- The Meskwaki and Anthropologists: Action Anthropology Reconsidered
With The Meskwaki and Anthropologists: Action Anthropology Reconsidered, Judith Daubenmier has given us a well-written and finely detailed history and appraisal of the long-term impact of the Fox Project, a mid-twentieth-century ten-year experiment in ethnographic method among the Meskwaki Indians of Tama, Iowa, conceived and administered by Sol Tax in his early years as a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. Drawing upon the rich archives of the project housed in Chicago—especially the dozens of student field journals, correspondence, and interviews—the author has done a great service in repositioning the Fox Project in relation to developments [End Page 217] in the discipline of anthropology, federal Indian policy, relations between Indians and a sector of non-Indian society, and American Indian activism.
Sol Tax wrote his dissertation on the Iowa Meskwaki Indian community's kinship system in the early 1930s under Radcliffe-Brown while the latter was at Chicago. As he grew more and more committed to collaborative work, social justice, and a pragmatic view of social scientific knowledge over the course of the 1940s and '50s, Tax envisioned the possibility of simultaneously advancing such knowledge and helping the subjects of ethnographic fieldwork articulate and accomplish their own goals. He would realize these values in the Fox Project, a summer field school with the goal of teaching the nearly forty students who participated in it between 1948 and 1958 how to do ethnographic fieldwork. The practice and concept of action anthropology emerged as a result. It grew out of reflections chiefly by Tax and Lisa Peattie, daughter of Tax's colleague Robert Redfield; she was reared in a household where anthropological concerns were ambient. They pondered the implications of the interaction between the Indian community and students involved in a wide variety of social relationships with the rather complicated and politically sophisticated Meskwaki, who had always required relations of reciprocity with their guests (153), thus establishing the moral framework of this new ethnographic practice. The commitment to engagement with the community on the community's terms, as opposed to the terms of agencies that might fund particular projects, distinguished action anthropology from the applied anthropology of the war years and later. Judith Daubenmier gives us an intimate portrait of those exchanges and what both groups felt about them. As a result, many of the prominent students as well as Meskwaki community members come to life. The outcome is a complicated portrait that reveals the depth of the collaboration, the texture of the conflicts, and the consequences of the undertaking for the equally politically factionalized Indian and academic communities.
By way of contextualizing the Fox Project, and later, in showing some of its long-term effects in the community, we learn a great deal about the history and culture of the Meskwaki in this volume. Enemies of the French in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, punished by the federal government for their association with Blackhawk in the nineteenth century and slotted for removal, the Meskwaki resisted by [End Page 218] purchasing land along the Iowa River in 1857 and had the state hold it in trust for them. The federal government slowly engaged with the tribe in the late nineteenth century, yielding a complicated political history of interaction between tribal, state, and federal power. It was into this complexity that these university students entered, so we learn a lot about the nature of tribal politics through the author's tracing of the projects that students, Tax, and the community came to support. Among these were the Fox Educational Scholarship Program, which provided $83,000 over a seven-year period, and Tamacraft, a cooperative that marketed Indian crafts.
In policy and ideological registers, we see how the theme of Indian self-determination emerged and manifested itself in both Meskwaki and Sol Tax's intentions and actions in different spheres. We also see how Tax acted on his own initiative with the goal of Indian self-determination in mind...