On the Circulation of Ethnographic Knowledge:

Aaron Glass, University of British Columbia
Contemporary intercultural representation is facilitated in large part by a number of objectifying media that were relatively novel just a century ago. Barring direct social contact, we tend to experience other cultural groups via mediating technologies of representation—illustrated texts, photographs and films, museum exhibitions, staged performances, now websites—whose formats often occlude their various producers and blur their contexts of production (be they academic or touristic, educational or commercial). Such media encourage a global purview on cultural diversity, but they also function to limit knowledge reproduction through their unique materialities and the particular social dynamics of their circulation. For instance, like citational practices within academia, dramatic images tend to be propagated through processes of visual reiteration and recursive (mis)representation. What may have begun in a rich moment of intercultural collaboration—the context of all ethnography to some degree—often ends up simplified and far removed from the source. To track the recurrence of specific ethnographic images as their subsequent translations travel across varied media and contexts of production, circulation, and reception is to uncover the cultural biography of anthropological knowledge, and to promote a critical reflection on the scholarly use of media to re-present and objectify the practices of those with whom we work.

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1. Hamat’sa life group, prepared by Franz Boas at the US National Museum, c.1896 (Neg. #9539; National Museum of Natural History [NMNH] Dept. of Anthropology, Box 25, Folder 2, National Anthropological Archives [NAA]).

As a case study of these phenomena, I present an illustrated biography of one seminal depiction of a single North American indigenous ceremony—early museum dioramas of the Hamat’sa or “Cannibal Dance” of the Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) First Nations of British Columbia. Thanks in large part to the pioneering work of Franz Boas—as well as its almost unlimited circulation and reiteration by subsequent scholars—academics, public audiences, and the Kwakwaka’wakw alike have inherited an enormous corpus of visual material relating to these indigenous people and their expressive culture. In fact, the Kwakwaka’wakw have been particularly amenable to participating in projects of ethnographic representation, an extension perhaps of their own indigenous practices of carefully regulated hereditary and ceremonial display. Academic and aboriginal tendencies toward cultural objectification coalesced in a series of intercultural encounters around the turn of the last century, meetings and media-making exercises that resulted in a legacy of recursive visual representation—a highly dramatic if equally selective view of the ceremonial and now-iconic Hamat’sa.

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2. The Kwakwaka’wakw troupe at the World’s Columbian Exposition,
Chicago, 1893. George Hunt is in the hat on the far left. (Shepp, James and Daniel.
Shepp’s World Fair Photographed. Chicago: Globe Bible Publishing Co. 1893).

Franz Boas began his five-decade-long relationship with the Kwakwaka’wakw in 1886 on his first visit to British Columbia. There he met George Hunt, the son of an English fur trader and a Tlingit noblewoman from Alaska, who was raised among the Kwakwaka’wakw and often acted as a cultural broker and amateur ethnographer for missionaries, colonial magistrates, and museum collectors. In 1893, Boas hired Hunt to coordinate a troupe of Kwakwaka’wakw to live on the grounds of the Anthropology Department at the Chicago World’s Fair, where they demonstrated craft-making techniques, sold their wares, and performed songs and dances for scholars, visiting dignitaries, and the public. During the fair, Boas used various technologies—including life casts, phrenological calipers, wax cylinders, linguistic transcriptions, and photographs—to record aspects of Kwakwaka’wakw physiology and cultural practice. World fairs in general were primary venues for the introduction of various media of visual spectacle, filled as they were with dioramas, panoramas, viewing platforms, miniatures, architectural reconstructions, and commercial concessions. As in museums, Boas initially hoped to harness some of these media to elicit public awareness of and appreciation for anthropological science and foreign or indigenous cultures.

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3. The man known as Chicago Jim (center) performing as a Hamat’sa, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893. Photo by John Grabill (American Museum of Natural History Neg. #338326).

In Chicago, Boas worked with photographer John Grabill to document a series of Kwakwaka’wakw dances, including the Hamat’sa (pictured here). The Hamat’sa is a hereditary prerogative and thus restricted as a performance to those who hold valid claims to the position; each performer inherits unique names, songs, explanatory narratives, and choreographic routines. Ceremonially, Hamat’sa dances are held to publicly validate new initiates and to legitimize their claims to the prerogative. The performance symbolically re-enacts ancestral encounters with and possession by the man-eating spirit Baxbaxwalanuxsiwae’ (depicted as the face on this wooden dance screen); its purpose is to ritually tame the initiate after a period of preparatory isolation. At the fair, this initiatory function as well as the uniqueness of song and gesture was eclipsed by the routinization of regularly scheduled performances, and the dance was instead presented as a typical example of Kwakwaka’wakw—or even “Northwest Coast”—culture. This was one of the earliest examples of the recontextualization of the Hamat’sa within touristic or folkloristic venues.

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4. Hamat’sa life group, prepared by Franz Boas at the US National Museum, 1895 (Neg. #9163: “Kwakiutl Indian Ceremony of expelling cannibals”, in file “Anthropology Collections Management, Photo files on old museum installations”, Dept. of Anthropology, NMNH).

The Chicago World’s Fair introduced American audiences to the life group—life-sized dioramas with multiple human figures arranged in a naturalistic tableau of cultural activity (single manikins had been displayed at earlier fairs and in museums). Museum curators then planned their own such groups, and Boas was hired to prepare one depicting Northwest Coast Indians for the United States National Museum in Washington DC. He collected regalia (mostly cedar bark rings and blankets) for the group during a field trip to Ft. Rupert, BC in the winter of 1894/95, where he witnessed the Hamat’sa in situ for the first time. Though the ritual dance cycle includes the use of spectacular bird masks and—in the late nineteenth century—the simulated consumption of human flesh, Boas chose for his life group the stage of ritual return where the “wild” dancer emerges through the mouth of a wooden dance screen in order to be tamed. [In fact, Boas was primarily interested in the Hamat’sa—especially its origin legends—as a recently acquired cultural form, and it was a primary example of his emerging theory of diffusion throughout his publications. He consistently depicted the dance through its human initiate wearing cedar bark even though he collected the masks as well. It was only later photographers (such as Edward Curtis) and museum curators who shifted public representation of the dance away from the initiate and toward the bird masks, which after decades of reiteration now index the dance and, often, all Northwest Coast peoples.] Boas likely instructed the museum’s preparators to use his photograph from the fair to arrange the manikins, as the placement of figures and the specific design on the dance screen mirror those in the earlier image.

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5. Franz Boas posing for the Hamat’sa life group figures, US National Musuem, 1895 (Negs. #8293-8304 [Photos 16:76-77, 95-104]; NMNH Dept. of Anthropology: Photographs of artifacts; Box 6; Album 16; NAA).

Although Boas had taken numerous photographs of posed dancers and ceremonial orators during his field trip, he had no in situ images of the Hamat’sa phase he chose to depict. In order to insure the gestural accuracy of the individual figures, Boas himself posed for a museum photographer in the aspect of each ceremonial player: seated drummers, standing dance attendants, and crouching initiate. He was not the only early anthropologist to do so: both Frank Hamilton Cushing and James Mooney also posed for similar images. These were, after all, the first generation of American fieldworkers, and they may have been promoting the new methodology of participant observation by literally performing their recently acquired embodied knowledge in front of their armchair rivals on the east coast, while recording the evidence for posterity.

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6. Franz Boas posing for the Hamat’sa life group figures, US National Musuem, 1895 (Negs. #8293-8304 [Photos 16:76-77, 95-104]; NMNH Dept. of Anthropology: Photographs of artifacts; Box 6; Album 16; NAA).

In fact, these photographs have followed their own biographical trajectory. In 1903, Otis Mason in Washington wrote to Boas offering him the negatives, joking that the young anthropologist might not want to be immortalized as a cannibal dancer. Since their initial publication in the 1970s, these images—especially of the clothed or semi-clothed Boas-as-Hamat’sa—have been endlessly reproduced in texts and films about the anthropologist, the discipline, and museums. In early 2006, they even became the source of controversy in the American Anthropological Association after one was used as the background to a commemorative award medal in Boas’s name; some AAA members found the image disrespectful to his legacy (so Mason proved prescient!).

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7. Boas’s Hamat’sa life group, displayed at the Atlanta World’s Fair, 1895 (Neg. #9164, “Winter Ceremonial of the Fort Rupert Indians”; “Anthropology Collections Management, Photo files on old museum installations”; Department of Anthropology, NMNH).

The life group was first displayed in the U.S. Government Building at the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition in 1895, shortly after it was created. Part of the Ethnology Department’s rather-evolutionary exhibit, it was placed in front of shelves containing Native pottery from the southwest and near a series of other life groups depicting Native Americans. Framed only as “the ceremony of expulsion… of the cannibal fiend,” the life group failed to educate viewers about either the Hamat’sa or the Kwakwaka’wakw. This first iteration of the diorama was exposed to the air and featured a few cedar bark rings and capes collected by Boas during his recent winter field trip; though collected in Ft. Rupert, most items were actually made by the neighboring ‘Nak’waxda’xw of Blunden Harbor, thereby blurring sub-group boundaries in the construction of an ideal-typical “Kwakiutl”.

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8. Image of the Hamat’sa life group from Franz Boas (1897) Social Organization and Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl. U.S. National Museum Annual Report for 1895. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Plate 29.

By 1896, a large collection of Kwakwaka’wakw regalia was obtained for the National Museum by George Hunt in Ft. Rupert. This included numerous items of Hamat’sa regalia in which the life group was soon redressed (it was also encased in glass at this time). The following year, Boas published “The Social Organization and Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl”, which was illustrated with numerous examples of Hamat’sa regalia (although very few Hamat’sa masks) as well as an engraving of the final life group, here identified specifically as a Hamat’sa. Boas’s life group was only on display in Washington for a few years, but the museum became known for its dioramas and was soon emulated by other institutions. In fact, Boas’s initial proposal to create a similar Hamat’sa group for the American Museum of Natural History in New York around the same time was rejected by its director as too derivative of the Washington display. Yet the publication of this image allowed for the circulation of the Hamat’sa diorama far beyond the shelf life of the manikins themselves. [By 1906, Boas had largely abandoned life groups—and museum exhibits in general—as means toward educating the general public about anthropology and world cultures; he ultimately felt that realistic visual simulations distracted from the scientific enterprise, although in the 1930s he experimented with film as a primary ethnographic recording media when he shot footage of Kwakwaka’wakw dances, including the Hamat’sa.]

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9. Hamat’sa life group, prepared by George Dorsey at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History (FMNH), 1904 (FMNH Neg. #CSA16242).

After the Chicago World’s Fair, George Dorsey was hired to direct the Anthropology Department of the city’s new Field Museum (much to the chagrin of Boas, who had campaigned for the post). In 1899, Dorsey traveled to British Columbia in order to collect regalia and body casts for his own life groups. He also hired a Victoria doctor and naturalist, Charles Newcombe, to collect material for the museum. Dorsey explicitly instructed Newcombe to use Boas’s 1897 publication as a collection guide, and around 1903 he used the book to replicate the Hamat’sa diorama at the Field (pictured here). Though the paintings on the dance screen and drums are different, the gestures and arrangement of figures are identical. These plaster figures were dressed and painted by two Kwakwaka’wakw men, Charlie Nowell and Bob Harris, who attended the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 under the direction of Newcombe (they too performed the Hamat’sa at the fair). Nowell reported that he even stood inside the glass case of the diorama interpreting the scene to Chicago museum visitors.

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10. Other Hamat’sa displays in the Field Museum around 1910 (top right: FMNH Neg. #CSA8149; bottom right: FMNH Neg. #CSA98844), copied from published images in Boas’s 1897 book (middle), which were in turn reproductions from earlier photographs taken at the Chicago World’s fair (top left: AMNH Neg. #338325) and in Ft. Rupert (bottom left: AMNH Neg. #336132).

Around the same time, Dorsey also created for the Field Museum two other Hamat’sa manikins based on Boas’s (1897) published images. For the figure of the crouching initiate he relied on a Boas drawing, itself derived from a photograph taken at the Chicago World’s Fair; the manikin is draped in the actual regalia worn by the posing dancer in 1893 and collected by the museum after the fair ended. To reproduce the crouching bird dancer, Dorsey instructed Newcombe to collect a similar mask to that pictured by Boas (Boas’s manikin was based on one of his field photos from Ft. Rupert). Other Hamat’sa manikins soon showed up in east coast museums; for instance, the American Museum of Natural History added a standing Hamat’sa figure to its pan-Northwest Coast canoe display in 1910. Newcombe even proposed replicating the full Hamat’sa life group again at the Provincial Museum in Victoria in 1913, but the plan fell through. It seems as if every natural history museum with a major Northwest Coast collection had to have a life-sized depiction of the Kwakwaka’wakw Hamat’sa to supplement their towering totem poles and giant war canoes (not to mention the ubiquitous stuffed elephants and whale skeletons).

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11. Miniature Hamat’sa diorama, made in 1927 by Samuel Barrett, Milwaukee Public Museum (photo by author).

In 1915, Samuel Barrett visited the Field Museum on his way to British Columbia in order to make a Northwest Coast collection and prepare life groups for the Milwaukee Public Museum, long an innovator in diorama technology. George Hunt helped him navigate Kwakwaka’wakw territory and amass a large collection from the area (Barrett stayed in the same house that Edward Curtis had inhabited the year before while photographing with Hunt’s help in Ft. Rupert!). In 1927, Barrett produced a miniature Hamat’sa diorama that situates the now-familiar dance screen scene within a ceremonial big house context. The painting on Barrett’s small dance screen is a direct replica of the one in Washington DC; his reliance on the published image from Boas 1897 (rather than the actual screen) is evidenced by the missing design elements where figures in Boas’s photograph occluded the painted face (compare this to IMAGE 8 above). This was the last major Hamat’sa display to circulate Boas’s original diorama; after 1930, exhibition of the Hamat’sa turned definitely away from cedar-bark-clad initiates and toward standing or crouching figures (or simply supports) bedecked in the dramatic bird masks, a display trope that continues today in both metropolitan and Kwakwaka’wakw community museums.

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12. Cover of Stocking, George (ed.) (1985) Objects and Others: Essays on Museums and Material Culture. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

In the nineteenth century, the Hamat’sa was a highly restricted and even secretive ceremonial prerogative, performed by few and witnessed only on ritual occasions. A century later, it had become the most visible icon of Kwakwaka’wakw society and even an emblem for the entire Northwest Coast region. Indigenous decisions to transform the dance into a public form of cultural heritage—by displaying it at world’s fairs and to coastal tourists as well as to filmmakers and photographers—facilitated both its survival (at a time when First Nations potlatches and ceremonies were outlawed in Canada and prosecuted in British Columbia) and its anthropological objectification. While the Hamat’sa was undergoing performative reevaluation at home, visual representations of it were circulating around metropolitan centers in North America and beyond. Through repetition and reiteration, simplified and selective facets of the dance came to represent what were complex and variegated practices. The unique materialities of the depictions—photographs, illustrated texts, life-sized or miniature manikins—inflected the public displays with more or less ethnographic knowledge, but they all tended to recycle the same, increasingly recursive representations. Thus each specific mediation begat others, with the widening network of them suggesting a level of mutual corroboration that in fact belied their actual history of production.
When the image of the Hamat’sa diorama was chosen to frame the important 1985 volume pictured here, I imagine it was simply drawn from the chapter within regarding Boas and his museum work. However, the complex biography of the life group itself illustrates some of the mechanisms of ethnographic mediation and anthropological knowledge production, the role of recursivity and reiteration in generating iconic cultural objectifications, and the historical entanglement of professional anthropology, public museums, and indigenous people. The media of ethnographic knowledge have their own status as visual and material culture, their own social lives and modes of circulation. They constitute the creative and collaborative work of scholars, technicians, and research subjects, and they have something to teach us about the cultural lives and social networks of all of these enmeshed communities.

This material is drawn from chapters in:
Glass, Aaron (2006) Conspicuous Consumption: An Intercultural History of the Kwakwaka’wakw Hamat’sa. PhD Dissertation in the Department of Anthropology, New York University.
as well as scenes in:
In Search of the Hamat’sa: A Tale of Headhunting. 2004. 33 minute documentary film written and directed by Aaron Glass. Produced in the Program for Culture and Media, New York University. Distributed by the Royal Anthropological Institute (England) and IWF Wissen und Medien gGmbH (Germany).
See Also:

  • Boas, Franz (1897) “The Social Organization and Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl.” U.S. National Museum Annual Report for 1895. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  • Boas, Franz (1966) Kwakiutl Ethnography. Helen Codere (ed). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Cole, Douglas (1985) Captured Heritage: The Scramble for Northwest Coast Artifacts. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
  • Glass, Aaron (2004) “The Intention of tradition: contemporary contexts and contests of the Hamat’sa dance.” In Marie Mauzé,
  • Michael Harkin, and Sergei Kan (eds.) Coming to Shore: Northwest Coast Ethnology, Tradition and Visions. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Glass, Aaron (2004) “‘The Thin edge of the wedge’: dancing around the potlatch ban, 1922-1951.” In Naomi Jackson (ed.) Dancing for Rights/Rights to Dance. Banff, Canada: Banff Centre Press.
  • Griffiths, Allison (2002) Wondrous Difference: Cinema, Anthropology, and Turn-of-the-Century Visual Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Hinsley, Curtis and Bill Holm (1976) “A Cannibal in the National Museum: The early career of Franz Boas in America.” American Anthropologist 78():306-16.
  • Jacknis, Ira (1985) “Franz Boas and exhibits: On the limitations of the museum method of Anthropology.” In George Stocking (ed.) Objects and Others: Essays on Museums and Material Culture. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
    Jacknis, Ira (2002) The Storage Box of Tradition: Kwakiutl Art, Anthropologists, and Museums, 1881-1981.Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  • Raibmon, Paige (2000) “Theatres of contact: the Kwakwaka’wakw meet colonialism in British Columbia and at the Chicago World’s Fair.” Canadian Historical Review 81(2):157-90.

Author Info:
Aaron Glass is a cultural anthropologist and visual artist who works primarily with First Nations in British Columbia. He holds graduate degrees in anthropology from the University of British Columbia and New York University, and a BFA in studio art from the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. His dissertation research examines the ethnographic representation and performance history of the Hamat’sa or “Cannibal Dance.” Glass has published articles on various aspects of First Nations art and performance on the Northwest Coast, and is the co-author of a forthcoming book on the colonial and contemporary history of totem poles. His larger interests include expressive culture (visual art, performance, film and media); the social history of art; social memory and cultural (re)production; discourses of tradition and heritage; repatriation and restitution; theories of value around objects; the politics of representation and display; and the entangled histories of museums and anthropology. Glass is currently a Killam Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia.

1 Comment

  1. Greetings Aaron – I really think you get to the heart of the questions we should be asking about the circulation and persistence of visual forms and the interpenetration of popular and scientific discourses over a centrifugal model. I am especially pleased to be reminded of Boas’own re-enactments, an embodied response, based in observation, as a form of scientific evidence, but one used to translate the ‘scientific’ into the popular realm. Discourses of observation and immediacy which have dominated anthropolical truth values in various guises for so long, have traditionally dismissed re-enactment (in the sense of a self-conscious repetition and reference), the demolition of the concept of ‘authenticity’ not withstanding. All the image uses that you mention effectively become forms of re-enactment as visual representations, and are engaged with in the spirit of Chris Pinney’s ‘corpothetics’ perhaps. Such a position makes the recursuve after-lfe of images all the more significant.

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