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  • Reverse Ethnography and the Recovery of Indigenous Anthropological Ancestors
  • Richard Handler
Margaret M. Bruchac, Savage Kin: Indigenous Informants and American Anthropologists. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2018. 280 pp.

They've got a lot of stuff there, but they don't know much about it.

Staff member at a Kwagiulth tribal center, referring to the University of British Columbia Anthropology Museum (as quoted in Clifford 1997:122)

Margaret M. Bruchac begins Savage Kin with a meditation on the naming, or re-naming, practices of settler societies that allowed anthropologists and other authorities to assert control over knowledge about indigenous peoples on the North American continent. If those peoples' ethnonyms could be replaced by generic terms like "savage," "primitive," and "Indian," then it made sense, from the anthropologists' perspective, to treat such people as objects of knowledge but not as subjects capable of producing their own knowledge about the world and about themselves. Their "myths" became anthropologists' facts—social facts about savages, not historical facts about a collective past or cosmological facts about the world. And yet, to "collect" such facts, and the artifacts through [End Page 1119] which they were represented, anthropologists had to work with their "savage kin," their Indigenous interlocutors, who had their own reasons for translating knowledge about their worlds into terms anthropologists could understand.

In Savage Kin, Bruchac, who is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Coordinator of Native American and Indigenous Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, dissects the social and historical processes through which Americanist anthropologists constructed their scientific authority. They did this by collecting Indigenous artifacts and knowledge, and then working to control the stories the collected materials could be used to tell about Indigenous peoples in museums and publications. Savage Kin is a brilliant first step in reversing that process, as Bruchac works backward from museum objects and the archival documentation associated with them to recover some of the hitherto lost stories of how those objects were detached from Indigenous cultural contexts and drafted into service in a quite different context. The book that has resulted from such a research procedure is both a collection of fascinating tales about anthropological ancestors and a theoretical and methodological treatise that is challenging in the best sense of the word: it demands that we rethink our assumptions.

Chapters 2–6 of this 8-chapter book trace new histories of North Americanist anthropologists and their savage kin—anthropologist-collectors and the Indigenous "informants" and "assistants" who were far more central to the work of knowledge-creation than such terms suggest. These chapters are bracketed by introductory chapters and a conclusion in which Bruchac describes a research program she calls reverse ethnography (19). When she began looking for "materials that might document Indigenous commentary" on "early anthropological encounters" (177), she did not know what to expect; but, to her surprise, she discovered a wealth of documents—letters, field notes, and publications. Yet, those documents had been hidden through an organized disorderliness she calls cataloging erasures (177). Most white collectors, anthropologists, and museum curators considered collected objects to be theirs (either the property of the institution for which they worked or their personal private property), just as they considered the work of collection and research to be theirs. Their Indigenous collaborators—especially those who were women—were written out of the record. [End Page 1120]

To maintain such fictions, white collectors treated much of the documentation relevant to museum objects so cavalierly that something like Bruchac's reverse ethnography is necessary to restore the record. Documents were "detached" (sometimes willfully) from objects (17) and "scattered" (177) among multiple museums, archives, and caches of personal papers. Documents were also detached from their creators in the sense that the writings of Indigenous collaborators were absorbed into the archives of white anthropologists and then "concealed by indexing processes that identified them as works by their non-Native collaborators" (177).

For example, in Bruchac's chapter on Franz Boas (1858–1942) and George Hunt (1854–1933), we learn not only how Boas relied on Hunt—who by now is well-known in the history of anthropology—but how Hunt relied on the women of his household, who have been historically invisible. In...


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