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Bureau of American Ethnology

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The Bureau of American Ethnology was organized in 1879 and was placed by Congress under the supervision of the Smithsonian Institution. It was directed that all the archives, records, and materials relating to the Indian tribes collected by the Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region under the auspices of the Interior Department should be transferred to the Institution for use by the Bureau. Prof. Spencer F. Baird, Secretary of the Institution, recognizing the great value of Maj. J. W. Powell’s services in initiating re searches among the western tribes, selected him as the person best qualified to organize and conduct the work.

The National Government had already recognized the importance of researches among the tribes. As early as 1795 the Secretary of War appointed Leonard S. Shaw deputy agent to the Cherokee with instructions to study their language and home life and to collect materials for an Indian history. President Jefferson, who planned the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-06, “for the purpose of extending the internal commerce of the United States,” especially stipulated, in his instructions to Lewis, the observations on the native tribes that should be made by the expedition for the use of the Government. These were to include their names and numbers; the extent and limits of their possessions; their relations with other tribes or nations; their language, traditions, and monuments; their ordinary occupations in agriculture, fishing, hunting, war, arts, and the implements for these; their food, clothing, and domestic accommodations; the diseases prevalent among them and the remedies they use; moral and physical circumstances which distinguish them from known tribes; peculiarities in their laws, customs, and dispositions; and articles of commerce they may need or furnish, and to what extent; “and considering the interest which every nation has in extending and strengthening the authority of reason and justice among the people around them, it will be useful to acquire what knowledge you can of the state of morality, religion, and information among them, as it may better enable those who endeavor to civilize and instruct them to adapt their measures to the existing notions and practices of those on whom they are to operate.” During much of his life Jefferson, like Albert Gallatin later on, manifested his deep interest in the ethnology of the American tribes by publishing accounts of his observations that are of extreme value today. In 1820 Rev. Jedidiah Morse was commissioned by the President to make a tour for the purpose of “ascertaining, for the use of the Government, the actual state of the Indian tribes of our country.” The Government also aided the publication of Schoolcraft’s voluminous work on the Indians. The various War Department expeditions and surveys had reported on the tribes and monuments encountered in the West; the Hayden Survey of the Territories had examined and described many of the cliff-dwellings and pueblos, and had published papers on the tribes of the Mississippi valley, and Maj. Powell, as chief of the Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region, had accomplished important work among the tribes of the Rio Colorado drainage in connection with his geological and geographic al researches, and had commenced a series of publications known as Contributions to North American Ethnology. The Smithsonian Institution had also taken an active part in the publication of the results of researches undertaken by private students. The first volume of its Contributions to Knowledge is The Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, by Squier and Davis, and up to the founding of the Bureau of Ethnology the Institution had issued upward of 600 papers on ethnology and archeology. These early researches had taken a wide range, but in a some what unsystematic way, and Maj. Powell, on taking charge of the Bureau, began the task of classifying the subject-matter of the entire aboriginal field and the selection of those subjects that seemed to require immediate attention. There were numerous problems of a practical nature to be dealt with, and at the same time many less strictly practical but none the less important problems to be considered. Some of the practical questions were readily approached, but in the main they were so involved with the more strictly scientific questions that the two could not be considered separately.

From its inception the Government has had before it problems arising from the presence within its domain, as dependent wards, of more than 300,000 aborigines. In the main the difficulties encountered in solving these problems arose from a lack of knowledge of the distribution, numbers, relationships, and languages of the tribes, and a real appreciation of their character, culture status, needs, and possibilities. It was recognized that a knowledge of these elements lies at the very foundation of intelligent administration, and thus one of the important objects in organizing the Bureau of Ethnology was that of obtaining such knowledge of the tribes as would enable the several branches of the Government to know and appreciate the aboriginal population, and that at the same time would enable the people generally to give intelligent ad ministration sympathetic support. An essential step in this great work was that of locating the tribes and classifying them in such manner as to make it possible to assemble them in harmonious groups, based on relationship of blood, language, customs, beliefs, and grades of culture. It was found that within the area with which the nation has to deal there are spoken some 500 Indian languages, as distinct from one another as French is from English, and that these languages are grouped in more than 50 linguistic families. It was found, further, that in connection with the differences in language there are many other distinctions requiring attention. Tribes allied in language are often allied also in capacity, habits, tastes, social organization, religion, arts, and industries, and it was plain that a satisfactory investigation of the tribes required a systematic study of all of these, conditions. It was not attempted, however, to cover the whole field in detail. When sufficient progress had been made in the classification of the tribes, certain groups were selected as types, and investigations among them were so pursued as to yield results applicable in large measure to all. Up to the present time much progress has been made and a deeper insight has been gained into the inner life and character of the native people, and thus, in a large sense, of primitive peoples generally, than had been reached before in the world’s history. Many of the results of these re searches have already been published and are in the hands of all civilized nations.

Some of the more directly practical results accomplished may be briefly mentioned:

  1. A study of the relations, location, and numbers of the tribes, and their classification into groups or families, based on affinity in language a necessary basis for dealing with the tribes practically or scientifically;
  2. a study of the numerous sociologic, religious, and industrial problems involved, an acquaintance with which is essential to the intelligent management of the tribes in adjusting them to the requirements of civilization;
  3. a history of the relations of the Indian and white races embodied in a volume on land cessions;
  4. investigations into the physiology, medical practices, and sanitation of a people w r ho suffer keenly from imperfect adaptation to the new conditions imposed on them;
  5. the preparation of bibliographies embodying all works relating to the tribes;
  6. a study of their industrial and economic resources;
  7. a study of the antiquities of the country with a view r to their record and preservation; and
  8. a handbook of the tribes, embodying, in condensed form, the accumulated information of many years.

The more strictly scientific results relate to every department of anthropologic research physical, psychological, linguistic, sociologic, religious, technique, and esthetic and are embodied in numerous papers published in the reports, contributions, and bulletins; and the general results in each of these departments, compiled and collated by the highest available authorities, have now begun to appear in the form of handbooks.

Besides the regular scientific members of the Bureau there are numerous associates or collaborators, including many of the best-known ethnologists of the country, who contribute papers or who engage at intervals in research work under the Bureau s auspices. The library contains about 12,000 volumes and 7,000 pamphlets, accumulated largely through exchange of publications. There are about 1,600 linguistic manuscripts, and 15,000 photographic negatives illustrating the aborigines and their activities. The publications consist of Contributions to North American Ethnology, Annual Reports, Bulletins, Introductions, and Miscellaneous Publications. The series of contributions was begun by the Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region before the organization of the Bureau, 3 volumes having been completed, and was discontinued after 8 volumes had been issued. Twenty-three annual reports, comprising 28 volumes, 30 bulletins (including the present Handbook) , 4 introductions, and 6 miscellaneous publications have appeared. The present edition of the annual reports and bulletins is 9,850 copies, of which the Senate receives 1,500, the House of Representatives 3,000, and the Bureau 3,500 copies. Of the Bureau edition 500 are distributed by the Smithsonian Institution. From the remaining 1,850 copies are drawn the personal copies of members of Congress, and 500 for distribution to Government libraries and other libraries throughout the country, as designated by Congress; the remainder are sold by the Superintendent of Documents, Government Printing Office. With the exception of the few disposed of by the Superintendent of Documents, the publications are distributed free of charge; the popular demand for them is so great, however, that the editions are soon exhausted. The quota allowed the Bureau is distributed to libraries, to institutions of learning, and to collaborators and others engaged, in anthropologic research or in teaching.

To find out more about the various publications published by the bureau over its years view the list of publications of the Bureau of American Ethnology.


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