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Celebrating Ruth Bunzel

18 Apr

On this date in 1898, pioneering anthropologist Ruth Bunzel was born. Ruth Leah Bernheim was the youngest of four children in a German/Czech Jewish household in Manhattan. Ruth’s mother raised the children after their father died, relying on money from her family’s import business. They spoke English at home, but Ruth’s mother encouraged Ruth to study German at Barnard College. Ruth, however, changed her major because of the political atmosphere surrounding World War I and received a B.A. in European history from Barnard in 1918.

Bunzel wrote about the choices facing graduates of her day, observing that some went to Paris seeking freedom, some aligned with radical workers and sold the Daily Worker on street corners, and others sought “some answers to the ambiguities and contradictions of our age and the general enigma of human life.” She saw anthropology as a means to understand not only others but also ourselves. Having taken a course with noted anthropologist Franz Boas in college, Bunzel succeeded Esther Goldfrank as his secretary and editorial assistant at Columbia University in 1922. In 1924, she accompanied anthropologist Ruth Benedict to western New Mexico and east-central Arizona to study the Zuni people, and followed Boas’s suggestion to give up typing and begin her own research.

Critical of ethnographers who often ignored women as subjects in their fieldwork, Bunzel felt that “society consisted of more than old men with long memories.” She was drawn to the Zuni because women were the potters and had considerable societal power. Bunzel began graduate study in anthropology at Columbia University. In 1929, she received her Ph.D. with the publication of a landmark book on the artistic process, The Pueblo Potter. Rather than focusing on the objects of art, Bunzel was one of the first anthropologists to analyze artists’ feelings, their relationship to their work, and the process of creativity. To understand how artists work within the confines of traditional styles, Bunzel apprenticed herself to Zuni potters, and among them she became a respected, skilled potter.

Bunzel was a sensitive fieldworker, respecting local factionalism and esoteric ceremonies; her focus on the individual and the degree of aesthetic freedom an individual had in a given culture influenced her writing on Zuni kachina (ancestral spirit) cults and mythology, ceremonialism and religion, and poetry. She also contributed to the understanding of Zuni cosmology and social organization, values, language, culture, and personality. In addition to the Zuni, Bunzel wrote about the Hopi, Acoma, San Ildefonso, and San Felipe Pueblo Indians of the southwestern United States.

Reflecting both her interest in culture and personality studies, she also wrote a comparative study on alcoholism in Chamula in Chiapas, Mexico, and in Chichicastenango. Her research, supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship (1930–1932), looked at psychological factors that led to different patterns of drinking in the two communities. She also focused on the role alcohol played in the natives’ subjugation and how haciendas profited by keeping Indians in debt. Her study on alcoholism was the first anthropological writing on this subject.

Bunzel taught sporadically at Columbia University throughout the 1930s, but she became an adjunct professor in 1954 until her retirement in 1972. She then spent two years as a visiting professor at Bennington College. Bunzel earned a modest living teaching and felt she had never obtained full-time work because she was a woman. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, she worked with other colleagues against the proliferation of nuclear weapons.  She died in 1990 of cardiac arrest. Her detailed fieldwork and writing are known for their great sensitivity and quality and remain an enduring legacy of her anthropological accomplishment. Bunzel’s valuable research and papers were donated to the National Anthropological Archives after their discovery in Colombia University’s archives in 2007.

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