Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Graduate School News and Events

Celebrating the “Father of Modern Anthropology”

Yale hosted an international interdisciplinary conference, “Indigenous Visions: Rediscovering the World of Franz Boas,” from September 15 to 17 in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Mind of Primitive Man, Boas’ landmark treatise on race and culture.

Boas (1858–1942) is often called the “father of modern anthropology.” He influenced thinkers from John Dewey to W.E.B. Du Bois, presaged the development of Africana studies, and advanced the cause of native rights.

Conference organizer Isaiah Wilner, a doctoral candidate in the Department of History, sees 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,” he says. “Boas 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.”

The idea for the Boas centennial came up during a wide-ranging discussion between anthropology professor William W. Kelly and Isaiah. Professors Kelly, Glenda Gilmore, and Ned Blackhawk all worked with him to turn the idea into a reality. Isaiah reached out to scholars who were known to be working on Boas or in closely connected areas.

“A conference with a central text as a focus is a great way to generate ideas, because it leads to a discussion that is both rigorous and creative,” Isaiah says. “Across the disciplines, people found they had new things to say about Boas as well as the wide circle of intellectuals in which he moved.”

Professor John Mack Faragher suggested that the Lamar Center collaborate and treat the conference as its annual symposium. David Blight, director of the Gilder Lehrman Center, offered to co-sponsor, and various departments, councils, and committees joined in. The Kempf Fund provided extensive funding that helped bring in speakers from Canada and Germany.

Boas stunned the American public in 1911 when he refuted purportedly “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. Time magazine called 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 pseudo-science, and rescued scholars from the Third Reich.

Many of the positions that Boas held derived from his work with native peoples. 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,” as he put it. His sense of the rich mental life of all peoples was influenced by his visits to the Kwakwaka’wakw of British Columbia, where elders and scholars contributed to his work and continue to discuss it to this day.

At the conference, Isaiah presented a micro-history of The Mind of Primitive Man, analyzing four moments of international encounter that reshaped Boas’ ideas about race and contributed to the making of American modernity. His dissertation research explores the 40-year partnership of Boas and his informant George Hunt. A graduate of Yale College (BA, 2000) and former editor of the Yale Daily News, Isaiah spent nine years in New York as a journalist before enrolling in the Graduate School. He is author of The Man Time Forgot: A Tale of Genius, Betrayal, and the Creation of Time Magazine (HarperCollins, 2006), a biography of Briton Hadden (1898–1929), who co-founded Time with Henry Luce.

Other Yale speakers included Elizabeth Alexander, professor and chair of African American studies at Yale; Elijah Anderson, professor of sociology; and Stephen Pitti, professor of history.

The keynote address, “Diversity and Democracy After Boas,” was delivered by political philosopher James Tully from the University of Victoria. Tully, who served as special advisor to Canada’s Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, is the author of Strange Multiplicity: Constitutionalism in an Age of Diversity and Public Philosophy in a New Key.

For a full list of speakers, please visit the conference website.

Isaiah Wilner