Zuni and the American Imagination
by Eliza McFeely

Nonfiction Book Reviews : History / Anthropology / Native American Cultures

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Zuni and the American Imagination , by Eliza McFeely

Hardcover - 209 pages
First Edition, April 2001
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN 0-8090-2707-0

            In the 1800s, three American anthropologists independently studied the pueblo-dwelling Zuni society of New Mexico. The reports by Matilda Coxe Stevenson (1849-1915), Frank Hamilton Cushing (1857-1900) and Stewart Culin (1858-1929) made the U.S. population aware of this little-known Native American culture, and sparked considerable interest, but some erroneous reports also perpetuated stereotypes and other harmful disinformation.

            In writing her first book, Dr. Eliza McFeely, history teacher at the College of New Jersey, set out to right the wrongs, and impart a new understanding of and appreciation for the Zuni way of life.

Zuni and the American Imagination by Eliza McFeely

            The book turned out to focus not on the Zuni people, but on the actions and motives of the three anthropologists.

            Matilda Stevenson wished to work her way into acceptance by the federal government bureaucracy, and acted according to her idea of what a government anthropologist would have to be. She persuaded General William T. Sherman to give the order that an army fort in New Mexico would provide her with the mules that would take her beyond the reaches of the railroad. While living and working with the Zunis, she compiled an enormous collection of details which she used to write a 600-page government document.

            Frank Cushing sought to manufacture a myth about himself as a brave adventurer, exploring where no white person had gone before. In truth, there were numerous white settlers and traders in proximity to the Zuni pueblos. Instead of writing directly about the Zuni people, he injected imagery about his own heroism in being among them.

            Stewart Culin was a museum curator interested mainly in collecting artifacts for an exhibit. He hardly made note of Zuni culture and relationships, but he hauled 6,500 masks, dolls, toys, eating utensils and religious objects back to the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, which is now called the Brooklyn Museum. The only field work he did was that necessary to acquire titles and brief descriptions of the artifacts. The exhibit opened in 1905.

            Culin made two breakthroughs, not in anthropology but in the style of museum administration. He was the curator who discarded the policy that museums were to be intended primarily for scholars and students, and introduced the idea that museums were meant for the general public. He also invented the idea of arranging museum exhibits such that a visitor gets the feeling of walking through another time and place, visiting an exotic world.

Table of Contents

Zuni and the American Imagination ,
by Eliza McFeely

Preface 					 ix
Acknowledgements			       xiii

1.  Finding Zuni				  3
2.  Imagining America				 25
3.  Two-Fold One-Kind : Matilda Stevenson	 43
4.  A Plate of Grace : Frank Hamilton Cushing	 75
5.  Blue Beard's Chamber : Stewart Culin        111

Conclusion : Zuni Legacy			149

Notes						171
Bibliography					185
Index						197

            All three of these anthropologists accepted the premise which Eliza McFeely calls "salvage ethnology." In this belief, popular in the 19th century, human history everywhere moves through specific stages, and the forces of history inevitably make the barbarians extinct. Therefore, the job if the anthropologist is to record knowledge of cultures that once were, before all traces of them are gone forever, for the benefit of the people of the future.

            The concept of salvaging remnants of a doomed people is a grotesque distortion of the theory of anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, author of the 1877 work Ancient Society . Stevenson cited Morgan frequently, as does Dr. McFeely's new book. Morgan had discovered that all societies in the world develop through three stages -- these are purely technical terms, not judgmental ones -- savagery (prior to the invention of pottery and the bow and arrow), barbarism (prior to the invention of hieroglyphics or phonetic writing), and civilization (with the beginning of the political state and the formal institution of private property, and the appearance of ruling and ruled economic classes). However, Morgan did not assert that pre-industrial societies are inevitably doomed to extinction, nor did he assert that it is the purpose of anthropology to gather the data and artifacts before doomed cultures vanish entirely.

Reviewed by Mike Lepore for

            Although the book does not contain extensive information about Zuni society itself, I enthusiastically recommend this book to readers of nonfiction who are interested in how Native American societies came to be portrayed in U.S. history in terms of stereotypes.

            Hardcover only. 204 pages. Insert with 9 black and white photographs. 8-page 2-column index.

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Book Description
From the Publisher

          Zuni society existed for centuries before there was a United States, and it still exists in its desert pueblo in what is now New Mexico. More than a hundred years ago, three anthropologists -- among the first in this new discipline -- came to Zuni to study it and to salvage what they could of its tangible culture before modern life engulfed and destroyed it, which they believed was sure to happen.

          The pioneering work of Matilda Stevenson, Frank Hamilton Cushing, and Stewart Culin -- and their belief in the power and significance of Zuni life -- put this fascinating Native American group into the heart of the American imagination, where it has resided ever since. The complex relationship between the Zuni as they were and are, and the Zuni as imagined by these three easterners, is at the heart of Eliza McFeely's important new book.

          Stevenson, Cushing, and Culin were eccentric, remarkable personalities in their own right, and McFeely gives ample consideration to each of them in her colorful and absorbing study. For different reasons, all three found professional and psychological satisfaction in leaving the East for the West, in submerging themselves in an alien, little-known world, and in bringing back to the nation's new museums and exhibit halls literally thousands of Zuni artifacts.

          Their doctrines about social development, their notions of "salvage anthropology," their cultural biases and predispositions have now been superseded, even repudiated, but nonetheless their work imprinted Zuni on the American imagination in ways we have yet to measure. It is the great merit of McFeely's fascinating work that she puts their intellectual and personal adventures into a just and measured perspective; she enlightens us about America, about Zuni, and about how we understand each other.

Book Review
reprinted with the permission of Amazon.com

          The ancient settlement of Zuni Pueblo has seen many visitors over the centuries, from Spanish conquistadors to tourists from around the world. For more than a century, it has also drawn great attention from anthropologists, three of whom -- Matilda Coxe Stevenson, Frank Hamilton Cushing, and Stewart Culin -- brought remarkably different views of the Zuni people to the professional literature.

          In this study, historian Eliza McFeely considers the work of Stevenson, Cushing, and Culin at Zuni, which, though influential, often misrepresented the realities of life there. Although of mixed value for anthropologists today, their work, McFeely suggests, reveals much about what contemporary Anglo Americans wished Native Americans to be; their "scientific creation stories" point to the shortcomings and contributions of the anthropological enterprise.

          A woman committed to science and accustomed to having to struggle in a culture dominated by men, Stevenson, for example, gave undue import to the role of women in Zuni society and revealed secretly observed rituals while dismissing matters of spirituality as superstitious. Cushing, a writer of then-popular books, tended to turn all Zuni expression into fables. "When artifacts and informants could not answer his questions," McFeely holds, "he 're-created' the circumstances and allowed his own intuition to supply the missing links." And Culin was so entranced by Zuni material culture, by baskets and jewelry he acquired mostly from white traders, that he scarcely seems to have noticed the living people of the pueblo.

          McFeely's critical study of fieldwork at Zuni throws light on Native American history, and the uses and misuses to which it has been put.

-- Gregory McNamee

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Zuni and the American Imagination , by Eliza McFeely
Published 2001 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux -- ISBN 0-8090-2707-0