Description and digitization of the George Hunt Kwak’wala ethnographic manuscripts

Hunt manuscripts on shelfStarting in 1913 and over the course of his life, anthropologist Franz Boas gifted stacks of handwritten manuscripts to Columbia University. Boas founded the Department of Anthropology at Columbia in 1902, and is hailed as the father of the ‘four-field’ approach of anthropology in North America (i.e. socio-cultural, linguistic, physical, and archaeological anthropology). His work remains well-known, and as a scholar he still divides: While outspokenly against white supremacist, pseudo-scientific approaches at the time, he also contributed to a colonial narrative of the ‘vanishing Indian’ that needed to be documented before the ‘traditional’ lifestyles were subsumed in a ‘modern’ and ‘civilized’ era. His bust still remains in the Anthropology Department’s lounge, and a “Boas Seminar” invites speakers presenting on cutting-edge anthropology around the world throughout the semester.

But what are these manuscripts that Boas gave to Columbia? They do bear his (nearly illegible) handwriting and annotations, but, in fact, were not Boas’ manuscripts at all. He edited and re-sorted them; he prepared them for publication (and the nearly 8,000 handwritten pages contributed to a vast number of books published in the 1910s up until the 1940s), but he did not write them.

Instead, the pages bear the meticulous, clear handwriting of George Hunt. Hunt (1854-1933) was a Tlingit ethnographer, artist, and linguist, who had married into the Kwakwaka’wakw community after growing up in their homelands at Fort Rupert (located in contemporary Canada).

Of the 8,000 pages, almost all are bilingual: One line in Kwak’wala (then called ‘Kwakiutl’) followed by the next in English. While Boas commissioned these manuscripts for his ethnographic publications on the Pacific Northwest Coast,  the pages bear – literally – Hunt’s hand above all.

manuscript page with small sketch of fishI’ve had the pleasure of going through every single manuscript page that was gifted to Columbia’s Libraries by Boas. The manuscripts are largely ordered in a way Boas made sense of them – sometimes cutting stories in half to extract ‘ritual’ prayers from ‘practical’ harvesting practices – and yet, Hunt’s original contribution as an Indigenous storyteller and educator is still paramount, and his original order (re)traceable. Accompanying his written texts on every aspect of life are countless small sketches, diagrams, and long lists of vocabulary and names. Not all of this was reproduced in print. Boas’ heavy editing hand cut off personal remarks, stories deemed unsuitable or irrelevant for publication, seemingly unimportant or duplicated sketches, as well as rare notes directed at Boas.

Hunt’s manuscripts, then, are not just ethnographies of Kwakwaka’wakw lifeways at a time of increasing settler-colonial impact and institutionalization, but open up a rare window into how anthropological knowledge was produced in the early 20th century. What has been omitted? What has been changed, renamed, restructured? How were things split into then-prevalent anthropological and Euro-American categories such as ‘ritual’ and ‘functional’? In one unforgettable note at the end of a manuscript, Hunt addresses Boas and accuses him of publishing information he had promised Hunt not to make public. It shows the very real fact that Hunt’s stakes in the writing, compilation, and publication of the manuscripts were always different from those of Boas’ and other anthropologists. Repercussions would be deeply personal and social, rather than merely scholarly. While Boas fussed over spelling and transcription of the Kwak’wala language, Hunt worried about what was appropriate to share, especially with outsiders. The burden was not with the Euro-American anthropologist, but with his Indigenous collaborator.

After having sat with these manuscripts for hours on end over the course of about half a year, I think that Hunt wasn’t considering his work as ‘salvage anthropology’, i.e. documenting what would be lost in a way that Boas and his contemporaries were. I would argue that, like Indigenous anthropologist Ella Cara Deloria, who worked with Boas and his graduate students Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict here at Columbia, Hunt documented what we may term survivance: It is not just survival in a time when many settlers wanted to see Indigenous communities vanish, but a kind of survival that allows for (re)surgence. He documented family stories, prayers, songs, harvesting practices, personal experiences, funny, sad, and upsetting stories. This format – an anthropological study – was a means to provide for those coming after. And, doubtlessly, Hunt took pride and joy in his work.

“I think you should get me a medal for these writings,” he notes in a letter to Boas in January 1929, around 30 years into a collaboration that lasted until his death in late 1933 (their correspondence is held at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, though a few letters and notes have remained in Columbia’s manuscript stack). He adds – cheekily? –  “I wish you a Happy New Year. I hope you will learn lots before this year is out.”

Perhaps, like Ella Cara Deloria, Hunt’s wish was not just to preserve stories and knowledge for future generations, but also to educate those Euro-American audiences who assumed that Indigenous lifeways were ‘uncivilized’ and ‘lawless.’

Deloria wrote in a letter in 1952*, “I actually feel that I have a mission: To make the Dakota people understandable, as human beings [to white Euro-Americans who encounter them]. Those who came out among them to teach and preach, went on the assumption that the Dakotas had nothing, no rules of life, no social organization, no ideals.” She goes on to argue that their methods of teaching and assimilation were causing harm as they displaced and sought to destroy the firmly rooted lifeways that were neither a vacuum needed to be filled with a civilizing mission, nor any less ‘complex’ than the settlers’ own lifeways.

Seeing George Hunt’s meticulous handwriting over the course of 8,000 pages – 14 volumes of manuscripts here at the Rare Books and Manuscript Library of Columbia University – no matter how edited, reassembled, and ‘corrected’ by Franz Boas they may be, speaks of this commitment and care to learn, educate about, and share the struggles as well as the vibrant knowledges and relations that Indigenous communities around him upheld in the face of settler-colonialism.

*As cited in the afterword of her posthumously published novel Waterlily, written by Raymond DeMallie, page 147. See Deloria, Ella Cara. 2013 [1988]. Waterlily. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

This guest post is by Amanda Althoff, a graduate student in Columbia’s Department of Anthropology, who was hired by RBML to prepare these manuscripts for digitization as part of Library-wide ADEI grant initiative. The manuscripts are being digitized and will be made available to Kwakwakaʼwakw language revitalization groups. As part of the project, an electronic catalog record was created for these materials for the first time.