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Voices and Vices of the Ancestors

Reading and Teaching the Boasians in the Twenty-First Century

Richard Handler


Pages 457 - 471



More than most disciplines, anthropology teaches its practitioners to be mindful of their ancestors. By training and temperament a Boasian, I have throughout my career listened to the voices of Franz Boas and his students, in particular, Edward Sapir. This paper examines some of their writings intended to bring the central messages of their anthropology—antiracism and cultural relativism—to a wide audience. I focus on their use of the words “primitive” and “savage” as they deploy them in writing about literature, philosophy, and culture in relationship to language and, in particular, grammatical categories. My reading aim is to recuperate the Boasians for twenty-first-century graduate students who, offended by Boasian terminology, may not be able to hear their message.

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