- Crow-Omaha: New Light on a Classic Problem of Kinship Analysis edited by Thomas R. Trautmann and Peter M. Whiteley
This book, resulting from a 2010 Amerind Foundation Advanced Seminar, is a timely and welcome addition to the new resurgence in kinship research. As the editors state, the “Crow-Omaha problem” is “at base, why some kinship systems equate relatives of different generations.” The volume’s core ambition is to explain the terminological skewing (merging of terms across generations for certain kin) and the distinctive unilineal-descent-group prohibitions on marriage that typify both “Crow” and “Omaha.” The range of case studies (North and South America, Africa, and Australia), methods, and theoretical positions provides a major contribution to kinship research.
Although pleasantly diverse in theoretical perspectives, evolutionism was the intended framework for the book. Thomas Trautmann places terminology and marital alliance models comparatively within evolutionary relationships to Iroquois and Dravidian term systems. Nicholas Allen speculates on how the terminology and alliances may evolve from his hypothesized “tetradic” model for early kinship. Peter Whiteley examines patterns in terminology across North America to model evolutionary trajectories among Dravidian, Iroquois, [End Page 107] and Crow-Omaha systems. Ward Wheeler et al. use a novel approach to 90 variables among North American cultures for phylogenetic classification to test hypothesized evolutionary relationships. Although evolutionism will have little appeal to today’s anthropology, the latter two chapters contribute innovative methods and identify patterns useful for contextualizing cultures within broader North America.
Many chapters test relationships among social organization, marriage, and term skewing. Although empirical data on the 19th-century Omaha indicate a very strong adherence to the marital proscriptions of the Omaha people and the Omaha type’s definitions (B.E. Ensor, “Kinship and Marriage among the Omaha, 1886–1902,” Ethnology 42 : 1–14), R.H. Barnes seeks but fails to find prescriptive alliances among the Omaha, which is neither the Omaha’s nor the type’s marriage system, to challenge the validity of the type’s definitions. David Kronenfeld tests relationships between terminology and social factors using ethnographic data on the Fanti. His use of an alternative system for illustration, contributing to the techniques employed in the book, entertains the notion, popular in other chapters, that crossness is a precondition for skewing: termed “overlay,” this may occur under certain social contexts. He also doubts a relationship with prescriptive marital alliances. Careful scrutiny of Kronenfeld’s descriptions actually suggests adherence to the basic Crow marriage system’s proscriptions. That debate aside, the overlay concept seems to resonate with many of the other authors in the volume. Meanwhile, Whiteley found evidence among historical Hopi practices for social organization and marriage influencing terminology. Wendy James examines multiple Nilotic cultures’ sister exchange practices, leading to an alternative conclusion that the expectations for children behind marriages explain skewing among same-sex parents and offspring. The two chapters on South America, and one on Australia, further support the linking of terminology to social contexts.
Represented in the book are the promising new linguistic techniques to model social change and spread of kinship practices inspired by Per Hage (see Jones and Milicek, Kinship, Language, and Prehistory: Per Hage and the Renaissance in Kinship Studies  and McConvell et al., Kinship Systems: Change and Reconstruction ). Christopher Ehret analyzes nomenclature among Nilo-Saharan peoples, including matrilineal to patrilineal shifts in the past. Patrick McConvell provides a “downstream spreading” hypothesis on the diffusion of Omaha and Omaha-like skewing across Australia that integrates kin nomenclature with social organization and marriage and discusses the relevance of the model to North America and New Guinea.
Reminiscent of J.H. Moore’s (1988) thesis on Cheyenne kin terminology, another developing contemporary perspective views nomenclature as a form of agency within political-economic contexts. The two chapters on South America, by Marcela Coelho de Souza and Terence Turner, are excellent examples, which together describe skewing as a form of transformative agency to create groups...