Ethnohistory: Meaning and Use as a Subject Heading

Ethnohistory: Meaning and Use as a Subject Heading

ANSS Subject and Bibliographic Access Committee

Question/Answer on Cataloging Issues – December 2013 

What is Ethnohistory and how is this term used as a subject heading?

By Fred Hay, Appalachian State University
(With assistance from Isabel del Carmen Quintana, Harvard University)

“No adequate description of any culture is possible that does not include as much of its history as is accurately and legitimately possible.” –Paul Radin, 1933

The Ohio Valley Historic Indian Conference was organized in November 1953. Beginning in 1954, Ethnohistory: The Bulletin of the Ohio Valley Historic Indian Conference began publication. The journal has flourished through several changes in the sponsoring organization’s name; first to the American Indian Ethnohistoric Conference and then in 1966 to the American Society for Ethnohistory. From its inception, the association and journal have been focused on North American indigenous cultures but in recent years have slowly expanded their scope to include cultures from around the world.

Erminie W. Voegelin (wife of linguist/anthropologist Charles F. Voegelin), first Chairperson of the Conference wrote in vol. 1, no. 2 of Ethnohistory:

“Recently, historically minded ethnologists of this ilk have become tagged by their professional brethren as ‘ethnohistorians’. When the term ethnohistorian was first used I do not know–it has analogs, of course, with ‘ethnogeographer’ and ‘ethnobotanist’, both of which have now attained dictionary respectability. Since ‘ethnohistory’ has not as  yet appeared in either of two dictionaries consulted . . . I shall  attempt a working definition . . . the study of identities, locations,  contacts, movements, numbers, and cultural activities of primitive  peoples from the earliest written records concerning them, onward in  point of time.”

More recently, the journal has stated that it “emphasizes the joint use of documentary materials and ethnographic or archaeological data, as well as the combination of historical and anthropological approaches, in the study of social and cultural processes and history.”

On the other hand, LC’s scope note is: “Here is entered works on the use of historical records in ethnology and prehistory as well as works on an ethnic group’s own representation of their history.” The latter is not reflected in the other two definitions. Though undoubtedly used for such material, diligent searching for an example of this usage has failed to locate one, (e.g., Chiltoskey, Mary Ulmer, Cherokee Fair & Festival: A History Thru 1978 (1995 supplement included) written by Mary Ulmer  Chiltoskey for Cherokee Indian Fall Festival Association, Cherokee, N.C.  : The Assoc., [1996?], Asheville, N.C.: Gilbert Printing does not use “Ethnohistory” as a subject heading).

According to LCSH:

Use For: Ethnohistorical method
Historical anthropology
Historical ethnology

Broader Term:    Anthropology–Methodology
Ethnology–Methodology

It is interesting that no broader terms reflect that “Ethnohistory” was a conscious attempt for historians and anthropologists to come together to study America’s native people. Yet no subject headings for history as a discipline are included. As Voegelin wrote in vol. 1, no. 1:  “documentary study of American Indian groups has been tolerated, but not actively encouraged, in most of the anthropology departments in the land; ethnological study of the American Indians has been grudgingly allowed, if allowed at all, in history departments.”

“Ethnohistory” may be subdivided geographically. A related subject heading is  “Anthropology and History.” It is sometimes used as a heading jointly with “Ethnohistory” and sometimes by itself. Sometimes “Anthropology and history” is used for specialized works that deal specifically or theoretically with the relationship between and/or fusion of the two disciplines and sometimes for works that would normally have received the heading “Ethnohistory.”

The LCSH “Ethnohistory” is based on the definitions of the terms from the following three reference sources. Also, the subject term was created in 1988. This could explain why some materials use the subject heading even though “Anthropology and history” would have been more appropriate since it was not created until 2008.

1. Seymour-Smith, C. Dictionary of Anthropology, 1986. Anthropology and history are combined in ethnohistory; new developments in popular and local history stress the study of history “from below” rather than the history that is shaped by . . . the dominant classes. The term  “ethnohistory” also has a rather different though overlapping sense, that of the study of people’s own representations of their history; these two senses of the term, the search for historical data on ethnic groups and the ethnic group’s own representation of their history, may be separated by referring to the former as “historical ethnology” or  “historical anthropology.”

2. Historical Anthropology Department, Albany Museum website, Dec. 16, 2008. “Historical Anthropology is one of the branches of anthropology; fieldwork research undertaken to collect ethnographic information related to cultural artifacts.”

3. World Encyclopedia, 2005. “Historical ethnology was developed in the late 19th century in an attempt to trace cultural diffusion.”

It is interesting to note that when they created “Ethnohistory” they were using it for “historical anthropology.” Yet, they created a new subject heading “Anthropology and history” in 2008. This is not common for LCSH. The difference between the two terms remains vague.

The LCSH “Anthropology and history” is based on the following definition. Definitions for both terms are from the same source, so possibly LC figured that if the Dictionary of Anthropology saw these as two different terms LCSH would use them both. Catalogers may have used one term or the other depending on the terms used in the book they were cataloging. Or, since the terms were created twenty years apart, the cataloger may have used “Ethnohistory” for materials when “Anthropology and history” was not yet available.

Seymour-Smith, C. Dictionary of Anthropology, 1986. “The links between history and anthropology have been the subject of considerable debate and discussion . . . many theoretical, methodological and philosophical difficulties are shared by the two disciplines. Another aspect of the relationship between the two disciplines is the use of historical materials and historical methods in anthropology . . . historical information, both ethnohistory and the historical background to the regional, national and international context of the fieldwork setting.”

“Ethnohistory” is not cross referenced to or from the subject headings:  “Anthropology” (except as methodology), “Anthropology and history,”  “Ethnoarchaeology,” or “Oral history.”

It appears that, in practice, the application of the subject heading  “Ethnohistory” has not been consistent and, therefore, particularly useful.

“By and by anthropology will have the choice between being history or nothing.” –F.W. Maitland, 1936

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