A bold new study of the Zuni, of the first anthropologists who studied them, and of the effect of Zuni on America's sense of itself
The Zuni society existed for centuries before there was a United States, and it still exists in its desert pueblo in what is now New Mexico. In the late nineteenth century, anthropologists-among the first in this new discipline-came to Zuni to study it and, they believed, to salvage what they could of its tangible culture before it was destroyed, which they were sure would happen. Matilda Stevenson, Frank Hamilton Cushing, and Stewart Culin were the three most important of these early students of Zuni, and although modern anthropologists often disparage and ignore their work-sometimes for good, sometimes for poor reasons-these pioneers gave us an idea of the power and significance of Zuni life that has endured into our time. They did not expect the Zuni themselves to endure, but they have, and the complex relation between the Zuni as they were and are and the Zuni as imagined by these three Easterners is at the heart of Eliza McFeely's important new book.
Stevenson, Cushing, and Culin are themselves remarkable subjects, not just as anthropology's earliest pioneers but as striking personalities in their own right, and McFeely gives ample consideration, in her colorful and absorbing study, to each of them. For different reasons, all three found professional and psychological satisfaction in leaving the East for the West, in submerging themselves in an alien and little-known world, and in bringing back to the nation's new museums and exhibit halls literally thousands of Zuni artifacts. Their doctrines about social development, their notions of "salvage anthropology," their cultural biases and predispositions are now regarded with considerable skepticism, but nonetheless their work imprinted Zuni on the American imagination in ways we have yet to measure. It is the great merit of McFeely's fascinating work that she puts their intellectual and personal adventures into a just and measured perspective; she enlightens us about America, about Zuni, and about how we understand each other.