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On Creating a Usable CultureMargaret Mead and the Emergence of American Cosmopolitanism$

Maureen A. Molloy

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780824831165

Published to Hawaii Scholarship Online: November 2016

DOI: 10.21313/hawaii/9780824831165.001.0001

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“Every Woman Deviating from the Code”

“Every Woman Deviating from the Code”

Cultural Lag, Moral Contagion, and Social Disintegration

(p.83) 5 “Every Woman Deviating from the Code”
On Creating a Usable Culture

Maureen A. Molloy

University of Hawai'i Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses Mead's least well known work, The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe (1932). Located in the American Midwest—far from her usual ethnographic locus in the Pacific—the book provides a compelling contrast to the exoticized and eroticized “natives” of the other ethnographies. Mead, whose Pacific ethnographies are marked by denial of Euro-American imperialism's effects, was unable to refute colonization's impact on the “Antlers.” Indeed, the book's little reception reflects both the difficulties America had in coming to terms with its internal empire and Mead's dismissal of the study's usefulness for anthropology because the culture was broken.

Keywords:   Pacific ethnographies, Euro-American imperialism, American Midwest, colonization, Indian tribes, natives

OF THE FOUR non-specialist ethnographies that Margaret Mead wrote between 1928 and 1935, the least well known is The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe. There are a number of reasons for this. In the first place, the research was located in the American Midwest, well outside Mead’s usual provenance of Oceania, an anomaly in her oeuvre. Perhaps more important is the fact that Mead herself never popularized this work. Unlike the three more famous monographs, Coming of Age in Samoa, Growing Up in New Guinea, and Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, Changing Culture inspired no spin-off articles in Cosmopolitan or the Parents Magazine that described the practices of the Antler Indians and drew moral or pedagogical lessons for (white, middle-class) American parents and educators, and, coincidentally, widened the book’s readership. The “Antlers,”1 therefore, occupy a curious space or lacuna in Mead’s work, appearing, and then rarely, only in the comparative articles she was asked to write for academic collections on child psychology or for the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. This absence is not confined to Mead’s own writings. Micaela di Leonardo omits this work in her analysis of Mead’s anthropology between the wars.2 George Stocking calls it “[o]ne of the earliest and most interesting studies” of acculturation done in this period but goes on to analyze others;3 a film retrospective takes Mead directly from Manus to Arapesh with no mention of the intervening fieldwork in Nebraska.4 Even the centennial retrospective of Mead’s work in the Library of Congress failed to feature the work in Nebraska.5 Many anthropologists are not aware that Mead did this research and wrote a book about it.6 Of her four early research projects and their renderings in the form of monographs, the Antler work and Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe is the one with the least name recognition among professionals and public alike.

There is one immediate explanation for Mead’s uncharacteristic reticence about the Antlers in the popular press, and that is that the research on their culture was undertaken covertly. The Antlers were, in reality, the Omaha, who, since the mid-1850s, had occupied a reservation in the vicinity of Macy, Nebraska. Mead (p.84) presented herself to them simply as Mrs. Fortune, a wife “killing time in idle conversation or attendance at ceremonies”7 while her husband did research on Omaha religious practices. She used Fortune’s name, took no notes in public, and asked questions in a form of “gossipy curiosity.” She justified this deception as necessary to protect individuals from the shame that would follow her reportage of the intimate details of their lives. Retrospectively, however, she acknowledged the loss of authenticity that results when the researcher does not declare herself.8

While the covert nature of the research may explain Mead’s unwillingness to publish on the Omaha in the popular press, there is a more specific paradox involved in the position she herself took with regard to this work. The paradox is that this research, which arguably had much more immediate applicability and urgency for American policy makers and educators than did any of her other studies, did not stir Mead to pedagogical ends. In fact, she specifically disavowed any intention of “rendering immediate aid to government or suggesting social panaceas”; the study was undertaken “purely with a view to adding to our knowledge.”9 Unlike her research in Samoa, the Admiralty Islands, and New Guinea, the Omaha work died a quiet death. This attitude to a piece of research, understandable in other scholars, is strikingly out of character for Mead, who, from the beginning of her career, defined her mission as social pedagogy. As a self-appointed interpreter of the “primitive” to the modern, Mead was able to make (sometimes outlandish) recommendations about social change on the basis of taken-for-granted knowledge or even very questionable interpretations of evidence. In this book, she specifically disavowed any such motive.

The quiescent history of this research cannot, of course, be attributed solely to Mead’s own actions or attitudes about the research and its subsequent publication. The book did not “grab” the public attention, the popular press, or even her professional colleagues’ imaginations in the way that Coming of Age in Samoa had, nor indeed did it gain even the more circumspect attention that Growing Up in New Guinea had attracted and that Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies would attract four years later. To write about The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe in the context of the early years of the Depression in America, then, is a curious activity. It is, in fact, to write about an absence, a non-occurrence, a non-response, a repression, both by Mead herself and by the many intellectuals, journalists, and educators who seized on her other books and made them into best-sellers. The book tells a story that no one, not even Mead herself, wished to hear, a profoundly disturbing story of the shattered American dream. If Mead’s books can be read as allegories about America, The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe is perhaps the most allegorical, precisely because it disavows any intention (p.85) to moralize or solve the problems it exposes, a disavowal that parallels policy and anthropological attitudes of the time. The conditions she exposed were not news to anthropologists. Lewis Merriam’s 1928 report on the state of Native Americans had roundly condemned conditions on reservations.10 Despite this, academic and museum-based anthropologists in America were still largely committed to “salvage” ethnography in the guise of historical reconstruction. Indeed, Mead herself became increasingly sympathetic with this historicist bent over the course of the Omaha research, feeling that it was the best that could be managed, given the state of native communities. However, in writing a book about that most potent and ambivalent figure, the “Indian,” Mead inevitably also told a tale of America at large. The book participated in a long history of representations of the Indian as both the epitome of “America” and as its antithesis, and in the equally long denial of America’s internal empire. The cultural tragedy Mead found in Omaha society was a painful and disrupting reminder of the failure of the American dream, a dream in which, Susan Scheckel suggests, “the ghost of the Indian as the object of genocidal violence has returned inevitably to haunt the nation and its narratives.”11

The failure of that dream was being all too obviously lived out by Americans from across the social and ethnic spectrum in the early 1930s. The severity and relentlessness of the economic collapse went beyond the comprehension of even the most persistent critics of American culture and economy of the previous decades. Revolution and fascism hung in the air as threats or solutions to the problems that capitalism and democratic government seemed unable to solve. For two decades, intellectual life in the United States had been fueled by a critique of science, technology, and materialism and their dislocating and chaotic effects on individuals and communities. Faced with the collapse of that technological and economic infrastructure, intellectuals began to revive the Progressive vision of an integrated society, calling for a radical rethinking of American economics, culture and morals in order to shape a society which was not only prosperous, but also integrated and culturally unified. That dream of integration reached its fullest theoretical expression in functionalism just as the economy crumbled, giving anthropologists an influence in shaping the search for new social models. So-called primitive societies, portrayed as smoothly integrated mechanisms that met all of their members needs, fed into the desire for “wholeness,” simplicity, self-sufficiency, and community in the face of the social disintegration all around.

In order to explicate this failed dream Mead drew again on an analytic model that had been circulating in American intellectual circles for more than a decade. This was her mentor William Fielding Ogburn’s concept of cultural lag. Ogburn (p.86) was a professor of sociology at Columbia University, where Mead took courses from him while a student at Barnard College. He enabled her to undertake graduate studies by employing her when her father refused further support. In his influential book, Social Change with Respect to Culture and Original Nature (published in 1922 when Mead was his student), Ogburn argued that customs, mores and mental habits (culture) did not change at the same rate as material conditions and technology did. When culture lags behind scientific and economic change, serious maladjustments occur, resulting in both individual problems (neurosis and psychosis) and also social problems, including crime, sex problems, and selfishness.12 Cultural lag “quickly became an important part of the intellectual’s vocabulary” and formed the basis of much subsequent intellectual social commentary.13 Its most famous application was the Lynds’ Middletown, the single most influential American social study of the interwar period. Five years later, Lewis Mumford

“Every Woman Deviating from the Code”Cultural Lag, Moral Contagion, and Social Disintegration

William Fielding Ogburn, photograph courtesy of the University of Chicago Library

(p.87) would draw on the same model in writing Technics and Civilization.14 As will be shown, the vocabulary of Social Change permeates Mead’s book.

This chapter explicates the ways in which The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe reflected “America” as the Depression held the country in an ever-tightening grip. The book presented the ugly alternative to modernism’s romance with the primitive and provided a frightening account of the disintegration and degradation that followed the collapse of a “coherent” socioeconomic system. Ironically, the theoretical position Mead articulates reinforces that promise of the fully integrated life, locating it in a “primitive” Indian past. The Indian present, on the other hand, is the antithesis of that dream of integration. Chaotic and fragmented, it is most fully expressed in the figure of the Antler woman, whose disordered sexuality threatens the future of her people. The book marks a turning point in terms of Mead’s ideas about the relative places of individuals and cultures, and she began from this point to posit culture as problematic and to put more emphasis on how individuals fare within the constraints of differing cultural forms.

In the spring of 1930, Mead was still riding the crest of her newfound celebrity. She was in high demand as a public speaker, commentator, and author for the popular press, commonly giving three, and often five, public speeches a month. Reo Fortune had just received his PhD from Columbia University, and the couple’s principal worry was that there was no job in sight for him because universities and museums, responding to budget cuts, had begun to freeze positions and, indeed, to lay off staff. The spring of 1930 also saw an apparent revival of the stock market, bringing with it, for a few months at least, the hope that the depression of the winter was an aberration in the pattern of prosperity and growth that America had experienced since the end of the war. Financially, the couple was relatively secure. Mead’s salary of $2,500 per annum was supplemented by $5,000 in royalties from Coming of Age in Samoa that had accumulated during their absence in Manus. In addition, Mead’s popular articles, of which she wrote almost two dozen between late 1929 and late 1931, brought in intermittent, lump-sum payments, many of which were larger than a month’s wages for the average worker in America. She had almost completed Growing Up in New Guinea and could expect a new stream of royalties in the fall. Although Fortune had no immediate prospects for employment, both he and Mead were committed field anthropologists who viewed their institutional positions primarily as enabling ethnographic research.

This was their situation when Mrs. Leonard Elmhirst’s Committee15 made an unsolicited grant of $750 to the American Museum of Natural History for a study of family life, in particular the life of women, in a contemporary American Indian tribe. Clark Wissler, chief ethnologist of the museum, and Mead’s boss, was (p.88) somewhat bemused by this windfall grant. However, in Margaret Mead he had the obvious candidate to do such a piece of research. Given Mead’s high profile at the time, and Dorothy Elmhirst’s connection to anthropology via her friendship with Elsie Parsons, it seems likely that the idea for the study was developed with Mead in mind. Mead, however, was extremely reluctant. Although she had almost finished Growing Up in New Guinea, she was anxious to get back to the South Pacific as soon as possible. Fortune was struggling to complete books on Dobu and on Manus before they departed. The prospect of three months in a culture in which they had no intrinsic interest and that imposed yet more writing obligations, was not welcome. To persuade Mead to accept the assignment, Ruth Benedict secured a Columbia University grant for Fortune to research visions, or rather their apparent absence, in the folk tales of the Omaha, thus filling a notable gap in the ethnography of the Plains tribes. Mead capitulated. The couple had not yet secured any funds for further fieldwork abroad, and writing obligations had to be balanced against the financial benefits of living in the field with all expenses covered. Furthermore, Wissler maintained a benevolent regime, under which Mead flourished, and Mead was always cognizant of her and Fortune’s dependence on the goodwill of the “great men” who dominated anthropology at the time and who controlled access to research grants and jobs. And as she later wrote to Malinowski, “[I]t’s the first job I’ve ever had to do that I didn’t choose.”16 So, in June 1930, with the Depression deepening, Mead and Fortune bought an old car and drove west, to Macy, Nebraska.

Macy was the central township of the Omaha reservation, which had been established in 1854 along the Missouri River in northern Nebraska. This reservation was a final resting place, reached after a century of retreat westward from the Ohio River. European advances, smallpox epidemics, and warfare with the stronger Sioux meant that a much-reduced tribe of a little more than eleven hundred people was present when Alice Fletcher conducted the first tribal census there in 1883. The reason for the census was that the Omaha requested that their 300,000-acre reserve be divided into individually owned allotments, a request made in the hope that such entitlement would prevent a rumored further displacement to Oklahoma. Fletcher’s scheme for distributing the land, embodied in the Omaha Allotment Act (1882) became the basis for the Dawes Severalty Act (1887), which made such breaking up of reservations standard policy. By the time the Omaha Act was passed, the buffalo, which had been the mainstay of the Omaha economy, had been hunted to the edge of extinction. Fletcher believed (and convinced the United States government) that the allocation of individual farms would enable the Omaha to learn to live like whites and be assimilated into “civilization.”17 Mead’s (p.89) brief was to study the effect of these changes on family life (which she interpreted as women’s lives).

Unlike on other trips, Mead produced no bulletins during her summer in Nebraska. However, her letters to Ruth Benedict, Clark Wissler, Bronislaw Malinowski, and other colleagues indicate that this was not a happy time. In contrast to her bulletins and letters from her other research sites, the letters from Nebraska are uniformly grumpy and complaining. The weather was scorching, the people demoralized and difficult to work with: “You find a man whose father or uncle had a vision. You go to see him four times, driving eight or ten miles with an interpreter. The first time he isn’t home, the second time he’s drunk, the next time his wife is sick, and the fourth time … you start the interview with a five dollar bill and … [he] proceeds to lie steadily for four hours.”18 She described herself as “doomed to spend a few educational months among these most dilapidated American Indians from which our very souls recoil.”19 Furthermore, in comparison to Pacific research, undertaken in economies still largely based on fishing, gardening, gifting, and barter, work among the money-oriented Omaha was expensive, involving “endless contributions to feasts and … gasoline for everything is five miles from everything else.”20 The situation was a far cry from the more amiable working conditions she had enjoyed in Samoa and Manus.

Within a month of arriving, Mead summarized the situation in a letter to Franz Boas: “Here it is a case of the Indian, living on rents and payments, having developed a perfect leisure class psychology, paying his gambling debts, scrupulous in his play obligations, scornful of work and of the poor renter who rents his land and slaves away upon it, European peasantry style. Very little of the old life style is left, but solidarity of race and language are still absolutely untouched.”21

However, that glib analysis quickly dissolved as the complexities and entrenched problems on the reservation became more apparent: “It’s deadly work,” she wrote to Malinowski, “everything so influenced and modified, that it’s almost impossible to draw any conclusions at all.”22 Nevertheless, she gleaned an enormous amount of information in a very short time, and by mid-August she wrote to Wissler that they would wrap the work up in two or three more weeks. She included a two-page summary of her planned report (which, incidentally, was more innovative than the book turned out to be). Funding had come through for research in New Guinea, and she and Fortune were anxious to get back to New York so that the following spring they could return to what Mead was beginning to characterize as “real anthropology.”

The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe was written between September 1930 and April 1931. The book is extraordinary, as much for its delicate interpretations (p.90) of change and continuities in Antler life as for its ruthless pronouncements on individual character, bureaucratic bungling, and corruption. In eschewing her usual comparative approach, Mead was forced into a more detailed consideration of the very complex, and often tragic, lives of the Antlers. There are moments of great pathos in the book, often beautifully expressed. At other points, the language used is jarring by today’s more circumspect, less apparently judgmental, standards. However, Mead justified her use of “moralistic terminology,” albeit in a footnote towards the end, by saying that it accorded with “Antler feelings.”23

The book is structured like a “preachment yarn,” a genre that was characteristic of many early Depression films. Also known variously as propaganda or Americanism films, these were films that, against the grain of the Hollywood tradition, tackled the difficult social issues of the day: exploitative class, gender, and race relations; poverty; and brutality. They were characterized by “two recurrent markers”: the exculpatory preface, which gave “plausible deniability to polemical purpose,” staking a claim for impartiality, and the Jazz Age prelude, “a first act, flashback, or expository montage” that carried the message “The mess we’re in now came about because of the mess we made then.”24 Thomas Doherty argues that “[t]he preachment yarns of the Great Depression express the anguish of the dispossessed and fearful, but they have no idea how to alleviate the symptoms of what seems a terminal case.”25 The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe has all the hallmarks of a preachment yarn: an exculpatory introduction; a historical tale of corruption, incompetence, and resources squandered; and, sadly, a solution that is no solution at all.

Exculpation in The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe takes the form of claims to science. These begin in Clark Wissler’s foreword, where he states that the study was undertaken “from the plane of scientific curiosity only and not with a view to reformatory or ameliorative developments,”26 a strange claim for a book by Mead. The introduction, written by Mead herself, is principally a methodological defense of the study of small-scale societies against the “the tendency to identify science with quantitative methods and to accept no social data without their probable error and standard deviation.”27 The ethnologist’s job, Mead explained, was either to reconstruct historical social form (most American anthropology) or to determine the relationship between “original nature and social environment,” an indication that Mead was moving beyond cultural determinism in thinking about the relationship between individuals and their cultures.28 These terms echo Ogburn’s: he laid out his first principles in Social Change as distinguishing between social heritage and original nature.29 Mead designated these two ethnological tasks as “historical” and “sociological” or “social psychological.”30 Although an ethnologist (p.91) cannot offer statistical significance as a defense of her findings, she can, Mead argued, offer the “homogeneity” of a “complete culture, and the interrelation and functioning of its parts.”31 However, the student of a “transitional primitive culture” is at a disadvantage: homogeneity and the smooth articulation of interacting parts have gone, but numbers are still too small to satisfy the sociologists’ need for statistical significance. The paradigm for the ethnological method in such cases must be drawn then, not from the social sciences, but from medicine, specifically pathology and psychiatry. These disciplines present “each case in detail because of its power to illuminate our knowledge of … physiology … and of the human mind.”32 Mead took the medical paradigm seriously, using the language of infection, disease, and pathology throughout the book.

In the introduction Mead went on the offensive against her fellow anthropologists, criticizing American colleagues who had insisted that culture contact “preserve some shadow of the peaceful diffusion between cultures that are evenly matched,”33 instead of facing the very real power imbalances that the Antler faced. She also disavowed British studies “immured from use by serious students in a wealth of invective against imperialistic policies or missionary influences.”34 This study, she was telling her readers, had a carefully considered methodology, was robustly situated in a medical paradigm, eschewed invective in the service of pure contribution to knowledge, and was realistic, objective, and balanced.

Mead’s methodological defense of her study must be seen as preemptive in addition to exculpatory. The highly critical reviews of Growing Up in New Guinea were coming out as she wrote Changing Culture. In a disciplinary culture that emphasized language fluency and long periods of fieldwork over many years, her eight-month stint in Manus (shortened to five months, in the anthropological gossip mill) excited both private derision and public criticism. Her three months in Nebraska, with no attempt to learn the language, made this study even more vulnerable to such criticism. This derision seems to have been based in equal parts on professional jealousy and genuine skepticism. Her reported statement that she “saw and solved all problems”35 in Manus was implicitly insulting to her fellow anthropologists who put years of work into single cultures.

Her confidence in her results, seen as arrogance by many of her peers, arose from her assumption of the homogeneity between individual and society in “primitive” cultures: she believed that knowing a few individuals well, or observing a limited number of events in detail, gave the anthropologist access to the whole culture. This assumption was the foundation of her emerging theory of the difference between temperament, personality, and individuality, which developed over the summer in Nebraska.36 She articulated this first in a letter to Clark (p.92) Wissler. Wissler had written to Mead about Edward Sapir’s new research. Sapir, Wissler wrote, was “keen to show that personality is wholly a resultant of economic and social forces operating at the time and place.”37 Mead advised him to caution Sapir against undertaking any psychoanalytic studies of personality among Native American tribes:

I consider a homogenous culture the only ideal place to study personality because there the only differences which can occur are differences in temperament, as a homogenous culture does not permit the development of individuality. But individuality, differences in people due, not to temperament, except possibly as basic cause, but rather to diversity of experience and cultural content, can be ideally studied in a transition culture such as this one, where one of the chief medicine men was once a show at Coney Island, another old woman traveled through Canada as Alice Fletcher’s companion, a third once worked in a printing office in Elizabeth New Jersey, and a fourth was an American sailor aboard a British Man of War, and yet all of them bring these diverse experiences back to a common point of reinterpretation—their own culture. Conversely, such a culture is a bad place to study true personality differences in because they are obscured by these differences in individuality.38

This three-tiered schema of temperament (biology), personality (culture), and individuality (individual experience) underpinned Mead’s emerging conception of the proper scientific domain of anthropology. Again, she drew on Ogburn’s formulation that original nature interacting with social heritage results in “behavior in culture.”39 This model implied a particular role for the discipline that differentiated it from other social sciences. For example, towards the end of August she wrote to Wissler, outlining her research report. “Do you think that will do?” she queried. “It seems to me about all the energy, time and money which the problem deserves. Its value is far more an empirical one than a scientific one because the value of anthropological studies, is, as I see it, in definite proportion to the homogeneity of the culture and the typicalness of any individual of his age and sex group.”40

This position was articulated publicly for the first time in her field-defining article, “The Primitive Child,” for The Handbook of Child Psychology, the standard psychological text for many years. In an oblique reference to her Omaha work, she began the article thus: “The primitive child is of interest to science chiefly as an excellent subject for experiments in social psychology. By the time that primitive children become problems for pedagogues and students of juvenile delinquency, (p.93) they have ceased to be genuinely primitive—i.e., members of homogenous social groups which depend entirely upon their local oral tradition. The American Indian child or the South African child in school presents interesting opportunities for studying social change but is an inferior subject for the student of child psychology.”41

Informally, she took this position even further, virtually dismissing American anthropology from the realm of proper anthropology. She wrote Malinowski that she was “beginning to understand why the American school has historically stressed history rather than function.” She cited the reasons: “a. because you can’t do function decently, and b. because all function is obscured by the hodge podge of traits borrowed from hither and yon.”42 After she returned to New York, she was publicly dismissive of American anthropology in an interview that undoubtedly raised the stakes in her uneasy relationship with the “big men,” such as Sapir, Kroeber, and Lowie, of American anthropology. “Fieldwork,” she is reported as saying, “makes heavy demands on health and tact. You must eat anything, sleep anywhere, fraternize with all types of unwashed, like people as people, and forget pruderies. There isn’t any fieldwork left in the United States, so one has to go to Africa, South America, the Pacific Islands or Siberia.”43

Her growing conviction that her work among the Omaha was not anthropology propelled Mead to seek an explanation of the state of the Antlers in their recent history, following the more usual American model of anthropological enquiry. She exposes the sorry saga of Antler–American interaction, which had led to the contemporary situation, in part 1 of the book, entitled “General Background.” This consists of a section called “Retrospective Sketch” and then gives more detailed accounts of both historical and contemporary Antler economics, politics, social organization, religion, and education. She draws extensively on research done in the last quarter of the nineteenth century by the Episcopalian missionary James Dorsey under the auspices of the Bureau of Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution, and by Alice Fletcher and Francis La Flesche. Dorsey worked as a missionary with the Omaha in the 1870s and thereafter made several more field trips to Nebraska, in addition to corresponding with Omaha leaders and hosting them during their trips to Washington. Fletcher and La Flesche were an unlikely pair: she was the daughter of a prominent New York lawyer, who became interested in Native American culture under the tutelage of Frederic Putnam, the director of the Peabody Museum; he was the son of an influential Omaha chief who earned a law degree and was eventually appointed to the Bureau of Ethnology. They formed a working relationship in the early 1880s, when Fletcher was appointed to implement the allotment scheme.44 Fletcher informally adopted La Flesche, and their (p.94) collaboration, which lasted until her death in 1923, provided most of what anthropologists know of the old cultures of the Southern Plains.45

Mead used their material to construct a history of Antler society in three phases: a traditional phase, in which the culture was stable, “whole,” and functionally integrated; a post-allotment phase, during which Antler culture was “attenuated,” a shadow of its former complexity but still coherent and in a state of “slender equilibrium”; and, finally, its current state of disintegration. This is a historiography that implicitly posits plenty and stability, followed by attrition and wasted resources, and finally chaos and degradation. This account ignored the 150 years of known history that had seen the Omaha displaced from the east to the northwest of the Missouri River and decimated by smallpox and intertribal warfare. In this, Mead was following a pattern set in her earlier books, that of minimizing the effect of Europeans on so-called traditional social forms. Indeed, she argued that “[t]he additional complication, present in so many tribes, of a change, not only of economic base, but also to a completely strange locality, is therefore not present in their case…. The invasion of the white man was gradual, and unaccompanied by bloodshed.”46

Instead, Mead described an unchanging, functional, traditional social organization that, for men, centered on the buffalo hunt and raid-style warfare, followed by feasting and the gifting of stolen or captured horses (a European introduction). These prestigious activities enabled men to attain rank, participate in secret societies, and have their wives, daughters, or nieces tattooed—the ultimate marks of high status. Although women were excluded from all these activities, excepting that they served as the final markers of their fathers’ or husbands’ status, they contributed to the subsistence through gardening maize, gathering wild foods, and processing buffalo hides, which were used to make clothing and shelter. However, they had no special ceremonies or societies of their own; they participated in the ritual and prestige activities only as wives or daughters, leading Mead to conclude that traditional Antler culture was, in effect, a man’s culture.

Mead dated the first major changes in Antler culture from the decline of the buffalo and the establishment of missions in the second half of the nineteenth century, and culminating in the Omaha Allotment Act (1882). The Antler, she found, viewed this period with nostalgia. Women’s work changed very little, except for the fact that in winter they occupied frame houses rather than tipis. Men took to the “cattle convention” of “quick-shooting, hard-drinking [and] gambling.”47 However, the decline of the buffalo and curtailment of raiding soon resulted in the disappearance of the traditional avenues to male power and prestige. Secret societies waned; farming, seen as “women’s work,” could not sustain the complex (p.95) social system of chiefdoms that rested on the buffalo hunt, horse capture, and conspicuous prestation. Soon, white farmers, hungry for land, displaced the cattle ranchers, and the practice of leasing land commenced. According to Mead, two thirds of Antler men abandoned any attempts to farm, and “ceased to make any further economic struggle,”48 living instead off the proceeds of leases and their wives’ subsistence gardening and gathering.

The third phase commenced with the end of a twenty-five-year moratorium on the sale of Antler landholdings. This coincided with a new influx of white farmers. The practice of leasing increased and, more seriously, the Antlers began to sell land and live off the proceeds. By the beginning of the Depression, white-owned or -leased farms abutted Antler ones throughout the 145 square miles of the reserve. However, although they patronized the same picture theatres, rodeos, and shops and often attended the same schools, the white and Antler communities seldom interacted. They never socialized together or attended the same dances, and they rarely intermarried. Despite the “influence” and “modification” introduced by contact with white society, the Antlers, Mead concluded, had a curious disconnection from their white neighbors and the dominant white culture. In August she wrote to Wissler: “My present judgment on these people is that they are a completely primitive people who have adjusted to their white neighbors in the same way that they would adjust to sharks, crocodiles, hurricanes and man eating tigers. They have definite ways of treating this phenomenon of white invasion, but they do not mingle with it in thought or feeling.”49

However one might fault Mead’s early historiography, her analysis of the problems faced by the Antlers, both men and women, is both acute and heart-rending. She was no fool, and faced with the enormous problems of trying to make sense of this human disaster, she unflinchingly drew together the complex issues that contributed to it. She described how an education system that fitted them with no useful skills and that undermined their gendered social order, in combination with a land-allocation system totally unsuited to their socioeconomic organization and values, and a corrupt and inept government bureaucracy interacted with traditions of sharing and “kin solidarity,” female modesty and male predation. The current generation of Antler adults had been educated principally in large, multi-tribal, coeducational boarding schools where they were taught industrial trades and skills, few of which could be used on the reservation. However, Antlers of both sexes were able to acquire large sums of money by selling land. This money was regarded as outside the bounds of traditional kinship obligations. It was usually expended on conspicuous individual consumption—large cars, drinking, gambling, restaurant meals, and fancy “American” clothes. All other sources of (p.96) income, whether from rents, crop sales, pensions or various kinds of windfalls, were “subject to the demands of relatives.”50 Any relative could requisition savings or accumulated food, clothing, or bedding. The Antler who wished to “get ahead” through thrift or hard work was said to have “gone white,” and faced both the opprobrium of other Antlers and rejection by the none-too-friendly white community. In a society in which the traditional routes to male prestige had disappeared or lost meaning, the pressure to capitalize land through sale, and live in a chiefly fashion, was immense. The net result was an increasing number of people dependent on a steadily diminishing economic base, a situation exacerbated by the depression in farm prices and consequent loss of what income there had been from crop sales or casual labor on white farms.

Mead regarded her book, which she originally titled The Reservation Woman, as a study of the lives of girls and women. However, less than a third of the text actually focuses on women, which prompted Columbia University Press to unilaterally change its title after Mead had left for New Guinea. Nevertheless, it is in describing the particularly poignant paradoxes of these women’s lives that Mead’s talents are most clearly demonstrated. Her analysis of the changes in the lives of Antler women since the Allotment Act is predicated on a slippage in the meanings she gives to “culture.” She moves between using the term to denote the ceremonial and institutional aspects of Antler society, as above, and using the term to indicate all the practices and meaning-making systems of the society. The first meaning, however, is the one on which she hangs her analysis, and in using this definition, she makes the argument that culture, not only Antler culture but culture in general, is gendered.51

A woman from another culture can enter a primitive society and, as soon as she can speak a few words, can find a hundred points of interest to discuss with native women. It may be months before a man can establish a similar rapport because the white male investigator has first to get by heart the peculiar cultural preoccupations which distinguish one culture from another and which are of so much more importance to the men than are the routine affairs of domesticity. For this very reason, the breakdown of culture is almost always of more vital concern to the men than to the women. The old religion, the old social values, the old braveries, and the old vanities may be taken away from the men, leaving them empty-brained and idle-handed.52

Traditionally, she argued, Antler women had lived in the shadow of their fathers and husbands. Those few women who had membership in secret societies did so (p.97) by virtue of their fathers’ accomplishments; they “held” rather than owned or exercised ritual privileges. Women had no specific societies, no religious ceremonies, and, although their food production, through foraging, agriculture, and meat processing, was “the least perishable, the most dependable, the foods which kept people from starvation,”53 it was accorded no prestige. All religious and political ceremonies centered on and were controlled by men. Women played only a minor, “generic” role in Antler culture. Traditional Antler culture, she argues, was the province of men. She argued, therefore, that the decline of hunting and the ritual societies per se had little effect on women’s lives. They continued to forage for berries and grow maize, albeit while living in scattered frame houses rather than clustered tipis or earth lodges.

The most important change in the lives of women, she argued, was the introduction of government schooling, especially coeducational boarding schools, which radically undermined Antler gendered behavior. Before the introduction of formal schooling, girls were cultivated into “an extreme state of bashfulness, fearfulness [and] inhibition”54 and were constantly chaperoned. Women were expected to be both chaste and modest. Unchaperoned women were regarded as fair prey for any man, and women who were suspected of sexual impropriety were subject to strong, and often violent, sanctions. In the new educational institutions, boys and girls, who would have been isolated from each other or at least

“Every Woman Deviating from the Code”Cultural Lag, Moral Contagion, and Social Disintegration

Omaha women at a powwow in the late 1920s, photograph courtesy of Nebraska State Historical Society

(p.98) closely chaperoned in earlier times, learned an easy familiarity that, Mead suggested, broke down the girls’ traditional shyness and modesty. However, it did not modify the belief, held by both men and women, that any female not immediately protected by a brother, husband, or father, was fair game for any unrelated men. Thus, once out of school, Antler women, even after marriage, were seldom left alone. Reading between the lines, it is apparent that young Antler women played a dangerous game, exercising their newfound boldness at the risk of retribution from their families or rape by men who regarded them as fair prey if they were found alone. The scattered frame houses on individual allotments did not allow for the easy gathering of kin and tribe for processing food, playing games, and conducting ceremonies, nor did they offer protection for women left with only children for company. So, houses were often empty for long periods when married women attended their husbands in town, visited other relatives, or participated in hand games, thus undermining the vital contribution that women made to subsistence through gathering, gardening, and food processing.

There was a strong belief that women were more fragile than men, less able to cope with emotional trauma: “Women were believed to be made of frailer, more brittle psychic material than men…. Grief of any sort which would merely bow a man’s head in temporary mourning, might completely disorder a woman’s life.”55 This belief had persisted into contemporary times. The common manifestation of this state, Mead argues, was promiscuous sexual behavior. Poverty, disease, alcoholism, elevated child mortality, and other accompaniments of disadvantage meant that many women lived lives that were tragic and violent. Mead recounts, as examples, the histories of several women who, after the death of children, or house fires, walked away from their families and became involved in a series of sexual relationships. This increasingly common pattern of sexual “delinquency” had, Mead argued, a cumulative effect. Mothers with a history of sexual promiscuity, although welcomed back into the family fold, forfeited moral authority with regard to their daughters. Thus, when the daughters began to show signs of “delinquency,” the mothers did not command the necessary respect to rein them in. Mead deployed her pathology paradigm to argue that this sexual promiscuity or delinquency spread not only through the generations but also through propinquity, suggesting that “every delinquent girl is a plague spot, a source of infection to the other girls.”56

The coincidence of formal education’s breaking down the moral code; Antlers’ increasing emulation of the “white way,” for the most part as evidenced in Hollywood movies; and the traumas of poverty, disease, and social disorientation meant that most women had at one time or another “strayed” sexually. Yet, this (p.99) change in practice, Mead argued, did not result in any slackening of the moral attitudes towards such transgressions: “with every woman deviating from the code being disapproved of by men and women alike and feeling herself a sinful person, nevertheless the majority deviate.” This paradoxical relationship between dearly held values, virtually universal transgression, and similarly universal disapprobation led Mead to categorize the “Antlers” as a “maladjusted society in which all are sinners and everyone points the finger of scorn.”57

Despite this desolate picture, Mead insisted it was the women who still had a sense of themselves as “Indian” in positive terms. Whereas men had allowed their “culture” to atrophy, women were revealed as the bearers and sustainers of what would today be called Antler identity. Women’s confidence in their “Indian-ness,” she argued, was grounded in the continuity of the domestic routines of childcare, cooking, and household organization, “which bind mother to daughter and both to the grandmother.” These traditions, “taught by one generation to the next, bind … the group together in a set of positive habits which distinguish them from other peoples and give to them a sense of security and meaningfulness which their husbands and brothers lack.”58 In a passage that celebrates the solidarity of womanhood across the generations and that demonstrates Mead’s craft as a writer, she describes the women dancing after a hand game: “If one watches the feet, which move so slowly, in perfect time to the drum beats, while the voices follow a different rhythm with their song, one sees moccasins, worn shoes, and high-heeled slippers, purple and red and green; one sees old cotton and woolen stockings in the style of fifty years ago, and the latest black-and-white silk fad, all moving in perfect accord to the drums, and over the whole group rest the shawls. From old women to smallest toddler the women are one, their differences in generation and outlook forgotten in the dance.”59

This strong sense of identity was accompanied by what Mead saw as a strong cultural conservatism. She argued that despite the fact women now owned property and met most subsistence needs and thus potentially could wield economic power, they remained “[c]onservatively rooted in old habits of thought”60 that left them prey to the more dissipated practices of their menfolk. One particularly disturbing example of this was a pattern whereby women would apply to sell their land in order to pay for treatment for tuberculosis, only to see the men spend the money instead on cars, “American clothing,” and restaurant meals. This practice was so common that Mead reported that the “particular conjunction of wealth and tuberculosis is not an accidental one.”61 This conservatism also made women reluctant to leave the reservation for life in the cities, and it was this, Mead believed, that condemned the Antler to a continuing downward spiral.

(p.100) The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe was published, after months of delay, in mid-1932, as the Depression worsened beyond the ability of governments to control it or intellectuals to accommodate its magnitude. In July 1932, President Hoover ordered the military to disperse the Bonus Army, thousands of veterans who had marched on Washington to petition Congress to pay them immediately service bonuses that were due to them in 1945. The newsreels of soldiers burning the shanty homes of unemployed men and their families in the shadow of the Capitol building horrified the nation, despite the administration’s attempt to cast the army as revolutionaries and radicals. That summer, revolution hung in the air.

Publication was delayed as the publisher waited to see if the economy would improve.62 When it did finally come out, the book received far less publicity than had Growing Up in New Guinea and Coming of Age in Samoa. Rather than publishing it with Morrow, Mead had chosen Columbia University Press. It therefore did not benefit from the same publicity machine that Morrow put to work for its authors. However, despite being published by an academic press, it is written, like Mead’s other work, to be accessible. It has few of the technical aspects of formal ethnographies, and it addresses its readers in a tone similar to that used in her other books—as educated and informed readers rather than specifically professional ones. This tone of address reflects the fact that Mead did not see this work as “anthropology” but rather as a cross between a scientific report and a book aimed at the educated public.

Most of the reviews held in her archives are written by anthropologists. However, they were published in range of venues: academic journals, elite magazines, and newspapers. Unlike those of Growing Up in New Guinea, the reviews of Changing Culture were very positive. The balance of pedagogy and ethnography in the book was more in keeping with standard anthropological works, the topic sufficiently new, and the findings sufficiently sobering to stave off the usual criticisms of her work. Furthermore, Mead did not overextend her material as she had in past work. Alfred Tozzer called it “a successful and a pioneer work in the American field,” pointing out that it was “far better organized, presented, and documented than William Pitt-Rivers’s Clash of Culture and the Contact of Races, which attempts to cover the same subject in Polynesia.”63 C. Daryl Forde’s review in Man was restrained and for the most part descriptive. It acknowledged Mead’s vivid style and the importance of studying “these extreme examples of diffusion and culture change” (thus reiterating the standard anthropological gloss of empire that Mead had criticized in her introduction).64 Alexander Goldenweiser reviewed it twice: once for the Nation and once for American Anthropologist. He called it “a (p.101) signal contribution” and suggested that the work was so significant that it would lead to further such studies of “acculturation,” which it did. In the conclusions to both reviews, he wrote of the emotional effect it had had on him. For the Nation, he wrote, “It is difficult to read the pages of Dr. Mead’s book without experiencing a sense of shame. In this, perhaps, lies one of its merits.”65 In American Anthropologist, he reported a more curious response: “When pondering one’s state of mind as the result of reading this study, one is inclined to compare oneself to a spectator of a tragedy and say with Aristotle: my emotions were purified even though the tale was sad.”66

One of the notable features of all these reviews is the way in which they, in different ways, elide the issues raised for the Antlers themselves. In this, they parallel Mead’s own couching of the work in terms of its contribution to science rather than its exposure of the destructive effects of America’s internal empire or its potential for solving some of the problems the Antlers faced. For Forde, the condition of the Antlers is a result of “diffusion” and “culture contact,” very mild synonyms for the historical processes of displacement, disease, and depopulation to which the Omaha had been subject. Mead’s former professor, Clare Howard, couched most of her review in a silly reflection on Mead’s “romantic” career. For Howard, the book was “as fascinating as a novel by Jane Austen.” She added, “It feeds our curiosity about human beings.”67 Goldenweiser’s two reviews are, at the end, more concerned with his emotional response than with the Antlers’ social conditions, as if the book were the equivalent of a Greek tragedy structured for the edification of its readership. Only Ruth Benedict’s review for the New York Herald Tribune seems cognizant of the scale of the human suffering represented in Mead’s book. She describes the Antler situation as “a cultural shipwreck,” “devastating,” a “tragedy of life,” and “a problem the complexity of which we have barely imagined.” However, even Benedict accepts Mead’s analysis that the problem, if there is one, is a problem of “maladjustment” of the smaller society to the needs and institutions of the larger. Benedict’s repeated references to the Antler’s “unfittedness” for American citizenship and their childlike relationship to land and money has the unfortunate effect of reinforcing paternalistic and racist attitudes already well entrenched in America, although no doubt Benedict herself would have been horrified at that interpretation.68

Thus praised, and having recouped Mead’s reputation as a serious anthropologist (ironically, because she didn’t consider it to be anthropology), The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe passed into oblivion, not to be reissued until 1966. Yet, no less than its predecessors, the book was a creature of its times. Published at the depth of the Depression, it reflected the country’s mood of hopelessness and (p.102) despair. It articulated that despair through a theoretical framework that has come to be identified with anthropology—functionalism. This is Mead’s most explicitly functionalist book, and it is this theoretical frame that articulated the book most directly to the intellectual problematic of the day and that most inexorably anchored the sense of hopelessness. And it was the way in which gender ramified with functionalism that secured both the framework itself and the message that this was a society in disorder.

What Mead hated most about the Omaha work was the impossibility of making sense of what she deemed a “broken culture.”69 This term, which echoes through Mead’s work on the Omaha, reveals how committed Mead was, by this time, to the idea of human societies as self-contained, functional wholes. Images of chaos and disorder permeate both her informal and formal writing on the Omaha. Terms like “hodge podge” and “hither and yon” are sprinkled through her communications to colleagues. She writes of “cultural disintegration, lack of coherence” and describes the change wrought on native culture by white intrusion as “meaningless and random.” In the conclusion, she uses the house as a metaphor for culture. The structure of a house may change over time but will always bear some relation to the activities of the people who inhabit it. A culture that has been overrun by a dominant one, she argues, is like a house being demolished by a wrecker. The order of demolition bears no relation to the structure of the inhabitants’ lives.70

During that summer in Nebraska, this confrontation with the Omaha crystallized Mead’s commitment to functionalism. Thus, although disgruntled, her letters from Macy are distinguished by an emphasis, relatively new to her, on theory. While in Nebraska, she continued her correspondence with Malinowski, writing to him about the relationship between the Oedipus complex and the structure of kinship, the effect of prolonged nursing on the mother–child bond, and the effect on the child of a nurturing father.71 Although she was clearly delighted with his interest in her work, ultimately his neo-Freudian approach didn’t capture her imagination, and her letters soon became descriptive rather than analytic. However, his functionalist framework made more and more sense to her as the Omaha work proceeded. Malinowski’s views, developed in a fieldwork situation approximating her own formative ones, accorded more readily with Mead’s than did the historical reconstructionist project that dominated American anthropology at the time.

However, there was also an earlier, and more indigenous, lineage to Mead’s functionalism, one that, it might be argued, predisposed her toward the formal theory when it arrived in America from Britain’s shores.72 The underlying analytic (p.103) concept of The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe is “cultural lag,” a temporal disjuncture between the “culture” of the Antlers and their material and social conditions. As early as 1922, Ogburn had clearly outlined a functionalist vision of society, describing culture as involving “correlation and interdependence of parts,” and cultural lag as being “a problem that occurs when there is a rapid change in a culture of interdependent parts and when the rates of change in the parts are unequal.”73 Ogburn gave a name to the problem that American cultural critics had been grappling with for two decades—incoherence, dissolution of community, and disjunctions among the American economy, culture, and values. For Croly “the promise of American life” lay in the possibility of creating a true community, moral and cultural, economic and political, in which individuals and groups interact harmoniously, and each individual “should find some particular function.”74 Brooks argued that America would not come of age until it gave away self-aggrandizing materialistic individualism in favor of organic integration between person and society. For Brooks, this involved the creation of a national culture that did not reject the technical and material achievements of the United States but developed from them and within them a culture of self-fulfillment and inventiveness “through literature, the arts, mechanics, or industry itself.”75 The material base was in place; the task was to create from it an organic national culture based on good workmanship, cooperation, and community. Ogburn’s “cultural lag” gave a name to America’s current condition—a highly developed technology that had not given rise to an equally developed culture, a condition that he argued gave rise to forms of maladjustment, including “nervousness and insanity” and “social problems.”76 Ogburn held out the promise that this incoherence was not endemic to modernity but was a matter that could be rectified by the creation of a culture more appropriate to the technology, or by bringing technology into the service of culture.

Ironically, by the time Ogburn coined the term, the cultural tide had turned. Artists and cultural critics of the 1920s abandoned the Progressive ideals of an integrated society in favor of a more individual salvation. However, the inward turn of the 1920s was more a disillusionment with the practicability of the Progressive and post-Progressive ideals than with its ultimate vision of an integrated society. The Progressive solutions might lie in scientific management and rationalized bureaucracy, wedded to an elevation of art and culture, whereas the 1920s artist or cultural critic was more likely to enjoin the individual to increase his self-knowledge and aesthetic awareness to build a coherent society through individual enlightenment. But these differing solutions were posed as answers to the same problem—the chaos and alienation of modern life.

(p.104) The romance with the notion of the holistic, organic society persisted through the 1920s, safely located, however, in the primitive and the rural (which were indeed often conflated).77 Thus, anthropology became the haven of functionalism and its vision of an integrated life. The anthropological vision of discrete societies, untouched by history, in which “[p]arts of the culture … reinforced and articulated with each other in a smoothly functioning whole”78 neatly encapsulated the Progressive dream of an integrated society, albeit in the metaphor of the machine. It also provided an illusory alternative to modernity’s fragmentation. It is no accident that the so-called golden age of American anthropology79 and the rise of anthropological functionalism coincide with the inward, individualist turn of cultural criticism. It was this “primitivist holism” that Mead evoked so effectively in Coming of Age in Samoa, where the individual was said to be wholly “at one” with the society.

In the 1930s, many intellectuals returned to the ideal of a functionally integrated society as they searched for a way out of the crisis around them. The collapse of the economic system that had sustained prosperity for so long revivified the analysis that an entirely new order, cultural and moral, in addition to economic, was needed. For those, like Samuel Schmallhausen,80 the new social order would produce a new kind of person—healthier, integrated, at peace. In a series of articles for the New Republic in 1930, subsequently published in a book entitled Individualism Old and New, John Dewey re-invoked cultural lag to argue for the necessity of creating a new set of values, a new individualism, commensurate with the technical and economic capacity of modern America.81 Lewis Mumford’s classic study of the transition from feudalism to industrialism, Technics and Civilization, attempts to find a balance between technological development and social integration.82 Mumford and Dewey were in search of new models, in which technology served the values of “a new [integrated] individualism, consonant with the realities of the present age.”83 For Dewey, that necessarily involved accepting and embracing, rather than blaming, science and technology, and disseminating scientific ways of thinking through all levels of society.

Other writers, however, continued to see science and technology as false gods and, inspired by anthropologists, they went in search of “organic” communities. Robert Redfield’s Tepoztlan, for example, was influential in sending many to Mexico.84 Stuart Chase wrote a bucolic celebration of Mexican peasant life, published in 1931 as a series of articles in the New Republic and subsequently in a book entitled Mexico: A Study of Two Americas.85 Peasant life, he argued, was integrated, self-sufficient, craft-based, and satisfying in a way that the life of “Middletowners,” working to a clock, producing goods they did not consume, consuming goods (p.105) they did not produce, could never be. Mexico, Chase argued, in a vein uncannily similar to Mead’s evocation of Samoa, was a place where “there is no progress, … there is no visible material decay.” He continued, “Such equilibrium causes a Nordic philosopher acute katzenjammer, but that only proves him an indifferent philosopher.”86 The dream of a society that was whole, integrated, orderly, and functional, in which individual and community were one, reentered the scene with a new and more radical urgency.

If Coming of Age in Samoa had represented the dream of an integrated society in its ultimate form, The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe was a dark nightmare. Its treatment of the concerns of the time—the disjunction between individual and society, the lag between cultural values and current realities, and the chaos that results when the economic base of a society collapses—locates the book firmly within the intellectual debates of the early 1930s. The Omaha’s “broken culture” was a frightening reflection of the breakdown of American civil society in the early Depression years, when revolution and fascism were being touted in both the intellectual and popular media. Its focus on Native Americans both secured this frightening message and rendered it deniable. From the moment that a group of irate men dressed in war paint and native costume dumped a cargo of tea into Boston Harbor in a conjunction of street (or ship) theatre and civil disobedience, the “Indian” has stood in some sense as the personification of America.87 Yet this representational strategy has always been haunted by ambivalence, for the American nation was built on the violent exclusion of indigenous peoples from those very rights that the American state was established to protect—the accumulation of property, the right to political representation, the pursuit of happiness. As Michaels, Scheckel, and Deloria, among others, have shown, “Indians” commonly stand as “real” Americans or, at least, as the ancestors of “real” Americans in texts that range from public policy debates to Klan polemics to the novels of Faulkner, Cather, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway.88 The wasteful and self-destructive society that Mead depicted in The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe could not help but feed into two competing discourses on Native Americans: one, which saw them as a debased race rightfully dying out in the advance of civilization; and another, which saw them as a metaphor or proxy for American society at large. It reflected America’s constant anxiety, which seemed to be being realized in the 1930s, that “the nation was in a state of decline.”89

The focus on women exacerbated the potential for ambivalent identification. The move towards more-conservative views on women during the 1930s, especially on women and work, has been well documented. Unemployed women were ignored, even in New Deal legislation; fiction valorized mothers and wives who (p.106) supported their men, and demonized those who took “men’s jobs.”90 The inability of men to support their families was a major source of strife and anguish within families. In Antler society, Mead portrayed an inverted, perverted gender order. Men were wastrels who exploited their wives’ illness and wasted their wealth. Women were the economic mainstays of their families, supporting them with gardening and gathering. Further, they also were the guardians of culture, which both Mead and her readers knew was properly men’s realm. The promiscuity of the women secured this analysis, women’s disordered sexuality being a longstanding trope for social disorder in general. What made Mead’s portrait of the Antlers more horrifying was her conclusion that the women’s promiscuity, reinforced by their cultural conservatism, would lead only to further moral decay and disorder.

In Coming of Age in Samoa and Growing Up in New Guinea, Mead was able to draw conclusions about directions for societal change, if only changes in attitude. Committed as she was to the vision of stable, homogenous primitive societies, the Omaha work left her with nothing but individual moral character to draw on. Mead believed that the only way out of the current situation for the Omaha lay in assimilation, the “gradual amalgamation of the Antler into the white population through scattered residence and absorption into various industrial pursuits.”91 However, she saw no reason to hope that this could be accomplished, insofar as the conservative attitudes of the women and their cumulative moral decline prevented it. The women refused to leave the reservation and their extended families so their husbands could work in the cities, and thus they effectively blocked assimilation. Yet, she argued that conflict between an affect “left over” from traditional culture and the changed sexual behaviors on the reservation “promise[d] to produce, with each decade, women of less moral fiber, less willingness to struggle, with fewer reliable habits.”92 Mead’s solution, assimilation into urban industrial society and abandonment of reservation life with its ties of kinship and “race solidarity,” is an indicator of her impotence when faced with complex cultural disaster, an impossible solution proposed without regard for the Depression ravaging America and hitting hardest those, like the Omaha, who had no skills and who were, at the best of times, marginal to mainstream society. It also reflected Mead’s increasingly objectified concept of culture as something that could mined for its good bits but also as something that, once broken, could and should be left behind.


(1.) Throughout this chapter, I continue to use “Antler” when referring to Mead’s ethnographic material and “Omaha” when referring to the historical record. Like her other work, Mead’s work in Nebraska has been repudiated by some scholars. It is not my intention in any of these chapters to evaluate the accuracy of Mead’s ethnographies but only to understand how she framed these interpretations in terms of her intellectual heritage, the sociopolitical state of the United States at the time, and her own intellectual trajectory.

(2.) Micaela di Leonardo, Exotics at Home: Anthropologies, Others, American Modernities (University of Chicago Press, 1998).

(p.163) (3.) George Stocking, “Ideas and Institutions in American Anthropology: Towards a History of the Interwar Years,” in The Ethnographer’s Magic and Other Essays in the History of Anthropology, ed. George Stocking (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992), 142.

(4.) Virginia Yans and Alan Berliner, Margaret Mead: An Observer Observed (New York: Mind Matters, 1995), film.

(5.) Patricia Francis (curator) and Mary Wolfskill (co-curator), “Margaret Mead: Human Nature and the Power of Culture,” Library of Congress, 2001, www.loc.gov/exhibits/mead (accessed November 13, 2006).

(6.) Until I began this research on Mead, I was unaware of this book, as have been almost all anthropologists of my generation to whom I have mentioned it.

(7.) Margaret Mead, The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe (New York: Columbia University Press, 1932), 16.

(8.) Margaret Mead, The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe (New York: Capricorn Books, 1966), xxii.

(10.) Lewis Merriam, “The Problem of Indian Administration: Report of a Survey Made at the Request of Honorable Hubert Work, Secretary of the Interior” (Baltimore: The Institute for Government Research, 1928).

(11.) Susan Scheckel, The Insistence of the Indian: Race and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century American Culture (Princeton University Press, 1998), 3.

(12.) William Fielding Ogburn, Social Change with Respect to Culture and Original Nature (New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1922).

(13.) Richard H. Pells, Radical Visions and American Dreams: Culture and Thought in the Depression Years (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998), 25.

(14.) Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (New York: Harcourt, 1934).

(15.) Mrs. Leonard Elmhirst was the former Dorothy Whitney, the daughter of William C. Whitney and a backer, with her first husband, William Straight, and others, of New Republic.

(16.) Margaret Mead, Letter to Bronislaw Malinowski, August 9, 1930, Box N19, file 11, Margaret Mead Papers.

(17.) R. H. Barnes, Two Crows Denies It: A History of Controversy in Omaha Sociology (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984).

(18.) Margaret Mead, Letter to Ruth Fulton Benedict, July 21, 1930, AAW Copy 2, B/B61 Boas Papers.

(19.) Mead to Malinowski, August 9, 1930.

(20.) Margaret Mead, Letter to Franz Boas, July 16, 1930, Box N119, file 11, Margaret Mead Papers.

(21.) Mead to Boas, July 16, 1930.

(22.) Mead to Malinowski, August 9, 1930.

(24.) Thomas Doherty, Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930–34 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 50.

(26.) Clark Wissler, “Foreword,” in Mead, Changing Culture (1966), iv.

(30.) At this point, Mead was still somewhat ambivalent about her professional identification. Just as she saw “primitive” cultures as natural laboratories from which the modern world could extract knowledge useful for its problems, she saw anthropology as extracting that knowledge in service of the disciplines focused on the modern West—education, psychology, sociology, and history. This attitude was, of course, premised on the strong belief that “primitive” cultures would inevitably die out.

(35.) Hortense Powdermaker, Letter to Bronislaw and Elsie Malinowski, December 11, 1930, Stud/11, Malinowksi Papers.

(36.) As was his habit, Edward Sapir took a swipe at this assumption of Mead’s in his article “Cultural Anthropology and Psychiatry,” published the same year as Changing Culture. He stated, “All realistic [my emphasis] field workers in native custom and belief are more or less aware of the dangers” of assuming “the individual informant is near enough to the understandings and intentions of his society.” Edward Sapir, “Cultural Anthropology and Psychiatry,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 27 (1932).

(37.) Clark Wissler, Letter to Margaret Mead, August 4, 1930, Box I6, file 10, October, Margaret Mead Papers.

(38.) Margaret Mead, Letter to Clark Wissler, August 15, 1930, Box I6, file 10, Margaret Mead Papers.

(40.) Mead to Wissler, August 15, 1930.

(41.) Margaret Mead, “The Primitive Child,” in A Handbook of Child Psychology, ed. Carl Allanmore Murchison (Worcester, MA: Clark University Press, 1931), 669.

(42.) Mead to Malinowski, August 9, 1930.

(43.) “Dr. Margaret Mead,” 1931, unsourced clipping, Box L3, file 3, Margaret Mead Papers.

(45.) Margaret Mead and Ruth Bunzel, eds., The Golden Age of American Anthropology (New York: George Braziller, 1960), 228.

(49.) Margaret Mead, Letter to Clark Wissler, August 6, 1930, Box I6, file 10, Margaret Mead Papers.

(51.) Amy Green has argued that this view of the domestic realm was part and parcel of Stanley Hall’s recapitulation theory. Hall argued that [civilized] children proceeded through all the stages of human culture until they reached [modern] civilized adulthood. This theory, she argues, reinforced “the myth of the domestic realm as an eternal, unchanging, and ahistorical shore naturally inhabited by the universal woman.” Cited in Phillip Deloria, Playing Indian (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 228n39.

(62.) Ruth Benedict, Letter to Margaret Mead, January 20, 1932, AAW Copy 2, B/B61 Boas Papers.

(63.) Alfred Tozzer, Review of The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe by Margaret Mead, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 165 (January 1933).

(64.) C. D. F[orde], Review of The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe by Margaret Mead, Man 33 (September 1933): 154.

(65.) Alexander Goldenweiser, Review of The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe by Margaret Mead, Nation (1933), clipping, Box L3, file 3, Margaret Mead Papers.

(66.) Alexander Goldenweiser, Review of The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe by Margaret Mead, American Anthropologist 36, no. 4 (1934): 611.

(67.) Clare Howard, Review of The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe by Margaret Mead, Barnard College Alumnus Monthly, December 1932, clipping, Box L3, file 3, Margaret Mead Papers.

(68.) Ruth Fulton Benedict, “The White Man and the Indian,” New York Herald Tribune Books, November 12, 1932, clipping, Box L3, file 3, Margaret Mead Papers.

(69.) The term “broken culture” derived from the story told to Ruth Benedict by an old man and recorded by Mead in a letter to her grandmother soon after she met (p.166) “Mrs. Benedict”: “‘In the beginning there was given to every people a cup of clay. And from this cup they drank their life. Our cup is broken.’ Is that not a quaint and poetic way of characterizing the whole culture of the Indians, or any other people for that matter? I would so like to be an Anthropologist,” the first recorded commitment to her life’s work. Margaret Mead, Letter to “Dear Grandma,” March 11, 1923, Box A17, file 3, Margaret Mead Papers.

(70.) Mead, Changing Culture, 221. It is interesting to speculate if Mead drew the analogy to the house from Dewey’s essays in the Nation, republished in 1930 as Individualism Old and New. John Dewey, Individualism Old and New (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1931). Mead would have been aware of Dewey’s analysis, drawn originally from Van Wyck Brooks, of America as a “house divided against itself.” The house analogy sits oddly in Changing Culture, and her more dominant disease metaphor would have served as well for the point she was trying to make.

(71.) Bronislaw Malinowski, Letter to Margaret Mead, March 29, 1930, General Correspondence—Letters M—1925–1938, LSE/Malinowski Papers; Margaret Mead, Letter to Bronislaw Malinowski, January 28, 1930, Box C3, file M, Margaret Mead Papers; Mead to Malinowski, August 9, 1930.

(72.) In 1960 Ruth Bunzel claimed functionalism for Boas, writing that he believed that “the constituent elements of a culture … fitted together into a system of interrelated parts.” Ruth Bunzel, “Introduction: Building a Science of Man in America: The Classical Period in American Anthropology, 1900–1920,” in Golden Age, ed. Mead and Bunzel, 401. This is to some extent a post hoc claim. The rivalry between British and American anthropologists was intense, especially after Radcliffe-Brown was appointed to Chicago in 1931. Boas was notoriously particularistic and severe with students who made overly general claims. However, a “small-f” functionalist framework implicitly underpinned both American and British anthropology in the early twentieth century, although the British were the first to theorize it in terms of an integrated system, after Durkheim, rather than in terms of relations between elements. Stocking, “Ideas and Institutions in American Anthropology.”

(74.) Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1965), 414.

(77.) See, for example, Hazel Carby’s interesting essay on how Zora Neale Hurston located “authentic” black culture in the rural. Hazel Carby, “The Politics of Fiction, Anthropology, and the Folk: Zora Neal Hurston,” in New Essays on Their Eyes Were WatchingGod, ed. Michael Awkward (Cambridge University Press, 1990). There are numerous other studies that consider this fraught relationship between authenticity, primitivism, rurality, race, and sexuality; see also, for this period, Elazar Barkan and Ronald Bush, eds., Prehistories of the Future: The Primitivist Project and the Culture of (p.167) Modernism (Stanford University Press, 1995); Jonathan Fineberg, ed., Discovering Child Art: Essays on Childhood, Primitivism, and Modernism (Princeton University Press, 1998); Henricka Kuklick, The Savage Within: The Social History of British Anthropology, 1885–1945 (Cambridge University Press, 1991); Chip Rhodes, Structures of the Jazz Age: Mass Culture, Progressive Education, and Racial Discourse in American Modernist Fiction (New York: Verso, 1998); William J. Rushing, Native American Art and the New York Avant-garde: A History of Cultural Primitivism (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995); Marianna Torgovnick, Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives (University of Chicago Press, 1990).

(79.) This was title of a collection of original articles edited by Mead and Ruth Bunzel. Mead and Bunzel, eds., Golden Age.

(80.) Mead had written an article for Schmalhausen and Calverton’s collection. Margaret Mead, “Adolescence in Primitive and Modern Society,” in The New Generation: The Intimate Problems of Parents and Children, ed. V. F. Calverton and S. D. Schmalhausen (New York: Macauley, 1930).

(84.) Robert Redfield, Tepoztlan, A Mexican Village: A Study of Folk Life (University of Chicago Press, 1930).

(85.) Stuart Chase, Mexico: A Study of Two Americas (New York: Macmillan, 1937).

(88.) Deloria, Playing Indian; Walter Benn Michaels, Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995); Scheckel, Insistence of the Indian.

(89.) Lawrence W. Levine, The Unpredictable Past: Explorations in American Cultural History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 191.

(90.) Laura Hapke, Daughters of the Great Depression: Women, Work and Fiction in the American 1930s (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995).