Saturday, January 30, 2021

unnaming Kroeber

Having removed the names of a couple genuine racists and Confederate sympathizers of their time from buildings, UC Berkeley has now added the removal of its former professor Alfred Kroeber's name from the anthropology building. One of these removals does not belong with the others. Perhaps, as we're being told, Kroeber's actions don't measure up to today's standards and thus he doesn't deserve a memorial, but to classify him with the racists is to do an injustice to a man who did his best to support the native cultures of California that he studied with care, and who befriended and was friended by his informants from those peoples, on a personal as well as professional level. (See his daughter Ursula's essay "Indian Uncles" for her relationships with some of these.)

Most grievous to see, the statements proposing the unnaming perpetrate grotesquely misleading and easily correctable misstatements about Kroeber. If he's genuinely culpable in some things, it shouldn't be necessary to perpetrate libel on him regarding others.

First we have this.
Kroeber collected or authorized the collection of the remains of Native American ancestors from grave sites and curated a repository of these human remains for research study. This practice, labeled “Salvage Anthropology” by some scholars, is now illegal.
He may have authorized this; I know of no evidence that he personally practiced it, because he was a social anthropologist and not a field archaeologist. Yes, it's distasteful. What I'm objecting to is defining it as "Salvage Anthropology." Though salvage anthropology may include such activities, salvage anthropology as Kroeber practiced it - and what is meant by the term in books about him (he didn't use the term himself) - is the recording of cultural information from informants, preserving - with their full cooperation - information about cultures that will disappear when they die. Language, customs, traditions, spiritual beliefs. And also physical artifacts: their tools and other objects, not their bones. If Kroeber is culpable in this area, it's in believing that some cultures were dying out that still had life to them. But what concerns me here is that this statement will lead people to see the phrase "salvage anthropology" applied to Kroeber and think it means only and exclusively grave-robbing. It does not.

More disturbing because more comprehensively misleading is this:
In 1911, Kroeber also took custody of a Native American man, a genocide survivor he named Ishi, and allowed him to live at the UC’s anthropology museum, where the proposal states that he ‘”performed’ as a living exhibit for museum visitors,” making Native crafts, such a stone tools. After dying of tuberculosis in 1916, his body was autopsied, against the wishes he’d expressed to Kroeber for cremation and burial without autopsy.
This is a studied case in giving the maximum possible negative spin on what is actually a positive and sympathetic story. The man called Ishi -

Well, first off, Kroeber proposed calling him "Ishi", which was his culture's word for "man", because in his culture names are kept private, and there was nothing else to address him as. It was intended as a polite way to avoid forcing him to reveal his private name. The name wasn't arbitrarily chosen or imposed against his will, as the phrasing implies.

Same with "took custody." Makes it sound as if Kroeber arrested him and took him away against his will. The man called Ishi had been living alone in the wilderness after the rest of his people were killed, lost, or died (the genocide referred to had been massacres in the 1860s, when this man was a boy), and it was no longer practical. Eventually he gave up, and came down out of the hills to the white folk's town of Oroville. The sheriff put him in the jail as a place to keep him - he was not arrested - and when the UC anthropologists heard about it, Kroeber sent his linguistic specialist colleague up by the next train, who was able to work out communication with the man. Since he was putting himself in the white man's hands, Kroeber and his colleagues offered him a place to live and a job to do. "Custody" was not arresting him, it was taking him under Kroeber's wing. The man needed the help: ours was an alien culture to him.

The statement says he lived in the museum, and "performed" as a "living exhibit." That makes it sound as if he were placed inside a diorama, in his native clothing, forced to act out his behavior from his earlier life. That is not what happened, not at all. He lived in a custodian's apartment in the museum building. He did custodial work, and I believe he was paid for it. He normally wore white men's clothes, and he traveled about freely. He did make stone tools while visitors watched, but it was not as a stage performance or in an exhibit. It was more like what we would now call a docent lecture.

Lastly, his autopsy. Kroeber was away when Ishi died. He protested against the autopsy but was unable to prevent it. He did not ignore Ishi's wishes as the phrasing suggests. When he returned, he and the other anthropologists arranged for Ishi's burial in the best approximation of his people's customs that they could come up with. (Except for his brain, which Kroeber sent off to a museum, and we can give him a big minus for that one.)

Kroeber was in many ways an honorable and admirable person, and most of his treatment of Ishi exemplifies this. If his flaws outweigh his virtues, let us balance them honestly, and not smear him in a mischievous and dishonest fashion.

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