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U.S. Ethnohistory


Ethnohistory, first used in Vienna in the 1930s by ethnologist Fritz Roack and the Viennese Study Group for African Cultural History, and a subfield of anthropology, is the use of ethnological and historical methods and materials to gain knowledge of the nature and causes of change in a culture defined by ethnological concepts and categories. This definition, as the ethnohistorian Robert C. Euler explained in 1972, is the basic premise upon which American ethnohistorians can base their studies, formulate their methodologies, and construct their hypotheses. The concept and practice of ethnothistory is largely confined to the United States. Usually dealing with small groups that do not have written histories, ethnohistory offers a way of utilizing the rich record of historical experience in the search for processes. It is defined by ethnological concepts and categories gained through field observations and combines cross-disciplinary methods of historical document research and ethnographic studies such as linguistics, archaeology, and ecology to provide as complete a picture as possible of a whole culture.

Ideally, according to most American ethnohistorians, the discipline of anthropology should provide a natural meeting ground for ethnology and history. The supposed harmonious connection between the ethnological and historical fields has allowed for a more complete historical understanding of the materials and their uses and of the various approaches to the practice of ethnohistory, and offers suggestions and direction for the growth of the ethnohistorical field. Yet, as the ethnohistorian Bruce C. Trigger noted in 1982, significant social and ideological implications are inherent in the distinction between ethnohistory and history. Not the least of these distinctions appears in the argument put forward by the anthropologist Shepard Krech III, who suggested in 1991 that if one restricts the application of ethnohistory to particular groups or extends it to certain ethnic groups (minorities?) but not others (majorities?), then one may be charged with applying a special name to the history of the culturally distant Other.

Introduced in the United States during the 1950s, ethnohistory was virtually synonymous with the study of North American Indian societies. Ethnologists studied North American Indians, particularly their kinship and religion, because their societies were accessible, diverse, and perhaps most significant, safe subjects for scrutiny because the cultural artifacts were confined to specific areas and for the most part were not contaminated by previous study. But before the early 1950s ethnologists concerned themselves with the study of ethnic entities without a historical focus. This means that the identities, locations, contacts, and movements of various Indian tribes were studied—but not the history of how these variables come to be. As such, the understanding of ethnohistory, federal legislation, and ethnologists' focus on ethnic entities, combined with their lack of historical training, presented a number of problems in relation to the study and development of ethnohistory in the post-1970 period.

The first problem was that ethnohistory, as it came to be understood in the early 1950s, too long delayed in achieving a realistic position in American historical anthropological research because, in the first half of twentieth-century America, anthropology was dominated by the followers of Franz Boas (1858–1942). The anthropologist Robert Carmack indicated in 1972 that the Boasian school represented the field of "specific history" or the writing of histories of specific societies in terms of their past events or culture traits as manifested in time, space, and concrete act. Within this context, the main task of the Boasians was to infer historical reconstructions of aboriginal American Indian cultures with data obtained primarily from oral tradition. This type of research discounted the necessity for a "history in the round," in which a more narrative history—or ethnohistory—of the American Indians would be written in order to counterbalance the Boasian accounts.

Thus, as the ethnohistorian Karl Schwerin noted in 1976, "ethnohistoric research," and its influence on the post-1970s period, goes back at least to the time of Lewis H. Morgan who in 1877 drew on a variety of historical records in writing Ancient Society: or, Researches in the Line of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization. Chief among the early-twentieth-century ethnohistories are John Swanton's 1931 Source Material for the Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw Indians, Alfred Goldsworthy Bailey's 1937 study The Conflict of European and Eastern Algonkian Cultures, 1504—1700: A Study in Canadian Civilization, William Duncan Strong's 1940 From History to Prehistory in the Northern Great Plains, Thomas Dale Stewart's 1939 Anthropomeric Observations on the Eskimos and Indians of Labrador, and Bronislaw Malinowski's 1945 The Dynamics of Culture Change: An Inquiry into Race Relations in Africa. Philip Dark and John Crosskey's 1958 Mixtec Ethnohistory: A Method of Analysis of the Codical Art, which also needs to be included, provided one of the earlier studies of ethnohistoric methodology. The totality of these studies suggests that they influenced American anthropologists to attempt to weld data from ethnography, history, and archaeology (ethnohistory) in the reconstruction of culture history. Yet, not every anthropologist agreed with this assessment.

Robert Carmack, offering a position on ethnohistoric theory and methodology, suggested in 1972 that it would be unwise to label the theoretical use of history by such a wide variety of anthropologists as ethnohistory because any exclusive definition of ethnohistory depends primarily on methodological considerations. Carmack argued this point because anthropologists' inclusion of a historical dimension is basically recognition of the dynamic nature of social living and the need to build change into their explanatory models. Yet, Carmack's focus on anthropology in general was a type of disciplinary chauvinism, insisting that ethnohistorical theory is drawn from anthropology simply because anthropologists have been more explicit in stating their assumptions than have historians. Up till 1972, this was not the only theory to alter the direction of ethnohistory.

Federal legislation, the Indian Claims Commission Act of 1946, greatly influenced the course of ethnohistory. In the course of doing research, ethnologists examined realistically the reliability and validity of historical documentary sources, oral tradition, and ethnographic studies in the attempt to verify the extent of past control over territories claimed by particular Indian groups.

Although oral tradition and ethnographic studies are also valuable, documentary sources were used by ethnologists partly as a way of moving the field of ethnohistory from the once-promising use of "upstreaming" (working back from the present functioning society through the minds of individual informants to release cultural memories of which the informants themselves were but dimly aware) and partly because, as Eleanor Leacock and Nancy Lurie suggested in 1971, ethnographic reconstruction rather than "specific history" had become the overriding interest in the field. Still, there are anthropological theories that argue for the combination of the documentary sources with the oral tradition as a major part of ethnohistory. This is because the most common genre in ethnohistoric work is without question the historical narrative, which chronicles (part of) the past of a tribe or nation.

This anthropological involvement in the Indian Claims Commission Act led to the founding in the same year of the American Indian Ethnohistoric Conference. Two years earlier, the journal Ethnohistory had been founded under the chair-personship of Erminie Wheeler Voegelin, of the Ohio Valley Historical Indian Conference. From the beginning, as Henry Dobyns noted in Ethnohistory in 1972, "many of the publications" in this journal were directly relevant to the serious problem of fair dealing with Native Americans by the central government.

Some twenty years later (1966), following an open invitation to students in the fields of Oceanic, Asian, African, and Latin American ethnohistory to join and contribute research papers to Ethnohistory, the American Indian Conference changed its name to the American Society for Ethnohistory. The anthropologist Francis Jennings suggested in 1980 that the name change reflected "in microcosm the movement of interest [in ethnohistory] among collaborating historians and anthropologists in the United States, starting from a subject matter base in American Indians and broadening their sights to encompass tribal and peasant societies everywhere" (p. 90). This call for participation and contribution in the field of ethnohistory led to studies appearing in Ethnohistory on Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, and other countries not typically associated with this field of study.

Consequently, in relation to the ethnologist's focus on ethnic entities, or what could be labeled the study of folk culture (which could be a literal meaning of the word ethnohistory), ethnohistoric research began to include much of North American and Latin American history. Reasons for including Latin American history vary, but research based on documents that ethnologists used to study the North American Indian before the early 1950s has a long and honorable history in Latin America. Indeed, it can be argued that one of the fertile fields for future ethnohistoric research is to be found in Latin America. Two pre-1970s essays—Richard Adams's 1962 essay Ethnohistoric Research Methods: Some Latin American Features and William Sturtevant's 1966 essay Anthropology, History, and Ethnohistory—made clear that as the 1970s approached there were strong suggestions that the progression of the ethnohistoric field depended on scholars and students of ethnohistory (with a increasing connection to the physical sciences) studying Indian societies outside the United States.

Indeed, there is a link between ethnohistory and physical science and biology (natural history). In a most basic form, the ethnologist, who deals with affairs of the mind through observation, classification, and interpretation, viewed himself as a natural scientist and as much a humanist as the historian. And since the humanist focus is the ethnologist's stock in trade and its analysis and description in time and space is the business of ethnology, ethnohistory has the virtue of neither reducing anthropology to history nor excluding a scientific viewpoint.

Directly related to this point was the organization of one of the first U.S. symposia on the concept of ethnohistory. Held in 1961, the symposium's theme, outside of historical aspects of folklore and the relationship of archaeology to ethnohistory, was providing a definition for ethnohistory. From the standpoint of the ethnohistorians and others who attended, ethnohistory came to be defined as original research in the documentary history of the culture of primitive peoples.

One year later (1962), Fenton argued that he was struck by the fact that the field collecting and laboratory work of the natural scientists and the arrangement of collections had influenced anthropological research in natural history, particularly in archaeology and material culture. Thus, one of the legacies of the natural sciences is that ethnologists and natural historians share a sense of problem and a sense of design. This sense of connection provides a lead-in to several points and suggestions to improve the state, outlook, and direction of ethnohistory in the twenty-first century.

Perhaps the most realistic argument to be made is that a stronger position for ethnohistory in the curricula of academic departments of both history and anthropology, with a focus on seminar classes, would improve the ethnohistorical approach to research. Fellowships and professorships would allow scholars and students to work at centers of materials and to examine the languages and cultures of the New World in light of their contribution to Western thought as reflected in the literatures of linguistics, anthropology, and social theory.

There should also be a continuation of a cultural historic approach to folk history, including studies of North American Indian tales and pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican folk history. In relation to demography and the close attention it has recently received in ethnohistory, there is still a need to focus on the causes of population growth and the factors that influence the stabilization of populations. And, although once considered a rare field for ethnohistoric study, a comprehensive ecological examination of human impact upon the land can lead to the change over time of the connections between humans and their culture. And finally, ethnohistoric study can have a profound impact on the study of ideology that could lead to electrifying growth within this field.

Whereas it has been noted that most of the interest in ethnohistory results from native people creating a new awareness of themselves among European-Americans, the growing interest and research in ethnohistory finds support in a number of journals outside of Ethnohistory. These include the Journal of African History, the Journal of Pacific History, the Journal of Comparative Society and History, and the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. These journals provide a broad view of important ethnohistoric work on African cultures, cultures of the Pacific islands, and Judeo-Christian cultural development in the West.

Glen Anthony Harris

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ephemeris to Evolution - Historical Background