In Memory of Walter Goldschmidt: Exemplary Anthropologist

By Paul Durrenberger
Penn State University

By Kendall Thu
Northern Illinois University

Walter Goldschmidt died on Sept. 1, 2010 at the age of 97. He was the finest example of an applied anthropologist. At the annual meeting of SfAA in Merida in 2001, when he was in his late 80s, SfAA belatedly recognized his contributions by presenting him the Malinowski award. In the middle of his talk the power went out but he continued to speak into the darkness. Somehow this was emblematic of his long career in Anthropology as well as the paltry recognition this monumental life and spirit received from his colleagues. That disregard has not been shared by the people among whom he worked, the people he served.

Academic fashions come and go. What endures is sound ethnography and the service we do for others. Goldschmidt left a mighty legacy of both.

We got to know him in the mid 90s when we were doing research on the industrialization of the swine industry in Iowa. The only meaningful guidance from anthropologists we could find was his As you Sow, which was published in 1947 after being suppressed for several years. The 1978 edition includes a final chapter entitled “Agribusiness and Political Power” that chronicles how, “…the machinery of propaganda is used to further corporate interests” (455). This summarizes the political history of the United States since the 1980s and even earlier, but at the time we were more interested in seeing whether his findings from California in the 1940s characterized the body of data we had collected for Iowa in the 1990s. They did. We also found that rural sociologists had appreciated Goldschmidt’s work much more than his fellow anthropologists.

We invited him to visit us in Iowa, which he generously and readily did as he was entering his 80s. We drove across the state talking with farmers. After he visited the rural sociologists at Iowa State, he wryly observed that they had turned the “Goldschmidt Hypothesis” into a cottage industry. He suggested that the original work was sufficiently robust that it should be called the “Goldschmidt Finding.” We had to agree. One farmer we were talking to in a small Iowa town lamented that they were five years too late recognizing the pattern of implacable industrialization. “Son,” observed Goldschmidt, “You are fifty years too late.” The finding? That industrialization of agriculture is bad for people, communities, and economies. A finding that has been amply borne out since.

These days when many applied anthropologists work for corporations or governments, it is refreshing to have Goldschmidt’s California work as a model of quantifiable empirical social science research that bears on public policy. He didn’t get the answer the corporations wanted. It is also gratifying to have an example of an ancestor who had faith in his findings and stood up to corporate power to proclaim them. One measure of the adequacy of ethnography is whether you are willing to tell it to a judge under oath in a court of law. Goldschmidt was.

His last work was Bridge to Humanity: How Affect Hunger Trumps the Selfish Gene, (2005 Oxford University Press) a small book that truly captures the grandeur of the vision of Anthropology as a four-field discipline. In the last years of his life he lamented that this work had not had the impact that he’d hoped it might with its synthesis of years of his own and many others’ work.

As we came to appreciate Goldschmidt and his work, his prescience as an anthropologist, his analysis of the political power of corporations and to appreciate his sense of humor as well as his scholarship, we along with Tom Thorton nominated him for the Malinowski award. Only in the process of writing the nomination letter did we become aware of the full extent of his contributions.

Goldschmidt demonstrated a rare combination of insightful theoretician, rigorous ethnographer, and humanitarian. A quarter century ago, well before applied anthropology’s current popularity, he made clear in his American Anthropological Association Presidential nomination statement that anthropologists “need to develop a climate where anthropologists will find their way into policy-making positions and where their voices will be heard in public debate. We would be a better society if anthropological understandings were insinuated into public policy as frequently as those of such sister disciplines as economics and political science.”

His work on behalf of Alaska Native land and resource rights is an outstanding example of his career-long efforts to understand and serve the needs of the world through the use of social science. In 1946, while attached to the US Department of Agriculture, he and attorney Theodore Haas were dispatched by the Office of Indian Affairs to Alaska to investigate Alaska Natives’ land claims. They began among the Tlingit and Haida of Southeast Alaska before moving to the Interior to conduct surveys of Athabaskan villages. Although he spent only one summer in Alaska, the consequences of his work were profound and far-reaching and to this day remain relevant to land and resource management in the state.

Goldschmidt’s reports became foundational parts of Alaska Native land claims struggles. In spite of sometimes hostile opposition, he was able to support his conclusions before the Indian Claims Commission. Eventually, this process culminated in the landmark Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, legislation that organized Natives into corporations and provided them with title to 44 million acres of state lands and nearly $1 billion in compensation for lands taken.

In addition to setting the gold standard for the conduct of indigenous land rights studies in Alaska and elsewhere, the report (entitled “Possessory Rights of the Natives of Southeastern Alaska”) also became an instant ethnographic classic for its scope, rich detail, and incisive analysis of Tlingit and Haida economics, land and resource tenure, and lifeways. In contrast to standard ethnological works of the period, which tended to be community based and encyclopedic in scope, the research of Goldschmidt and Haas was regional and specific in its objectives.

The investigators not only gathered statements but typed them and had them affirmed, signed, and witnessed. Few ethnographers could claim such faithful attention to their informants’ words. The narrative of their report is not only crisp and well-written, it is well organized, carefully supported, and even dramatic at times (unusual for a government or ethnographic report). In addition, the overview of Tlingit and Haida culture remains one of the finest basic introductions available. All of these have served well the interests of the Tlingit and Haida, indeed all Alaskans, who desire to protect natural and cultural resources that Natives and non-Natives alike continue to rely on today.

Descendants of the original witnesses still quote the words of their ancestors in public hearings, planning documents, and other forums. Fifty years after its release, the report was published as a book (Haa Aaní, Our Land: Tlingit and Haida Land Rights and Use, 1998, University of Washington Press and the Sealaska Heritage Foundation), which is already into its second printing. Tlingits and Haidas themselves have purchased hundreds of copies in order to read their ancestors’ statements and enjoy Goldschmidt’s integration of this testimony.

Goldschmidt enriched the publication by adding a major new reflective essay drawing on letters he wrote to his wife. These reminiscences offer a personal view of the challenges of doing this work in the “last frontier” at mid-century–a hostile and racist milieu. When Goldschmidt visited Alaska in 1996 for the first time since the original study, he received an overwhelming welcome and numerous citations from indigenous organizations. Perhaps 88 years old, Tlingit elder Joseph Kahklen Sr., who served as translator for the 1946 study and became Walter’s very good friend, summed it up best upon their reunion when he remarked to an audience of Tlingits: “[This] research was important and it was for the benefit of our people.” Next to this, the accolades of academics mean little.

That statement still rings true in the new millennium, as this was social science at its best—in the service of the people. This should serve as an inspiration to us all. May all of the people amongst whom we work think and say the same of us.

In 1949 the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation published the “Central Valley Project Studies” based upon a report from a committee within the Bureau of Agricultural Economics at the USDA. Goldschmidt served on the committee and was a principle editor of the report. The report was an appraisal of the massive irrigation system being developed in California and its consequences for the economy and social life of California communities. Notable recommendations of this report, clearly influenced by Goldschmidt’s earlier California ethnography, were farm acreage limitations and restrictions on farmland speculation which would result in a more diffuse distribution of farmland ownership.

Except that it was conducted over 60 years ago, these examples of Goldschmidt’s work are classic instances of contemporary applied anthropology in that they were sponsored by a federal agency (the USDA) in the interests of understanding a practical social problem and developing a set of policy recommendations to correct them. Indeed, the policy recommendations stemming from Goldschmidt’s comparative ethnographic work, which included changes in tax policy and treatment of labor, were such that absent the adoption of such policies he predicted the spread of an industrialized form of agriculture throughout the U.S. with comparable consequences.

In between his ethnographic work on Eastern African agriculture and law (which resulted in four books between 1967 and 1978 and numerous articles and book chapters), Goldschmidt testified before the U.S. Congress’ Small Business Committee on the consequences of the industrialization of U.S. agriculture. And in 1986 the U.S. Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment issued a major report entitled “Technology, Public Policy, and the Changing Structure of American Agriculture.” An entire section of this report is dedicated to assessing industrial agriculture’s “Impacts on Rural Communities” and is explicitly predicated on Goldschmidt’s California work and the subsequent generation of social science research it inspired, chiefly in rural sociology.

Within the mainstream anthropological academy, Goldschmidt’s dedication to the practical use of anthropology is evident at a time when applied anthropology was treated as a second-class field. In 1979 he authored the American Anthropological Association publication The Uses of Anthropology. And in 1986 his dedication to applied anthropology and public policy was reaffirmed when he edited Anthropology and Public Policy: A Dialogue.

In addition to serving as President of the American Anthropological Association (1975), Goldschmidt served as President of the American Ethnological Society (1969-70); President of the Southwest Anthropological Association (1951-52); Editor of American Anthropologist (1956-60); founder and editor of Ethos; Director of the Ways of Mankind Radio Project (1951-53); Senior Scientist, National Institute for Mental Health (1970-75); and African Studies Association founding member (1956-60).

Goldschmidt appreciated the vantage his advancing years provided. In 2000 he shared his personal reflections on the evolving field of anthropology in an essay, “A Perspective on Anthropology” (American Anthropologist 102(4):789-807). There he discussed his personal history and family background. He started with the observation that he took his first course in anthropology seventy years before and that his involvement with the discipline had then covered half its history, an observation that he found, “…both astonishing and amusing” (789). In the conclusion he plead for anthropologists not to accept easy answers but to do the “…hard work of learning the complexity of …reality” (803), make it known to the public, counteract parochial understandings, and contribute to public policy. “We need to forgo the self-indulgence of sectarian quarreling and take on our responsibilities as keepers of a holistic faith” (789).

That he did, especially in his last book. That work discusses some of his other ethnographic work that we have not mentioned here.

In recognition of his increasing frailty over the last few years he sometimes said that he was getting closer to joining the ancestors. Now he has. Let us do him the homage of emulating his example in our work.

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