Savage Minds Native Anthropologist Biographies (SMNAB)

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Matthew T. Bradley

Over the next four weeks I will be posting a series of biographical sketches of indigenous anthropologists. The genesis of my month’s guest blogging lies in a late October biographical post on Ely S. Parker I put together for my personal blog. Rex contacted me after seeing the post to broach the idea, motivated in part by the intention to “alter how Google remembers [indigenous anthropologists].” I never walked to school barefoot in the snow, but I do remember a pre-recap era Internet back before fresh content had less shelf life than a quart of milk. Call me a geek, but the opportunity to craft something digital and durable struck me as authentically exciting.

“Three Iroquois in Diverse Costumes,” c. 1827 watercolor by Tuscarora ethnologist David Cusick. Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture, object no. X.521, New-York State Historical Society.

Conflict of interest

I was raised in an American Indian community.1 If I have some self-interest in this endeavor it is in pushing back against taken for granted notions of othering and the exotic that reside in the imaginations of many a student of anthropology.

There was never really a time when I didn’t know what an anthropologist was. I was checking out books by James Mooney and John Swanton from my elementary school library. My Cherokee language teacher in high school was a local native speaker who had earned an anthropology degree at the University of Georgia. Contra what seems to be the general perception of an invariably hostile perception of anthropologists within Native communities, I do not recall ever being explicitly told that anthropologists as a tribe were the bad guys. This is not to say that there weren’t tensions. This was pre-NAGPRA and I have vivid memories of visiting museums as a child to find Native American remains on display. That didn’t get a free pass from me or from other members of my community, but nor did it lead to a tarnishing of the discipline as a whole.

Contrast the quotidianess of anthropology in my youth with the manner in which most Americans encounter it (if they do at all!), including professional anthropologists, namely in a university setting at age 18 or later. As my teacher Jason Jackson pointed at during a graduate seminar meeting, the chances of finding an ethnography on the shelves of a randomly selected Middle American home are vanishingly slim. On the other hand, the chances of finding an ethnography amongst the domestic assemblage of an American Indian household are not bad at all. In short, anthropologists tend to be a lot less mysterious to Indians than vice versa, and it shouldn’t come as anything of a surprise that some Indians have seen much of value there. As Alfonso Ortiz said,

I decided to go into anthropology because here was a field in which I could read about Indians all the time and teach, and further Indian opportunity, especially in education… Nor had any other currently fashionable field of endeavor yet proven relevant to Indian concerns and aspirations.2


Most if not all of the anthropologists I will be discussing over the next month researched in and produced work about face to face communities. In many cases these communities were their own. While I will not be repeating the point in all of my posts, please do not assume that I know the ins and outs of the source community’s relationship to the individuals and their body of work. I write under the assumption that a variety of perspectives exist within each of these communities, and that these perspectives have and will continue to shift across time.


1. See Max E. White, “Anthropologists and the Eastern Cherokees,” in Anthropologists and Indians in the New South, ed. Rachel Bonney and J. Anthony Paredes (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001), 11–16 and Raymond D. Fogelson, “Bringing home the fire: Bob Thomas and Cherokee Studies,” in A good Cherokee, a good anthropologist: papers in honor of Robert K. Thomas, ed. Steve Pavlik, Contemporary American Indian Issues Series 8 (Los Angeles: American Indian Studies Center, University of California, 1998), 105–18.

2. Peter M. Whiteley, “Alfonso Ortiz (1939–1997),” American Anthropologist, n.s. 101, no. 2 (June 1999): 392, doi:10.1525/aa.1999.101.2.392.

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