[Transmission Difficulties: Franz Boas & Tsimshian Mythology]

By Maud, Ralph; Roth, Christopher F. | Anthropologica, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

[Transmission Difficulties: Franz Boas & Tsimshian Mythology]


Maud, Ralph, Roth, Christopher F., Anthropologica


Ralph Maud, Burnaby, British Columbia: Talonbooks, 2000, 174 pages, $16.95 (paper).

Reviewer: Christopher F. Roth

Barat College

This volume concludes years of research into the collaboration between Franz Boas and his Tsimshian informant Henry Wellington Tate which resulted in Boas's Tsimshian Mythology (1916). Maud compares published texts with originals in preserved correspondence and manuscripts and uncovers disturbing and extensive "transmission difficulties" which Boas never acknowledges in print. Boas lets readers believe they are reading original narratives transcribed from the mouths of tellers and translated thoughtfully into English. In fact, Tate never transcribed face-to-face; he wrote in English, then translated into Tsimshian; and he cribbed from earlier publications, which Boas had sent him as models. Then Boas doctored the texts, often to disguise Tate's methods but sometimes also in the service of prudery or now-discredited approaches to textual "purity." Surely Boas's methods compromise the authenticity, immediacy, and usefulness of the result.

In showing this, Maud provides a valuable service. But in many ways Transmission Difficulties, with its meager bibliography and no index, is a troubling book. First, readers will be put off by Maud's attacks on Boas's character, of a ferocity almost never seen in scholarly writing. Not content to analyze the theoretical context for Boas's methodology, Maud attributes any problems in Tsimshian Mythology to Boas's personal failings. He calls him "silly," "officious" (p. 23), "uncaring" (p. 31), "ethically mixed up" (p. 39), and "egocentric" (p. 42), refers to Boas's "cowardice," "hypocrisy" (p. 43), "rank sophistry" (p. 65), and "strangely diminished intellectual state" (p. 42), and opines that Boas "gives pedantry a bad name," deserving not "even the noble name of drudge" (p. 31). Nor does Boas's other great informant, George Hunt, escape such vitrol; Maud calls Hunt's texts "quite possibly the most dreary literary production that the world has ever been presented with" (p. 92).

Maud frames his attacks as a crusade, though he largely ignores a long tradition criticizing Boas's assumptions and methodology. This criticism is the foundation of North American anthropology as we know it, but Maud imagines himself a lone dissenter against a cult of Boasian divinity.

In the most egregious passage, Maud cites Tate's 1907 letter admitting omitting "very bad things" in stories because Tsimshians now live a "Christian life." In reply, Boas urges unflinching completeness, asking Tate not to be ashamed of "horrid customs of olden times" that are "quite distasteful to us" (pp. 37-38). Here Boas, like any ethnographer, gropes for a discourse in which to discuss discontinued practices. For Maud, however who misunderstands the integrative role of Tsimshian Christianity and interprets any Christian influence as anti-traditional--Boas's wording reveals an ethnocentric arrogance which "disqualifies Boas as an anthropologist" and surely convinced Tate that "Boas hates Tsimshian culture." After inferring baselessly that Boas was "genuinely horrified by savage practices" of the Tsimshian such as "head-hunting" [sic!] and "lineage boasting in the interminable garage sales called potlatches," Maud, who is not an anthropologist, offers his own version of anthropological ethics, by which anthropologists should even be prepared to "identify with... the necessity... and joy... of 'ethnic cleansing' " (p. 39). By this point it is no longer Boas's level of enlightenment (unimpeachable for his time and place, incidentally) that should concern the reader. …

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