A Tainted Claim to the West


When I was in second grade, a field trip to the Southwest Museum taught me more about the Southwest and America than I suspected. Stepping off the bus, we were herded into a long echoing tunnel lit by a series of dioramas carved into the walls. There we would pause to peer at the miniature images of Indian life: little brown figures milling acorns, fishing in tide pools and fending off a bear attack. Who could not be captivated by these scenes, so charmingly Lilliputian?

Today this innocence has lost most of its sheen. More nostalgic than factual, these dioramas are fanciful presumptions of ancient life, and as historian and professor Eliza McFeely makes clear in her impressive first book, "Zuni and the American Imagination," such presumptions are vestiges of our haunted, guilty and defensive claim on this continent.

Going back a little more than 100 years to a remote corner of the Southwest, McFeely tells a story that is less about the Zuni or Native Americans than it is about the people who studied them. Although her conclusions are not altogether new--others have criticized early studies of Indian culture--"Zuni and the American Imagination" is a fascinating account of a particular cultural collision and the sparks that passed at the time as science.

Interestingly, Patrick Tierney's recent book, "Darkness in El Dorado," tells a similar story, focusing on the abuses of a research team that studied a tribe of Indians in the Amazon in the 1960s, yet McFeely's is especially important for what it suggests--in a magnificently concise manner--about the pernicious, almost unconscious influence anthropologists had in shaping our national identity.

Zuni life has long been a Rorschach test for visitors, who have superimposed their imaginings onto this 1,000-year-old agricultural society with its mystical theocracy and rich ceremonial life. Was it--is it--pure democracy? Was it--is it--pure socialism? Answers have been suggested by such diverse writers as Edmund Wilson, Aldous Huxley and Robert Heinlein and have reflected a variety of perspectives.

McFeely focuses her story on the work of three pioneering anthropologists, Matilda Stevenson, Frank Hamilton Cushing and Stewart Culin. Like hundreds of other scientists, artists and surveyors, they caught the first stage west after Congress created the U.S. Geological Survey in 1879, thrilled and challenged by its broad mandate to classify the lands and the people within the United States.

Stevenson first arrived at Zuni with her husband in 1879 and studied the society up until her death in 1915. Cushing came soon thereafter and is best known for his reckless adventurism, at one point dressing in a costume he concocted of Zuni materials and at another obtaining a scalp in order to gain admittance to a private Zuni fraternity.

It was Culin, however, who left us with perhaps the most lasting legacy: As curator of ethnology at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences (now the Brooklyn Museum), he created a museum environment not unlike the one at the Southwest Museum.

Like children viewing dioramas, the three of them saw Indian culture with an innocence and curiosity and drew all the wrong conclusions.

As McFeely makes clear, they were products of their time, arriving on the scene at a moment in American history, after the Civil War and before the modern era, when American society was being pulled hard by its restlessness and geography and when science was reaching for any grand scheme that might unify the emerging disorder.

So caught up were Stevenson, Cushing and Culin in bridging the gap between their culture and Indian culture that they compromised what they learned by imposing themselves into their narratives; amassing, and in some cases manufacturing, artifacts without regard to their meaning or origin; and by profoundly changing a world they afterward recorded as pristine.

Their goals, however, were not entirely cavalier. Rather, their ambitions were simply too grand, seeking as they did the Holy Grail of American anthropology as defined by its 19th century dean, Louis Henry Morgan, who suggested that all mankind ascended the same cultural ladder--from savagery to barbarism to civilization--with some groups farther up the rungs than others. Study the Zuni, it was presumed in this case, and one would learn more about Europeans.

Evolutionary anthropology, as it was called, was grand, arrogant, racist and, perhaps most provocative, necessary. As McFeely suggests--in a form of deft cultural psychoanalysis--what lay at the heart of the cultural appropriation that Stevenson, Cushing and Culin perpetrated was an uneasy feeling that Americans might not actually belong in the West.

Yet museums, with their vast collections preserved under glass, became a popular antidote, linking people to the newfound land and its people and assuaging the conscience of a nation that feared even 100 years ago that it was driving the indigenous people to brink of extinction.

And the people who flocked to these museums (and fairs and exhibitions) were seeking, as McFeely argues, an answer to a more urgent question: What made Americans different from their European counterparts? Clearly their ambivalent relationship to Native Americans helped form the answer.

Today the legacy of Stevenson, Cushing and Culin is largely a curiosity but, by setting their lives and accomplishments in context, McFeely has created a compelling picture of a flawed yet utterly sympathetic moment in our history, a time when nothing was thought to be unknowable, when knowing justified possessing and when anything less was simply intolerable.

From a modern perspective, theirs is a distant yet cautionary tale. As scores of schoolchildren still walk through that tunnel at the Southwest Museum and view the dioramas, McFeely reminds us that easy interpretations of the differences between cultures and people, as seductive as they might be, are perhaps the most flawed and have more to say about our own discomfort with the steps that brought us here than we're willing to admit.

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