Ab Imperio Forum: "Archie Phinney, Early Soviet Ethnography, and a Native American's Visions of Progress"

Zukhra Kasimova's picture
Illinois, United States
Subject Fields: 
American History / Studies, Ethnic History / Studies, Race / Ethnic Studies, Race Studies, Russian or Soviet History / Studies

The idea for the forum "Archie Phinney, Early Soviet Ethnography, and a Native American's Visions of Progress," was born when Benjamin Balthaser, a professor of English literature, presented a paper at the conference "Thinking 'Race' in the Russian and Soviet Empires," organized by an interdisciplinary group of specialists on Eurasia in spring 2020. Balthaser was one of a few non-Russianists at the conference, and the protagonist of his paper was an American, the Nez Percé anthropologist and activist Archie Phinney, a student of the famed anthropologist Franz Boas. Phinney had visited the Soviet Union in the early 1930s and then popularized the model of Soviet policy toward the indigenous "smaller peoples" of the North as a blueprint for policy toward American Indians. Whereas Balthaser stressed the resonance of Phinney's ideas and his vision of "indigenous modernity" in the contemporary American context, we could not help but think of this story from a "Russianist" perspective. 

In their introduction to this forum, Sergey Glebov and Marina Mogilner highlight the role of the Soviet Union as Eldorado for life scientists and Mecca for anticolonial and anti-imperialist intellectuals in the 1920s. They stress Phinney's reinterpretation of Soviet nation-building in light of Boasian antiracist cultural anthropology and his political preferences. Therefore, in discussing the mutual perspectives of scholars from the United States and the Soviet Union, the authors employ the metaphor of "mirrors" instead of "transfers" and "borrowings." This interpretation suggests that an open-ended cultural paradigm in anthropology remained relevant for various intellectuals working under different political regimes and interested in finding novel solutions to uneven human diversity. 

In his “From Lapwai to Leningrad: Archie Phinney, Marxism, and the Making of Indigenous Modernity” article, Benjamin Balthaser argues that Archie Phinney, a Nez Percé intellectual and activist who studied anthropology at Columbia U under Franz Boas and then later in Leningrad, became one of the few indigenous intellectuals at the time to fuse a Marxist analysis of capitalism and modernity with an indigenous epistemology of sovereignty.  In a series of essays, and op-eds, Phinney's position is that Native Americans have been forcibly conscripted into capitalist modernity and that their question is less whether they can revive the "old ways" than whether they can alter the conditions of domination by capitalism and settler colonialism. Phinney does not reject modernity but instead asks how indigenous people can find a way to remain "alert modern communities" and autonomous democratic subjects. By analyzing Soviet forms of minority nationalism, Marxian theories of history, and modern theories of race, Phinney prefigures what Kevin Bryuneel calls the "third space of sovereignty" by arguing that Native Americans need to find modes of collective economic independence, while also forming alliances with other oppressed groups through autonomous organizations. 

In the essay titled “Archie Phinney, A Soviet Ethnographer”, Igor Kuznetsov reconstructs Phinney's experience as an exchange student in Leningrad based on materials from Russian and American archives. Kuznetsov points out that Phinney's graduate training in Leningrad took place during a crucial period in the history of Soviet ethnography, when it remained partially open to international influence. After returning from the USSR, Phinney worked at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Through American researchers and activists like him who visited the Soviet Union at that time, the Soviet practice of "indigenization" was deployed in the debates on Indian politics and it influenced the liberal "Indian New Deal" (the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act) proposed by the commissioner of Indian affairs, John Collier. 

In the concluding essay of the forum, Dmitriy Arzyutov discusses a phenomenon that he defines as "American dreams" of Russian ethnography in the early twentieth century based on the example of Waldemar Bogoras, one of the founders of early Soviet ethnography. The essay highlights three specific cases that frame the development of this discipline not through the

Contact Info: 

Zukhra Kasimova, Ph.D. Candiate in History, University of Illinois at Chicago, zkasim2@uic.edu

Ab Imperio editoral board, Senioe editor Ilya Gerasimov, office@abimperio.net 

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