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An anthropology pioneer’s complicated legacy about a Native Canadian tribe

Several members of the Kwakwaka’wakw delegation at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
Several members of the Kwakwaka’wakw delegation at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. (Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University)

Packed with illustrations and descriptions of the habits, rituals and songs of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, Franz Boas’s 1897 book “The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians” was a groundbreaking work in a new field. Boas, a pioneering anthropologist, had produced an ethnography that would become influential in the discipline he helped create.

So how does it hold up 122 years after its publication?

“The Story Box: Franz Boaz, George Hunt and the Making of Anthropology,” at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery in New York, helps piece together a complicated legacy.

The exhibition, organized by Bard and the U’mista Cultural Centre in British Columbia, uses Boas’s own metaphor of his book as a kind of box in which the history and culture of the ­Kwakwaka’wakw people — a group of Native Canadians who live along the Pacific Northwest near and on Vancouver Island — could be stored.

Although the book was one of the first to attempt a complete portrait of an indigenous people’s rituals and knowledge, much of Boas’s fieldwork took place among the Kwakwaka’wakw who were living on display at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. (They were paid to live in a re-created village on the fairgrounds where they essentially became a living exhibit. For the performers, it was a deal worth making — at their “village” at the fair, they could perform songs and dances that had been banned by Canadian government officials who disapproved of their traditions.)

And Boas also co-wrote the book with George Hunt, a Native Canadian who was a linguist and ethnologist. Hunt’s contributions, however, were not fully acknowledged.

The exhibition was created with the help of Hunt’s great-granddaughter, artist Corrinne Hunt, and supplements Boas’s work while highlighting the culture it portrayed. It features ceremonial Kwakwaka’wakw objects, photos, drawings and manuscripts. Also included are unpublished revisions by Hunt, who wanted to correct the book but whose additions were never published.

A larger effort to preserve Boas and Hunt’s work and combine archival material with their texts is also underway at Bard.

“The Story Box” runs until July 7. If you cannot visit, take a look at the exhibit’s website at It has artifact photos and in-depth details about the book’s history.

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