Professor unites team to revive ‘Father of American Anthropology’

Special to Western News

Franz Boas “had his hand in every pie in town.”

Widely considered the ‘Father of American Anthropology,’ Boas was a distinguished public intellectual until his death in 1942. But his name no longer resonates beyond academic communities. And that’s a shame, explained Anthropology professor Regna Darnell, because the implications of his work continue to resound.

To revive his legacy, and perhaps explore new meanings, Darnell, together with an international multidisciplinary team, has been awarded a $2.5 million, seven-year partnership grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

Darnell serves as Project Director and General Series editor, but is supported by scholars from Canada, Austria, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Having received the funding in 2013, researchers have been editing, reassessing and re-contextualizing Boas’ personal and professional papers, held at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. The team’s goal has been to produce a comprehensive documentary edition – an encyclopedia of sorts, comprised of up to 25 volumes.


The Franz Boas Papers, Vol. 1 – titled Franz Boas as Public Intellectual: Theory, Ethnography, Activism – was published last month by the University of Nebraska Press.

“Who’s the real Franz Boas? Will he stand up?” Darnell asked. “Well, there isn’t one. There’s a whole bunch of them. If he saw something that needed to be done, he did it.”

Boas’ work examined culture, language, education and music practice among First Nations peoples, allowing him to increase public awareness of cultural diversity, speak out against racism and break down the isolation of 20th-century American society. But that’s just the tip of a vast, international and interdisciplinary iceberg.

Originally from Germany, Boas joined an expedition to Canada where he became fascinated with the culture and language of the Baffin Island Inuit. He did field work with the indigenous cultures and languages of the Pacific Northwest, and in 1887, immigrated to the United States where he worked as a museum curator at the Smithsonian Institution. In 1899, he became a professor of anthropology at Columbia University, where he remained for the rest of his career.

Each volume of the collection is thematic and features a different photo on the cover that will correspond with a different aspect of Boas’ work. Volume 1 examines his stature through a multidisciplinary lens, including native studies, anthropology, history, linguistics, folklore, ethnomusicology, museum studies, comparative literature, English, film studies, philosophy and journalism.

The first printing is already sold out.

“I want people to see how broad this guy was, how many things he was trying to do and how the underlying consistency of his belief in human nature and humankind as having a possible way of working together, wasn’t political in a (partisan) sense. It was a German idealistic – education is important; people are important; opportunities for people are important,” Darnell said. “His work flows through all of these crazy, different topics, in a bunch of countries and a bunch of different institutions. Everywhere you look, there’s some sort of influence.”

We haven’t accurately remembered what Boas said and did, she explained. What’s read and known about him today is largely one-dimensional, focused on race, and lacks context.

The fact Boas did much of his work in Canada has gone unacknowledged, Darnell continued, noting the Canadian context of his long-term fieldwork with the Kwakwaka’wakw, and other British Columbia First Nations communities, has been overlooked. To remedy this, the research team has been working with an indigenous advisory council and native communities, to publish Boas’ work in this field.

By making these works available, Darnell hopes to encourage public discourse and dialogue with First Nations scholars and their communities, and to encourage effective communications between native and non-native Canadians.

“He’s known, but as something that belongs in the past. He’s impossible to get into a box. There’s no good biography and there isn’t a single scholar that could do one. So, it’s interesting to draw in so many people,” Darnell said.

“The spread of disciplines is vast and there are a lot of us. It’s starting to be something people ask us about. It’s becoming an exciting thing. We’re going to see how broadly we can cast the net. What do we know about this guy?”

By this time next year, there should be four or five more volumes in the works. They will not be chronological, as the project’s focus is thematic and looks at the breadth and contemporary relevance of Boas’ work. The team will work to ensure all volumes are cross-referenced, Darnell added.

“The guy had courage in his convictions. He took unpopular stances, took them publicly. He called ordinary people to care about the world they lived in and that’s kind of what I think anthropology is, or at least what it should be,” she said.