Dr. Regna Darnell

Restoring the Stature of Franz Boas

Over time, some of the greatest theorists gain new relevance through being interpreted in an updated context that reflects both the theorists’ past contributions and their relevance to current thought. This can be especially true of the discipline of anthropology as cultural assumptions and biases have become subject to critique and re-evaluation. “The fact that past theorists and ethnographers participated in the assumptions of their time does not mean that they have lost relevance for our times,” says Dr. Regna Darnell, a professor in Western’s Department of Anthropology and at the Theory Centre. One major theorist whose importance cannot be ignored is the German-born American anthropologist Franz Boas. Dr. Darnell recently received a multi-million dollar grant over seven years from SSHRC to create a paper and digital edition of Boas’ professional papers, producing a series of thematic volumes. The project involves a collaborative partnership between Western University, the American Philosophical Association, University of Nebraska Publishing, the University of Victoria, and tribal councils in British Columbia. 

After he came to North America in the late nineteenth century, Boas took up residence in New York and did most of his fieldwork in Canada. He worked with the Kwakwaka’wakw people (known more popularly as the Kwakiutl). “A major intent of this new Boas publishing project is to consult with the Kwakwaka’wakw regarding sensitive material that should not be shared with the general public and the repatriation of materials that were collected from the communities,” explains Dr. Darnell.

Boas, who died in 1942, has been critiqued in the light of both positivism and post-modernism. “He was a mentalist—he saw culture as being in people’s heads. He was accused of not being theoretical enough. However, his position regarding the relationship between the biological and the cultural has been misunderstood, and much of his actual activism with native peoples has not been recognized. Much of this information can be found in letters he wrote that have rarely been read,” observes Dr. Darnell. “His work has been used to shed light on current land claims and has formed the baseline of collaborative anthropology.”

darnell.jpgDr. Darnell is the author of And Along Came Boas: Continuity and Revolution in Americanist Anthropology, published in 1998, and Invisible Genealogies, published in 2001, as well as numerous articles in academic journals.  Instead of writing a biography of Boas, she felt it would be much better to bring together a group who “know the pieces,” as there is much complexity in Boas’ life and career. “It is mind-blowing—he had a Mexican connection in terms of studying indigenous communities there, he sat on committees with Albert Einstein, he helped European scholars get out of Europe in the looming shadow of World War II, he had a correspondence with Alexander Graham Bell.”

The first volume of the massive Boas documentary project, Franz Boas as Public Intellectual: Theorist, Ethnographer, Activist, will appear in 2015. Dr. Darnell has several papers in progress on related topics, and in the fall of 2014 will be offering a course on Franz Boas for both anthropology and Theory Centre students.