September 26


From the desk of Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz

Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz is the Director of the Center for Intercultural Dialogue and Professor Emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. In addition to Rolling in Ditches with Shamans, she has written or edited a dozen other books. Below she discusses why she chose to research Jaime de Angulo.

Disciplinary history fascinates me. It provides answers to questions of why we study the topics we do, using methods we too often take for granted. As a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1970s, many of my professors–chief among them, Dell Hymes, Ray Birdwhistell, Dan Ben-Amos, John Fought–always took for granted a broad historical context as the obvious starting point.

But why this particular topic, studying the professionalization of anthropology in the 1920s and 1930s as told through an intellectual biography of Jaime de Angulo, a mostly forgotten scholar who never held an academic position?

Most intellectual biographies focus on the central figures in history, which makes obvious sense. Despite this, sometimes minor characters serve best to help us understand what was happening. Jaime de Angulo knew and worked with the three most important scholars in anthropology at the time it was becoming a recognized discipline studied at universities: Franz Boaz, Edward Sapir, and Alfred Kroeber. Being a marginal actor in the drama, de Angulo serves as a fulcrum for a consideration of the more significant actors.

De Angulo was appropriate for a number of other reasons as well:

  • He was active across the cusp of professionalization, thus serving as a focus of attention for what happened at the ground level. The period of his most extensive research coincides almost perfectly with the decade of transition, with nearly all his field work conducted between 1920 and 1933.
  • This was the time when amateur scholars (privatgelehrters, in Robert Lowie’s term) were widely used. De Angulo personifies the period, being one of the last of the amateurs whose work was accepted as valid by the professionals. By the late 1930s, there were not only an ample number of academically trained anthropologists available to do the research but an overabundance, due to the Depression, and those without appropriate academic degrees were unlikely to be acknowledged as competent.
  • American anthropology in the 1920s emphasized the study of Native American cultures and languages, de Angulo’s focus as well. In keeping with the methodology of the time, many of his studies were “salvage” ethnography or linguistics – that is, he documented cultures that were being suppressed, and languages only a small number of speakers still used as their first language.
  • Unlike most of anthropologists in the 1920s, de Angulo did not only reconstruct his informants’ past ways of living and speaking, but recorded their present use of language and way of life as well. He was most intrigued by the interface with White culture, documented in such publications as “Indians in Overalls.”
  • In addition to writing ethnographic and linguistic analyses, de Angulo also wrote fiction and poetry describing the Native Americans he studied, thus providing a good case study of the difference genre makes in writing. Today, he is better known for Indian Tales, a fictional synthesis of traditional Achumawi myths, songs, and stories of everyday life, than for any of his more academic publications.
  • At the time de Angulo worked, the boundaries between disciplines were more porous than today. Specifically, during the 1930s and 1940s he moved between the group of Berkeley anthropologists led by Alfred Kroeber, students of psychology under Carl Jung, the Taos and Big Sur artistic communities of D. H. Lawrence, Robinson Jeffers, Mabel Dodge Luhan and Henry Miller, and poets grouped around Ezra Pound such as Marianne Moore. Certainly others in anthropology have been actively involved in psychology or fiction or poetry, but rarely has one person been a part of so many very different clusters involving well-known people. Today, of course, it would be virtually impossible to get to know so many major figures across several disciplines.

For all these reasons, de Angulo turned out to be an obvious choice. But studying minor characters has a substantial drawback – few publications are available documenting their lives and contributions, and so learning even basic facts becomes difficult. So how did I locate the information described in this book? Much of the answer is that people used to write a lot of very detailed letters, and many academics have deposited these to archives where they are publicly available. The Boas papers at the American Philosophical Society, the Kroeber collection at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Sapir papers at the Canadian Ethnological Society archives each held substantial numbers of letters to and from de Angulo supplying critical parts of the story. Materials held by other archives filled in gaps. De Angulo’s published work held further clues. De Angulo’s daughter Gui graciously provided access to still further letters, often from her mother, and unpublished materials, also sharing not only her memories but her then unpublished biography of her father’s life. It was satisfying to put these puzzle pieces together in a way no one else had.

-Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz