Remembering Ira Jacknis

The following was published by the History of Anthropology Review on Oct. 18, 2021 by Regna Darnell, a Distinguished University Professor Emerita of Anthropology at the University of Western Ontario. 

I have known Ira Jacknis since he was a graduate student. Our work intersected in multiple contexts and locations. Ira and I shared interdisciplinary interests in Native Americans, collaborative research, museums as sites of interpretation and contemporary engagement, objects, public education and audiences among multiple publics, and the history of anthropology. Ira’s integration of these topics appeared seamless because it grew out of personal experience rather than grand theoretical models in a vacuum.

Because our experience was different, we pursued these common interests with different primary emphases. For me the glue was history of anthropology, engaging with Indigenous communities in collaborative relations that drew on linguistic anthropology and the contextualized meanings embedded in discourse. For Ira, the common thread was museum practice. Ira became a museum anthropologist after completing his dissertation and moving to the Hearst Museum of Anthropology as “research anthropologist,” a position that provided him with a lifelong baseline for eclectic research of his own choosing that resulted in wide ranging publications. His dissertation The Storage Box of Tradition: Kwakiutl Art, Anthropologists, and Museums, 1881-1891 appeared in 2002.

Ira’s BA in anthropology and art history was awarded summa cum laude. An internship at the Smithsonian with William Sturtevant introduced him to the challenges of archival research and he was hooked. He went on to graduate school at the University of Chicago with a committee that represented the range of his interests. Nancy Munn was an art historian with a theoretical bent, Ray Fogelson a consummate ethnographer and ethnohistorian specializing in the southeast, especially Georgia, and George W. Stocking Jr., the historian of anthropology whose writing for an audience of anthropologists established HOA as a legitimate subfield of anthropology. Ira’s work in HOA went beyond that of his mentor because he was interested in the minutiae of anthropology and how anthropological understandings emerged on the ground from the experience of practitioners.

He became perhaps anthropology’s best theorist of how things hang together as institutions, ideas, and networks of scholars and publics. I met him in the context of my work on Daniel Brinton at the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the links between Philadelphia, Stewart Culin and the Brooklyn Museum, all of which led back to the Field Museum and the University of Chicago as well as to my own work on Edward Sapir and to a lesser degree, Boas and other Boasians. For Ira, the salient figures were Alfred Kroeber and Robert Lowie as California articulated with the Boasian home base in New York. I moved to Canada in 1969 after my PhD at Penn, establishing another set of connections less salient for Ira though he did explore the permeability of the border for the Northwest Coast cultural area.

Ira was a modest man who knew his own worth and did not feel compelled to blow his own horn. He chose his projects carefully and offered his advice freely when he felt his expertise would be helpful and his efforts taken seriously. Ira was a frequent contributor to the Franz Boas Papers: Documentary Edition, Critical Studies in History of Anthropology, and History of Anthropology Annual series at the University of Nebraska Press. As series editor for all of these, I valued especially his meticulous editorial skill behind the scenes, as a reviewer of manuscripts with a remarkable ability to integrate disciplinary, areal, topical, and institutional connections to which more narrowly specialized reviewers would be oblivious. His reviews to authors were phrased kindly so as not to embarrass or antagonize the recipient He often waived his right to anonymity so the conversation could continue less formally.

Like the many scholars with whom he collaborated and whose work he supported, and his colleagues and friends, I will miss him.

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