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20 1 Taking the Field: The Social Context of Southwestern Ethnography The urgency of the disappearing primitive cultures . . . remained with us. —Margaret Mead (1959)1 W hen beginning to address the ways in which feminist women anthropologists ethnographically constructed the Southwest, it is useful to start with an examination of the social context in which their research took place. As anthropologists, women ethnographers of this period were at the center of the emergence of cultural relativism in anthropology; as students of Franz Boas, they were advocates and leaders in that movement. The debates that centered within the emergence of cultural relativism would have a deep impact on the issues that women ethnographers addressed. In part, their research questions would be as much shaped by their striving to promote cultural relativism as to address feminist concerns in their work. In addition, a body of assumptions about women’s abilities and the safety of women researchers in the field led women to conduct research in the Southwest more than in any other American geographic region; as a result, feminist ethnographies came to play a much more visible role in the general ethnography of the Southwest than in any other contemporaneous regional ethnography inside or outside the United States. Further, the possibilities of career available to women ethnographers shaped their research and writing and connected their own experiences as women 21 TAKING THE FIELD and as feminists to the broader social structures of patriarchy that they came to critique. Thus, understanding the reasons women chose to conduct their research in the Southwest, the core debates against and within which they wrote, and the emergence of their feminism within their anthropological thought, is essential to understanding the texts that feminist anthropologists produced during the period. In the first half of the twentieth century, the Southwest was quite literally overrun with anthropologists doing ethnographic research. The Southwest held particular interest for ethnological researchers. It was accessible, attractive, offered a pleasant climate, and contained a great degree of cultural diversity. In addition, many saw the region as a safe place for women to conduct research, which encouraged advisors, such as Franz Boas, to send female graduate students there to begin their fieldwork. As a result, the Southwest became and has remained the site of the greatest concentration of ethnological research in the Western Hemisphere. The sheer volume of Southwestern research and the period of its flowering in the first half of the twentieth century made the resulting literature distinctive as a record of the emergence of several important intellectual trends. In the narrow context of the history of anthropology, Southwestern ethnography traces the development of anthropology as a discipline in the United States. Especially for the students of Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict, the Southwest became the training ground for an entire generation of anthropologists, from Margaret Mead to Robert Lowie. As anthropologist Keith Basso has pointed out, “Clyde Kluckhohn, an eminent student of culture, once wrote that anthropology was a ‘mirror for man.’ One could observe just as correctly that the history of research in the Southwest has been—and still is—a mirror of American anthropology.”2 Southwestern ethnography reflected the emergence of functionalism and anthropological psychology, approaches that came to dominate American anthropology until the latter half of the twentieth century. In addition, it traced the transitional period from the cultural evolutionary models touted by European ethnologists as well as the Bureau of American Ethnology to the cultural relativism associated with Franz Boas. In the broader context of American intellectual life, Southwestern ethnography illustrated the emergence of cultural relativism in public 22 CHAPTER 1 discourse, as modernism became more a part of everyday life. As an outgrowth of this trend, Southwestern ethnography both reflected and encouraged the popular conception of Southwestern Native American peoples as vanishing, as archaic, but ultimately, as the keys to the survival of Western civilization. As such, ethnography of the region played an important part in constructing an identity for the Southwest; that identity is reflected in the region’s present, where Pueblos have become tourist attractions, and travelers turn blind eyes to the “Made in Mexico” designations on the Navajo-style rugs they purchase for their suburban—and often eastern—homes. In short, ethnography created a discourse of what was legitimate and authentic in the Southwest that continues to be a matter of contention today. Columbia University anthropologists began to formulate the ethnographic definition of the Southwest soon after Franz Boas founded the first...


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