Who was Franz Boas? Research receives $2.5 million to find out

By Douglas Keddy
June 21, 2013

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Just who was Franz Boas? Although widely considered a founding figure of North American anthropology, and a distinguished public intellectual until his death in 1942, his name no longer resonates beyond academic communities.

Boas sought to understand things like culture, language, education and music practice among First Nations peoples, which allowed him to increase public awareness of cultural diversity, speak out against racism and break down the isolationism of 20th-century American society.

His successors, however, have largely overlooked the Canadian context of his long-term fieldwork with the Kwakwaka’wakw and other British Columbia First Nations communities.

A multidisciplinary team led by anthropologist Regna Darnell at Western, in partnership with the American Philosophical Society, the University of Nebraska Press, the University of Victoria and the Musgamagw Dzawada’eneuxw Tribal Council, is trying to change this.

The team is currently editing, reassessing and re-contextualizing Boas’ personal and professional papers, which are held at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia to produce a documentary edition to be published by the University of Nebraska Press.

“The primary objective of this project is to conduct research that makes Boas’s professional and personal papers understandable for a contemporary audience and widely accessible in print and digital formats,” Darnell said.

“These include previously unedited and unpublished correspondence and linguistic manuscripts that will provide a major resource for the intellectual and cultural history of the social sciences and humanities from the 1880s to 1940s.”

By making these works available, Darnell hopes to encourage public discourse and dialogue with First Nations scholars and their communities, and to encourage effective communications between Native and non-Native Canadians.

The team, which also includes co-investigators at Dalhousie University and Université de Montréal, was recently awarded $2.5 million from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to carry out its work over the next seven years.

The first of 17 volumes is expected to be published in 2015 by University of Nebraska Press.


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