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The Man Who Forced Anthropologists to Respect Native Cultures

Unless you're an anthropologist, you've probably never heard of Professor George Stocking, Jr., so you also wouldn't have noticed his obituary in The New York Times. He died July 13, 2013, at 84 in Chicago, where he became famous for his research into the history of anthropology.

American Indians ought to know about Prof. Stocking, because they certainly know about anthropologists. Stocking was a major force in developing critiques of Euro-centrism in the discipline of anthropology. As the Times obituary says, "his work helped produce a culture shift in anthropology during the 1960s and ’70s that heralded a growing respect for cultural diversity."

The primary target of Stocking's work was the anthropological presumption that "civilization" means Western civilization. Stocking argued that this idea was the root of brutal, even genocidal, "civilizing" programs directed at American Indians and other peoples around the world. He also challenged the mythology of "race" that fueled colonial domination.

Prof. Stocking made waves with his 1968 book, Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology, examining the historical origins of anthropology. It's not easy reading for non-professionals, but it is a valuable text for anyone who has felt the brunt of so-called "scientific racism." The late Clifford Geertz, known for his writings on social and cultural theory, praised Stocking as "a real historian with real historical skills."

Stocking's book opens with a discussion of what he terms "whiggish history," which he defines as an approach that glorifies "progress" and regards the present as the pinnacle of history. He sees this approach at work in the earliest days of European studies of other cultures: non-European peoples were regarded as "lower" than Europeans; they were said to be progressing to the "higher" stage of European society.

This viewpoint is familiar to those who know about Indian boarding schools and missionary projects to "help" the "lower race" to "advance" to the "higher" stage. These programs for "civilizing" Indians were actually regarded as scientific, and as having a "progressive" historical function. They were designed to "raise the retarded savage to the European level."

Stocking quotes at length from the early 19th century writings of Citizen Degerando (as he was known during the Napoleonic era; born Joseph Marie de Gerando), a member of the Société des Observateurs de l'Homme (Society of the Observers of Man), the first French institution of anthropology. Degerando wrote a set of instructions to guide an ill-fated expedition to Australia (then known as New Holland) in October 1800, to study the native inhabitants.

Stocking says Degerando was aware of the French tendency to "judge"—rather than understand—the customs of "savages" and was aware of French failures to learn other languages. Degerando proposed that the members of the expedition should attempt to become "fellow citizens" of the peoples they would meet. Nevertheless, Degerando held to the notion that Western culture was the "highest expression of human perfectibility," and that the ultimate goal of becoming a "fellow citizen" with savages was to entice the savages to a "higher" level.

Using language that can be found almost verbatim among colonizers in America, Degerando said that "commerce" was the key to savage progress. Exchange of goods would create new "needs" and new "desires," and these would lead the savages to higher civilization: "Always well received, well treated, witness of our happiness, our riches, and at the same time of our superiority, perhaps they will become attached to us by gratitude or interest . . . they will call us to their midst to show them the route which will conduct them to our state. What joy! What conquest!'"

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Lest you think this is the worst of the early so-called "scientific anthropology," Stocking goes on to examine the writings of another member of the Société: Citizen Cuvier, who also wrote a guide for the expedition to Australia. Unlike Degerando, Cuvier did not believe that "savage" peoples could advance to the European heights. In fact, he was among the earliest proponents of "racialism," the idea that there are permanent differences among peoples of the earth, and that some are forever destined to be "lower" than others.

Degerando always referred to "savages" as "peoples" or "nations"; he did not use the concept of "race." Cuvier, on the other hand, insisted on a permanent hereditary "racial" difference, not subject to evolutionary "progress." He was one of the first physical anthropologists—a collector of skulls—to "prove" his theory by comparative anatomy.

Cuvier's instructions to the Australia expedition included detailed advice about the best ways to obtain and preserve native bodies: "boil the bones in a solution of soda or of caustic potash and rid them of their flesh [in] a matter of several hours…. Bring back some skulls with the flesh still intact by soaking them in a solution of corrosive sublimate, set them out to dry, [so that] they … become as hard as wood, their facial forms preserved without attracting insects."

Stocking sums up the difference between Cuvier and Degerando as the difference between "the grave-robber [and] the philanthropist." Stocking adds that for Cuvier and comparative anatomy, "it might be said that the only good Indian was a dead one."

Stocking ultimately provides an overview of the watershed between the 18th century view that "civilization" is the goal of all humanity and the 19th century view that "civilization" was the purview of selected "races." He concludes that under both views, the science of anthropology was "essentially a reformer's science." But he points out that the object of reform was not the same. "For Degerando, it was the uplift of savage peoples; for [the others], it was the eradication of the last survivals of savagery and barbarism from civilized European society."

Contemporary anthropology has left much, if not all, these debates behind. There are now anthropologists who assist native peoples to stand their ground on their own terms in the face of international pressures to dispossess them. But skull and bones collections still exist, and people fight over remains like Kennewick Man. Others still work on "development" projects, ostensibly to "raise" the economic status of indigenous peoples. And "tribalism" continues to be vilified in many discussions.

The historical battle between the two competing camps in the development of anthropology leaves a potent, problematic legacy in law. Vine Deloria, Jr., once described federal Indian law as "spinning off inconsistencies like a new sun exploding comets as it tips its way out of the dawn of creation." These inconsistencies are manifestations of the two anthropological camps contesting for priority within the overall project to dominate Indians. Federal Indian law contains and expresses these contradictory views: The "progressive" side wants to "uplift," the "reactionary" wants to eliminate.

As we survey the current situation in Indian country in light of this history, we come to the question whether there is any chance left for native peoples to assert a wholly different understanding of civilization, or whether the one-two punch of "civilizing projects" and "racialism" have boxed Indians into a corner. A great deal of what passes for Indian politics is tainted by this dilemma, as tribal councils jockey for position within the contradictory structure.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.