Posts Tagged ‘Iroquois’

Visiting Lewis Henry Morgan: Birth, Marriage, Adoption and Death as the Calculus of Kinship

Monday, August 5th, 2013

MorganTomb-MountHopeCemetery-3At the end of July 2013, I drove through Rochester, NY, and visited the tomb of Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881), the “grandfather” of American anthropology (assuming Franz Boas is the “father”) and one of the founding students of human kinship systems and terminologies. President of the Friends of the Mount Hope Cemetery (so reminiscent of those 19th century societies of the “friends of American Indians” one of which Morgan initiated), Marilyn Nolte, kindly walked me to the mausoleum which Morgan originally erected as the last abode for his two daughters. I dedicated my book “The Genius of Kinship” (2007) to Morgan and the title contains a double-entendre that refers to the spirit of a dead relative, an innate talent and the patron of a science or art.  In the course of my historiographic research for the book, I unearthed a few intriguing facts about the intersections of science and the lifeworld in 19th century America. Morgan married his mother’s brother’s daughter, Mary Elizabeth Steele, thus reenacting one of the most iconic forms of human marriage in 20th century’s kinship studies. His friendship with an educated Iroquois, Ely Samuel Parker, led to his adoption by the Seneca Indians, which in turn resulted in Lewis and Ely becoming collaborators in the project of writing the first ethnography of an American Indian tribe, “The League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee, or the Iroquois” (1851). Kin and affines at the same time, Lewis and Mary were happy together but their first son, Lemuel, was born with mental retardation. Under the influence of his personal circumstances, Morgan the scholar grew to become critical of the rule of cousin marriage as too close of a union to generate viable offspring. As for his daughters buried at Mount Hope, they died young and the scholar blamed their premature death on his own immersion in the emerging science of anthropology.  Morgan’s lifelong protectionism of American Indians deemed by mainstream America a “vanishing race,” his salvage ethnography of the Iroquois, his field trips and the monumental studies “The Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family” (1871) and “Ancient Society” (1877) absorbed a lot of Morgan’s energy which he believed could have protected his daughters. The grandiose project of comprehending the various facets of the “human family” resulted, Morgan began to fear, in the corresponding neglect for his this-worldly family. Long kept outside of the purview of kinship studies, with its pseudo-self-evident focus on birth, death as a cultural and ontological category is now increasingly believed to be part of the field of kinship studies (see, e.g., my post on Hamlet). My visit to the founder of kinship studies’ grave was a symbolic affirmation of this epistemological stance. Morgan’s life was an embodiment of everything that “human kinship” is about: birth, marriage, adoption and death.