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Transforming Ethnohistories: Narrative, Meaning, and Community

Transforming Ethnohistories: Narrative, Meaning, and Community

by Sebastian F. Braun

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Anthropologists need history to understand how the past has shaped the present. Historians need anthropology to help them interpret the past. Where anthropologists’ and historians’ needs intersect is ethnohistory. The contributors to this volume have been inspired in large part by the teaching and writing of distinguished ethnohistorian Raymond J.


Anthropologists need history to understand how the past has shaped the present. Historians need anthropology to help them interpret the past. Where anthropologists’ and historians’ needs intersect is ethnohistory. The contributors to this volume have been inspired in large part by the teaching and writing of distinguished ethnohistorian Raymond J. DeMallie, whose exemplary combination of ethnographic and archival research demonstrates the ways anthropology and history can work together to create an understanding of the past and the present. Transforming Ethnohistories comprises ten new avenues of ethnohistorical research ranging in topic from fiddling performances to environmental disturbance and spanning places from North Carolina to the Yukon.

The authors seek to understand communities by finding and interpreting their stories in a variety of different texts, some of which lie outside academic understanding and research methodology. It is exactly those stories, conventionally labeled “myths” or “oral tradition,” that ethnohistorians demand we pay attention to. Although historians cannot see or talk to their informants as anthropologists do, both anthropologists and historians can listen to oral histories and written documents for the essential stories they contain.

The essays assembled here use DeMallie’s approach to contribute to the history and anthropology of Native North America and address issues of literary criticism and contexts, sociolinguistics, performance theory, identity and historical change, historical and anthropological methods and theory, and the interpretation of histories, cultures, and stories. Debates over the legitimacy of ethnohistory as a specialization have led some scholars to declare its decline. This volume shows ethnohistory to be alive and well and continuing to attract young scholars.

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Transforming Ethnohistories

Narrative, Meaning, and Community

By Sebastian Felix Braun


Copyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4394-1


Borders and Layers, Symbols and Meanings

Raymond J. DeMallie's Commitment to Ethnohistory, with Nods to Thick Description and Symbolic Anthropology


Historian of anthropology Regna Darnell declares that Americanist anthropology is best characterized by "invisible genealogies" that must be intentionally articulated to be revealed, charted, and analyzed (Darnell 2001:1–11). Much of the begetting is found in intellectual family trees consisting of the generations of great minds and these individuals' ideas, trees where teachers and their students found places among the branches to seek out and develop their theoretical thinking in the course of subsequent careers. This journey, undertaken out of loyalty or in defiance, rebelliously, synchronistically, or independently, is always relative to academics' teachers and their intellectual progenitors. The prodigious scholarship of Raymond J. DeMallie inspires students and engenders the respect of colleagues, especially among Americanists and Northern Plains specialists. Portions of his intellectual genealogy contribute to his larger program of research. A series of issues and influences converge in the anthropology practiced by DeMallie and were embodied in his early career. The particular focus of this chapter examines how ethnohistory epitomizes his specific anthropology.

I remember first reading the essay "On Ethnographic Authority," in which the author, James Clifford (1983), suggests that DeMallie's editing of James R. Walker's collected texts, originally written by literate tribal members in the Lakota language or dictated and taken down by Walker in the English translation of his interpreters, represented the dialogic dimension so central to a new postmodern/reflexive anthropology. When I read Clifford's assessment, I was a graduate student of DeMallie's. I was struck that while Clifford's might be a reasonable perception based upon his reading of these indigenous texts, he was suffering from at least a partial misunderstanding, if he was not making a misrepresentation, based upon what I had come to learn were DeMallie's intention and purpose (Clifford 1983:141, n.146; reprinted in Clifford 1988). Having often heard from DeMallie himself how he grasped his own disposition and autobiographical debts as a neo-Boasian and historical anthropologist, I disagreed with Clifford's take all the more, especially given DeMallie's devotion to ethnohistory as his unified method of choice.


DeMallie's education and early career appears to have been a straight arrow, with every step or stage taken in logical order, all moving toward an identified goal. DeMallie was born and raised the only child of working-class parents in Rochester, New York. At age seven he was out of school for a time after an appendectomy, and this was when his mother gave him Enid La Monte Meadowcroft's children's biography of Crazy Horse (1954). Simply enamored with the book, he was soon "haunt[ing] the public library looking for books on Indians" (DeMallie personal communication, June 30, 2010). On the shelves of libraries in Rochester and in exhibits at the Rochester Public Museum, the Iroquois were well represented, and he was captivated. His parents complained that the exhibits at the museum never changed, but this did not bother him. He remembers a number of times attending the annual border-crossing celebration at Niagara Falls, New York, walking across "the bridge to Canada where Iroquois from Six Nations [Reserve] set up booths and concessions in a park" and where "there was also an Indian village tourist attraction." He also remembers family vacations in the 1950s to Lake George, New York, where a "multi-tribal Indian village tourist attraction" at various occasions had in residence a Comanche chief, a young Navajo jeweler, a Hopi man, and a young man from Tesuque Pueblo, among others. "Those experiences helped to solidify my interest in Indians," he recalls. He remembers that his interests in the Iroquois were enhanced by attending the Mary Jemison pageant at Letchworth State Park in Castile, New York, and recollects what had been a simple reenactment of the kidnapping becoming eventually "a night time drama with a stage and sound effects and a large cast." He remembers that a large contingent of Mohawks were in the audience one year, speaking to one another in Mohawk with the distinctive "r" dialect. He also recalls the Indian village and dance demonstrations at the New York State Fair, where he once observed an Iroquois man in traditional dress being ignored for the most part by the passersby—until the man donned a full Plains warbonnet, whereupon parents stopped and wanted their kids to be photographed with him (DeMallie personal communication, June 30, 2010).

During high school DeMallie began to learn about anthropology, which coincided with his wanting to spend time talking with Indian people. He recalled one summer day when his parents dropped him off at the Indian village in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and how he spent the afternoon talking with an older Mohawk man, a retired high steel worker, who taught him a simple dance step and was delighted to answer questions. He also remembers that his parents several times had taken him to Chief Parker's museum on the Tonawanda Reservation to spend time talking with him and his wife. Over picnic lunch brought by his mother, conversation occurred. Parker carved false faces and his wife made corn husk masks and dolls for sale in their museum. Encounters such as these were a beginning (DeMallie personal communication, June 30, 2010).

In his first year of high school, DeMallie started frequenting rare and used bookstores in Rochester, and with advice from the proprietors he began his collecting on a limited bud get. He first heard of Lewis Henry Morgan from them, but the controversy of the loss of many historic structures, including the Morgan mansion, in the building of the Inner Loop freeway in Rochester meant several detailed articles about Morgan appeared in the papers, and about this same time he acquired and read a copy of Morgan's League of the Iroquois. During his first year in high school, he read what he characterizes as his "first serious book" about Plains Indians, Mari Sandoz's Crazy Horse, which he purchased from knowledgeable Mr. Wiess of the Genesee Book Store. This led him to John G. Neihardt's Black Elk Speaks, which he first read using a library copy, but he knew he had to have his own. Finding a copy available from a dealer in California, he persuaded his mother for the $20 to buy it for him; this was just prior to the publication of the 1961 paperback edition by the University of Nebraska Press. Next he found Joseph Epes Brown's edition of The Sacred Pipe in a new bookstore in downtown Rochester. Then he read George Bird Grinnell's Fighting Cheyennes, and soon he was searching for anything he could find about Plains Indians.

In this sense DeMallie began as an antiquarian before he tangibly decided to become an anthropologist. He started a correspondence with Sandoz, who told him about the extent of records in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. (see Stauffer 1992: 400–402, 426). His parents decided to vacation in D.C. the summer of 1961, and went by way of Gettysburg where they visited and were in attendance on the first day of the battle's centennial. Once in D.C., his parents took him to the National Archives so he could physically see records of the Indian Office; and once there, his father fibbed about his son's age—sixteen being the minimum age for obtaining a research card, when he was still fifteen. Of course, the records were voluminous, but this was when he got his first glimpse of the importance of these historical and cultural resources.

The summer of 1964, after his graduation from high school, DeMallie worked the first of two seasons at the Cornish early historic Seneca archaeological site south of Rochester. Later that summer he convinced his parents to allow him to empty his childhood savings account for a research trip to Washington, D.C. At the beginning of their summer vacation, his parents drove him to D.C. and left him for a month. He stayed at the Hotel Plaza, near Union Station, and he made his way every day to the National Archives on Pennsylvania Avenue. He read microfilm in Record Group (RG) 75 (Indian Records) before anything could be photocopied, and was able to use original records in RG 98 (War Department Records), which had not yet been microfilmed. Carmelita Ryan, one of the archivists in RG 75, noticed his interests in Indian culture, and arranged for him to meet Margaret Blaker, the archivist of the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) archives at the Smithsonian. At that time the BAE offices occupied a portion of the Smithsonian Castle Building, and Blaker's office was behind the rose window, overlooking the Mall. He was immediately smitten by the setting and the Smithsonian's legacy of research about Indian cultures and their history. When not in the archives on that trip he spent time viewing the Indian exhibits in the National Museum of Natural History. One day he was scrutinizing a manikin in one of the exhibits, purported to be the Lakota Kicking Bear, but dressed in a Blackfeet shirt. A guard noting his focused attention, asked him what he was observing, and DeMallie said that he was wondering about the authenticity of the clothing. The guard told him he should ask the curator, with the comment that that is what they are paid for, and called upstairs. Consequently, DeMallie had his first introduction and meeting with John C. Ewers, the curator of Plains Ethnology in the Department of Anthropology. On the weekends he divided time between the Library of Congress and exploring D.C. by foot. Twice he explored Arlington Cemetery looking for graves of Indian war officers. Five weeks later he took the bus home to Rochester, and prepared for relocation to Chicago for university. Instrumentally, that Washington visit marked the beginning of his indepth tutorial about the role of anthropology in the study of Indians.


In his essay for a volume about the legacy of David M. Schneider, DeMallie (2001b) autobiographically reveals many of his intellectual influences. In his account he discusses his undergraduate and graduate education at the University of Chicago, spanning the years 1964 to 1971, describing the ideological tightrope-like maze strung among his various professors, the faculty almost an edifice which students were left to scale. An easy way out was to become the student of a particular professor, and leave any integration of conflicting or challenging ideas for another time, if ever. However, this was a contentious period at Chicago, immediately following the changes in the requirements of the department, eliminating much of the General Anthropology Requirements in favor of individualized programs of study beyond the required core courses (Stocking n.d.). In contrast, DeMallie sought to merge the ideas of his professors into an integrated approach, the product of his education trajectory in this period.

DeMallie explained how this began in the spring of 1964 during his senior year of high school when he had attended and listened to Fred Eggan deliver the first Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures at the University of Rochester (Eggan 1966), and the formative effect that these lectures had upon him. Already planning to attend the University of Chicago, knowing its reputation for having the foremost anthropology department in North America, he listened as Eggan contextualized the study of kinship and comparative social relations in the study of American Indian societies and cultures. He described the lectures as having a mesmerizing effect upon him:

"When he [Eggan] mentioned in one lecture the need for someone to do comparative work on the kinship systems of the various Sioux, I knew I had found my calling. After that evening's lecture, mustering all my courage, I volunteered for duty and told Professor Eggan—it didn't occur to me to ask—that I was coming to Chicago in the fall to be his student and work on those Sioux kinship systems" (DeMallie 2001b:46–47).

Arriving at the University of Chicago, with his purpose and goal in mind, DeMallie had to be reminded that he had to get an undergraduate degree before he could proceed to advanced studies. Eager to understand Eggan's orientation, he made a studious foray into the work of A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, especially the era when the British social anthropologist was teaching at the University of Chicago, and consequently, DeMallie explored the connections to others concerned with kinship studies among British social anthropologists. He wrote a series of kinship papers for Eggan during his undergraduate years. During this same time DeMallie was informed by Raymond Fogelson who regularly admonished his students to read with care the Boasians as well as the culture and personality literatures. In course work with Sol Tax, the Redfieldian reading list was covered. DeMallie noted that he first read Clifford Geertz "under the careful tutelage of Hildred Geertz, whose undergraduate seminar on functionalism" he characterized as "one of the highlights of my college years." This was also part of his drive to understand Radcliffe-Brown and British social anthropology, as a context for his ongoing work for Eggan. Claude Lévi-Strauss visited Chicago in 1965, further inspiring DeMallie to learn about structuralism, especially its implications for kinship studies, and further expanding his horizons (DeMallie 2001b:47). Also influential was Schneider, the chair of the department during the mid-1960s and promoter of a critical culture theory situated primarily in how symbol systems such as kinship terms and relations are malleable and are, in a sense, a semantic domain. One stream of the crisis in representation was rising in these very years, as epitomized when Schneider began his theoretical rejection of kinship as a universal in social relations; DeMallie was working his way through his own forest of symbols, clarifying further his own grasp of Sioux kinship and culture.

Taking full advantage of the opportunity, DeMallie had taken four years of French in high school, and another quarter in his first year at Chicago. While in high school he had tried to learn Dakota/Lakota by study of the Riggs (1893) and Buechel (1939) grammars, but with limited success. Once in college he found the Boas and Deloria Dakota Grammar (1941). However, DeMallie recognized that without formal training it would be "an uphill battle." On his first trip to South Dakota in 1966, drawing upon the many words he had learned, he realized that he had not paid attention to stress (part of his influence from his learning French), and consequently people were not understanding what he was trying to say. It was not until DeMallie went to do fieldwork at Cheyenne River in 1970 that he felt he made headway in learning Lakota. In his senior year at Chicago, he took an introduction to descriptive linguistics course from the Linguistics Department with minimal success, as he described it, and a graduate-level introduction that concentrated on transformational grammar, the fad topic of that era, but neither experience quite took. This did not diminish the importance intellectually to his larger project. DeMallie then also took a language and culture class from Norman McQwon, who emphasized the value of close reading of texts and linguistic nuances, a skill in and of itself. However, DeMallie was acutely aware from his own assessment that he was not ready for field research. While working at the Smithsonian the summer of 1969, he approached Paul Voorhis, the linguist in the Department of Anthropology there who agreed to give him some practical instruction. He arranged to visit Father Vine Deloria, Sr., at his home near Baltimore, and in that afternoon he had his first lesson in spoken Lakota, taping words, sentences, and a couple of brief texts. Unable to find a Lakota or Dakota speaker in the Washington, D.C., area, Voorhis and DeMallie were able to ask Mary Natani, a Winnebago speaker, for assistance, and they met with her once or twice a week during the summer, which DeMallie describes as "incredibly valuable to me" (DeMallie personal communication, June 30, 2010).


Excerpted from Transforming Ethnohistories by Sebastian Felix Braun. Copyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Sebastian Felix Braun is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of the American Indian Studies Program at Iowa State University. He is author of Buffalo Inc.: American Indians and Economic Development and coauthor of Native American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Introduction.

Raymond J. DeMallie is Chancellor's Professor of Anthropology and American Indian Studies at Indiana University.

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