Vale Dell Hymes

As Kerim noted, Dell Hymes passed away. My connection to Hymes is tangential — mostly the odd personal connections that come with the small world of academics — and others will be able to memorialize him better than I. The passing of Hymes and Lévi-Strauss so closely together is sad but also offers a time for us to reflect on these academics, their legacies, and their different personal style. Lévi-Strauss loved culture and, at times, seemed almost traumatized that he was forced to study people in order to get at it. Hymes’s writings are equally scrupulous, but deeply honor human life and are dedicated to finding the beauty and complexity in the ephemeral moments of our speaking and story-telling. In 1968 Lévi-Strauss’s structures took to the streets. In 1972 Dell Hymes published Reinventing Anthropology.

Hymes’s legacy and importance is perhaps best captured in two essays in the Reed College alumni magazine, which recount his formative years at that institution. The first, Ways We Speak, discusses Hymes’s career in light of his early training at the college. Another, longer article (which is really a minor gem of anthropological intellectual history) by anthropologist Robert Moore is entitled Listening To Indians describes the Warm Springs project that trained Hymes and countless others. They’re both worth reading for learning more about Hymes and his work, especially for those who think of him as a ‘theorist’ rather than an ethnographer.

The best testimony to Hymes’s work, though, is Hymes himself. His faculty page at the University of Virginia shows his humility as a scholar, thoughtfulness, and mindfulness of the way even small occasions can become performances:

I never know what to say when someone asks what I have done and do. So much of it has depended and depends on circumstances. I have never done anything I would myself describe as theoretical or ethnographic (in a strict sense of either term), although I have often written about ideas, and spent a fair amount of time hanging around Indians. I am interested in what is done in the study of the use of language, oral narrative and poetry, the history of anthropology and linguistics, Native Americans, theology. […]

What’s interesting is real work. I am always interested in combating elitism and narrowness and the playing of ‘Western mind games’ (as one friend once put it) at the expense of the rest of the world. The justification for the existence of anthropology is to find out about the world, not produce third-rate philosophers. Two vital issues for the field are (a) to ensure that anthropologists are the knowledgeable peers of members of any other discipline concerned with peoples and topics anthropologists study and (b) to justify scholarship in its relation to the interests and abilities of others.


I still know something about the history of anthropology and of linguistics, and ethnography of speaking, but am actively concerned mostly with verbal traditions and languages of Oregon and Washington. (Other cases come up, as recently Wintu (Loon Woman), Mohave (Kroeber’s texts), Saami (‘Lapp’), and characteristics of oral epic (because of gatherings at Turku)).

Those with memories or (since this is the Internet) links to memories or resources are welcome to leave them in the comments.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

3 thoughts on “Vale Dell Hymes

  1. There is a rich and moving set of remembrances about Dell Hymes gathering on the Publore (ie. Public Folklore) listserv. I wish that the folklorists, linguists, and anthropologists were remembering him in a central place rather than in several isolated conversations. His work aimed to bring these fields together. Especially moving in the Publore discussions are firsthand accounts by former teaching assistants of his teaching style and techniques, which are quite remarkable as presented. The Publore archive can be gotten to online, but it is not as easy as a blog.

  2. Professor Jackson, can you tell me how to access the Publore archive? I’m trying to bring together all the obituaries and remembrances of my father at least on my own hard drive.

  3. Dear Robert,

    Please accept my condolences on the your loss of your father. I only met your him in person once (during one of his visits back to Indiana University in the 1990s), but his work and life were inspirational and a great many of his colleagues are mourning his passing.

    I have just tested it and it seems that one must subscribe to the Publore list in order gain access to its online archives. The listserv lives on computers at the University of New Mexico. A Google search on “publore” should take you right to it, but I would be very happy to consult the postings there, save them into a PDF document, and send them to you by email. Just email me at my Indiana University email address and I will send them in a reply to you.

    It is customary each year at the American Folklore Society meetings for a member of the Society to deliver a memorial statement in honor of each member who has passed during the preceding year. This is the main business of the business meeting. I am certain that such a statement will be prepared and read at the next AFS meetings in Nashville next fall. I would suggest that you get in contact with the AFS’s executive director Tim Lloyd (contact info can be found on the AFS website) so that he can arrange for this statement to be sent to you after it is delivered next fall. These statements are always very moving.

    Many people’s thoughts are with your family. I know that the events planned for the AAA meetings this year will be very meaningful.

    On behalf of his friends and colleagues here at Indiana, warm wishes.


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