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Review

Constructing Cultures Then and Now: Celebrating Franz Boas and the Jesup North Pacific Expedition. Contributions to Circumpolar Anthropology, vol.4

By Igor Krupnik, Laurel Kendall

November 4, 2013

Review By David Anderson

This is a rich, edited volume on the anthropology of the North Pacific. It was produced following a 1997 conference held in New York at the American Museum of Natural History (amnh), which celebrated the centenary of the Jesup North Pacific Expedition – an ambitious, multidisciplinary international expedition designed to study the cultures surrounding the North Pacific of the Russian Empire, Canada, and Alaska. This expedition was an important landmark in the development of comparative ethnology and the founding of cultural anthropology in the United States. Directed by Franz Boas, often credited with being the “founder” of American cultural anthropology, it produced a number of fundamental monographs that still serve as classic studies of the peoples of this region. 

The purpose of the 1997 conference, and this volume, is not only to reflect upon the Jesup North Pacific expedition but also to continue its legacy. A group of enthusiasts at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and at the amnh have encouraged a multidisciplinary team of scholars to apply for funding to continue its research. As a monument to the expedition’s work, Constructing Cultures offers the reader a rich collection of chapters on the history of science, linguistic analysis, physical anthropology (which made use of genetic markers), and summaries of museum collections. To my knowledge it is one of the best resource books on the history of the region, surpassing the volumes published by the Smithsonian following the Crossroads of Continents exhibit in 1977

By far the heaviest emphasis in Constructing Cultures is upon the history of expeditionary anthropology at the turn of the last century. Parts 1 and 2 of the volume present ten extremely well researched chapters on the themes and actors involved in the Jesup North Pacific expedition. The introductory chapters by Krupnik, Vakhtin, Schweitzer, Lee, and Graburn provide a solid and critical understanding of the goals of the expedition, giving readers access to a wealth of unpublished sources. Indeed, until I read this book I was unaware of the depth of the manuscript and photographic collections that the expedition had amassed, all of which complement the many extant published works. 

As is made clear by its title, the theme of this volume is “constructing cultures.” Unlike other interdisciplinary volumes, Constructing Cultures has an unusual theoretical focus – the delicate alliance between indigenous peoples and those who study them. Many revisionary histories of expeditionary science have begun to dig for the histories of those bicultural and bilingual field assistants who, in many cases, silently provided data to the scholars whose careers were forged by these expeditions. Constructing Cultures continues in this tradition by providing new data not only on the collaboration between Boas and Teit but also on the relatively unknown work of Pilsudski, Laufer, and Shotridge. A fine chapter by Sergei Kan summarizes the important role of indigenous interpreters. 

Part 3 of Constructing Cultures presents five chapters by recent researchers. There is a contemporary ethnography of Kamchatka (Koester), a chapter on archaeology (Artuiunov), a summary of genetic research (Schurr and Wallace), a summary of linguistic research (Krauss), and a chapter on the natural history of the region (Hoffmann). Although each of these chapters provides a good overview (in the case of Schurr/Wallace and Koester, excellent overviews) they tend to get lost among the other chapters on the history of the Jesup expedition. Then, as now, the work by physical scientists has taken a back seat to the work on cultural contact. That being said, it is important to note that all of the chapters are extremely well edited, situating their findings within the context of original research hypotheses deriving from the Jesup expedition. 

The final section presents six chapters on the material culture of the region as housed in museums and, most significantly, as used by local people. This section again reflects the main theme of the book – how expeditionary science not only has amassed cultural material but also has provided the bricks and mortar for local peoples to rebuild their culture. The chapters by Webster, Ivanov-Unarov, and Loring/Veltre provide exceptionally good examples of how museum collections live in the present. 

Constructing Cultures contains a number of high-quality black-and-white illustrations printed on glossy paper. For students of anthropology the book provides rich material on the history of science in the region, while for activists working along the BC coast it provides several important comparative examples of how cultures change and revitalize themselves over time. 

Constructing Cultures is the fourth in a series of edited books on the anthropology of the Circumpolar Arctic. Two of the other three volumes concern the anthropology of the North Pacific. Readers of this book will be interested in Volume 1 (2001), which is specifically devoted to the history of the Jesup North Pacific Expedition. Like Constructing Cultures, these volumes are of high intellectual quality; unfortunately, they are all published with flimsy softcover bindings and letter-sized paper. It would be good if the Smithsonian could invest the funds to improve the physical presentation of what is an excellent series that offers a great service to the history and ethnology of the Circumpolar region.