Zuñi and the American Imagination

by Eliza McFeely

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1684

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 Washington, D.C. (where she hoped he might pick up the habit of eating with a knife and fork, thereby hastening his tribe’s development toward “civilization”), but We’wha’s scrutiny of American culture sent him back to the Pueblo an even more staunch defender of Zuñi ways—ways which have proven over time to be even more robust than Stevenson’s own ethnographic work.

In chapter 4, “A Place of Grace,” McFeely turns her attention to Frank Hamilton Cushing who, armed with some of the same general anthropological notions as Matilda Stevenson, decided that the only way to study Zuñi would be from the inside. Cushing let the Stevenson expedition return to the East without him, and he followed a program of total immersion, believing that if he practiced the Zuñi arts, if he explored every inch of their landscape, if he could induce them to initiate him into their arcane rituals, he could report not only on what the Zuñi do, but why they do it. A natural storyteller who loved to be the hero of his own tales, Cushing was remarkably successful in realizing his dreams of infiltrating Zuñi society. He lived in a Zuñi household, ate Zuñi food, adopted Zuñi dress, and soon believed that he understood the Zuñi better than they did themselves. Cushing succeeded in penetrating the ritual life of Zuñi’s kivas (ceremonial structures) and sacred sites in a way that has never been equaled, finally becoming a member of the Priesthood of the Bow. Using Morgan’s ideas of the universality of cultures and his own powers of analogical thinking, Cushing created prodigies of empathy and folly in his popular and scholarly writings. His “going native,” so well shown in Hiller’s photographs of him in Zuñi regalia, was both the strength of his early reputation and the ultimate cause of his modern devaluation. McFeely’s book is nothing if not a trenchant study of the vicissitudes of anthropological dogma at any given time, and their retrospective effect on the perceived careers of the early practitioners in the field.

Neither Stevenson nor Cushing would probably be remembered at all today if they had not combined their observations and their writings with avid collection and expatriation of Zuñi art and artifacts to the East. Both early students of Zuñi culture were also skilled salvage anthropologists, who used means both fair and foul to divest the Zuñis of wagons full of pottery, masks, fetishes, games, tools, kachinas, ritual items, and even scalps. Museums all over America coveted such items because they were beautiful, exotic, magical, and they helped extend American history into a richer past, which could be explored with the same studiousness as the British might look into their Roman prehistory. Removing artifacts from Zuñi under the guise of conservation, these early explorers of the Pueblo gave Eastern museum curators the raw material out of which to extract a well-organized and scientifically verifiable American past—one displayed neatly in glass cupboards, labeled and categorized, safe from the ravages of time or constant use.

Stewart Culin, the first curator of ethnology at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences opened a hall at that museum in 1905 devoted to the southwestern United States with an emphasis on Zuñi, which was distinguished not only by the comprehensiveness of the collection but also the skill of its presentation. While Culin had been to Zuñi on collecting missions, most of his contacts were with white traders, and his acquisitions were often done through others who were closer to the Zuñis, such as Cushing. His contribution was not so much in the acquisition of firsthand knowledge through traveling personally to Zuñi; his genius was in transporting the Southwest, and Zuñi in particular, back to his museum visitors in Brooklyn. By the time his massive collection of Zuñi artifacts was reinstalled for a second exhibit in 1925, Culin had not only removed more items from the Pueblo than anyone else, but he had also adopted the methods of Barnum & Bailey and Madison Avenue to make them infinitely more interesting to the American public. Sterile glass cases with neatly typed labels were replaced by dioramas backed with dramatic photographs of the Pueblo. Artifacts were grouped together to give the feeling of everyday Zuñi life. His exhibits became more and more aesthetic and less and less scientific. It became impossible to tell which artifacts were ancient and which were recent creations crafted expressly to fill out Culin’s collection. Culin’s interest in the art of museum display overwhelmed his weaker interest in ethnology. His reputation predictably suffered. Once again, an early explorer of Zuñi had been mousetrapped by his own egotism.

In her conclusion, “Zuñi Legacy,” McFeely brings her study up to the present. She shows how modern anthropology, practiced by experts with university affiliations and degrees, has moved away from the idea of a universal pattern of mind and fixed stages of human development. Its focus is more clearly on the uniqueness of all human societies and the interconnectedness of human cultures, which can be uncovered, hopefully, by less invasive means, such as tracing pottery patterns and comparing migration routes and deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). This means that a new battalion of anthropologists has been deployed to discover the truth about Zuñi, armed with new methods, new technologies, and different theories from their predecessors: theories such as those expressed in Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture (1934), which divides the world’s cultures neatly into Dionysian and Apollonian types, terms which will turn out to be no doubt as useful, and as misleading, as Morgan’s “savage” and “barbarian.”

In the midst of all this intense observation, Zuñi, the Pueblo, has shown itself to be much less fragile than its early explorers could ever have imagined. It remains relatively intact in the New Mexico desert, waiting to show yet another wave of Americans anthropologists something about an older, quieter, enduring way of life.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 97 (March 1, 2001): 1223.

Library Journal 126 (February 1, 2001): 103.

The New Republic 224 (June 11, 2001): 47.

Publishers Weekly 248 (March 5, 2001): 73.

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