Why read outdated and outmoded writing?

Contemporary anthropology has leapt ahead of our predecessors. We all know this (even if we don’t always know how it happened). We have a self-assured sense of the present, a fascination for innovation, for the glitter of new and improved ideas, approaches, and a youthful disdain for all things ancient and old fashioned. One needs merely look to the titles of articles in leading disciplinary journals and publishing houses to see the presentist concerns of our discipline. So why look back to work long since passed its best before date?

I suppose one could say it is good for you. Though that sort of reply doesn’t really convince. It’s medicinal and prescriptive. Of course I do believe it is good for you (and me) to pick up these old pieces of writing and turn them around in your mind’s eye.

I could say trust me you’ll like it. Clearly I do think that you should extend your trust to my good judgment. But like “it’s good for you,” accepting on blind faith still doesn’t bring you into the passion and excitement of the reading that I think lies waiting for you.

Of course there is also the coercive element. In a class the professor sets the reading list. Thus you are, by one means or anther, compelled to read the items prescribed. This may well be the ultimate factor making us read these items. Ultimately this is the worst reason to read something, even if it’s the real reason one is doing the reading.

I do think there are great reasons to read old stuff. We learn about the foundations of our discipline. We see early formulations of ideas that still resonate in our world and work. We get a chance to see different forms of professional writing. Even more importantly we can get critical insight into work that we are actively engaged in. Let try this out by exploring a really old piece of writing.

Let’s take a closer look at Franz Boas’ “The Growth of Indian Mythologies.”

Before we being allow me a note of self-referential context. The first time I read this paper I was a graduate student taking a course on the History of Anthropological Theory at the City University of New York. Eric Wolf was teaching the course. That was my first exposure to the works of Boas and, while I was familiar with the personage, I had a rather poor grasp of the corpus of his work. At that point in time I was intrigued by Boas’ conceptual notion of history; a sense of history seemingly disconnected from any specific date-based sense of time. This would make some sense as Wolf himself was very much about understanding human culture and society in the flow of historical processes. Wolf also saw culture as in a very real sense a system of ideas linked to what he called structural power (we’ll take more about his idea’s of culture later in our course).

Say what contemporary critics might say about Boas, but he was undeniable a thorough and meticulous scholar. Whereas it is standard form in the contemporary academy to willfully overlook contrary perspectives (or to disregard them out of hand with brief asides), Boas dealt with differing perspectives directly and clearly. He was interested, I think it fair to say, in considering all possible explanations in the search for the one most apt for the situation or the particular problem. You will note, for example, that Boas considers competing ideas, such as independent emergence of similar ideas/stories, the role of psychology in sharing human thought, or the common underlying structure of the mind in creating similar outcomes given similar environments, as he advances his own case for the role of dissemination in creating common cultural attributes among disparate peoples.

One further point – acculturation. Most of us will likely be familiar with the discredited side of this term: the idea of acculturating a minority or colonized group into a mainstream culture. That’s not how Boas is using the term. For him it’s about sharing and adopting cultural traits from other cultures and making them one’s own.

Boas’ scheme posits an area of highest development of a particular myth and then, as one moves further from that center, a gradual diminution in number of myths the distant group has in common with the area of high development. One can trace a dwindling down of an elaborate cycle of myths to mere adventures of incidents. Boas is careful to make clear that this is a multi-directional process.

Boas gives us an example in the Raven stories. We should note that he provides no details in this paper but he does have several volumes of published materials elsewhere on the Tsimshian and other First Nations that this short paper draws from. Tracing southward from the core area of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian Boas notes diminishment of the number of myths.

  • Northern Vancouver Island: 18 myths
  • Comox (east coast of Van. Is.): 8 myths
  • Nootka (Nuuchulnuth, west coast of Van. Is.): 6 myths
  • Coast Salish: 3 myths.

Geographical proximity is important, but not the only factor. In general, the further apart a group is, the fewer the number of shared elements. However, there are two situations where proximity doesn’t fully explain either a lack of similarities or the presence of similarities.

These are:

  • Relocations/shifts in location
  • Trade routes

Relocations At times tales common to a territory stop short at a certain point and then exist only in fragments beyond that point. Boas suggests a lack of acculturation due to:

  • Difference in character
  • Hostilities
  • Changes in groups location

Boas suggests that relocation is the most probable cause. He provides the Nuuxalk (Bella Coola) as an example. This is a Salish group who share more cultural traits with the southern coastal Salish then with the more proximate neighbours. This suggests, to Boas a more recent arrival or relocation and thus the Nuuxalk retain a temporal proximity to the southern Salish even as they are no longer in close proximity to them.

Trade routes. Though Boas doesn’t give this a much attention in his paper it is an aspect that jumps out to me.

Boas compares coastal groups with distant interior groups and notes a high number of common features is greater than might have been expected. Here’s the interesting thing – he brings forward the existence of three key trading routes: the Columbia, the Fraser, and the route into Bella Coola (he could also have spoken of the more northerly Skeena River).

Along these trade routes the similarities in myths are strongest, diminishing as one increases the distance from the trade routes. Thus, Boas concludes, the myths followed the lines of trade and travel!

Let me summarize the key points as I see them in Boas’ article.

  • The similarities in myths are more likely due to dissemination than to independent origins.
  • Boas also critiques the idea that myths are simply a ‘primitive’ attempt to explain phenomena of nature. The myths and their shared features are too complex to be simple attempts of explanations of nature.
  • Boas also critiques the idea that commonalities are a product of the idea that the human mind creates similar products under similar environmental conditions, that is, culture arises from abstract structures of the mind.
  • Discontinuities of myths in groups in close proximity and similarities between those far apart can be explained in terms of human movements across the landscape. In the first by the movement of a new group into an area, the second by the flow of commerce.

In my work I am called upon to prepare “expert opinions” that pertain to matters of aboriginal rights and title. The specific questions I am asked to consider may vary, but the general structure is similar and has been determined in the context of a history of jurisprudence. I am often asked to consider whether a particular practice predated European contact, did this practice survive contact, and does it persist in some form to the present. All manner of data needs to be considered in the formulation of my opinion. I have often found myself consulting early ethnographic accounts, published and unpublished materials. This is partly as a result of the legal requirement to find early accounts. I also conduct interviews with contemporary memory holders when that is useful and possible. However, in some communities the early ethnographies and historical documents are more useful than current memory. The early disruptions – disease, economic and political dislocations- have in many places broken the connections between the present and the past. Fortunately though, this is not the case everywhere and one finds many communities with current knowledge holders who are the authoritative source.

This piece by Boas offers a useful and important approach to these very contemporary issues. First, his detailed monographs (upon which he based this short paper) provide significant data about the societies in questions. One of my cousins, for example, gets quite exasperated with university-styled research sensitivities and constantly insists upon what is essentially an older Boasian style anthropology – get the information done she demands!

In this paper on the dissemination of histories and customs Boas lays down a way to conceptualize trade and exchange over long distances. This approach won’t provide the entire picture (elsewhere I lay out a foundation of what I believe is required to establish trade for economic benefit between Indigenous communities). However, this conceptual idea of the commonalities of myths and associated cultural practices following the lines of trade is a critical idea. This is an idea that is exciting to contemplate and explore; an idea that applies directly to very current and contemporary concerns within Indigenous communities.

Reading this old stuff is fun. It’s exciting. And, from the context of the work that I do it provides a new (ironic, no?!) vantage point to the problems and issues that I explore and write about in my work as a practicing anthropologist.