National Appropriations and Cultural Evolution: The Spatial and Temporal US of Lewis Henry Morgan's Native America

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Lewis Henry Morgan (1818–1881) is remembered today primarily as a marginal nineteenth-century ethnologist, whose contribution to anthropology was limited to the inception of kinship studies. Other than that, Morgan is remembered—often ironically—as a “friend of the Indian,” a title he had wished to earn by intermingling his inter­est in Native American cultures with philanthropic intentions, and as a somewhat delusional amateur, whose evolutionist thought was strongly criticized by Franz Boas (1858–1942). The first US scholar to direct dissertations in anthropology and a major force in the field’s professionalization, Boas promoted the idea of cultural relativism by refuting previous theories—including Morgan’s—that emphasized a unified evolutionary scale on which all cultures could be ordered. While Boas has been constituted as the father of American anthro­pology, Morgan eventually became an obscure figure, locked in an old box of refuted theories and bad science. Still, some Morgan scholars claim that he should be regarded as a pioneer of American anthropology.1 My analysis in this paper is not aimed at redeeming Morgan’s theo­ries or status. I am interested in his efforts to create a coherent sense of national existence rooted in colonized space, as I believe that these processes have broad implications for understanding the tensions between colonialism and nationalism in US culture. I argue that Mor­gan appropriated Native American cultures and subordinated them to an evolutionary framework, in order to naturalize US culture and root it in the colonized space of what has been called “America.”

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)211-229
Number of pages19
JournalCanadian Review of American Studies
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2003

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • History
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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