GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine

Where the action was
Feature and photography by Richard Mertens

On Iowa’s Meskwaki Settlement, a group of Chicago anthropology students went beyond observation and tried to help their research subjects. Fifty-six years later, action anthropology is the stuff of footnotes—and Meskwaki memory.

The only American Indian settlement in Iowa lies among the wooded slopes and marshy bottomlands of the Iowa River, an hour west of Cedar Rapids. The Meskwaki, whose name means “Red-Earth People,” are also a tenacious people. In the 18th century they fought the French in the western Great Lakes region and were nearly annihilated. The survivors eventually migrated to Iowa, where they remained until the government moved them to Kansas in the 1840s. In 1857 a group returned to Iowa and bought 80 acres with money raised by selling ponies and jewelry. The Meskwaki not only frustrated efforts to send them back to Kansas but also expanded their holdings many times over. Today they own more than 7,000 acres—11 square miles—and operate a school, a health clinic, tribal offices, a senior center, a housing department, and a casino whose profits provide each tribe member with a monthly “per cap” of approximately $1,800. Yet the Meskwaki, who number about 1,500, have long resisted assimilation into white society. They never took to farming, at least in the modern Iowan sense. Generations of missionaries failed to convert more than a few to Christianity. Most Meskwaki still follow their old religion, gathering in long wooden buildings with dirt floors to pray, dance, and feast in traditional clan ceremonies. Not only have they survived, but in many ways they are thriving.

That wasn’t the case in June 1948, when six Chicago graduate students arrived at Meskwaki Settlement for a summer of fieldwork. They were the first of 35 students, mostly from the U of C, who visited over the next decade to study the Meskwaki. The Fox Project, as it was eventually called, after the old French name for the tribe, was a kind of anthropological boot camp. The students would observe, ask questions, write papers—and learn to be anthropologists.

They began conventionally enough, conducting interviews, attending ceremonies, and taking part, however awkwardly at first, in settlement life. But as they got to know the Meskwaki they became dissatisfied with their research. Torn between traditional ways and those of modern white society, the settlement was experiencing difficulties that seemed to demand another, more proactive response. The Meskwaki certainly expected one. Lisa R. Peattie, AM’50, PhD’68, now a professor emeritus of planning at MIT, recalls, “People kept complaining, ‘You keep asking all these questions. What’s in it for us?’ ”

Over the next ten years the Fox Project tried to answer that question. In the process, an ordinary training assignment was transformed into an attempt to redefine anthropology. The Fox Project challenged the then-dominant ideal of disinterested science and instead experimented with combining research and helping, advancing knowledge while also doing good. Ambitious and full of pitfalls, the Fox Project tried to forge something more satisfying out of the morally fraught relationship between anthropologist and subject. Whether the approach ever worked, or even could work, is still disputed. But, for a moment, it seemed full of promise.

In 1948 the Meskwaki had relatively little. Their unpainted one- or two-room frame houses lacked electricity, telephones, and indoor plumbing. Few owned cars; few had any education beyond high school. Some worked off the settlement, while others sought jobs in the military. Their poverty was not grinding, but jobs and money were scarce. Bitter disagreements made it difficult for the Meskwaki, who then numbered about 600, to work together as a community. Whites in Tama, a little railroad town three miles east, looked upon them as poor and hapless.

The Chicago students viewed them differently. The students were young and green and easily caught up in the romance of American Indians and anthropology. No one was more taken with the Meskwaki than Lisa Peattie, a daughter of Chicago anthropologist Robert Redfield, PhB’20, JD’21, PhD’28. Soon after arriving on the settlement, Peattie befriended a flute player and his wife and spent evenings listening to Meskwaki music in the summer twilight. “I was really smitten with the idea of traditional Indian culture,” she says. “The idea of Wilson Roberts playing the cedar wood flute at dusk was terribly romantic. For me the connection was culture, real culture, with all its nuance.”

Although many Meskwaki avoided the newcomers, others seemed as interested in the students as the students were in them. “They were really very tolerant and very kind and very patient,” says Grace Harris, PhB’45, AM’49, now an emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Rochester. “But of course we were new to them, too. They lived a very humdrum rural life.” Harris spent her summer interviewing settlement women, showing them pictures of simple scenes and asking what they saw. The women responded with long, involved stories that reminded Harris of radio dramas. To her delight they also let her in on the local gossip.

In the evening the students wrote up the day’s notes and talked. As their conversation turned to how they might help the Meskwaki, they wrote to Sol Tax, PhD’35, the Chicago anthropology professor who had sent them to Iowa, where in the 1930s he had studied the Meskwaki kinship system. Uncertain whether they should yield to their impulse to help or resist it, the students wanted to remain good scientists. But Tax—known for his energy, optimism, and openness to new ideas—urged them to go ahead. “I don’t believe that you can do ‘pure research’ among the Fox except if you also do what has sometimes been called ‘action research,” he wrote, adding, “We might get into trouble and we might get kicked out of the place, but that’s the chance we have to take.”

The idea that anthropologists should be useful was hardly new. One way the field hoped to do so was by illuminating the human condition. Anthropologists also believed that collecting information was valuable in and of itself. Cultures were dying, and writing down old stories and collecting artifacts saved them from oblivion. At the same time, some anthropologists searched for more direct ways of helping. Practitioners of “applied anthropology” often worked for government agencies, such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to carry out official policy.

Tax, who taught at Chicago from 1940 to 1978 (he died in 1995), had begun his career as a fundamentalist, believing in a strict division between theory and practice. By the late 1940s he was having second thoughts, reasoning that because anthropologists could not help interfering with the people they studied, they ought to interfere productively. In contrast to applied anthropologists of the day, Tax believed anthropologists should work not for governments but for the people themselves. He called his approach “action anthropology,” and in 1951, at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, he defended it on grounds that were both scientific and ethical:


But of course the action anthropologist eschews “pure science.” For one thing his work requires that he not use people for an end not related to their own welfare; people are not rats and ought not to be treated like them. Not only should we not hurt people; we should not use them for our own ends. Community research is thus justifiable only to the degree that the results are imminently useful to the community and easily outweigh the disturbance to it.

Tax was not giving up the pursuit of knowledge. If his science was less than pure, it was still science. He described his approach as “clinical” and “experimental.” The action anthropologist, he said, was primarily a scholar who “learns more from his trials than he puts into them in the way of knowledge.” The Fox Project became the concept’s proving ground.

For young anthropologists of the 1940s and ’50s, the Meskwaki were hardly a hot topic. More glamorous work was to be found among the exotic peoples of Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Yet the Fox Project caused a stir when the first students returned to Chicago in the fall. “There was much talk and excitement in the department,” recalls Charles Leslie, AM’50, PhD’59, now a retired medical anthropologist at the University of Delaware. The students had undergone a conversion experience, he says: “They felt it was some kind of breakthrough for anthropologists to acknowledge their involvement in the communities they lived in and their responsibility for what went on there.” For Leslie, who had embraced communism and taken part in labor demonstrations, the project offered a moral and intellectual challenge that he could not resist. He signed on.

Helping often meant little more than making ordinary gestures of friendship. Chicago students drove Meskwaki children to baseball games, a local roller-skating rink, a swimming hole. Their old frame farmhouse at the settlement’s edge, bought by the University to house the project, was an informal social center for the young. Students shared meals with the Meskwaki, played music with them, and held square dances in a nearby barn. Lucinda Sangree, AM’56, a retired sociologist, recalls an afternoon spent in a flat boat on an Iowa River backwater, helping an old woman gather reeds to build a wickiup, the tribe’s traditional round-topped dwelling. When a mother confided to Peattie that she was worried about having more children too quickly, Peattie helped her obtain birth control from a local doctor.

With time the students attempted more deliberate ways of interacting. Fred Gearing, AB’50, AM’53, PhD’56, an emeritus professor of anthropology at the State University of New York at Buffalo, encouraged Meskwaki men to farm cooperatively on the 58 acres next to the Fox Project house. Gearing’s wife, Marjorie, persuaded some young women to grow cucumbers for a local canning company. Neither enterprise lasted long. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” she remembers. Fred Gearing had better luck with the settlement’s American Legion post. Men returning from military service often struggled to readjust to settlement life, and Gearing recognized the Legion as an institution that could smooth the transition. A veteran himself, Gearing worked with Meskwaki men to convert a barnlike building into a recreation center for weekend dances and events. “People appreciated it—it was good for the community and good for the young men,” says Gearing. Later, in consultation with the Meskwaki, he wrote a series of articles for the local newspaper that tried to explain Meskwaki values and beliefs to their white neighbors.

Other projects were more ambitious. In 1955 project director Robert Reitz helped local artist Charles Pushetonequa and other Meskwaki craftsmen to start a cooperative that produced greeting cards and decorative ceramic tiles with images from Pushetonequa’s paintings. The business, known as Tama Indian Crafts, or Tamacraft, attracted more workers than could be included and initially flourished, selling its products to gift shops around the country. To the Chicago students, however, Tamacraft’s chief benefits were psychological and social, increasing self-confidence and community pride. The Meskwaki, noted a Fox Project report, “have been eager to take part in Tamacraft as the sort of thing which is precisely what they want to do—become respected participants in Iowan citizenship without having to die as a nation to do it, without having to lose their identity.” But management difficulties and a lack of capital undermined the cooperative’s successes. “You couldn’t get anybody to do anything,” says 78-year-old Jene Waseskuk, whose family was in the cooperative. “I trained three or four people, but they weren’t getting paid, so they dropped out. We just couldn’t get our head out of water.” In another mid-1950s effort, the Fox Project raised money from the Gardner Cowles Foundation and local Iowa organizations for a scholarship program that eventually sent 18 Meskwaki to Iowa colleges and universities.

In hindsight such projects seem relatively insignificant, and not everyone embraced action anthropology at the time. “The kinds of problems the Fox tribe had were really not the kind that a relatively small group of anthropologists, even if well financed, which we weren’t, could do much about,” says Walter Miller, AM’49, an anthropologist who was in the first group of students. Just getting to a position of influence was difficult. “The Fox traditionally were very stubborn, very resistant to outside groups,” he says. But even those students who pursued conventional research helped illuminate issues central to action anthropology. Miller, who later spent a full year on the settlement, studied problems of authority and collective action. Charles Leslie spent his summer there learning about the pow-wow, which, like the Meskwaki religious ceremonies, illustrated how leadership worked informally and in nonauthoritarian ways. Lucinda Sangree compared etiquette among Meskwaki and white teenagers at the Tama high school, believing that intergroup conflict arose “partly because they had different understandings of what was the right thing to do.”

To some Fox Project students, Tax’s approach seemed alarmingly free-wheeling. On one of his occasional visits from Chicago, the professor asked how things were going. “We don’t know how we’re doing,” Leslie confided. “Great!” Tax replied. “That’s how things ought to be.” Uncertainty and improvisation were part of his method. In theory, at least, the anthropologists should resist the impulse to impose their own ideas, letting the Meskwaki make their own plans. Action anthropology, he argued, would help them make freer choices about their future.

In practice this theory required considerable restraint. The students constantly worried about whose values they were asserting and who was defining the ends and the means of their work. Independent historian Judith Daubenmier, who has studied the Fox Project field notes, now in the Smithsonian Institution archives, says, “They tried hard not to foist themselves on the Meskwaki.” Fred Gearing, still remembered gratefully by some tribe members for supporting the American Legion, plays down his contribution. “I was just sort of around and sort of helping,” he says. “I would spill a little cement here and there. I don’t know of an instance where people asked my advice about something. I might have nudged them a little bit—‘Why don’t we do this painting?’ It was on that level.”

To reach meskwaki settlement, a visitor from Chicago follows U.S. 30, the Old Lincoln Highway, as it heads west across a sea of corn and soybeans. Near Tama the land rumples, and the Iowa River bottomlands come into view. A weathered, wooden profile of an Indian wearing a war bonnet stands beside the highway, just before a billboard declares, “Rich traditions begin at Meskwaki Bingo Casino Hotel. Ahead 7 miles.” No warning is needed. Marked by a glittering marquee that would not be out of place in Las Vegas, the casino stands five stories tall—and is surrounded by acres of empty parking lot.

The empty lot is the first sign of a political crisis gripping the settlement. In spring 2003, as accusations of corruption swirled about the elected tribal council, a group of conservative Meskwaki took over the tribal center and the hereditary chief, Charles Old Bear, appointed new council members. But the U.S. government refused to recognize the appointed officials, and federal marshals shut down the casino. October elections gave the appointed council official legitimacy, but in December the casino remained closed. (It reopened New Year’s Eve, though the power struggle continues.)

Meanwhile, life on the settlement goes on: Pickup trucks raise clouds of dust as they speed down gravel roads. Employees of the Meskwaki housing office work on new homes. The senior center serves its daily noon meal. In the tribal offices—a large brick building with U.S. and Meskwaki flags flying out front—the tribal historian, Jonathan Buffalo, a friendly man with glasses and a long ponytail, works in an office on whose walls hang two United States maps. One shows American Indian land claims; the other is freckled with red dots marking museums that hold Meskwaki artifacts. In his 40s, Buffalo is too young to remember the Fox Project, but he notes: “I’ve never heard anyone say bad things about it. I’ve just heard mentioned that there were these people here, they studied the tribe, and they left. It was mostly personal relationships with individuals.”

The building Fred Gearing helped turn into an American Legion center is gone. The kiln where craftsmen fired tiles burned down in the 1960s, although a small collection of their work is displayed in the office lobby. The poverty of the ’40s and ’50s has receded. Most families live in new one- or two-story houses with air conditioning, a wide-screen TV, and a late-model truck or SUV parked outside. The casino, which takes in $3 million a week, has raised the tribe’s standard of living beyond that of most of Tama’s middle-class residents.

Many Meskwaki who knew the students have died. For those still alive, more profound events—such as the long struggle to save their tribal school—have eclipsed memories of the Fox Project. Yet the students are not forgotten. At the senior center Geneva Papakee, 65, a short, friendly woman with curly hair, laughs. She visited them “probably every chance I got,” she says. “They had something going for us. Otherwise we would be staying home. All the high-school students were there.”

The students were different from local whites, recalls Bernard Papakee, 74. “They were kind of open-minded,” he says. “Plus, they came from other places. They didn’t come from around here.” But some on the settlement worried about the students’ influence. Marge Mauskemo, 67, remembers that her grandmother disapproved of her visiting the farmhouse: “My grandmother said, ‘You shouldn’t go to them. You shouldn’t go learning those white dances.’ But it was fun when I went.”

The Meskwaki reacted to being studied with degrees of tolerance, humor, wariness, and resentment. When Patricia Brown’s mother invited students in, her father left the room. “He didn’t want to share his knowledge with anyone but his own people,” she says. Her own feelings were more complicated. “I accepted them, but deep down I was resentful to be a case study. It was an invasion of privacy. ‘What are you going to do with that?’ That’s what I kept asking. I would say, ‘After you get done studying these people, I hope you’ll come back and help us—after we helped you.’ My mother used to say, ‘Shush.’ But that’s how I felt.”

Often familiarity bred affection and overcame reserve. “Everybody is suspicious of people who come here,” explains Everett Kapayou as he sits in his basement bagging empty soda cans for recycling. “What’s this guy doing here? What’s he trying to get off of me?” Still Kapayou, 70, visited the students often. “They were my friends,” he says. “They were nice people.”

Most students didn’t stay long. “They’d come and go,” says Bernard Papakee. “You’d meet one person, get to know him, and he’d go back to Chicago.” Some friendships lasted. Papakee traveled to an Apache reservation in Arizona and then to the University of Virginia to visit a student he had met. Patricia Brown corresponded with Marjorie Gearing and sent Grace Harris home with an apron, appliqued in the Meskwaki style, to remember her by. But, Brown says, “They never seemed to keep in touch with us.”

The Fox Project changed several Meskwaki lives more dramatically. Don Wanatee, 70, received a college scholarship that started him on an erratic but ultimately successful academic career, culminating in two master’s degrees from the University of Iowa. A tribal leader, an advocate of American Indian education, and a controversial figure on the settlement, Wanatee recently ran for the Iowa state senate (he lost). “I didn’t plan on going to college,” he says. “But one of the things that prompted me, got me interested, was the University of Chicago scholarship program.”

Other students didn’t or couldn’t finish. David Old Bear, who lives in a tree-shaded hollow deep in the settlement, attended Parsons College for three semesters. When the funding stopped, he joined the Marines and served in Vietnam. “None of my people had been to college,” he says. “Until that time we never had any scholarship money to go anywhere. My mother encouraged me to get an education to get a better life. I liked it. I was on the track team and ran cross-county. I enjoyed the instructors.” Old Bear was angry that the scholarships had dried up; if he had finished, he thinks, he might have become a teacher. Later he urged his own children to attend college. “I told them, “If anyone wants to go to college, I’ll buy a car so they can come back on weekends.’ Nobody took me up on that. They didn’t think I was serious.” By then there were ample jobs on the settlement.

What happened to an approach that seemed so promising in the summer of 1948? In the academy there were theoretical objections to Tax’s abandonment of scientific detachment. What if he were studying a tribe of cannibals? a colleague asked Tax. Would he help them too? He could only answer that among the Meskwaki he did not face that dilemma. But action anthropology encountered resistance beyond skepticism about methodology. Tax was working against the whole current of postwar anthropology, which aspired to discover universal laws of human culture, not dirty its hands with social work. “It was an enormously hostile environment,” says Douglas Foley, a University of Texas anthropologist who has written about the Fox Project. “It took a lot of guts for Tax to do this.”

There were other reasons. Although Tax insisted that action anthropology gave equal emphasis to helping and learning, the Fox Project students never found this balance. They published relatively little: a documentary history of the project, a few articles, and a slim account of the tribe’s predicament (Fred Gearing’s The Face of the Fox, published in 1970). “In a sense, they fulfilled doubts by not producing a high-quality ethnographic portrait,” Foley says. “They got busy doing social work and helping people.”

Tax’s own career may have helped doom action anthropology. Enthusiastic and untiring, he was a gifted organizer, at work on many fronts. In 1957 he founded the journal Current Anthropology, and during 17 years as editor he helped make anthropology a global discipline. In 1961 he organized the American Indian Chicago Conference, a pivotal event that for the first time brought together tribes from across the nation. Tax’s entrepreneurial talent earned him numerous honors, but skeptics, including some in his own department, felt that his organizational work came at the expense of his research.

The real legacy of the Fox Project, historian Judith Daubenmier believes, was its influence on Tax and, through him, on U.S. Indian affairs. Tax used his standing as a anthropologist to oppose termination policy—the government’s 1950s attempt to force assimilation by ending tribal status. He also promoted education and defended the principle that American Indians run their own affairs. “The Meskwaki really taught Sol Tax how to work with Indians,” Daubenmier says. “But in a larger sense the project gave Tax a lot of credibility when it came to matters of Indian affairs. He became known as somebody who worked with Indians. He had a lot of influence on a lot of ideas that were being discussed in Indian policy. He learned things in Tama that he took to a national level.”

In the decades since the project ended, action anthropology has been assessed and re-assessed. Recent scholars have been kinder than Tax’s contemporaries. Time may have vindicated him. In the late 1960s a new generation began again to confront anthropology’s ethical dilemmas, prompted in part by Vine Deloria Jr.’s 1969 book, Custer Died For Your Sins. As a result anthropologists now take for granted that they are obligated to the people they study. Indeed the modern ethic goes well beyond what Tax envisioned. In many cases anthropologists put themselves wholly at the service of the groups they study, who determine what they may and may not inquire into.

Nearly a half century has passed since the last U of C students left the settlement in 1958. Many who participated in the project have died. Most followed careers that diverged widely from their beginning experience with action anthropology. Fred Gearing, for example, ended up studying peasants in a Greek village where, he says, the idea of offering to help was unthinkable. Walter Miller became an expert on American gangs. But the Fox Project left lasting memories, including some useful lessons. Grace Harris’s experience, she says, reinforced her natural anti-romanticism. “Life is real, life is earnest, and the Meskwaki taught me that.” She still keeps the apron Patricia Brown gave her, folded in a basket on top of her refrigerator. Sol Tax’s organizational accomplishments inspired Charles Leslie long after he ceased thinking about the Meskwaki. Though now skeptical of many Fox Project ideas, Lucinda Sangree cherishes “the ethical core” of Tax’s approach. Gearing feels guilty that he lost touch with the tribe.

In retrospect the students profess mixed feelings about action anthropology. It was possible in theory, Gearing says, but difficult in practice. He was too busy organizing action projects to do much anthropology. “I always thought that any old-time anthropologist would not have liked what he saw.” Lisa Peattie, whose sympathies helped launch action anthropology, thinks it overreached. “I slowly came to the view that I was—we were—assuming capabilities we didn’t have—that I didn’t have,” she says. But the effort addressed a problem that will not go away: “It’s the old question of what does thought do in the world,” she says. “It wasn’t a particularly successful answer. But anyone who does any thinking has to ask the question from time to time.”

The Meskwaki also have moved on. Old problems have reappeared in new guises—issues of leadership, authority, and collective action, as well as the larger dilemma of how to remain Meskwaki in a white-dominated world. Fewer children speak the language, and it is a rare youth who can sing the old songs at tribal ceremonies. Intermarriage brings increasing numbers of non-Meskwaki onto the settlement, creating anxieties about the dilution of native blood and raising questions about who really belongs to the tribe. And while the casino has brought unforeseen wealth, some elders worry that prosperity threatens traditional culture more than missionaries and government agents ever did.

Which may be why Meskwaki historian Jonathan Buffalo sees the Fox Project as only a blip in the tribal record, one of a long series of encounters with whites, some well-meaning and some not, that has marked the tribe’s history over four centuries. The Meskwaki endured it, took what they could, and continued their lives. “We’ve always been adapting to different people—the French, English, Americans, even a group of University of Chicago students,” Buffalo says with a wry smile. “They came, and they left. We accommodated them, and one day they left. And we’re still here.”

Richard Mertens is a freelance writer and a doctoral student in the Committee on Social Thought.

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