2017 Isaiah Lorado Wilner (Yale University), "Raven Cried for Me: Narratives of Transformation on the Northwest Coast of America"

The 57th annual Allan Nevins Prize is awarded to Isaiah Lorado Wilner for his dissertation, “Raven Cried for Me: Narratives of Transformation on the Northwest Coast of America.”

In this superbly evocative work Isaiah Wilner achieves nothing less than a reversal of the conventional understanding of a crucial moment in the formation of modern anthropology.  Wilner’s story centers on the encounter that made Franz Boas famous and provided the basis for the doctrine of cultural relativism becoming the bedrock of American anthropology.  Boas’ seminal work, The Mind of Primitive Man (1911), earned him credit for bestowing meaning on inarticulate Indian culture. In fact, wisdom flowed in the other direction. Wilner has discovered an acknowledgment by Boas that much of the work that made his reputation was actually written by George Hunt, a member of the Indian community he studied. In supple prose able to convey both the mystic grandeur of the Northwest “broken coast” that inspired Indian culture and the modernizing realm of western scholarship, Wilner describes how Hunt’s narratives revealed indigenous culture as neither primitive nor fixed in timeless patterns. Rather, as befit the need to adapt to the disruptions forced on it by imperial incursions, it was transformative and diverse.

Wilner’s findings enable him to argue that Hunt’s narrations – the largest such archive of Indian writing in America – exerted crucial influence on Western thought. Wilner’s bold claim for indigenous preeminence poses an utterly unique and compelling challenge to reevaluate basic premises about cultural creativity and values.

Wilner earned his Ph.D. at Yale University under the supervision of Professors Glenda Gilmore and John Mack Faragher, and is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard University.