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The Man Who Became an Indian

Zuñi Breadstuff

by Frank Hamilton Cushing
Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, 673, 27 plates pp., $10.00 (paper)

Frank Hamilton Cushing (1857-1900) was one of those pioneers who get buried by the rush of progress in the very territory they have opened up. Barely known today other than by a few specialists and buffs, Cushing is a central figure in the history of American anthropology. “Probably the first professional ethnologist,”1 he is generally credited (in passing references) with having laid the foundations for scientific study of the ethnology and archaeology of the American Southwest. He was the brightest star of the Bureau of American Ethnology in its illustrious first years under the directorship of Major John Wesley Powell, and he had in fact considerable fame in his own lifetime as an investigator of Indians.

His professional influence, moreover, extended beyond America to such figures in European anthropology and sociology as Lévy-Bruhl, Durkheim, and Mauss, and by way of their work ideas of his have filtered down to writers as current as Lévi-Strauss and as far afield from anthropology as Owen Barfield. Naturally he was known to Edmund Wilson, who sooner or later discovered everything. Cushing, Wilson informs us in his book Red, Black, Blond, and Olive,

was an admirable writer—almost as much a literary man as he was a technical expert; and, if the historians of American literature had seriously done their work, he would be recognized not merely as a classic in the anthropological field but as an artist who had something in common with Doughty of Arabia.

Zuñi Breadstuff is in truth one of the special classics in American Indian studies, and its reappearance after half a century is a welcome event.2 Concerned not merely with the breadstuff itself but with the part it plays throughout Zuñi life and lore, the book’s contents are various indeed, ranging from sacred creation myths and folk yarns to descriptions of contemporary planting techniques, festivals, and ceremonies, from discussions of ancient architectural, pottery, and basket-weaving designs to anecdotes of dinners, hunting trips, and other adventures—a teeming presence of persons, places, things, and events, held together throughout by their relation to the all-essential corn food. Reviewing the book in 1921, A. L. Kroeber wrote, “There seems to be no other piece of writing that renders so complete and true and powerful an impression of Zuñi as Breadstuff.” The judgment is as true now as it was then.

In 1879, the year of Cushing’s arrival at Zuñi Pueblo, the conquest of the Indians was nearly complete and the new Americans had begun to indulge an interest in the waning culture of the old. The Bureau of American Ethnology had just been established, and the “collecting party” to which the twenty-two-year-old Cushing was assigned was one of its first expeditions. The expectation was that he would spend about three months finding out all there was to know camping the while with his colleagues in tents outside the pueblo. One of his first professional field experiences, however, was frustration at how little he could learn as an outsider, and he soon abandoned the tents of his colleagues and—to the consternation of everyone, including the Zuñis—moved in with the Indians, establishing himself, without invitation, in a room belonging to the governor, or head chief. “How long will it be before you go back to Washington?” asked the governor, upon discovering his guest.

As it turned out, Cushing remained for four and a half years, became proficient in the language, and—partly winning his way through a combination of charm, luck, and stubbornness, and partly being pulled along by the Indians’ own determination to convert and absorb him—entered so far into the life of the pueblo that he not only was formally initiated into the tribe but became a member of the tribal council and of the priesthood. The original “participant observer,” Cushing was the first anthropologist to have actually lived with his subjects over an extended period—and the only man in history entitled to sign himself, as he once did at the end of an official letter, “1st War Chief of Zuñi, U.S. Asst. Ethnologist.”

When he was a child Cushing had been excused from regular school because of frail health and had learned, it seems, in the best Emersonian fashion, not from books but from nature, spending much of his time alone in the woods and fields around his father’s farm in central New York. At about the age of ten, coming upon an arrowhead, he had become fascinated by the idea that Indians had once lived on that same ground, and from that time on, according to his own account, his life became centered in the attempt to re-create for himself the life of those Indians.

Using as his headquarters the ruin of an ancient Indian fortification he had come upon in the woods, he communed with the spirits of the place for days, and nights, at a time. More than that, he not only gathered a large collection of artifacts (later deposited at the Smithsonian) but experimented tirelessly to reproduce these objects and thereby to recover knowledge of how they had been made and used originally. Developing on his own both a gift for handcrafts and the powers of close observation for which he was later famous, he became expert at making arrowheads and other implements, and he experimented as well with pottery, basket-weaving, and the construction of birch-bark and log canoes. In doing so, according to Powell, he made a number of remarkable discoveries about Indian methods of workmanship, as well as recognizing for what they were a variety of relics that had never before been noticed.3

Even given capacities of this sort on Cushing’s part, however, finding out all there was to know about the Zuñi required much more enterprise than anyone had bargained for. To begin with, neither the Zuñis nor Cushing’s white colleagues were prepared for what his move into the pueblo involved; and if Cushing himself assumed that he could pursue his work entirely on his own terms, he was to find otherwise. Far from according with any existing scientific norm, moving in with the “savages” was apparently regarded by most of his colleagues as bizarre and absurd; and when he elected to remain in Zuñi rather than accompany the expedition on its further travels, he seems to have been left rather unceremoniously—and without provisions. More lonely and helpless than he had expected, Cushing thus found himself totally dependent on those upon whom he had been intruding. The Indians in turn, out of pity and propriety, accepted him—but on their terms—vowing to make a Zuñi of him, taking away his eastern clothes and his comfortable hammock, dressing him in Zuñi garb, and undertaking to “harden his meat” by subjecting him to the rigors of their way of life.

Submitting cheerfully to these discomforts, despite his physical frailty and a tendency to both respiratory and digestive disorders, Cushing made up his mind to let the Zuñis do with him what they wished. He had already begun making friends, especially in the family of the governor, with whom he lived, and now the latter took him over as his particular charge. Still, serious strains could hardly be avoided—Cushing’s central aim continuing to be to gather information and that of the Zuñis being to continue their way of life undisturbed by outsiders. He was persistently finding his way past taboos into places where he did not belong, and his unyielding and sometimes fierce insistence on always taking notes and sketching everything came near to costing his life before the Indians satisfied themselves that he was harmless.

Also, adaptable as he was, he found that his own taboos conflicted sometimes with their demands—for example, their insistence, long resisted, that he allow them to pierce his ear lobes, an act whose importance he was slow to perceive but which turned out to be prelude to the ceremony in which he was formally adopted and given his Indian name. To repeated attempts to get him married to a Zuñi girl he never did give in, managing to pass himself off as being too young to think of it. And then there were the times when whatever resistance he felt to the other culture’s tastes or values had simply to be swallowed unseen, as on the occasion he recalls in Breadstuff when, still “fresh from the East,” he was invited to share his first Zuñi family meal—all hands in the bean pot. When he scalded his fingers trying to dip in with the rest, his alert and considerate hostess

quietly rose and went hunting about for something. Presently she found that something on the floor where the baby had been playing with it. It was an old, broken-handled pewter spoon. She caught it up, and seeing that it was—not very clean—put it into her own mouth, good woman, licked it off thoroughly, then went to the water-jar and rinsed out that organ; but it never seemed to occur to her to rinse off the spoon! At any rate, without doing so, she approached me and was about to hand it to me when the old man gave her dress-skirt a surreptitious jerk and whispered something. She gave me a quick, scared look, then reached for a brown, very old cotton mantle which was lying on the floor (the one she had on was too clean) and wiped the spoon off with it. Then with an air which seemed to say, “Could a Melik woman have done better than that?” she handed me the spoon.

While appreciating her courtesy, the fastidious Cushing clearly took considerable satisfaction in his own courteous acceptance and use of that spoon (after stirring it about a good deal in the steaming pot) and in his subsequent enjoyment of the stew. So, of course, did the Zuñis. He was immediately inundated with dinner invitations and was known from then on as “He-Who-Eats-From-One-Dish-With-Us-With-One-Spoon.”

From the beginning Cushing was impressed by the communal ceremonies he witnessed in Zuñi, and his interest was much aroused as he became aware before long of other activities going on—ceremonial meetings of various sacred societies or priesthoods—which he was not supposed to witness. The first glimpse he contrived to get of one of these meetings revealed, he wrote, “a mysterious life by which I had little dreamed I was surrounded.” Gaining access to that “mysterious life,” becoming himself a high priest in the most prestigious of the sacred orders, the Priesthood of the Bow, was the work of years and involved, as well as arduous ordeals of motionlessness, silence, fasting, and dancing to exhaustion, a spiritual and psychological investment perhaps greater than Cushing himself cared to realize. Later on, when he had returned east and lapsed from the religious observances he had practiced as a Zuñi, he was visited by a troubling dream about returning to the true way and his true self.

During this time Cushing became intimately involved in all aspects of Zuñi life. Dwelling as he did in an apartment occupied by the governor and his wife, together with nine assorted relatives, he became like a member of the family, close to all the details of their domestic life and implicated in the intricacies of their personal relationships. In the village at large he took part in all the tasks, and through close observation and patient practice he became expert in the various Zuñi handcrafts, to the point where, as Major Powell put it, “there was nothing that a Zuñi could make he could not reproduce with greater skill.”

As he improved his knowledge of the language and assimilated the complexities of the Zuñi social order, he assumed an influential role in the government of the tribe. And, a gifted raconteur, he became not only a recognized authority in matters of Zuñi history, myth, and ceremony but a favorite among the tribal storytellers, making contributions of his own to the collective store. So much, indeed, did he think like a Zuñi that he got into trouble with a local Indian agent for shooting a trespassing Navajo horse. Cushing was unrepentant, and the flamboyant figure he cut striding about in his Indian costume did not endear him to the agent. It was on this occasion that he wrote one of the letters on which he signed himself “1st War Chief of Zuñi, U.S. Asst. Ethnologist.”

This odd title really epitomizes both Cushing’s peculiar genius and his unique place in the annals of anthropology. No “participant” before him had been a disciplined observer with anything like his scientific aims and methods; nor has participation in tribal life by any scientific observer after him extended so far or been so central to the very modes of observation, let alone—barring a few recent exceptions—so admissible to the record. For a proper eastern gentleman of the Victorian age, and for an undoubting believer in science and progress dedicated first and last to the gathering of data, he was really a remarkable man. What he brought to his science were the imagination and talents, and some of the quirks, of an artist.

It was, of course, this overlapping of observation and imagination, of US ethnologist and adoptive Zuñi, in Cushing’s work that made him an anachronistic figure as twentieth-century anthropology came to identify more and more with the “exact” sciences. Not surprisingly, on the other hand, it was precisely upon this same unique combination of characteristics, extending into Cushing’s theoretical concepts, that his reputation and influence among his own contemporaries both here and abroad were based.

Cushing himself, moreover, was quite aware of the questions raised by his radically participatory methods. Indeed he was far ahead of his time in recognizing as inherent in the nature of anthropology itself the problem of the observers’ “tendency…to read into their renderings of things their [own] personalities.” Nevertheless, he wrote, “the day is fast approaching when it will be demonstrated that the personal equation is the supremely essential thing in such researches as this, provided it has been abundantly [saturated] with the primitive elements it is dealing with—has absorbed at all points practical, sensational or emotional.”4

In the matter of handcrafts, Cushing’s method as a mature archaeologist was the direct outgrowth of his boyhood experiments at arrowhead making. “If I would study any old, lost art,” he wrote, “I must make myself the artisan of it—must, by examining its products, learn both to see and to feel as much as may be the conditions under which they were produced and the needs they supplied or satisfied; then, rigidly adhering to those conditions and constrained by their resources alone, as ignorantly and anxiously strive with my own hands to reproduce, not to imitate, these things as ever strove primitive man to produce them.” His findings through such an approach, while usually controversial, carry the authority of the craftsman, and in at least some cases (e.g., his theory of the independent evolution of southwestern pottery from woven baskets) have been verified by later research.

What primitive conditions and resources implied to Cushing was not confined, of course, simply to material considerations. Among his more influential contributions, in fact, were his observations concerning the significance carried in the forms of things, because of the Zuñi way of perceiving all things as living, including “the things made or born in their special forms by the hands of men.” Cushing gives every evidence of having whole-heartedly shared with his Indians this sense of what is alive—and has a meaning that needs only to be divined—in all things born, made, or performed. And the work of reproduction to which he patiently disciplined himself amounted to seeking, so to speak, the divinations which might be performed by his own hands. Reviving the primitive function of the hands, he could, as Lévy-Bruhl paraphrases him, “live over again with them their experience of prehistoric days…when the hands were so at one with the mind that they really formed part of it” (Lévy-Bruhl’s italics).

What Lévy-Bruhl found in Cushing was a rich source both of insight and of documentation basic to the development of his own concept of the “law of participation,” i.e., his theory of primitive cognition as based on “collective representations or projections of communally shared psychic values onto the external world.” This recognition of the way collective values and feelings can invest the discrete forms of primitive life with potency was taken up by such writers as Ernst Cassirer and Owen Barfield.

Cushing moreover perceived a coherent order in this Zuñi world of circumambient powers, an order based on a conception of the cosmos as divided sevenfold into “spirit worlds,” each related to the center or “Middle of the World.” It was this order which he saw indeed as underlying and defining every aspect of pueblo life. The elemental forces of nature, plants, and animals, seasonal changes, birth, growth, and death all are identified according to this fundamental division which Cushing found to be evident likewise in the design of the buildings, the agricultural practices, the symbols and ritual observances, the totemic associations and clan and priesthood organizations, the housing arrangements—in short in all aspects of the culture.

It was this division theory and the use he made of it in expounding the “mytho-sociologic organization” of Zuñi society that Cushing passed on to Durkheim and Mauss—a contribution observed by Claude Lévi-Strauss in a discussion of their pioneer work Primitive Classifications. Noting that Durkheim and Mauss “received their inspiration from the work of Cushing, which it has been fashionable in recent years to belittle,” Lévi-Strauss goes on to remark that

Cushing’s insight and sociological imagination make him deserving of a seat on [Lewis Henry] Morgan’s right, as one of the great fore-runners of social structure studies…. [His faults] will be viewed in their true proportions when it is realized that, albeit in an unconscious fashion, Cushing was aiming less at giving an actual description of Zuñi society than at elaborating a model (his famous sevenfold division) which could explain most of its processes and structure.

It is questionable whether Cushing would have been altogether pleased with this compliment (however well deserved), since, whatever he may have been up to unconsciously, his conscious aim really was to describe actual Zuñi life. Indeed, when we consider him against the background analyses of structures and functions now dominating the field of anthropology we see that his greatest distinction is to have conveyed always a sense of the presence of living people and real things. But that, perhaps, is a literary distinction more than a scientific one.

Interestingly enough, however, even from the literary standpoint Cushing turns out to have been a creative figure in the history of anthropology; for a number of contemporary anthropologists like Laura Bohannan and Hortense Powdermaker have reintroduced “the personal equation” by writing literature off-duty, so to speak, in the form of anthropological novels and memoirs. These more recent writers, to be sure, are sophisticated and self-conscious about methodology in ways that Cushing was not. He showed little inclination to make his personal experience a subject for study in itself. He simply recognized its importance and made the most of it as a scientist and as a writer.

  1. 1

    Fred Eggan, “One Hundred Years of Ethnology and Social Anthropology,” in One Hundred Years of Anthropology, edited by J. O. Brew (Harvard University Press, 1968), p. 125.

  2. 2

    At this point the only other available title in Cushing’s prodigious list is My Adventures in Zuñi (Filter Press, 1967; American West Publishing Co., 1970), but AMS Press is publishing Zuñi Folk Tales, Outlines of Zuñi Creation Myths, and Zuñi Breadstuff this fall.

  3. 3

    One admirer’s story has it that Cushing introduced himself to Cornell University at age eighteen by bringing to a professor who had told him there were no Indian remains left in that neighborhood a whole bag full, collected in the course of an hour or so. When he started to empty the contents on the floor, the professor stared and then shouted, “Stop! What are you doing? Take care of those things! Bring them here to the table.” Years later, somewhat similar reactions would be expressed by Cushing’s scientific successors with respect to his methods of excavating the buried cities he had discovered in Arizona on the Hemenway southwestern expedition.

  4. 4

    Notes on Myth and Folklore,” Cushing Collection, Southwest Museum, pp. 3a-5a.

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