What is the role of the ethnographer? By karen linares / LATS 232 / 19 Feb. 2018

Who merits authority? Is someone's single account reflective of the truth? No, it is not. So why do anthropologists continue to rely on ethnography to relay their findings to their respective audiences? Can ethnography be described as a single account reflective of a truth(s)?

I am an Anthropology major at Williams currently working on my year long thesis. Its tentative title is A Golden Cage: Medical Experiences and Life Stories of Undocumented Mexicans. I hadn't given much thought to my thesis being considered an archivable material, but after visiting the exhibit I realize that it is. In my thesis I am focusing on the lives of ten undocumented Mexicans living in Los Angeles, CA and conducting oral histories with an emphasis on their health-related experiences growing up in México and the U.S. and how that is tied to their current undocumented status. My bulk of my research consists of my interviews and participant observation and less so of my theoretical readings. After reading Edward Curtis' biography under the section of "authentic" a lot of things rubbed me the wrong way which I explain further below. The section of "authentic" also brought to mind the ways in which my work may be perceived, similar to how Edward Curtis' work is seen as well. Below I provide an image and the obituary The New York Times wrote on Edward Curtis.

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 19--Edward S. Curtis, internationally known authority on the history of the North American Indian, died today at the home of a daughter, Mrs. Bess Magnuson. His age was 84. Mr. Curtis devoted his life to compiling Indian history. His research was done under the patronage of the late financier, J. Pierpont Morgan. The foreward [sic] for the monumental set of Curtis books was written by President Theodore Roosevelt. Mr. Curtis was also widely known as a photographer.

Published in The New York Times in 1952. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma02/daniels/curtis/obituary.html

But if archives bring meaning to the nation, it is ultimately national consensus which in turn confers upon archives their meaning and mystique (Panitch 47).

Edward Curtis' photographs are displayed in the Claiming Authority exhibit in Williams College's Special Collections. The photograph seen below is named "Wife of Howling Wolf." Curtis' goal, as explained in his obituary, was to capture "Indian history" through his photographs taken in the early 20th century (NYTimes 1952). Edward Curtis' work sponsored by J.P. Morgan and admired by former President Theodore Roosevelt add not only a status of credibility, but also a status of remembrance. The credibility of both of these men is not lost in time. People now still know who they were. One of Panitch's archival lessons really resonated with me as seen through Curtis' work. Both J.P. Morgan and President Roosevelt were able to confer "meaning and mystique." Is that the sole reason Curtis' work should be considered credible and authoratative?

Wife of Howling Wolf
Description of Edward Curtis' work which can be found in the Claiming Authority Exhibit in the Special Collections at Williams College.
so crucial were archival records that sovereigns maintained them in society (Panitch 33).

As seen in the description above, Curtis' was known for having manipulated his work to fit that of the idea and message he was trying to relay to his audience. But who was his audience? I would argue not the Native Americans he was portraying. However, Curtis' work was shared and did influence people's perceptions of Native Americans. Panitch's second quote resonates with me because even before when archives were kept a mystery from the "lay" person, that inaccessibility to specific archives continues today. Which makes me think, what does it mean that Curtis' work, now only viewable in archives, marked a huge way of thought about people in the past when it was published. Shouldn't more people have access to how stereotypic portrayals of Native Americans began to form?


Claiming Authority: Do Authenticity, Reliability, and Authoritativeness still matter?. Williams College Special Collections. Williamstown, MA.

Curtis, Edward. 1907-1930. Wife of Howling Wolf Photograph. Williams College Special Collections. Claiming Authority, Williamstown, MA.

Edward S. Curtis. 1952. New York Times. Accessed 19 February 2018. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma02/daniels/curtis/obituary.html

Panitch, Judith. 1996. Liberty, Equality, Posterity?: Some Archival Lessons from the Case of the French Revolution. The American Archivist 59 (1). 30-47.


Created with images by Pearlmatic - "Edward Sheriff Curtis"

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