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A chewy if bite-sized exploration of US anthropological research among the Zuñi a century ago, from McFeely (Anthropology/Coll. of New Jersey).

The Zuñi exert a fascination on Americans far beyond their size. Much of the reason for the start of that fascination has to do with McFeely’s subjects—Matilda Stevenson, Frank Hamilton Cushing, and Stewart Culin—who were gathering artifacts of this small agricultural community from the deserts of New Mexico long before there was a science of anthropology. The author suggests that we can learn a lot about our own culture (in the 19th century, that is) by examining how these three went about their work, a thought that fits neatly—and has for some time—into the critical self-examination today’s anthropologists are bringing to their practice. One hundred years ago the Zuñi were “imagined as an island away from the tempest of modern life, a place where the demands of modern civilization were temporarily suspended and the harsh experience of savagery tempered civilization’s metal.” We were not particularly happy with our own lot in the 1880s, and the communal, ceremonial, and spiritual life of the Zuñi, as collected and reported back by Stevenson, Cushing, and Culin, was a sort of antidote to American malaise (as it was to become once more in the 1960s). Of course, as McFeely notes, the Zuñi cosmology was tapped for its buttressing of preconceived ideas of the ethnologists, especially patterns of cultural evolution, “a grand teleological narrative that had Anglo-Saxon culture as its final chapter.” They were also rapacious collectors, who “sought to save Zuñi by dismantling it.” But as ethnologists, they “helped lay the groundwork for this new historical particularism, though the paradigm that had shaped their own researches in the field lead to an evolutionary dead end.”

An intelligent contribution to the rethinking of modern anthropology, whose once-prescient ideas and elegant fieldwork have been turned to ridiculous notions of cultural appropriation. (8 b&w illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: April 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-8090-2707-0
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2001