From the proposal for our current National Endowment for the Humanities Scholarly Editions and Translations grant, Edition of The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians (1897), by Franz Boas with George Hunt. Our project is, however, no longer connected with the Boas Documentary Edition series.
Statement of Significance and Impact
This NEH grant will support the collaborative production of a new edition of Franz Boas’s pioneering but long out-of-print 1897 monograph, The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians, as a volume in the newly inaugurated Franz Boas Documentary Edition series (University of Nebraska Press). Boas, considered the founder of North American anthropology and a preeminent intellectual of the 20th century, is noted for his research demolishing the underpinnings of “scientific” racism and his formulation of cultural relativism. He trained several generations of anthropologists (including Edward Sapir, Margaret Mead, and Ruth Benedict), and his theorizations of race, ethnicity, and expressive culture were deeply influential on American politics, fiction, and art. His major museum collections—especially from the Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) of British Columbia, Canada—are still viewed by millions annually.
However, there is little understanding today of Boas’s practice as an ethnographer, or of the relationship between his theoretical achievements and the proverbial “five-foot shelf” of his Kwakwaka’wakw publications. The 1897 monograph, one of the first holistic ethnographies based on fieldwork, is a critical text for understanding both Boas’s early career and his later achievements. Our extensively annotated edition will expand on new scholarly explorations of Boas’s thought that have been emerging across the humanities over the last twenty years, and bring them to a wider audience. It will integrate contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw perspectives, add substantial unpublished revisions to the monograph lost since Boas’s death, and analyze and make accessible widely distributed but little-known archival and museum collections that are directly linked to the production and afterlife of the original text.
Critical attention will bring fresh insight to the book in five areas. First, we will trace its far-reaching influence, often forgotten today, not just in anthropology and museums but also in art and art history, literary studies, religion, musicology, sociology and Native American studies. Second, we will show the book to have been a groundbreaking attempt to document all aspects of a Native American ceremonial and social system through photographs, museum collections, music scores, sound recordings, and Kwak’wala-language texts, which reveals Boas as an early adopter of modern media technologies for ethnographic research. Third, we will document that, although obscured in the book’s published form, it was fully co-authored by Boas’s indigenous fieldworker George Hunt, in a pivotal moment of collaboration that transformed Boas’s theory and methodology. Fourth, we will lay out how the book served as a ground plan for large portions of their research over the next four decades, in ways that are frequently invisible in later publications. Finally, we will provide a contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw evaluation of the book as an ambitious but flawed representation of their own culture, still frequently consulted within communities; although Hunt personally labored for many years to correct its shortcomings, it remains rooted both in Boas’s early typological approach, and in colonial contexts (such as assimilation policies and World’s Fair displays) that constitute the hidden conditions of its creation. At the same time, its production and reception record the advent of a uniquely indigenous form of modernity marked by the selective recording and performance of “tradition” as modes of cultural survival.
Our editorial team has extensive experience in, and publications on, the full range of media in the Boas archive, and includes two Kwakwaka’wakw anthropologists. With the support of important international institutions, a planned subsequent digital version—designed in relation to the print edition—will embed and make searchable much of the archival media on a free public website, providing an invaluable repository of primary scholarly materials while repatriating long inaccessible cultural knowledge to its indigenous inheritors. Through its revitalization of Boas and Hunt’s seminal ethnography, this project will contribute to the NEH’s “Bridging Cultures” initiative. Moreover, the new critical edition will help illuminate the intellectual foundation of Boas’s revolutionary emphasis on the plurality of cultures, as well as the role of anthropology as a practice of cultural translation.