Secretsharers: Intersecting Systems of Knowledge and Ethnographic Encounters in the American Southwest, 1880-1930

Secretsharers: Intersecting Systems of Knowledge and Ethnographic Encounters in the American Southwest, 1880-1930

My dissertation project investigates encounters between Anglo anthropologists and Pueblo and Navajo Indian communities in the Southwestern United States (1870–1930). While still within the theoretical paradigm of social evolutionism of E. B. Tylor and L. H. Morgan, I show that Southwestern anthropologists departed from a questionnaire-based “taxonomic” ethnography, toward the study of how Indian communities maintained and cultivated “traditional” knowledge. Toward this end, many Southwesternists sought the tutelage of Indian knowledge-keepers in order to learn the fundamental beliefs that undergirded indigenous knowledge systems—both as an activity of ethnographic collection for posterity and as a potential contribution to strategies of “civilizing” Indian communities.

As anthropologists pursued questions of Pueblo or Navajo epistemology, they considerably altered their strategies of unearthing information and documenting information from their indigenous informants. Their altered techniques, including the use of surreptitious writing and deceitful lines of inquiry, came in response to Native actions and from the social codes learned in each anthropologist’s experience with Indians in the “field.”

Among my case studies, I find that these anthropologists admired and sympathized with the communities with which they interacted, but that their shift toward epistemological questions clarified the presence of “known unknowns”—secret societies, compartmentalized knowledge, and esoteric rites—that represented radical divergences from U.S. culture and social structure. Ultimately, I illustrate the crucial moments where many of these anthropologists deemed these “known unknowns” objects of great ethnological value, and thus sought to understand and document them.