Mythical Inequalities

The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca

by Anthony F.C. Wallace
Knopf, 384 pp., $8.95

Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology

by Mary Douglas
Pantheon, 177 pp., $5.95

Myth: Its Meaning and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures

by G.S. Kirk
California, 299 pp., $7.95

Pour étudier l’homme…il faut d’abord observer les différences pour découvrir les propriétés.”

—J.-J. Rousseau

In this year of Grace 1971 anthropology has the curious status of being both in fashion and on its last legs. The fashion stems from the revival of Rousseauism. As Lévi-Strauss has pointed out, our Protestant-ethic background leads us to suppose that in the opposition Culture-Nature it is Culture and technological gadgetry which wear the badge of progress and superiority—“Hell is the others.” But just now many of us are smitten with remorse and disgust and a renewed longing for the Arcadian dream. In Richard Brautigan’s novel, Trout Fishing in America, the eponymous hero ends up being sold by the foot in a Cleveland wrecking yard, stacked among piles of toilets and dusty lumber—by implication “Hell is ourselves.” The last legs part of the equation is more straightforward. Anthropology is the study of primitive society, but primitive society is ceasing to exist; as the late R. G. Collingwood put it, the destiny of anthropology is to become history or nothing.

The three books under review have little in common, but the authors are all, in their different ways, responding to this contemporary clash of values and it is interesting to see what they do about it.

Professor Wallace, who is at heart an ethnographer in the old style, seems to validate Collingwood. The original Seneca were one of “the six nations” which formed the Iroquois Indian Confederacy. Because the Iroquois homeland lay in the area of what is now the New York-Canadian frontier zone, their contacts with the French and British settlers were, from the start, very close, and we have fuller accounts of their traditional pattern of life, stretching over a longer period, than for any other North American Indian people.

The primitive tribes to whom these records refer have long since ceased to exist, so instead of an ethnography in the conventional style Wallace has written a history. He describes the Seneca in their glory, in their decline, and in their adaptive regeneration. Although the heroic manner can be rather irritating, it is a fine book.

There are now about 20,000 people who have squatter’s rights in the Iroquois reservations of New York State, Quebec, and Ontario by virtue of claimed descent from the Indians of old time. They have television, cars, central heating, and all the other proper markers of civilization; politically they are underprivileged. Most of these Indians, most of the time, live very much in the style of their non-Indian neighbors; a minority of around 5,000 are “pagan” “long house” people who preserve through their religion a link with their traditional past. That religion is not the religion of the ancient Seneca Indians but a derivation from a millenarian revivalist cult established by the prophetpreacher Handsome Lake at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

The existence of Indian reservations poses just the same moral problems as those which appear in more virulent form in the social segregation…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.