Zuñi and the American Imagination Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Despite the title Zuñi and the American Imagination, Eliza McFeely’s book is not really an in-depth study of Zuñi history, culture, religion, or ethnography. Nor is it a comprehensive study of the American imagination, although it does make passing reference to the ways in which Aldous Huxley (in Brave New World, 1931) and Robert Heinlein (in Stranger in a Strange Land, 1961) used the idea of Zuñi in their famous science fiction novels, novels which inspired generations of Americans to question modern commercial culture and long somewhat unrealistically for an imagined peaceful, agrarian, communal American past.

McFeely quickly dispatches the history of the Zuñi Pueblo itself in chapter 1, “Finding Zuñi.” In a few brief pages, she covers the “discovery” of the Pueblo in 1539, the various Spanish occupations, the dramatic Pueblo Uprising, and finally Zuñi’s acquisition by the United States through agreements made after the Mexican War of 1858. She is then free to focus on her real interests, the careers of Matilda Cox Stevenson, Frank Hamilton Cushing, and Stewart Culin, the self-made anthropologists who dominated the study of Zuñi from the first federally funded expedition by the Bureau of American Ethnology in 1879 to the Brooklyn Museum’s magnificent Zuñi exhibit mounted by Culin in 1925.

Examining each adventurer/ethnographer/collector in turn, McFeely creates a lively picture of the careers of these early observers of Zuñi. Unfettered by modern-day university or scholarly standards of anthropology, each of these intrepid explorers studied Zuñi in the way that most fitted his or her own particular interests and personality. While they all shared certain general ideas about “primitive” cultures, they each brought unique talents and frailties to the work, creating a legacy of information which is, ironically, largely discredited by the modern academic community, yet frequently consulted by the Zuñis themselves for keys to their past.

In chapter 3, “Two-Fold One-Kind: Matilda Stevenson,” McFeely explores the sympathies between Matilda Stevenson, a Victorian lady working in the hyper-masculine West in a field dominated by men, and her Zuñi friend We’wha, a berdache, or Zuñi male who had chosen to live his life following the ways of the women of his tribe, joining a third gender which the Zuñi believed could mediate between the male and female, one they referred to as “two-fold one-kind.”

Like most of her contemporaries, Matilda Stevenson was strongly influenced by Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), which many read to include a kind of social evolution among peoples, and Lewis Henry Morgan’s theory of cultural evolution espoused in his book Ancient Society(1877), which contended that all human societies went through three identical phases (savagery, barbarism, and civilization), and that, more important, since all cultures inevitably solved similar problems in similar ways, contemporary primitive societies could be studied as representative of primitive societies of all times and places. These ideas led to Stevenson’s belief that Zuñi was a magnificent example of the second stage of Morgan’s evolutionary scheme, “barbarism,” and that her studies at Zuñi would therefore have a universal application. She held an equally strong personal belief, however, that evolution to the final stage of “civilization” would be denied the Zuñis, who were destined to be overwhelmed by American society, which would increasingly encroach on them and influence them for the worst. Her task then, as she saw it, was to make a painstaking record of the spiritual and social customs, the medical practices, the rituals, the crafts, and the lifestyles of what she considered a soon-to-be-extinct American Indian tribe. As a woman, with We’wha as a special confidante, she was able to amass a wealth of information which she published in her 1904 study of the Pueblo, a study that was meticulous in its detail and curiously devoid of interpretation. More prone to reflection was We’wha, whom Stevenson brought to...

(The entire section is 1684 words.)