During the last third of the nineteenth century, the United States Army conducted a series of campaigns in the West against various Indian tribes which led to the destruction of the traditional way of life of those Indians. Simultaneously, American anthropologists—an increasingly professional and sophisticated community during these years—attempted to observe and record the culture of the Indians before it disappeared permanently. Unlike many of the soldiers, the anthropologists recognized the diversity of native life-styles and the distinctions between tribes. The scientists were also much more sympathetic to efforts to protect the rights of the Indians.
Joseph C. Porter has written a scholarly biography of a man who straddled the world of the soldier and the world of the scientist. John Gregory Bourke spent his life in the army. He fought Apache and Sioux. Yet by his death he was renowned as a sympathetic chronicler of the Apache and a strong advocate of Indian rights. His compassion and support for Native Americans brought him into conflict with racist superiors who disdained the Indians and greedy civilians who wished to exploit the lucrative possibilities offered by Indian land and reservation contracts. Ultimately, these clashes seriously damaged his army career.
The son of Irish immigrants, Bourke was born in Philadelphia in 1846. He enlisted in the Union Army in 1862, serving until the summer of 1865. A few months later, he was appointed to the United States Military Academy at West Point, from which he was graduated in 1869. The new second lieutenant was then sent to the Southwest to fight the Apache.
In 1871, he became aide-de-camp of George Crook, newly appointed commander of the Military District of Arizona. For fifteen years Bourke served on Crook’s staff in the Southwest and on the Great Plains, including during the Big Horn and Yellowstone expedition of 1876 (the campaign which cost George Armstrong Custer his life). Crook had a profound impact on Bourke’s attitude as well as his career. While not completely sympathetic to Indian cultures, Crook did study them, attempting to appreciate the native perspective. He recognized that a knowledge of the Indian cultures was necessary for an informed Indian policy and encouraged Bourke’s anthropological efforts. Crook believed that the only way to overcome the Apache was through the use of rival Apache. Combining Indians and soldiers into a single unit without forcing his allies to act as white soldiers, he was able to track down and defeat his opponents. It was through daily interaction with his Apache allies that Bourke’s curiosity about the culture of Native Americans was aroused.
In becoming an anthropologist—or, to use the terminology of his day, an ethnologist—Bourke and his contemporaries faced a fundamental problem. As scientists, they understood the need for objectivity, but as students of culture, they recognized, at least in cultures other than their own, that culture influences the way humans perceive the world. How were ethnologists to study other cultures without their own worldviews getting in the way? In retrospect, it is evident that they often failed to divorce themselves from their own cultural prejudices. As Porter points out in a precise summary of the fundamental tenets of nineteenth century anthropology, there was a basic contradiction in their outlook. On the one hand, they argued for what might be considered cultural relativity. Every culture developed its own institutions and mores; the practices of one society should not be judged by those of another. Yet there was also a clear sense of ethnocentrism. Cultures were ranked, with the highest level of social development represented by the...
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