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Pacific Northwest Quarterly. January 1954, vol. 45, no. 1, pp. 36-37

The Makah Indians: A Study of an Indian Tribe In Modern American Society. By ELIZABETH COLSON. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1953. xvi, 308 pp; Appendix, bibliography, index.)

 

THIS VALUABLE STUDY of assimilation to American life of the Makah was done in 1941 and 1942 at Neah Bay by an excellently trained and unusually sensitive anthropologist who had studied at Minnesota and Radcliffe. In 1944 Dr. Colson became a research officer and then director of the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute in Rhodesia. There she Studied Bantu peoples and published considerable material on them. She has lectured at the University of Manchester in England since 1951.

Among the many anthropologists who have conducted research in Washington State, Dr. Colson is unique in her focus of inquiry, which is upon the development of the current manner of life of a people; in the richness of detail which she secured; and in clarity of formulations on contemporary social interaction. Her book does not display a primary interest in traditional ethnographic description. Indeed, a Makah ethnography is as needed as ever. But her study suggests that even in 1942 it may already have been too late to obtain more than fragments of information on nineteenth-century Makah culture. On the other hand, Dr. Colson has condensed and selected from masses of field notes which should be presented fully, as well as interpreted, in a later publication.

Dr. Colson's manner of research offers a model of anthropological field method because her unobtrusive daily participations and interviewing techniques were conducted with rare tact and caution. She seems to have known that in order to approach objectivity, an anthropologist must have the 'greatest possible awareness of his own inner needs, and that he must never use other persons, or their way of life, for the satisfaction of such needs. Accordingly she accepted Makah as deserving neither criticism nor evaluation but only sympathetic comprehension. Her study is not warped by the common compulsion among anthropologists to collect descriptive miscellanea while exorcising any and all interpretation of them except for short-range historical reconstructions. In her book the discrete items of fact converge into formulations regarding current social relationships, their historical causes, and a few correlated and judiciously phrased statements of a psychological kind.

Because Dr. Colson has only minimized not omitted psychological interpretation, she stands alone among students of Washington State Indians. Her writing also contrasts with the limitations in orientation which her British colleagues have usually imposed upon themselves. Their frequent failure to suggest psychological processes and to intertwine them conservatively with historical processes of social interaction burdens other scientists with an onerous task of filling in many lacunae in interpretation. For who is in a better position to point to psychological facets of a culture than the participant observer himself? Dr. Colson is much too perceptive a scientist to eliminate deductions regarding the probable feelings of people and the possible effects of such feelings upon the course of history.

 

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