We continue our blog series in recognition of Claude Lévi-Strauss’ accomplishments and his recent award from the Smithsonian with a post by Edgardo Krebs, Research Associate at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
Claude Levi-Strauss has received almost all the honors imaginable. No social anthropologist, since the discipline began to be formalized a century ago, comes close to matching such a varied and universal retinue of recognition. An award from the Smithsonian, conferred a few months after he himself turned 100, will not shock anybody for its originality, or add credit to a reputation established beyond doubt decades ago. Certainly appropriate and amply deserved, it’s worth is perhaps more sentimental than academic.
The Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnology was one of Levi-Strauss’ first professional homes in the U.S. At the request of his friend and colleague Alfred Metraux –whom he had met in Brazil, in 1938– Levi-Strauss began collaborating with the Bureau’s “Handbook of South American Indians” in the early forties, around the time he arrived in New York, escaping the Nazi occupation of France. The seven volumes of the Handbook brought together a number of young Americanists (like Levi-Strauss) and legendary field ethnographers (like Curt Nimuendaju), most of them unknown to their colleagues. Together they covered an almost secret subject matter, vast in all categories: the Indians of South America. Their demography, history and cultural diversity are still part of a living and breathing reality.
Today that reality in some cases intersects dramatically with issues central to political debates world-wide: human rights, land tenure, global warming, the conservation of biodiversity . Before WWI and a few years after the European “scramble for Africa” and Asia, and the U.S. expansion to the Caribbean and the Pacific, Marcel Mauss advocated for the creation of an Institute of Ethnology in France, where facts about other cultures and peoples could be gathered and analyzed. He saw this as a necessary responsibility Empires should face up to –not just an intellectual responsibility, but a political and humane one too. At that time Mauss considered the exploring and collecting task being done in the field by the Bureau of American Ethnology as exemplary, a model to emulate. In the 1940s, Claude Levi-Strauss was hired by the Bureau to help open a frontier of knowledge that was mostly invisible in the U.S. He himself was an admirer of the Bureau, and would lament its disappearance in the early 1960s, when it was absorbed by the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
The gift exchange cycle between modern French anthropology and the Smithsonian Institution, which Mauss initiated, not only brings together the names of Mooney, Cushing, Nimuendaju, Metraux, Levi-Strauss –among others– in creative ways the discipline is still benefiting from, but is part of the biography of Levi-Strauss himself.
And of the Americanist experience that informs La pensee sauvage, Mythologiques and Tristes Tropics. The James Smithson Medal was not necessary to adorn Levi-Strauss’ career, but as an intimate nod of remembrance at those early years and experiences, so exciting and fertile for the recipient, and so consequential to our discipline and beyond.
Previous Posts in this Series:
Sidney Mintz & Levi-Strauss
Filed under: Commentary