The Indian Man: A Biography of James Mooney/Voices of Wounded Knee

By Sunstrom, Linea | Plains Anthropologist, August 2004 | Go to article overview

The Indian Man: A Biography of James Mooney/Voices of Wounded Knee


Sunstrom, Linea, Plains Anthropologist


The Indian Man: A Biography of James Mooney. By L.G. MOSES. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1984, 2002. xix + 293 pp., figures, bibliography, index. $29.95 (paper, ISBN 0-8032-8279-6). Voices of Wounded Knee. By WILLIAM S.E. COLEMAN. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 2000, xxiii + 434 pp., figures, bibliography, index $35.00 (hard cover, ISBN 0-8032-1506-1).

The Indian Man is a reissue of L.G. Moses's 1984 biography of James Mooney. It traces Mooney's career from his childhood exploration of Indian culture through the books at Fordham College in his hometown of Richmond, Indiana, to his emergence as one of the foremost ethnographers of his time.

Mooney's lack of formal education and social connections made him vulnerable to mistreatment on the part of his colleagues and government officials. While Mooney's humble background gave him unique insight into the Ghost Dance religion, his assertions that the movement was essentially similar to early Christianity and his later advocacy for the peyote religion gave his rivals ammunition sufficient to bring to a halt the most productive aspect of Mooney's career: his field work among Indians. As Moses notes, "such heresy would cost him dearly."

Cultural anthropologists today routinely aid the people they study in economic development, human rights, and social services. Many consider this a professional obligation. In Mooney's day, by contrast, indigenous peoples were viewed as living relics, dwindling remnants of a past soon to be erased by the juggernaut of European and American colonialism. The goal of anthropological fieldwork was to record these relics and bolster the prevailing theory of the day-namely, that European culture (and its American offspring) represented the pinnacle of human evolution, which the "primitive" cultures had failed to achieve before their inevitable demise. The more time Mooney spent in Indian communities, the less obligated he felt to parrot such views. Instead, he asserted that each culture, and each religion, must be understood in its own right. Moreover, he became a pioneering advocate for Indian religious rights.

The Indian Man cogently presents Mooney's development as a first-rate ethnographer. Mooney was on his way West to study a new religious movement sweeping through the western reservations when disaster hit at Wounded Knee. Mooney's The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890 was widely acclaimed, despite its controversial conclusions: first, that the US government was to blame for the massacre at Wounded Knee and, second, that the Ghost Dance religion was directly comparable to early Christianity. By this time, Mooney had rejected notions of cultural supremacy and Christianity as the only "true" religion. He emphasized the sameness of all cultures and argued that the origins of the Ghost Dance were essentially the same as other religions. That Mooney was not summarily dismissed for espousing these views is a tribute to his meticulous research and eloquence. Remarkably, Mooney was one of only two persons to interview the "Indian Messiah," Wovoka, to learn first-hand the tenets of the new religion. His brand of anthropology depended not on armchair speculation, but on painstaking collection of information from Indians themselves.

Mooney's fieldwork outpaced his ability to complete reports. he left many of his studies uncompleted; however, scholars such as Candace Greene, John Peter Powell, and Ron McCoy are now bringing this material to light. …

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