Early Alaskan ethnographer’s journals give glimpse into Native studies

Tanana and Chandalar: The Alaska Field Journals of Robert A. McKennan 41elizxIE5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Edited by Craig Mishler & William E. Simeone

The University of Alaska Press, 2006





Like many people, Robert A. McKennan fell in love with Alaska. Although he never lived here, he became thoroughly enamored of the place and its people.

McKennan was a cultural anthropologist, trained at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, N.H., and Harvard University, specializing in Native American studies. He joined the Dartmouth faculty in 1930 as an instructor of sociology. With the exception of his field trips and a three-year absence during World War II, he spent 40 years there.

McKennan took his first trip to Alaska in 1929, at the suggestion of a professor, Roland Dixon. He took a second trip, a longer one, in 1933, with a new doctorate from Harvard and grants from the Social Science Research Council and the National Research Council. He spent the summer studying the ethnography of the Gwich’in Natives. It was only the first of several anthropological studies in the Territory.

McKennan was one of the first ethnographers to study Alaska Natives, and became one of the premiere ethnographers in this subject. He published two major works detailing his studies, The Upper Tanana Indians (1959) and The Chandalar Kutchin (1965).

Ethnographies of the time were formal studies, written in the third person, “objective and empirical,” editor Craig Mishler writes in the Introduction to this work. Ethnographies document a culture and lifestyle, but do not interject the observer into the community. To do so, Mishler writes, would have pegged the writer as “egotistical and self-indulgent.”

McKennan himself writes in the preface to The Chandalar Kutchin, “I readily admit that I like the Chandalar Kutchin, their country, and their way of life, but I trust that I have balanced empathy with objectivity in my depiction of the native culture.”

Field journals, in contrast, are day-to-day observations written by the anthropologist, and by nature include much of the soul of the researcher, as he depicts not only life in the community being studied, but how he interacts with and becomes a part of that community.

The journals heretofore were kept in the Dartmouth archives since just before McKennan died in 1982. They were found by a former student, already typed up (the handwritten originals have never been located). Editors Mishler and William E. Simeone have allowed us a fascinating glimpse not only of an anthropologist at work, but the Native cultures he studied. At a time when most of the Natives had had very little contact with white culture. McKennan’s journals reflect cultures on the brink of transformation.

The journals are a “contemporary, postmodern sensibility that we now find more compelling than the original ethnographies. The field journals are written reflexively and critically in the first person. They are in a lively narrative form. And they openly reflect the author’s personal biases and inner feelings,” Mishler writes. Both the journals and the studies are important, Mishler continues, as the one represents the humanistic side of the anthropological tradition, the other showing the scientific tradition.

The book also contains numerous photos, most taken by McKennan during the course of his studies.

McKennan’s first trip, to the Upper Tanana, took place between September 1929 and June 1930. He lived in tents and cabins, traveled by foot, horse and dogsled, and found himself sharing some of the same concerns as the Natives he studied, mostly in terms of food. Living as he did in the same isolated villages, McKennan found trading posts and stores few and far between. The tradition of sharing with visitors and the scarcity of provisions meant he often worried that he would run out of food. He did, however, take enthusiastically to the subsistence hunting lifestyle, and many of his entries document the great hunts he participated in, both with Natives and other white men.

The journals are compelling reading, as McKennan has a keen eye and witty pen. He details everything, from the state of his abodes to the stature and habits of his study subjects.

There is a map before each section, showing his journeys and the villages in which he stayed, allowing the reader to follow him in his journeys. The entries at first are introduced with both the day of the week and the date, but eventually the day is dropped and only the date remains.

Interspersed among the journal entries are letters written to McKennan’s wife, Kay, and other members of his family. The journal entries are written in an epistolary style, chatty and familiar, bringing the reader into the intimate circle of the writer’s life.

McKennan was far from a stuffy, professorial anthropologist. In addition to keen observations, occasionally waxes poetic as he observes Nature and her power.

He observes, on Jan. 13, as he prepares for bed: “The dogs have been unusually restless tonight and every time they start howling I rush to the door, only to see nothing but a big round moon. There it shines, cold and serene, making dark shadows on the snow-white peaks that surround me. Tonight it seems cold and cruel as it shines there so stoically.”

And yet, the practical scientist is never far away. He finishes the entry with: “And so to bed.”

The only technical fault I find is end notes as opposed to footnotes. End notes, while easier for the editors, are a pain for most readers, as the interruption to page back to the note section and finding the correct entry is far more distracting than looking to the bottom of the page.

Additionally, when sections are as long as these are, end notes are even more annoying.

But, as I said, technical nitpicks. Maybe other readers will not be so annoyed.

Readers looking at this book with 21st century mores will note some arrogance and patronizing attitudes towards the Natives and some of their habits. There is a lot of ethnocentricity here, and a few instances of double standards, such as McKennan’s disdain for Native leaders who turn their back on Native ways, while at the same time preferring to spend time with those Natives who are more “civilized” and cleaner than their ignorant brethren. But wise readers will remember that McKennan was a product of his time and anthropology was still in its infancy, so to speak, with many lessons on people and cultures yet to be learned. It’s best to send the political correctness police out for doughnuts while reading this book. Make no judgments—just enjoy McKennan’s clear writing style and his witty observations of human nature.

Bottom line, this is a good book for anyone interested in Alaska’s history, Natives, culture and heritage. McKennan, although not an Alaskan by birth or choice, nevertheless, like so many others, “got” Alaska and her people; he understood what it is that attaches people to this place.

It makes him an honorary Alaskan, at the very least.