restricted access Text, Symbol, and Tradition in Northwest Coast Ethnology from Franz Boas to Claude Levi-Strauss
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text, symbol, and tradition in northwest coast ethnology from franz boas to claude lévi-strauss Regna Darnell The Americanist anthropology that I practice has evolved to its present stature and structure in great part as a result of the intersection of a culture area—the Northwest Coast—with the work of two seminal scholars— the German-turned-American Franz Boas and the Frenchman Claude LéviStrauss , who mined the broad ethnological fields of the Americas within a theoretical range not entirely incompatible with a characteristically Americanist historical particularism. To be sure, there is a degree of perversity in this reading. These two intellectual giants are hardly the only scholars to work on the Northwest Coast, as evidenced by the number of distinguished scholars contributing to this volume, both French and North American. Without question, there are dramatic and fundamental differences in the paradigms of historical particularism and structuralism. But there are also similarities, continuities amid the rhetorics of revolution and discontinuity (Darnell 1998). In this context, Claude Lévi-Strauss becomes a Boasian of sorts (Darnell 2001).These bordercrossings between the French and Americanist traditions come into focus on the Northwest Coast, which, I suggest, provides a veritable microcosm for the history of anthropology (Darnell 2000). Americanist anthropology has been remarkably insular, a myopia re- flected more in superficiality of historicist consciousness than in actuality. Recognition is long overdue that European colleagues (in the case of the Northwest Coast, particularly French and Russian colleagues) have contributed to the peculiar mélange of ethnological insight that constitutes our disciplinary heritage. My own work as a historian of anthropology has focused on the Americanist tradition because it seems to me to have been submerged without Tseng 2004.8.9 07:12 7132 Mauze / COMING TO SHORE / sheet 47 of 548 intellectual justification in a wave of post–World War II enthusiasm foroverseas fieldwork (already practiced by Lévi-Strauss in Brazil a decade earlier ) and British colonialist functionalism becoming degraded into implicitly ethnocentric interpretation, perhaps best exemplified by E. E. Evans-Pritchard ’s conclusion that the Azande were capable of rational thought but mistaken in the tools with which they thought. These tools were presumably deployed properly only by post-Victorian gentlemen in the field. I exaggerate , of course—in an attempt to highlight and reevaluate the Americanist position developed by Boas and his students during the first half of the past century. The distinctive features of the Americanist tradition, as I have argued elsewhere (Darnell 2001; Darnell inValentine and Darnell 1999), are mentalist , products of the human mind. Despite contrasts of the inductive and deductive methods, giving a dissimilar surface appearance to ethnographically based arguments, I suggest that these distinctive features characterize the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss as well as that of Franz Boas and his students. In sum: culture is a system, a structure if you prefer, of symbols contained in human minds situated in the context of particular social traditions. Language, thought, and reality are inseparable, their forms colored indelibly by categories learned through socialization. The database that provides access to these products of the human mind is encapsulated for study in texts, preferably volunteered in an interactional context and preferably in the native language. Such texts reveal the ‘‘native point of view,’’ ‘‘the culture as it appears to the Indian himself’’ (Berman 1996). The Americanist commitment to recording texts so that the accumulated knowledge preserved in oral traditions will not be lost to human history finds its downside, however, in an ethnocentric nostalgia for the formerly primitive that denies the contemporary vibrancy of First Nations (as we call Native Americans in Canada) communities and traditions. My own anthropological predilections lead me to treasure what Helen Codere (ed. 1966) called Boas’s ‘‘five-foot shelf of Kwakiutl ethnography’’ and to believe that this corpus has contemporary use-value in the communities that legitimately and inalienably own this irreplaceable intellectual property. Whatever we might want to say about the intractability of anthropologists, First Nations traditions are far from static. From this it follows that First Nations communities and individuals are not objects to be studied. Rather, at least ideally, and varying across individu8 darnell Tseng 2004.8.9 07:12 7132 Mauze / COMING TO SHORE / sheet 48 of 548 als, communities, and contexts, they are collaborators and consultants, embodying the possibility of respect coexisting with, perhaps even mutually reinforcing across, difference. My final suggestion for a fundamental characteristic of this Americanist tradition...