Many images, stories and representations of Native American people and culture have shaped museums, images, films and what seems to be historical media today. However, throughout history, “cannibalization” of information may have resulted in some misrepresentations of the Native American culture today. A longtime study of how past anthropologists bought, took or “cannibalized” information from Native American tribes to be displayed in museums, and other areas was explained at length by, University of Pennsylvania Historian and anthropologist, Dr. Margaret M. Bruchac on Wednesday, Nov. 28, in the Mountain View Room.
Bruchac explained, “The degree of which certain tribes were represented in anthropology had everything to do with the degree to which they had gatekeepers who were willing or not willing to work with anthropologists.” The relationships between anthropologists and “gatekeepers,” as Bruchac called them, referring to the correspondence between those who researched the cultures, tribes of Native people and those who worked as informants within or with affiliation to these tribes, who in some cases even worked for payment.
“When I started this project I hoped that I could find a few letters from Native individuals, or journals or something that might tell me what they thought or why they did this. They wrote hundreds of letters. Many of these people engaged in correspondence that lasted for forty years or so with their informants,” Bruchac said. Bruchac, who is also of Abenaki Indian descent, explained that the layout of her most recent project, a work titled “Consorting with Savages; Indigenous Informants and American Anthropologists” lays out chapters that work to give a sense of how “museum collections were shaped,” as well as who majorly worked in shaping these collections. According to Bruchac, her work and research works to explain, “Some of the key foundational knowledge of anthropology, how we collect those materials that are valued and in some cases devalued, and what are practices and protocols of ethnographic, not just selection, but exoticism.”
As the idea of “Consorting with Savages” discusses the cannibalization of information, Dr. Sally Joyce a professor of American Studies at KSC said, “American Indians in general have been outraged at the digging up of their artifacts for profit, or their dead relatives for research purposes. There is a federal law now, called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act [put into effect in 1992] that states that museums that receive Federal funds must return all bodies, body parts, and sacred artifacts that were taken earlier in history to the tribes they came from.” Joyce, who worked in hosting the event, explained, “Marge Bruchac is certainly a star in New England Indian Studies. Her family is a well-known Abenaki family. She taught a class in American Studies for us in 2009 and has been on campus doing various presentations over the years.”
Bruchac explained in her lecture that she has worked to answer questions, such as “How are ideal ethnographic subjects chosen? Who was the perfect Indian? What were some strategies of assimilation, representation and authentication that Native People themselves went through in order to survive the twentieth-century–and in order to survive in the present?” Bruchac added, “Many of these anthropologists and historians claimed for themselves, the right to determine who was Indian, what was valid, what was authentic and what was not.”
Bruchac used many examples of researchers and anthropologists, such as Franz Boas, considered the Father of Anthropology and their informants, often Native Americans somehow affiliated with the area and tribe being studied by the researcher. These examples, as well as others were used to further explain different methods of research and how information was created and put together. The stories Bruchac shared also demonstrated how certain Native American groups were either represented or misrepresented in the process of research and presentations of information.
Boas, who spent a majority of his time in his office during his largest research project, used the help of an informant who was predominantly affiliated with certain tribes because of his wives who spoke the language and could work well with the Native People. Bruchac explained that, not only did Boas’ informant stage and record certain events, but, “What most people don’t know, is that Boas himself was the model for these manikins. Boas himself is stripping down and being photographed so the sculptor can work from him. Incidentally these photographs were missing for many years. When they resurfaced about six or seven years ago, their was this big outcry, because he was the great father of anthropology.” Bruchac explained that, “These issues of cultural rights and cultural property representation were very big. It’s important to realize that many of these relationships were scripted.”
Bruchac, who has received research awards from the American Philosophical Society, the Five College Fellowship, and the University of Massachusetts- Amherst, explained, “Much of my research was in the archives of the Museum of American Indians, the American Museum of National History and the Smithsonian institution.” Bruchac explained that a lot of the research done of Native Americans and their cultures took place during very important eras for them and American history. “Their life spans covered these really key moments in American history. It’s the era of removal of Native children to boarding schools. It’s the era of forcing tribal communities on to reservations. It was the era when American governmental officials were debating on whether or not Indians should be allowed to be citizens and whether they should be allowed to vote and how much play should they have in the government systems that control,” Bruchac said.
Bruchac also noted, “The Native People in this project were not passive subjects. They shaped their own roles in representation. They mediated very specific degrees in knowledge. They strategically collected and traded artifacts. Sometimes they made artifacts to put to order. They would find out what was needed or desired. But they frequently endured criticism from their own communities for playing these roles. They kept voluminous correspondence and wrote with at length with each other and that was what surprised everyone.”
Another example Bruchac used to explain how the Native Americans shaped their own cultures and representation went with the research of Frank Speck, influential American anthropologist and professor at the University of Penn. Although Speck immersed himself in the culture of the tribes he case studied, the people of the tribes also worked to give him certain information as well.
Bruchac shared, “When I look at the correspondence that Speck got from these Indian people, they were not just handing over unfiltered data. They would wait for him. Sometimes they would meet and say, ‘So, what’s he looking for this time? Do you have any stories to tell him? Quick think of a story, he’ll pay you 50 cents for a story.’” Buchac also mentioned that Speck would “interview children, but quite often he would polish their work or not credit them, or make it sound like they were more adult at points.”
Speck and Boas were just two of many examples given in Bruchac’s speech and her most recent work. However, she spoke of her time working in anthropology and many other fields as well. Bruchac explained, “I’m in a very interesting position. I’m a tribal storyteller, I’m a historian, I’m a history interpreter, I’m an informant and I’m also an anthropologist.“ Bruchac noted, “What’s interesting, – Is that the savages [could say] I’m consorting with are the anthropologists. So that title is potentially cutting both ways.”
Pamela Bump can be contacted at