John Wesley Powell and His Work With the Bureau of Ethnology Thesis

Pages: 17 (4661 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 10  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Native Americans

Classification of Native American Tribes Into Cultural Families

Native American Considerations

Contrary to some citizens of the West who considered the Indians to be savages, John Wesley Powell saw the Native Americans as people. Powell perceived these people as part of a culture that had experienced a long human history, a culture of people who had to struggle to survive.

Powell subscribed to the message in the words by William Dwight Whitney, the leading American academic linguist of the 1800s; noted at this paper's start. Whitney asserted that rather than stigmatizing the Indians, those who considered themselves civilized should learn everything they could from the Indians. Whitney's words "foreshadowed the theoretical perspective that Powell would pursue later by means of the method of testing mutual intelligibility statements with lexical data."

To better understand how the current classification of Native American Tribes into cultural families evolved, this paper explores John Wesley Powell's work as the Head of the Smithsonian's Bureau of Ethnology.

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Prior to the establishment of the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE), Secretary Joseph Henry, from the start of his tenure, encouraged/supported systematic efforts by the Smithsonian Institution to develop a linguistic classification. For Henry, language merited a vital status in constructing human history. Along with Henry R. Schoolcraft, who in 1855 wrote "A letter on the affinities of dialects in New Mexico" (in Vol. 5 of Information respecting the history, condition, and prospects of the Indian tribes of the United States), Henry perceived comparative philology to be the key to unravel the origins of native groups. Languages, according to Henry's understanding, evolved from instinctive, mental, physical, and environmental factors, and consequently were able to proffer clues to universal, as well as these groups' particular characteristics.

Thesis on John Wesley Powell and His Work With the Bureau of Ethnology Assignment

Ethnology Defined Ethnology or Cultural Anthropology constitutes one of the four subdivisions of anthropology. The other subdivisions include:

Physical anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics.

Traditionally practiced by socio-cultural anthropologists embraces the study of cultures in their traditional forms, as well as their adaptations to changing conditions in the contemporary world.

Ethnography, the observational branch of ethnology, describes each culture, including its language, the physical characteristics of its people, its material products, and its social customs. In describing a particular tribe, for example, ethnographers gather information about its location and geographical environment. They also investigate all aspects of its culture, including food, shelter, dress, transportation, and manufacture of the tribe; its customs regarding government, property, and division of labor; its patterns of production and exchange; its customs regarding birth, adulthood initiation rites, marriage, and death; its religious ideas relating to magic, supernatural beings, and the universe; and its artistic, mythological, and ceremonial interpretations of its natural and social environment.

John Wesley Powell, a major in the military, lost his fight arm in the Battle of Shiloh. In 1869, he led a boat expedition through the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. During his tenure as the first director of the BE, which he headed until he died in 1902, Powell, along with his colleagues serve as a primary force for the protection of antiquities on federal lands.

Figure 1 portrays Powell during 1886.

Figure 1: John Wesley Powell at His Desk in 1886.

Life Synopsis in 1860, during the Civil War, Powell enlisted in the 20th Illinois volunteers; entering in as second lieutenant. For a time, stationed at Cape Girardeau, he served as captain of battery F. Of the 2nd Illinois artillery. Here, he engaged in the battle of Shiloh, and then lost his right arm at Pittsburg Landing. After his wound healed, Powell returned to the service, and fought in the battles of Champion Hill and Black River Bridge. Emma Dean, his wife, obtained permission from General Grant to accompany Powell on the battlefield to nurse him. When operations about Vicksburg closed, Powell underwent the second operation on the remaining part of his amputated arm. He later returned to his post in season to take participate in the raid at Meridan. Later, Powell was promoted to major, and chief of artillery, first, of the 17th army corps, and "subsequently, of the department of Tennessee, taking part in the operations before Atlanta and in the battle of Franklin." After the end of the Civil War, Powell left the service with the title of "major" in 1865. Powell became a professor of geology and curator of the museum of the Illinois Wesleyan University at Bloomingto. He later received the degree of Ph.D. from Heidelberg, Germany, and that of LL.D. from Harvard University. As he worked with the Illinois Normal University, Powell became well-known by his lectures and addresses relating to scientific subjects.

Native American Race the American Anthropological Association 2000 "Statement on 'Race'" contends that to Powell, "race" evolved as a worldview, a collage of prejudgments that distort a person's perceptions about human differences, and/or group behavior. "Racial beliefs constitute myths about the diversity in the human species and about the abilities and behavior of people homogenized into 'racial categories.'"

Myths meld physical features and behavior regarding race into society's mind. In turn, this impedes the perception of others regarding their comprehension of biological variations, and/or cultural behavior; insinuating that genetics determines both these traits. Racial myths counter the truth regarding human capabilities, Powell purported. "Scientist today find that reliance on such folk beliefs about human differences in research has led to misconceptions."

Contemporary knowledge purports that the normal human possesses the capacity to achieve and function within any culture. Historical and contemporary social, economic, educational, and political circumstances produce the inequalities that separate designated "racial" groups; not biological inheritance.

The Bureau of American Ethnology

Toward the end of the summer in 1881, Powell, the director of the newly created Bureau of Ethnology hired Victor Mindeleff, a new architect to begin work on his field studies of Native American houses and "social arrangements" in the American Southwest. In 1894, the Bureau of Ethnology became the Bureau of American Ethnology or BAE. Mindeleff and his younger brother, Cosmos, focused on the architecture of Southwestern Native American peoples.

Along with serving as director of the BE, Powell also became director of the USGS and the BE (later known as the BAE).

Powell proved to be a master of the Washington practice of expanding a bureau. He began the BE staff with eight men, five of them transferred from the USGS, which enabled these men to proceed with their plans regarding e their ethnographic studies, albeit under new sponsorship. The five men transferred from the USGS included the Reverend James O. Dorsey, Albert S. Gatschet, James C. Pilling, Stephen Powers, and S.R. Riggs. In only a few months the Bureau staff totaled twenty; including an (William H. Holmes, a librarian, a stenographer, two photographers, three messengers, and four clerks. In time, the Bureau also hired two Native American scholars, J.N.B. Hewitt, a Tuscarora, in 1886, and Francis La Flesche, an Omaha, in 1910. Both these individuals contributed substantial writings for the Bureau's publications.

The Bureau experienced conflicting demands from its start. Secretary Baird, successor to Henry in 1878, stressed that Congress primarily wanted specimens for the National Museum; not in Indian languages. Powell contended that continuing to survey the Indian tribes; particularly the languages of the Indians merited the Bureau's primary priority. He argued in 1881:

All sound anthropologic investigation... must have a firm foundation in language. Customs, laws, government, institutions, mythologies, religions, even arts cannot be properly understood without a fundamental knowledge of the languages which express the ideas and thoughts embodied therein."

According to Neil Judd, Powell considered the Bureau of Ethnology entirely his private kingdom, while the Baird perceived the BE simply an adjunct of the Smithsonian.

Major Powell and Lewis Henry Morgan

During the period following the American Civil War, the U.S. Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region was established and Major J.W. Powell named Geologist in Charge. In addition to exploring the West and mapping the region and detailing its vast mineral wealth, he became extremely interested in the Native American peoples he encountered and their languages. Powell undertook both linguistic and ethnographic studies of these peoples and those interests led him to the work of Lewis Henry Morgan. By this time, Morgan had evolved in his own thinking a scheme, an explanatory theory if you will, that presented humankind's progress through three great stages, Savagery, Barbarism, and Civilization. The presentation of this general theory, Classical Evolutionary Theory as it has come to be called, was made in his book Ancient Society published in 1877.

Influence of Morgan's Book

Morgan's book helped Powell better understand the Native American peoples. After Powell read Morgan's book, he wrote Morgan, again, noting that, "After reading your book and...after reviewing certain facts which I had noted among the Indians of the west, I am satisfied that the gens exists among tribes where I supposed it absent." Powell planned to further investigate social groups defined according to unilineal descent, akin to clans and lineages; groups Morgan identified as "gens" or "gentile organizations."

Mutual Nurtured Interests


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