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,” 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. 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 …