership at HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory because of testimonies of abuse from administrators toward employees of the journal? White anthropologists from across the world loudly and proudly critiqued the colonial, cancelling foundations of anthropology and the ways in which they were lived out through HAU’s leadership. In response to these foundations, they issued calls for particular people to resign from HAU.

American Indians, however, have not inherited the privilege of cancellation within anthropological conversations. About a year ago, I gave a talk at James Madison University (JMU). During a conversation with a White faculty member, I discussed my desire to bring American Indian intellectual frameworks to the front of anthropology. In response, they laughed and told a story of a graduate student at University of Virginia (UVA) who was consistently mocked by faculty because he “wanted to tear the place up”. I assumed that this JMU faculty member meant that the American Indian student at UVA wanted to bring forth American Indian points-of-view while removing the power of traditional, White anthropological points of view.

Gayatri Spivak famously asked: “Can the subaltern speak?” Please let me relocate this question to the stolen Indian land on which your University resides: Can American Indians speak? The neo-colonial anthropological project is empowered by profits from a century of extracting American Indian land, knowledge, artifacts and bodies. This currency loses all of its value if American Indians begin to extoll our ideas, insights and governance within the anthropological apparatus.

Something tells me that there is a (corporate?) interest in not allowing this. Bronislaw Malinowski, who remains standard reading in American anthropology, was an entrepreneur in early anthropology. Rowman & Littlefield lists Malinowski’s book, Crime and Custom in Savage Society, on their website with a description that makes it seem like Malinowski’s ideas are valid today:

His Crime and Custom in Savage Society is now one of the classic works of modern anthropology. In his book, Malinowski describes and analyzes the ways in which Trobriand Islanders structure and maintain the social and economic order of their tribe. This is essential reading for anyone interested in anthropology.

Any argument that Malinowski is “essential reading” reminds me that we have allowed our anthropological forefathers to replace “racial inferiority with cultural inferiority”. We have allowed anthropology to lay intellectual groundwork for human suppression in the United States by leaving room for “savage” customs to remain entertainment for the masses. (Will any of you be watching the Kansas City “Chiefs” in the upcoming Super Bowl?) Rowman & Littlefield might as well be selling Confederate flags and Klu Klux Klan badges on their website.

My underlying point here is that we cannot separate the tyranny of anthropology – the ability for anthropologists to do the work of White suppression of non-White peoples – from intellectual frameworks and schools of thought. We cannot say: “Well, Kroeber did a lot of good. He just made that one mistake with Ishi.” Many White anthropologists don’t like to “throw out the baby with the bath water” when faced with critiques of White anthropology’s abuses. Oftentimes, the baby isn’t a baby. It is an effigy that they…worship.

The timing of Scheper-Hughes’ July 2020 defense of Kroeber was simply not good. Several months earlier, in March 2020, High Country News released a scorching analysis of the ways that American universities profited from the theft of American Indian land through the Morrill Act of 1862. This article, not ironically, begins with a discussion of Ishi that connects his abuse to the orchestrated theft of Indian land across the United States:

Ishi may be known in Indian Country and to California Public School students, but his story remains mostly obscure – though considerably less so than that of the millions of acres of Indigenous land sold to endow the land-grant universities of the United States.

Franz Boas, the “father” of American anthropology and Alfred Kroeber’s academic advisor, pushed doctoral students out of Columbia in the early 1900s. His hopes were that they would plant anthropology into various intellectual communities around the United States. Many of them found academic homes in universities funded by the Morrill Act and their academic gaze, almost reactionarily, turned toward documenting American Indian peoples whose communities the universities displaced. Stolen American Indian land led to the formation of academic disciplines – political science, history, anthropology, etc. – none of which placed themselves in positions of responsibility for this genocide. However, what made anthropology the most grotesque of these disciplines was that its patriarchs and matriarchs made the victims of this post-Morrill Act academic colonial violence into museum and fair exhibits.

Within those contexts, American Indians remain caught in a liminal space. On one hand, we continue to be used by White and Black anthropologists as specimens in the great American anthropological project. Our being measured in the early 20th Century by Franz Boas and his students (a group that included Alfred Kroeber, Ruth Benedict and Zora Neale Hurston) has evolved into our token presence inside/beside anthropology in the early 21st Century. American Indians remain specimen-scholars. Not Indian enough. Not scholarly enough.

I think that it is quite telling that Theodora Kroeber, Alfred’s wife, titled her book Ishi in Two Worlds. As long as Alfred is celebrated for his work – as long as the story of Alfred and Ishi remain valuable as part of the foundation of American anthropology – American Indians will never be adequate enough. You won’t see American Indians in significant numbers in your Departments of Anthropology or, more generally, in your Universities. We remain stuck in some unstated savagery.

At this point, you might be asking: “Aren’t there American Indians in anthropology?” Yes, I am one of them. However, if you look across the landscape of higher education, American Indians are missing from tenurable/tenured faculty positions in all disciplines and across all universities. A report from the National Center for Education Statistics states that our numbers were so low in 2018 (significantly less than 1% of all tenurable/tenured faculty) that our numbers couldn’t be broken down into sex/gender. If you look at reports commissioned by the American Anthropological Association to study race in our discipline, there is no sign that American Indian anthropologists have any real presence in the discipline. (A 2010 report mildly references American Indian experiences in Anthropology, but the committee that issued the report consisted of no – zero – American Indian faculty. Most of its members were/are scholars of Black racial experiences.) We remain odd visuals within the academic marketplace – unable to occupy faculty offices like our non-Indian colleagues.

American Indian anthropologists exist in a state of academic homelessness. Ella Deloria, a Dakota anthropologist who studied under Franz Boas, lived out of her car as she travelled around the United States collecting American Indian cultural residue. Vine Deloria Jr., her nephew, resented the idea that Boas transformed his aunt into an impoverished anthropological scavenger, which is why I believe he critiqued anthropology in Custer Died for Your Sins.

Around 2008, I took a political anthropology course at Duke University with anthropologist Orin Starn, the author of Ishi’s Brain. If you have never read Ishi’s Brain, it is a story of the journey of Starn to return Ishi’s brain to the Yahi people (which he did successfully!). In class, Starn introduced us – a class full of PhD students in anthropology (I was the only American Indian) – to this journey.

One of the most impactful aspects of Starn’s course was his intra-class conversation with fellow anthropologist Lee Baker. Baker discussed his book (then in progress) Anthropology and the Racial Politics of Culture. That was when I first heard the argument that American Indians are “out of the way” and not “in the way”. As “out of the way” peoples, American Indians are often knick-knacks on the shelf of anthropological inquiry.

I remained curious about the implications of Starn’s advocacy and Baker’s analysis. Were their stories going to help anthropology overturn the colonial system that made it a powerful intellectual space? Were they going to demand that American Indians be hired onto Duke’s faculty? Were they going to demand that American Indian land be returned? Duke’s anthropology program has never had an American Indian anthropologist on faculty. Also, to my knowledge, neither Duke University nor UNC have ever been asked by their faculty to return property/land to American Indian communities (such as the Lumbee or Occaneechi-Saponi Tribes).

That is what makes the de-nailing of K,R,O,E,B,E, and R so interesting and important. It is perhaps the first substantial crack in the façade of American anthropology’s imprisonment of Native America. From those few removed nails, the Department of Anthropology at Berkeley ought to move into a state of forming an American anthropological model that is governed by the people that Ishi represents/ed. Yes, it is time for a new age of American Indian/Native American scholarship that is led by American Indian people and includes permanent faculty positions for American Indians across disciplines. But anthropology must lead the way! American Indians should no longer be sweeping up dust from – should no longer be the dust on – the floor of anthropological laboratories.

Is this not what we are waiting for? For Ishi to be granted tenure? Perhaps not Ishi, but members of his Tribal community and other American Indian communities. Aren’t we waiting for American Indians to leave the category of ethnographic subject (specimen) and be invited into positions as senior academics, Deans, and Chancellors? This ought to be normal in 2021.

Let’s be frank. The death of Kroeber – the removal of his name from the sanctuary of anthropology – is part of a process of placing American Indian voices in positions of intellectual authority. This moment, which is defined by a global pandemic of injustice and colonial viruses, is the perfect moment to move on with this process. As university buildings are closed down for the safety of faculty, staff, and students, the hallowed grounds of anthropology ought to be restored to their rightful owners.

I hope that we are not invited to a Forty-Niners game during this transition.

[*Note: Ryan Anderson (one of the editors for Anthrodendum) reminded me of the work of visual/performance artist James Luna. (Find one of his Ishi-related pieces here.) I first learned about Luna’s work when I visited one of the artifact rooms of the Harvard University Peabody Museum and my MIT classmate (who was a Native from Southern California) yelled out: “Should the alive Indians here go jump up on the shelf?”]

5 Replies to “An Obituary for Alfred Kroeber (or…Can American Indians Speak?)”

  1. Dear Dr. Lowry,
    thank you for this excellent, timely and important post. I very much appreciate this perspective and as a graduate of the program at UCB almost three decades ago and a participant in the discourse around what anthropology is and what it can be I think your intervention is right on target. I do want to respond to a query you open up the piece with: it was me, as program chair, that came up with the “Anthropology Matters” theme drawing on Leith Mulling’s 2005 essay with that title and her call for an anthropology that tackled the issues and problems of racism, bias and the ineffectiveness of the discipline head-on in order to reconstitute a better anthropology. One that makes a real and positive difference. Your essay highlights one specific area where that can and must happen. For the 2017 meeting I worked in concert with colleagues in the BLM movement and a range of activist/engaged anthropologists to try and craft a meeting that did not shy away from the good, the bad and the ugly of anthropology. I learned a lot. Some of what I tried to do was succesful much was not. I hope that our efforts contributed at least a little in the vein of the argument you lay out here. That was our intention. I also encourage folks to read Prof. Mullings 2005 article and to keep, as you are doing here, to not just hold anthropology accountable and but to demand change. Stay safe and be well, -Agustin Fuentes

    1. Dear Dr. Fuentes,

      Thank you for reflecting on my words. I had no idea that you helped create the theme for the 2017 AAA Conference. However, I am glad that I have your attention. At that conference, several American Indian anthropologists met in a small conference room along a back hallway at the conference center. We all were laughing and joking and then an elder academic began to discuss how we (American Indians) didn’t matter to anthropology. He had hope for the future, but his tears showed how much pain anthroplogy has caused to the small consortium of American Indian scholars.

      On that note, I was at the 2013 talk where Leith Mullins spelled out why “anthropology matters”. I remember that she talked about Democratization and not De-colonization. She often said “Indigenous” and “subaltern” — but she didn’t talk about the 600+ American Indian nations that are often just outside the doors of America’s anthropology Departments. She mentioned “observatories” — which, in my mind, was a continuation of the “anthro is neutral” colonial academic model. She even quoted my advisor James Peacock who said something like: “Anthropology is needed…and if it wasn’t already here it would have to be invented”. Well, it WAS invented, on the heads of American Indians. It then helped breathe life into other disciplines that did the same suppressive work.

      I interviewed for a faculty job with your former employer – ND – and as soon as I asked about working with local Native American communities…well, the air left out of the interview. Was it me? Or was it them? It would be nice to be appreciated as an American Indian scholar (not seen as a risk).

      Indeed, I have asked your current employer – Princeton – why they have openly supported Black scholarship with pretty much NO attention paid to American Indian scholarship.

      Thanks, again. Peace and safety.


    2. Thank you for the thoughtful and powerful response. I am sorry the 2017 conference did not do a better job of engagement. You are right in the lag/lack of respect and recognition by Anthropology writ large. Change is long overdue. There are some areas of improvement, I see the SING consortium as a significant move forward, but they remain few and far between. It was awful that my former employer (ND) failed to develop an American Indian program despite multiple faculty pushing for such an outcome. I was glad that at least my dept. formed collaborations with the Pokégnek Bodéwadmik (whose land ND sits on) while I was there. I do not yet know the landscape here at my new location, but will keep your words in front of me and try as best i can to make a difference. Thanks for your essay, your response to my comment and for not letting this be ignored.

  2. Hi Dr Lowry, I came by your post via an Edx course I am doing. I am not an anthropologist, just a teacher from New Zealand, so have nothing to add to your words. Just wanted to say thank you so much. I have often wondered where American Indians are. In Aoteoroa New Zealand, Maori are still marginalised and suffering from colonialism in many ways but are very visible, and there are lots of Maori academics, politicians etc (including from my own iwi, or tribe). I know there are networks between Maori and Native Americans via indigenous networks, which I see as a good thing, but it’s difficult to understand why you still need to fight just to be recognised in your own country.