Bureau of American Ethnology

Bureau of American Ethnology

The Bureau of American Ethnology (originally, Bureau of Ethnology) was established in 1879 by an act of Congress for the purpose of transferring archives, records and materials relating to the Indians of North America from the Interior Department to the Smithsonian Institution. But from the start, the bureau's visionary founding director, John Wesley Powell, promoted a much broader mission: "to organize anthropologic research in America." Under Powell, the bureau organized research intensive multi-year projects; sponsored ethnographic, archaeological and linguistic field research; initiated publications series (most notably its Annual Reports and Bulletins); and promoted the fledgling discipline of anthropology. It prepared exhibits for expositions and collected anthropological specimens for the United States National Museum. In addition, the BAE was also the official repository of documents concerning American Indians collected by the various US geological surveys, especially the Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region and the Geological Survey of the Territories. It developed a world-class manuscript repository, library and illustrations section that included photographic work and the collection of photographs.

In 1897, the Bureau of Ethnology's name was changed to the Bureau of American Ethnology to emphasize the geographic limit of its interests, although its staff also briefly conducted research in US possessions such as Hawaii and the Philippines. In 1965, the BAE merged with the Smithsonian's Department of Anthropology to form the Smithsonian Office of Anthropology within the United States National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History). In 1968, the SOA archives became the National Anthropological Archives.


The BAE's staff included some of America's earliest field anthropologists, including Frank Hamilton Cushing, J.O. Dorsey, Jesse Walter Fewkes, Alice Cunningham Fletcher, John N.B. Hewitt, Francis LaFlesche, Cosmo and Victor Mindeleff, James Mooney, John Stevenson, and Matilda Coxe Stevenson. In the 20th century, the BAE's staff included such notable anthropologists as Neil Judd, John Peabody Harrington (a legendary linguist who spent more than 40 years documenting endangered languages) and William C. Sturtevant. The BAE also supported the work of many non-Smithsonian researchers (known as collaborators), most notably Franz Boas, Francis Densmore, Garrick Mallery, Washington Matthews, Paul Radin, Cyrus Thomas and T.T. Waterman.

The BAE had three subunits: the Mounds Survey (1882-1895); the Institute of Social Anthropology (1943-1952), and the River Basin Surveys (1946-1969).

Mounds Survey

At the time the BAE was founded, there was intense controversy over the identity of the Mound Builders. Archaeologists, both amateur and professional, were divided between believing the mounds were built by passing groups of people who settled in various places elsewhere, or believing they could have been built by native Americans. The Bureau's appointed head of the Division of Mound Exploration, Cyrus Thomas, eventually published his conclusions on the origins of the mounds in the Bureau's Annual Report of 1894, which is considered to be the last word in the controversy over the Mound builders' identities. After Thomas' publication, it was generally accepted among scholars that Native Americans were indeed the Moundbuilders.


*Fagan, Brian M. "Ancient North America". Thames & Hudson. New York, 2005
*Judd, Neil Merton. "The Bureau of American Ethnology; a partial history". Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967.
* Thomas, Cyrus. Report on the mound explorations of the Bureau of Ethnology. Pp. 3-730. Twelfth annual report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1890-91, by J. W. Powell, Director. XLVIII+742 pp., 42 pls., 344 figs. 1894.

External links

* [http://www.sil.si.edu/DigitalCollections/BAE/Bulletin200/200title.htm List of Publications of the Bureau of American Ethnology]
* [http://www.nmnh.si.edu/naa National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution]
* [http://gallica.bnf.fr/Catalogue/noticesInd/FRBNF37572002.htm#listeUC Digitized copies of the BAE Annual Reports at Gallica]

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