Foundations of American Ethnography of the Northwest Coast: Comprehensive Exam Practice

Area 2: Ethnographic Accounts of Pacific Northwest Native peoples


This subject entails the discourse and dialogue between Native peoples and societies and ethnographers on the Pacific Northwest Coast. What is intrinsically part of the discussion is an analysis of the history and progress of ethnography, and of the interactions between ethnographers and Native peoples. Thus the subject may be broken into several different areas, the ethnography, how it progressed, and how it is changing, the ethnographers, how they did their work, and all that entails, and the Native peoples themselves, their interaction with ethnographic research, their contributions, and their reactions as to how ethnography has characterized their culture and societies. Within this is the potential for ongoing analyses of persistent and one-time critical issues regarding all aspects of ethnography, its impact on Native societies, and the potential for the current and future use of this manner of research, within academia and within Native society.


Question 1.  Who are the notable authors who wrote early ethnographies about Native peoples in the Pacific Northwest and why was their work important?


Of the many notable authors, Franz Boas (1916, 1920, 1928, 1948, 1966) stands out as the innovator of much of what we know as Anthropology. Others who are of note are Edward Sapir (1906), Melville Jacobs (1936, 1939, 1940), James Swan (1856, 1870), J. R. Swanton (1905, 1908, 1909), Myron Eells (1877, 1985), and Frederica De Laguna (1960, 1972). These early ethnographers and linguists established the fields in which they contributed and provided models of research in terms of theory, quantity and quality that ethnographers or anthropologists today would be hard pressed to match. They set into place the anthropological scientific method as well as some of the foundational theories and the interpretations of their findings.


Boasian Tradition

Boas is the central figure because, by-and-large, he and his students and associates were the ethnographers who did the most work on the Pacific Northwest Coast. They established the Northwest Coast anthropological traditions, created the first formulations of theory and text regarding the peoples of the Northwest Coast. And maintained their majority presence through successive generations of anthropologists, to the present day. Thus this essay has less to do with all anthropology, and more to do with the anthropology as created by Boas, and how the original formulation of Boasian anthropology came to influence successive generations of  ethnographers, and how the Boasian group of theories (or metatheories?) continue to provide the backdrop over which all successive writings on the Northwest Coast are laid.


Boas’s unique position was made possible by the many roles he played within the beginning of anthropology. Ample field experience, unrivaled opportunity to train investigators (from beginning students to mature scholars), administrative curatorial duties in Berlin and New York, theorist in the functions of museums, organizer of expeditions, organizer of publications series, philological linguistic studies and publications,  professional physical anthropology, Race theorist, archaeology, ethnological studies and publications. All of Boas’s work in all fields was of high quality. Boas worked with women and native anthropologists alike, guiding them in their studies.  However, Boas never wrote a textbook and was a researcher primarily and so was not as well recognized as many anthropologists who did not accomplish as much.


The Boasian tradition runs strong in the most well known of the scientists on the Northwest Coast, many of which followed Boas’s lead by investigating the languages of the Native peoples. Boas believed that in language is a foundational and fundamental expression of a people’s ideas, and with groups of these ideas, acting unconsciously, they expressed culture. Their cultures were uniquely formed and shaped by the people’s unique historical environment. This ran counter to the previous theories of culture, which placed all human societies within the same continuum and advocated for the same evolutionary progress for all societies. Boas thought differently as he thought that each people, each dialectically different people expressed their ideas in unique ways based on their difference in history (Stocking 1974, Suttles 1990).


Boas’s methods are outlined below

Boas insists on the thoroughgoing description of all cultural data as the sole warrantable scientific attitude.

insists that the ethnographer’s technique must equal that of a student of the civilization under investigation. A command of the language is an indispensable means of obtaining accurate and thorough knowledge, because much information can be gained by listening to conversations of the natives and by taking part in their daily life…which otherwise would remain inaccessible.

the fieldworker can at least learn as much of the language as time permits and above all he can secure authentic records of human thought by phonetically transcribing tales, prayers, poems, set speeches, by then reading them to his informants and rereading them for revision, and by carefully translating such documents with the aid of an interpreter.

Boas, scientist must exclude nothing on sentimental or aesthetic grounds. Known the whole gamut of individual responses to the social setting … to understand the complex entity of the tribal culture. This justifies and requires transcription of several variants of important myths.

securing reminiscences of informants, to supplement …autobiographies…which fills gaps in our information by naturally bringing out facts no inquirer would dream of asking about, elucidating personal relations and subjective responses to the cultural setting, enlarging our knowledge of primitive individuals in relation to their society.


146, diffusionists resolve culture history into the interaction of a very few ultimate culture complexes…Boas sees no warrant for such simplicity of formulation…each group has its own unique history, due to inner causes, extraneous influences and these differentiations must date back to an extreme antiquity. The original culture would be torn asunder and rearranged differently in whatever region they might reach.

Is that part of the dynamic of romanticism, the assumption that Western culture took a wrong road and became corrupt, while Native Americans remained unspoilt. Also, the diffusionist theory may fit with this assumption that all Native Americans are part of one culture, to American mainstream society, the assumption that all native cultures are essentially the same rather than envisioning them as a diversity of culture, possibly originating from the same protoculture but separated by millennia. This appears to also fit with the linguistic interpretations of Native languages, possibly where diffusionist theory survives the best, in the assumption that all Native languages originated from a single central language. Perhaps this is the way language changes and adapts, but can we say the same for whole cultures? There seems to be more to culture than language or linguistic theory can explain.


Kroeber- superorganic


Albert Kroeber, the first of Boas’s students to graduate, proposed the idea of the superorganic, where there was a cultural historic pattern that humans were at the mercy of.  This eliminated the individual from intentionality in culture development and history.

Kroeber and Wissler, including Barrett and Driver as field researchers, developed their perspectives of the culture areas, based on their cultural element distributions. They assumed that the pattern of diffusion of cultural elements was uniform from a center of a “culture-area”. They also assumed that the more widely distributed traits were older. The notion of the “age-area” used traditional evolutionary notions of typological complexity and the limited archaeological evidence. Kroeber was able to arrange the cultures of the western hemisphere in layers with more layers in Central America, Peru and the Northwest Coast. This may also reflect the overwhelming research that had been done in these areas, compared to other regions. Kroeber later developed his culture–area notions with the culture-element survey, a laundry list of cultural traits.

The appearance of the Kroeberian tradition is once again to look for patterns of culture. Through cultural elements the Kroeberians thought they would find cultural traditions and be able to map some areas of prehistory. Their methods also used archaeology to a higher degree than the other Boasians.


Edward Sapir


Emphasis on the individual as the dynamic focus of the cultural process.

Also the establishment of a linguistic model by establishing genetic connections between the 55 American Indian languages. They were reduced to 6 superstocks. Sapir focused on archaic residues- those fundamental features of structure, hidden away in the very core of the linguistic complex.  Sapir introduced the idea of the persistence of complex patterns of cultural behavior regardless of the extreme variability of the content of such patterns (emergence of structural linguistics) ( all from Stocking 2002 (1976)).  Sapir shared the desire to reduce and generalize the Native languages with Kroeber. Kroeber worked primarily in California, while Sapir worked throughout the Americas, and “globally” included the Californian languages within his six stock reduction.

As a Boasian, Sapir took his original ideas from the model of Typological similarity that was assumed to be a product of diffusion. Sapir worked with Roland Dixon in the beginning where they sought to establish “types of Families.” Sapir began looking at a new type of similarity, grammatical as well as the lexical similarities worked out by Powell (Darnell 1990).


Other Ethnologists, pre-Boasians

There was a tradition on the Northwest Coast of amateur or hobbyist ethnology. Several of the very earliest “ethnologists” did not receive any training in ethnology and practiced their studies as they saw fit. The most influential were men like James Swan (1856, 1870), George Gibbs, and Alexander Anderson and Myron Eells (1877). Their studies proceeded in a “random” manner as they held positions as researchers or explorers in the employment of the United States Government or with the church. Yet their products were sufficiently well respected and they made good progress in gathering information on Native languages and cultures. Gibbs settled in the region, in Washington Territory and became an intermediary, for several decades, of amateur and professional ethnologists alike, and contributed many writings and research manuscripts to the body of information on the Northwest Coast. And while many of the amateur ethnologists have never been accepted as true ethnologists or linguists, their work is used by many of the generations of ethnologists and researchers thereafter.

The quality of their work is greatly questioned by contemporary and even classical ethnologists from the early part of the 2oth century. However, it is necessary that we remember that the theories and methods of ethnology, ethnography, linguistics, and anthropology were not “crystallized” or “institutionalized” or well advanced at the time these amateur ethnologists were doing their studies. In fact American anthropology, as we know it, was not yet born, and fieldwork methods were not yet established as a scientific necessity. This time period, from about 1840s –1890s was time of many “arm-chair” ethnologists, many of whom never went out to do original fieldwork among the people they were writing about, and who instead sought to theorize about “Indians” from afar. And so, despite the criticisms of contemporary and classical anthropologists and linguists, the work of many amateur ethnologists was actually highly advanced for their time. In fact, it is likely a phenomenon that influenced Boas in ways that prompted him to meld intense fieldwork and information gathering with scientific methods. Boas was employed on geographical explorations early on and so himself experienced some of the same situations of the early ethnologists. As well, there had been a tradition of Europeans, missionaries and others, traveling to the “New World” including North America, and the Pacific,  and working on languages and cultures as amateurs

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