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The Meskwaki and Anthropologists

Action Anthropology Reconsidered

Judith M. Daubenmier

Publication Year: 2008

The Meskwaki and Anthropologists illuminates how the University of Chicago’s innovative Action Anthropology program of ethnographic fieldwork affected the Meskwaki Indians of Iowa. From 1948 to 1958, the Meskwaki community near Tama, Iowa, became effectively a testing ground for a new method of practicing anthropology proposed by anthropologists and graduate students at the University of Chicago in response to pressure from the Meskwaki. Action Anthropology, as the program was called, attempted to more evenly distribute the benefits of anthropology by way of anthropologists helping the Native communities they studied.

The legacy of Action Anthropology has received limited attention, but even less is known about how the Meskwakis participated in creating it and shaping the way it functioned. Drawing on interviews and extensive archival records, Judith M. Daubenmier tells the story from the viewpoint of the Meskwaki themselves. The Meskwaki alternatively cooperated with, befriended, ignored, prodded, and collided with their scholarly visitors in trying to get them to understand that the values of reciprocity within Meskwaki culture required people to give something if they expected to get something. Daubenmier sheds light on the economic and political impact of the program on the community and how some Meskwaki manipulated the anthropologists and students through their own expectations of reciprocity and gender roles. Giving weight to the opinions, actions, and motivations of the Meskwaki, Daubenmier assesses more fully and appropriately the impact of Action Anthropology on the Meskwaki settlement and explores its legacy outside the settlement’s confines. In so doing, she also encourages further consideration of the ongoing relationships between scholars and Indigenous peoples today.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press

Series: Critical Studies in the History of Anthropology

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pp. ix-x

Having grown up in Iowa, I drove by the Meskwaki settlement near Tama, Iowa, countless times. Although curious about the people who lived there, I knew little more than that they held a powwow every year. Never did I dream I would one day write a book about—and with—them. Life's journey, however, takes us places we never...

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Series Editors' Introduction

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pp. xi-xiii

Sol Tax's "action anthropology" project with the Meskwaki community at Tama, Iowa, has been lauded in the received history of Americanist anthropology as an early successful attempt to combine the scientific aims of anthropology, the ethical aspirations of the anthropologist to be useful to the community studied, and the Native American...

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pp. 1-28

On July 15, 1948, Ed Davenport was glad to see his old friend Sol Tax get out of the car on the road by his home on the Meskwaki settlement near Tama, Iowa. It had been thirteen years since the University of Chicago professor had visited the community where he did research for his dissertation in anthropology, and some catching up...

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1. Making the Modern Meskwaki Nation

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pp. 29-63

In 1934 the four hundred residents of the Meskwaki settlement were as much in need of a new deal as the rest of the nation. They lived in small, wood-framed houses without electricity or running water, as did many of their white neighbors in the days before Franklin D. Roosevelt's rural electric cooperatives lit up the countryside...

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2. Sol Tax and the Value of Anthropology

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pp. 64-108

The question that Ed Davenport posed to Sol Tax when they met in the summer of 1948 was one that Tax had begun asking himself even before he became an anthropologist. Tax's personal struggle over whether to "work out some sort of a plan to fix things up, instead of just studying people," coincided with efforts in anthropology and...

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3. "Science Has to Stop Somewhere"

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pp. 109-153

When the members of the first University of Chicago field party arrived in Tama in 1948, the Meskwaki settlement appeared an exotic enclave set off from, yet penetrated by, the mundane heartland of America. The settlement's thirty-three hundred acres straddled the Iowa River and sloped upward from the river's muddy backwaters...

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4. Action Anthropology and the Values Question

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pp. 154-188

The creation of action anthropology may have occurred in the summer of 1948, but all its implications were not completely obvious at the end of that first summer, either to many settlement residents or to the action anthropologists. Students were well aware that they were taking on extra obligations that traditional anthropologists did...

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5. 1954—Project Nadir and Rebound

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pp. 189-226

Every summer as powwow time approached, members of the University of Chicago summer field party became drawn into community preparations for the event in one way or another. The students pitched in to help put up bleachers, clear brush, or put up advertising posters. Sometimes they went to the nightly practices on the...

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6. Fruits of Action Anthropology

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pp. 227-274

At the same time Sol Tax was launching the scholarship program, he also continued his search for a source of funds for more significant projects on the settlement. Finally in 1954 Tax chased the right rainbow and came up with a pot of gold—a $60,000 grant from the Schwartzhaupt Foundation of New York City to spend over four years...

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pp. 275-308

More than five decades after the first University of Chicago anthropology students came to the Meskwaki settlement, much had changed in the community. And much had not. Some issues that had bedeviled the community in the 1940s remained to be settled. New ones emerged. Old ones re-emerged in slightly different form...

Appendix 1: Participants in University of Chicago Project at Tama, Iowa, 1948–1958

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pp. 309-311

Appendix 2: Publications Related to Meskwaki

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pp. 313-316


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pp. 317-381


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pp. 383-403


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pp. 405-416

E-ISBN-13: 9780803218741
E-ISBN-10: 0803218745

Page Count: 716
Publication Year: 2008

Series Title: Critical Studies in the History of Anthropology