Texts by and about Natives: Commentary

7. Melville Jacobs, "Santiam Kalapuya Ethnological Texts"

In the work to record the disappearing world of the Northwest’s Indians, perhaps the greatest service was performed by the persons who trained with the ethnologist Franz Boas in the field and in his anthropology department at Columbia University. Boas’s influence was broad; his conviction that cultures were shaped by environmental influences and historical events (rather than by racial qualifications such as his contemporaries in physical anthropology argued—as they measured heads and quantified human beauty) encouraged a wide number of scholars. Ruth Benedict, W. E. B. Dubois, Booker T. Washington, Margaret Mead, and Zora Neal Hurston as well as Robert Park and George Ellis applied and advanced Boas’s thought. The Harlem Renaissance was, in part, encouraged by dialogue with the anthropology department at Columbia.

But of equal renown is Boas’s work among the Kwakwaka'wakw tribes of the Northwest coast. With the tribes for most of the years between 1880 and 1920, Boas recorded volumes of notes and did significant film work as well. Some of Boas's students at Columbia also did their field work among Northwest tribes. Several remained in the region for the rest of their lives. One of these students was Archie Phinney, a Nez Percé Indian, who did his Ph.D. with Boas at Columbia and returned to his home in Lapwai, Idaho, to record the stories of his own tribe, and, especially, those of his own mother. Phinney eventually became an administrator for his region’s branch of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Another Boas student who studied and settled in the Northwest was Melville Jacobs. Like Boas, Jacobs spent long periods of time in field work. Like Boas, Jacobs was concerned with race, perhaps because he was Jewish, perhaps because, as a boy, he often went to Ellis Island to watch immigrants step down from the boats and onto their new land. Two years into his studies, Jacobs was sent by Boas to eastern Washington to study the Indians there. The resulting study of the Sahaptin language revealed the characteristics that made Jacobs a successful linguist and anthropologist—a precise attention to the details of language and a broad interest in not just observable data, but also in the underpinnings of the stories he heard. Jacobs incorporated what he knew of psychology, philosophy, and folklore into his readings of native tales. His trust in what the syntheses of science, psychology (primarily Freudian), folklore, and myth could offer his field work makes reading Jacobs’s commentaries on Indians feel like an assurance that behavioral science can be applied to even the oldest societies and that psychology is understandable beyond the context of European minds. Although later analyses of the hundreds of stories Jacobs collected add even more levels of interpretation, the commentary that Jacobs attached to the stories he recorded provides profoundly affecting bases for bridging the world views between newcomers and the resident Natives, whose stories often show just how dramatically the world changed with the coming of the light-skinned people.

It is reductive to summarize Jacobs’s work in short. His bibliography is impressive, containing nearly 130 significant publications, and his thinking was aggressively inclusive. He read his subjects deeply and his commentaries on their stories provide fascinating views.

In Badger and Coyote Were Neighbors: Melville Jacobs on Northwest Indian Myths and Tales (Seaburg and Amoss 2000), Jacobs comments on an Indian tale in which a man who has been rejected by a young woman journeys to the sun, marries the sun’s daughter, and returns with gifts for all. When the woman who had rejected him comes to his canoe for her gift, she falls in the water. The Indian recitalist calls her a “black dress,” probably an adapted narrative reference to nuns—the puzzling newcomers who refused men, lived in poverty, and appeared strong in supernatural power. Jacobs characterizes one meaning of the story:

Sex, marriage, and love are Europeans’ romantic themes. A Northwest States romantic theme offers a relationship with a special sort of newly encountered person who has some idiosyncratic kind of strength and who wishes to be bonded with a human suppliant.

The principal actor in the drama is, then, a deeply troubled man who travels in order to mend his feelings, to reinvigorate his self-regard, and to ripen into new maturity. The plot turns upon the romantic quality of his success, romantic because it deals with the relationship which he achieves with a supernatural, a relationship desired just as intensely by that spirit. No Klikitat could hope to marry Sun’s daughter. However, the myth projection of a supernatural and her family who are beyond the reach of mortals functions as the most sentimental and ecstatic of all possible wish-fulfillments. (Seaburg and Amoss 2000: 160-161)

Jacobs’s record is especially strong because his field notes, many still untranscribed, are precise and because he knew the languages and inter-language jargon so well. Strangely, most of his fieldwork methodologies insisted on hand-written notes, rather than recordings—an idiosyncrasy later scholars regret. Included here are examples of his re-tellings of his subject’s stories. For further examples, go to the University of Washington Libraries website.

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