An Exhibition About a Book That Rejuvenated an Indigenous Culture

The show tells a success story not often heard in the world of Indigenous art and culture, chronicling how the Boas/Hunt book has acted as a guide for contemporary Kwakiutl peoples.

Settee back, unknown Kwakwaka’wakw maker, collected by George Hunt in 1898–99, wood, pigment, metal (all images by the author)

As a young anthropology student, full of piss and vinegar, I set out in1980 to write a university thesis addressing what I saw as the field’s wrongheaded approach to the study of material cultural. As a primary resource I drew upon one of the founding documents of the discipline, The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians, a study of the indigenous people of British Columbia. Originally published in 1897, it was notable for several reasons. Co-authored by German-born Franz Boas and an indigenous collaborator, George Hunt, it was one of the first documents of the field to give prominent credit to an indigenous co-creator. Based on first-person experience, it revolutionized the nascent field of anthropology, insisting that observation and involvement were fundamental to anthropological research. The volume contains a multitude of drawings, music, and stories, presented confidently as an exhaustive encyclopedia of Pacific Northwest Coast indigenous culture.

I, of course, tore it apart. The objects, music, and symbols were presented as removed from their cultural context. The authors focused on the nuts and bolts often without background; materials, color, patterning and symbols were the book’s defining organizational narrative. The authors created a volume that was encyclopedic in its study of the iconography and visual history of the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw people, but made little connection between the objects and the living society that produced them. At the time, the lack of connection between objects and their use seemed to me misguided and emblematic of everything wrong with the field of study. However, even I had to admit that the book was impressively detailed and precise, including impeccable drawings of hundreds of objects and detailed musical and performance notation. This was a record of culture that was revolutionary in its observational precision.  One could say that it was almost a blueprint. In fact, more than 120 years later, the work turns out to be prescient indeed, a blueprint that has helped preserve and rebuild Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw culture today.

Installation shot of The Story Box: Franz Boas, George Hunt and the Making of Anthropology with video projection of Franz Boas

The Bard Graduate Center on 86th Street in Manhattan has recently opened an exhibition titled The Story Box. The show tells a success story not often heard in the world of indigenous art and culture. It chronicles how the Boas/Hunt book has acted as a guide for contemporary Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw peoples to recapture, rejuvenate, and rebuild their threatened culture. The exhibition traces the book’s significance to the present day, which it turns out, was far more important than its authors — or this reporter — could ever have imagined.

The Bard Graduate Center, in conjunction with the U’mista Cultural Centre of Alert Bay, Canada has embarked on an incredible multi-year project. They are updating and digitizing the book, adding in hundreds of pages of previously unpublished fieldwork by Boas and Hunt as well as collecting information on the cultural diaspora of objects. There will be a comprehensive record, in one place, of the hundreds of artifacts and objects in worldwide collections.

Drawing on left attributed to Hiłamas/Ned Harris, Kwakwaka’wakw (c.1895), colored pencil, ink, and pencil
on paper, Center drawing: Unknown maker, (c. 1896), ink on paper, commissioned by Franz Boas for reproduction in The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians, image on the right is the final version printed in the book

Corrine Hunt, the great-granddaughter of George Hunt, along with members of the  Kwakwaka’wakw community, are in some cases using the Boas/Hunt book as a template to recreate, in a contemporary way, the extraordinary objects lost to time and Western museums. This is a heroic step towards revitalizing Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw culture and language. Keeping cultural traditions alive and current is vital to keeping indigenous societies alive.

There is a beautiful example of such rejuvenation included in the exhibition. In 2018 to 2019, Corrine Hunt, and Chief David Mungo Knox together carved a Transformation Mask, a central object of the tribe’s ceremonial regalia. In 2019 the mask will be danced with at a Hunt family feast, or “potlatch,” reactivating a long-lost part of their family tradition.

Installation of contemporary Transformation mask with contemporary video by Corrine Hunt and Chief David Mungo Knox (2018–19) cedar, pigment, string, hardware, (courtesy of Hunt family)

The exhibition is didactic and for those with the interest to read and watch, it is truly a revelatory experience. Using clear and well-written wall text and both archival and contemporary video, the show portrays the deep and abiding influence this one volume of field research has had on real people’s lives. The show contains some beautiful objects, but I wished for more. One doesn’t feel the full impact of the range and depth of Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw artistry from the objects in this show. On one hand, I long for the passion one feels when we see objects that are transcendent. On the other, the story presented in the exhibition is deeply moving and one leaves the show with genuine and well-founded hope for the future.

Original drawing of a Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw mask (attributed to Albert Grünwedel) with notes by Franz Boas; paper, ink, watercolor

Referring to his book as a “box,” in a letter written to the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw chiefs in 1897 Franz Boas wrote:

It is good that you should have a box in which your laws and stories are kept. My friend George Hunt, will show you a box in which some of your stories will be kept. It is a book I have written on what I saw and heard when I was with you two years ago. It is a good book, for in it are your laws and your stories. Now they will not be forgotten.”

The Story Box: Franz Boas, George Hunt and the Making of Anthropology continues at the Bard Graduate Center (18 West 86th Street, the Upper West Side, Manhattan) through July 7. It was curated by Aaron Glass and features designs by Corrine Hunt.

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