BGC Receives NEH Grant for Digital Humanities Project

On March 29, 2012, the Bard Graduate Center received a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities Start-Up program in Digital Humanities.  One of 22 grants awarded nationally, the funding will initiate development of an annotated digital edition of Franz Boas's 1897 text, The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians

Franz Boas (1858–1942) is considered the founder of professional anthropology in North America.  A major public intellectual known for his outspoken advocacy of racial equality, his early ethnological research among the Kwakwaka’wakw people,  for which his seminal 1897 monograph is the key text, helped provide the foundation of  his critique of social evolutionary theory and his formulation of a modern concept of culture as learned, locally situated, and divorced from biology or race.  The Kwakwaka’wakw (or "Kwakiutl") ethno-linguistic group is currently made up of 15 distinct bands of First Nations people living on the Pacific Northwest Coast in present-day British Columbia.  A deeply collaborative product that combined Boas’s own observations both in British Columbia and at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (where a group of Kwakwaka’wakw lived and performed) with extensive materials provided by his long-time indigenous co-worker George Hunt, The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians, was the first systematic attempt to document all sociocultural, spiritual and aesthetic aspects of an indigenous North American ceremonial system.  Through texts, photographs, museum collections, and wax cylinders, Boas and Hunt recorded not only masks, myths, music, and dances tied to the spectacular and vital rituals, but also the larger social context of what Boas called "mental life.”   

The publishing technology of the 1890s could not accommodate the diverse media that Boas and Hunt used, and many of their subsequent corrections and additions to the text were never published.  Existing in a diversity of media, transcribed in a variety of languages, much of their material is scattered in libraries, archives, and museums across North America and Europe. 

 “This grant is the first step toward reuniting the original monograph with the wealth of additional materials associated with it and resulting from it,” said Aaron Glass, project co-director (with Judith Berman) and BGC assistant professor.  “Our innovative digital edition will not only be a major new resource for scholars, it will also deepen our understanding of the contexts and methods of creating ethnographic knowledge, and return cultural patrimony to its indigenous inheritors.”  

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Kwakwaka'wakw mask (IVA1242) today and as published in Boas's 1897 monograph (courtesy Ethnologisches Museum Berlin and U'mista Cultural Centre)