Neil L. Whitehead: An Appreciation

Michael E. Harkin is a professor of anthropology at the University of Wyoming. He served as associate editor of  Ethnohistory for ten years under Neil Whitehead and then as coeditor with Matthew Restall for six years. He is currently editor of Reviews in Anthropology.

Neil Lancelot Whitehead (1956–2012) was an important anthropologist and ethnohistorian of lowland South America whose academic interests stretched well beyond this base to include explorations into music, sexuality, and the “post-human.” Neil was born in the London suburbs and was educated at Balliol College, Oxford. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in philosophy and psychology, he went on to pursue the D. Phil. in anthropology, also at Oxford, receiving it in 1984. After holding a series of fellowships, he went on to accept a tenure-track appointment at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1988.

Neil’s early work was in the mode of historical anthropology or, as he would later come to know it as editor of the field’s flagship journal, ethnohistory. His research centered in Guyana. His first book, Lords of the Tiger Spirit, used ethnohistorical methods, archival and library research, and fieldwork to produce an analysis of the development of postcontact Carib polity. This was followed up with a critical edition of Walter Raleigh’s The Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana. He was a great advocate for using firsthand accounts of explorers and colonizers when available; although their bias was evident, often their empirical observations contained useful information. Even their prejudice could be helpful in reproducing the cultural conditions of the encounter. This was evident in the work that he and anthropologist Michael Harbsmeier did with the journal of Hans Staden, who was a sixteenth-century captive of the Tupinamba in Brazil.

In addition to his methodological contributions to ethnohistory, he made significant theoretical ones. In 1989 he codirected a seminar at SAR in Santa Fe with Brian Ferguson. This led to the acclaimed volume War in the Tribal Zone. In this book the argument is made that intertribal warfare was not a primordial condition but rather a direct effect of contact and invasion. As societies were shattered by disease and conquest, groups reorganized themselves into defensive, militaristic tribes with greater hierarchy and stratification. While this model would not apply everywhere—the league of the Iroquois comes to mind as a counterexample—it has been widely accepted for lowland South America and parts of the Caribbean. Moreover, it undermines certain unconscious assumptions made by many scholars: for instance, that indigenous societies of the Americas and elsewhere were by their very nature brutally violent, a condition that could be changed only through their pacification by colonial powers.

9780803298170The ideological uses of history—what Neil would call “historicity”—were a concern of his throughout his career. He edited the 2003 volume Histories and Historicities in Amazonia for the University of Nebraska Press. This book brought together a diverse group of scholars of lowland South America with a common interest in showing how historical consciousness, reflected in both narrative and nonnarrative forms (e.g., landscape), is a significant factor in cultural identity and is a politically powerful force.

Neil’s penchant for collaborating with like-minded scholars was a hallmark of his career. In the early 2000s he organized three seminars at SAR and an invited session at the American Anthropological Association meeting that resulted in a special issue of Anthropology and Humanism. His focus in these collaborations was the poetics and cultural logic of violence. The SAR seminars culminated in the edited volumes Violence and Dangerous Liaisons: Anthropologists and the National Security State.

In Dark Shamans (2002) Neil describes his very personal experience of violence as a victim of a kanaimà attack while carrying out fieldwork. These are random attacks on sleeping victims that employ poisons, mutilation, and sorcery, and often lead to death. Neil argues that these attacks are indeed real but carry with them considerable symbolic meaning as well. The kanaimà complex needs to be read within the context of postcolonialism and compared to similar phenomena such as witch killings, genocide, terrorism, and “cultures of violence” in Western culture (mass shootings, violent films and video games, etc.). This book weaves together ethnographic data, personal reflection, comparative cultural analysis, and a range of theoretical concepts in an anthropological tour de force.

Despite his active research agenda, Neil was generous with his time and performed great service to his field. He served as department chair at the University of Wisconsin, a position he held at the time of his death. He also served two terms as editor of Ethnohistory from 1997 to 2007. During his tenure as editor, he strove to raise the journal’s profile by making it more international and more interdisciplinary, a trajectory it has followed in years since.

Despite his elite education and occasionally flamboyant behavior, Neil was a modest man with a common touch. He was an avid hunter in his adopted state, a popular teacher, and devoted father and husband. To those of us who worked with him in any capacity, he was a supportive and helpful colleague and an undeniably important scholar.

-Michael E. Harkin