Yale to host conference for centennial of Franz Boas's "The Mind of Primitive Men"

Historians in the News

NEW HAVEN, Connecticut—Eminent scholars from the United States, Canada and Europe will gather at Yale for a centennial symposium on Franz Boas, the public intellectual who established the idea that people of every color and from every corner of the world can contribute to modern life.

“Indigenous Visions: Rediscovering the World of Franz Boas” takes place Sept. 15–17—one hundred years after Boas released The Mind of Primitive Man, a landmark treatise that drew upon Boas’ studies of American Indians and immigrants to reject the idea that race determines ability and present a new theory of culture for a global age. The symposium brings together scholars involved in a reevaluation of the “father of modern anthropology,” who influenced thinkers from John Dewey to W. E. B. Du Bois, presaged the development of Africana studies, and advanced the cause of native rights.

The Howard R. Lamar Center for the Study of Frontiers and Borders will present the centennial symposium, co-sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition and a dozen Yale departments and organizations. Events kickoff Thursday, Sept. 15, at 5:30 p.m. with a reception in the Beinecke Library (121 Wall Street), where the Dean of Yale College, Sterling Professor of History of Art Mary Miller, will offer welcoming remarks. Presentations and lectures begin at 9 a.m. the following morning, Friday, Sept. 16, in Luce Hall Auditorium (34 Hillhouse Avenue).

[The symposium is free and open to the public, but advance registration is requested. To register, and for a full schedule of events, visit www.yale.edu/glc/boas]

Speakers include Elizabeth Alexander, the inaugural poet for Barack Obama, who will examine Boas’ relationship with Zora Neale Hurston; Berkeley’s David Hollinger, the recent president of the Organization of American Historians, who will give a talk entitled, “Print the Legend Not the Fact? Anthropologists, Missionaries, and the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”; and Michael Silverstein, the renowned language theorist at the University of Chicago, who will discuss 1911 as an “annus mirabilis” in thought.

The keynote address—and the Stanley T. Woodward lecture—will be given by political philosopher James Tully, Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Law, Indigenous Governance and Philosophy at the University of Victoria, who served as a special advisor to Canada’s Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. “Diversity and Democracy After Boas” is the title of his talk. It takes place Friday, September 16, at 7 p.m. in Luce Hall. Tully, the author of Public Philosophy in a New Key, received the prestigious Killam Prize in 2010 in recognition of exceptional contributions to Canadian public life.

The idea of a Boas centennial began in a brainstorm between Yale anthropologist William W. Kelly and Yale History Ph.D. student Isaiah Wilner, who developed the program with professors Glenda Gilmore and Ned Blackhawk. They saw Boas as an Enlightenment inheritor, yet something of an avatar for our own times. “When we look at Franz Boas, we see the face of our society,” Wilner said. “He was a culture surfer and border crosser who bore scars on his face from duels with anti-Semites yet succeeded in making the case for a more collaborative way of life.”

Boas stunned the American public in 1911 when he refuted scientific claims that placed white people at the top of a pyramid leading from savagery to civilization. He pointed to evidence of American Indian and African achievement. Timecalled The Mind of Primitive Man the “Magna Carta of race equality” in a cover story on Boas in 1936. After German authorities removed the book from circulation, Boas wrote a new edition, pressed a campaign against Nazi science, and rescued scholars from the Third Reich.

Many of the great themes that moved Boas derived from his work with native people. He learned the need for cross-cultural understanding during a year spent on icy Baffin Island, where he lived with the Inuit—“as an Eskimo among the Eskimo,” he put it. His sense of the rich mental life of all people was influenced by his visits to the Kwakwaka’wakw of British Columbia, where elders and scholars contributed to his work and still discuss it.

Now a wider group of scholars is discovering that Boas spoke early and directly to challenges as pressing today as in his time—ethnic hatred, religious strife, globalization, immigration, war. The centennial of The Mind of Primitive Man has presented a diverse group of thinkers a chance to reflect on the continuing history of race in America, the role of the concept of culture in global claims to justice, and the active role of indigenous people in the creation of today’s society. With Boas as a lens, “Indigenous Visions” will extend beyond him to illuminate a wide circle of American moderns—including William James, Ella Deloria, and Margaret Mead—whose ideas continue to shape the twenty-first century and offer insights that may contribute to a revitalization of democracy.

Advance registration opens today. Visit www.yale.edu/glc/boas for a full list of speakers and key readings, including the 1911 edition of The Mind of Primitive Man.

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