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People & Events
John Wesley Powell and the Bureau of Ethnology


John Wesley Powell Among many of the Native American people of the West, the scientific explorer John Wesley Powell, a former Army Major who had lost his right arm in battle, was known affectionately as Kapurats, or "One-Arm-Off." It's a name he was given during an extensive stay with the White River Ute in the winter of 1868; it's a soubriquet with which he is still associated today. Unlike most white men of his era, John Wesley Powell had tremendous respect for Native Americans, an insatiable curiosity about their language and institutions, and a belief that they had a right to live their lives according to their own traditions. It was because of this interest and empathy that during all his years in the West, when other scientific teams felt they needed military escorts, he never even carried a gun.

Powell's main goal in 1868, during that first winter among the Indians, was to collect geological and geographic data about the region, but the area around his camp, now know as Powell Bottoms, was heavily populated with Utes. Powell felt compelled to learn more about them, too. He spent weeks compiling a dictionary of Ute vocabulary, learning to speak their language, and trading buckskins for cultural artifacts. This stay was the beginning of a thirty-year interest in the native peoples of the American West, during which time Powell would do much to turn anthropology in the U.S. from an avocation pursued by interested hobbyists to a respected field of academic study.

It was 1870 before Powell would spend time with native peoples again. He had returned West after his first run of the Colorado River partly to scout locations along the way where he could resupply during an upcoming second trip. But he also wanted to know what had happened to the three men who had left the expedition just before it ended. Rumor had it they had been killed by Shivwit warriors. If that was the case, he wanted to make peace with the Indians. Setting out with a group of Kaibab Indians and a Mormon guide named Jacob Hamblin, Powell headed southwest from Salt Lake City to a place 20 miles north of the Grand Canyon known by the Indians as Uinkaret or Place of Pines. The following weeks were, in the words of one Powell biographer, "one long ethnological picnic."

The people Powell stayed with were among the most untouched in America. The Major spoke little of their language, but he made himself understood in Ute. The women showed him how to roast seeds with hot coals. The men engrossed him in talk about their religion. By the time the Shivwits explained why they'd killed Powell's men, the Major had established as intimate a tie with them as any white man in the 19th century would. Instead of demanding retribution for the deaths of his men, which would have been usual in those days, he smoked a pipe with the Indian warriors. In his diary, the Major remembers the warm promises made during that meeting. "We will be friends" the Indians said, "and when you come we will be glad. We will tell the Indians who live on the other side of the great river that we have seen Kapurats and that he is the Indians' friend."

One of Powell's greatest regrets of that trip was that he didn't have a photographer with him. It was mistake he would rectify. Powell made sure he took a cameraman on his second trip down the Colorado River and also on most future trips to Indian country. In the spring of 1873, when Powell was hired by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to investigate the "conditions and wants" of the Great Basin Indians, the photographer John K. Hillers accompanied the Major on his extensive travels in the Southwest. As Powell collected and recorded the myths, tales and vocabularies of, among others, the Ute, Paiutes and Nevada Shoshoni, Hillers captured their lives on film. Sometimes, in an effort to make the Indians seem both authentic and exotic, Powell distorted reality by insisting they wear fake headdresses. And in other instances, Hillers asked his subjects to effect poses typically used by nineteenth-century portrait photographers that were awkward and alien to the native peoples. Nonetheless, this series of images provides an important and striking record of a way of life that has long disappeared.

In 1879, Powell helped push for the establishment by Congress of the Bureau of Ethnology. Over the next 23 years under his guidance, the agency would sponsor much important anthropological research. This included bibliographic compilations of all previous writings about American Indians, a "Synonymy" or dictionary of Native American tribes, and a classification of Native American languages and many new field studies. In fact, it's for this work with the agency, rather than for his own field studies, that Powell made his main contribution to anthropology. His own investigations were frequently spotty, his arguments were difficult to follow, and often his staff did much of the hard work on his classification projects. In contrast, Powell demonstrated great skill as an administrator, pulling together a loyal staff who urged others to do some very rigorous research. Despite Powell's shortcomings as a scholar, his passion for ethnography helped lay the groundwork for anthropological study in the 20th century.


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