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Ladies on the War Path

The Warrior Herdsmen

by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
Knopf, 254 pp., $5.95

The spectrum of anthropology is very wide and these two books are at either end of it; apart from the sex of the authors they have hardly anything in common. Yet some reflection on the contrast of manner may be rewarding.

Dr. Weltfish’s book is a full-scale ethnography of the buffalo-hunting Pawnee Indians of Nebraska. It is a reasonable inference from recent archaeological studies that people resembling the Pawnee in their general cultural attributes were located in central Nebraska from about the thirteenth century onwards but by the mid-nineteenth century their traditional mode of life had become a hopeless anachronism. In 1830 they may have numbered 12,000 but by 1859, as a consequence of combined attacks by Sioux raiders and White Man’s diseases, they had dwindled to 3400. In the 1870s a shattered people migrated south into Oklahoma, where they joined up with the remnants of another Indian group of similar language, the Wichita. By 1910 there were only 633 Pawnee left alive and by the time that Dr. Weltfish began her studies in 1928 the number of individuals who had had any firsthand experience of the traditional Nebraska life, even in its attenuated nineteenth-century form, must have been negligibly small. Her tale therefore is a reconstructed history pieced together out of linguistic texts recorded in 1928, the evidence of archaeology, the evidence of nineteenth-century travelers, miscellaneous ethnographic records by other authors, hearsay, and straight imagination.

The notes and bibliography (pp. 462-491) give an indication of sources but the list is far from complete and the author makes no serious attempt to discriminate between documented fact and fiction; and the fiction in this case is richly loaded with sentiment. The Pawnee are presented as Noble Savages whose splended community-focused way of life provides an object lesson for twentieth-century Americans caught up in the rat race of automated individualism. The book is quite sensibly arranged. After the first sixty pages, which provide essential background facts about the history and general culture, the rest consists of a series of brief episodic chapters which lead the reader through an imaginary Pawnee year of cultivation, camp routines, hunting, ceremonials, technical activities and so on. Informative certainly but it is an hurrah book rather than a work of science. The ordinary reader who wants to get a “feel” of what it was like to be a Plains Indian will find what he is looking for but the professional is constantly provoked into saying: How do you know that? For example in Chapter 3 the author faithfully records most of the things that are known and the other things which have been inferred about Pawnee kinship organization, but she does not reveal how conjectural this is and she fails to mention two key references—a paper by Alexander Lesser in Man (1930) and another by Floyd Lounsbury in Language (1956). And surely it is rather important that the reader should appreciate that the Pawnee seem to have engaged in various kinds of polygamous, polyandrous and wife-sharing practices? The text, if carefully read, reveals these facts, but the index is discreetly silent. As moral exemplars the Pawnee perhaps had their limitations!

When Dr. Weltfish started her professional career most American anthropologists knew exactly what they wanted to do. They accepted unreservedly the doctrines laid down by Franz Boas. They must preserve and commit to writing everything that was preservable or knowable about the languages and cultures of the American Indians. The nearer a particular group was to final extinction the more urgently must the aging survivors be coaxed into reminiscence about the romantic splendors of their youth. It was a type of historiography which called for inexhaustible patience with minimal reward. It may be significant that many of the most notable exponents of the method have been female. Not that the ladies have confined themselves to such sedentary forms of anthropology as text recording. Even before Gene Weltfish first went to the Pawnee, Margaret Mead, another pupil of Boas and associate of Ruth Benedict, had headed for the Pacific and for good or ill a new kind of American anthropology had begun.

As soon as the research anthropologist moved away from the North American continent the problems of anthropological investigation assumed a new appearance. The old question had been; “How can we reconstruct the historical shape of a society which has passed out of existence?” the new one was: “How can we best describe and analyze a primitive society which we can observe operating in full vigor directly before our eyes?” This idea, that anthropology should be primarily a kind of small group sociology or social psychology, the study of living people rather than a kind of historiography, the study of dead ones, was primarily a British innovation and its acceptance by American scholars has never been unqualified, but it has certainly changed the shape of the anthropological profession. In particular, it has made it more professional. Modern anthropological fieldwork calls for something much more than linguistic competence and a smattering of archaeology and comparative ethnography. The training is long and specialized; the research itself may entail living for months—or even years—on end in the depths of a tropical forest or the heart of an inaccessible desert. Most of the problems with which the researcher concerns himself lie right outside the ordinary man’s experience. The professional anthropologist has become as isolated as a nuclear physicist. This degree of specialization is something new. Of course it has always been the case that the expert could display esoteric learning—few of us want to know that the Pawnee addressed his maternal uncle as tiwatciriks—but there are vast numbers of people who are genuinely interested in North American Indians in a general way so that we are not at all surprised to find that Dr. Weltfish can tone down her professionalism to a point where she can address a wide audience. But this is because, despite a lifetime of academic work, she is, by modern standards, an amateur. The fieldworking anthropologist of the post-World War II generation has a more difficult problem; his expertise is so narrowly exotic that he can hardly communicate at all with anyone outside his own professional circle. Who has ever heard of the Dodoth?

Well, actually quite a lot of people, because Mrs. Thomas, in the guise of a “Reporter at Large,” has recently been writing about them in The New Yorker and now she puts it all in a book. Mrs. Thomas is an exceedingly useful sort of person, a kind of “half-professional” who has developed a flair for talking anthropology to a general audience and thus bridging the gap between the overspecialized “expert” and the ordinary layman. Some years ago she accompanied her parents on their outstandingly successful film-making expedition to the Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, but while her mother (Lorna Marshall) was writing technical ethnographic articles for the journal Africa, Mrs. Thomas was writing a best seller, The Harmless People, More recently she spent about six months in the Karamoja District of Uganda, chiefly among the Dodoth, a tribe of Nilo-Hamitic cattle herders culturally akin to the Jie, the Turkana, and the Karamojong. This book is the result. An anthropologist does not ordinarily expect to discover anything of very profound significance in the course of such a brief stay but it is an area where highly professional anthropological studies of the modern kind have recently been carried through by Drs. Gulliver and Dyson-Hudson, and Mrs. Thomas has taken advantage of this fact. The book does not read like an anthropological account at all. It contains few ethnographic facts of the more conventional sort, it is more like the personal journal of an exciting adventure and it has a lightness of touch which makes it everybody’s reading. Yet the underlying anthropological understanding is there, indeed much more so than in Dr. Weltfish’s academic text. The contrast could not be more striking.

Dr. Weltfish views her Pawnee from afar, everything is orderly and under control; Mrs. Thomas is the participant observer of a world in brutal chaos. She certainly had a lively time. Kenya and Uganda were on the point of achieving independence. Not far away in the Congo all civil government had collapsed. Everyone was feeling jumpy. Throughout her stay Turkana cattle thieves were raiding the Dodoth in force from across the Kenya border. Famine threatens; there are corpses in all directions; her I and Rover becomes a battle emplacement. The gruesome and the exotic are nicely combined; small children are speared to death, the witchdoctor comes to tea. It is true that in a comparable way we read about witchcraft and scalping and human sacrifice in Dr. Weltfish’s Lost Universe but there such things are only stories out of the past told for entertainment. In The Warrior Herdsmen the horrors really happen.

Mrs. Thomas is fond of her Dodoth in much the same way as Dr. Weltfish is fond of her Pawnee. But the Dodoth are real people of the twentieth century caught up in the trials and tribulations of emergent Africa while the Pawnee belong only to dreamland. Ephemeral perhaps, but Mrs. Thomas has written the more important book.

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