Zuni and the American Imagination
Hill & Wang
By Eliza McFeely
January 1, 2001
Zuni society existed for centuries before there was a United States, and it still exists in its desert pueblo in what is now New Mexico. More than a hundred years ago, three anthropologists -- among the first in this new discipline -- came to Zuni to study it and to salvage what they could of its tangible culture before modern life engulfed and destroyed it, which they believed was sure to happen. The pioneering work of Matilda Stevenson, Frank Hamilton Cushing, and Stewart Culin -- and their belief in the power and significance of Zuni life -- put this fascinating Native American group into the heart of the American imagination, where it has resided ever since. The complex relationship between the Zuni as they were and are, and the Zuni as imagined by these three easterners, is at the heart of Eliza McFeely's important new book.
Stevenson, Cushing, and Culin were eccentric, remarkable personalities in their own right, and McFeely gives ample consideration to each of them in her colorful and absorbing study. For different reasons, all three found professional and psychological satisfaction in leaving the East for the West, in submerging themselves in an alien, little-known world, and in bringing back to the nation's new museums and exhibit halls literally thousands of Zuni artifacts. Their doctrines about social development, their notions of "salvage anthropology," their cultural biases and predispositions have now been superseded, even repudiated, but nonetheless their work imprinted Zuni on the American imagination in ways we have yet to measure. It is the great merit of McFeely's fascinating work that she puts their intellectual and personal adventures into a just and measured perspective; she enlightens us about America, about Zuni, and about how we understand each other.
"Thanks to Eliza McFeely's fine study, we can see the extraordinary confusion of bluff, bullying, and awe that lay at the heart of nineteenth century Americans' search for their own antique wonders, and we see as well the rich mixture of curiosity, generosity, and realpolitik that inspired the Zunis' interest in exchange and conversation. This is a marvelously discerning book, at once delicate and powerful." --Christine Stansell, Princeton University