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Native Studies in East Germany: After 50+ Years, International Recognition

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Part of my research on Native Studies in East Germany concerned the disciplinary history of cultural anthropology at the museums in Saxony (the state-run museums in Leipzig, Dresden, and Herrnhut, and the private Karl-May-Museum in Radebeul), as well as the development of university anthropology in Leipzig after World War II.Because the communist state controlled university enrollment and opened new classes only for as many students as were needed to staff museums and research institutions, there were only a few actors in the field between 1950 and 1990. Historiographical research quickly unveils disciplinary networks among colleagues and former fellow students. Most who studied “Ethnography,” as the discipline was called, at Leipzig or Humboldt University Berlin, later worked together at the museums in Leipzig and Dresden. Unlike developments in “the West,” there was no methodological and theoretical split between museum anthropology and university anthropology in the GDR, so graduates who moved on to different institutions often worked closely together. In addition, the Leipzig museum was a dedicated “research museum”―its research branch was fairly similar to research at the university.

As I dove into the historiography of GDR ethnography, an unexpected opportunity came up early in 2021: Dr. Allan T. Scholz, biologist at Eastern Washington University, approached me about a dissertation defended at Leipzig in 1965. Dietrich Treide’s work “The Organization of Indian Salmon Fishing in Western North America” had been written in German and was reviewed in American Anthropologist in 1966, where the reviewer, Wayne P. Suttles, expressed his regret that the text was only available in German. When Allan Scholz came across this 50-year-old review, he decided to have the German dissertation translated. He approached us at GRASSI Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig about the rights and to obtain some biographical information on Treide.

I’ll document the bio sketch we provided below because it serves to explain the conditions under which a researcher behind the Iron Curtain created a work that, more than 50 years later, is still considered relevant to help build a sustainable fishing industry in the Columbia River basin in collaborative efforts between the US and Canadian governments, as well as the traditional salmon-fishing tribes of the region.

Here is the link to the full translation of the dissertation, with Allan Scholz’s foreword, at EWU’s open access site: https://dc.ewu.edu/scholz/1/

Notes on the life of Dietrich Treide (25 March 1933 – 2 November 2008)

Dietrich Treide was a German ethnologist and university professor. He grew up in Leipzig and enrolled in the Cultural Anthropology program at Julius-Lips-Institute for Ethnology at Leipzig University in 1951. The institute had been rebuilt after the war by Julius Lips. His widow Eva Lips took over the chair after Julius’ early death in 1950, one of the first female tenured professors in Germany. The institute was one of two major training centers for cultural anthropology in the German Democratic Republic (GDR, or East Germany). The Lipses had chosen exile from Nazi Germany for political reasons, and spent years in the United States during the war (at Columbia University in New York). They returned to Leipzig in 1947. After her husband’s death in 1950, Eva Lips led the institute into the mid-1960s and shaped the careers of East German ethnographers such as Treide through vivid exchange with researchers from “the West.” She worked to convey a realistic image of North American Indians, and instilled this ethic in Treide.

Unless one’s research focused on communities within the Eastern bloc, GDR ethnographers could rarely hope to receive travel permits for field work abroad, because the Iron Curtain and, after 1961, the Berlin Wall all but sealed off the country from the West. Therefore, a generation of “armchair ethnographers” emerged who were trained to anchor their work around the non-European material culture stored in vast pre-war museum collections (mostly at Leipzig and Dresden) and on diligent ethnohistorical research in the archives. Treide’s dissertation on Indigenous historical fishing economies and social structures along the Columbia River is an exemplary work in this category (1965).

Shaped by the Lipses’ philosophy, Treide’s dissertation shows the influence of American scholars such as Alfred Kroeber, Clark Wissler, and Julian Steward, rather than the ideas of Marxist evolutionary theory prevailing in East German scholarship at the time. However, his work reflects the East German, especially the Leipzig institute’s economic-historical approach to ethnography, and it shows the extensive training in languages and interdisciplinary area studies that became a marker of GDR ethnography. Even while finishing his dissertation, Treide already co-authored a popular survey titled Ethnography for Everybody (Ethnographie für Jedermann) which became a staple on the shelves in East German homes. Such efforts in popularizing academia served to dismantle the notion of scholarship as elitist, and to promote the study of other cultures as a way to diminish xenophobia and racism in post-war East Germany. It also offered a substitute to the wanderlust of East Germans suffering from Cold War travel restrictions.

Taking over the chair of the Leipzig institute in 1968, Treide was often confronted with demands to comply with communist policies on higher education, research, and culture. He was compelled to shift his research focus from “a few irrelevant Indian tribes” to broader – and politically more appealing – observations on the emergence of class and power structures in human history. Throughout his time as chair, he struggled to resist or dampen ideological attempts to steer research and teaching, or to shut down the institute and scatter its extensive historical library holdings. Possibly as a consequence of his inconvenient leadership, he gained tenure only in 1985.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Treide was elected to lead the reunified German Anthropological Association (1991), a gesture acknowledging his service to the field in East Germany. However, he also felt the shocks and painful changes in East German academia after reunification, which many observers today describe as a “neocolonial takeover” of East German institutes, chairs, and tenured positions by Western scholars and administrators. He lost the chair of the Leipzig institute, and retired in 1996. Together with his wife Barbara, a specialist on Pacific island cultures at the GRASSI Museum at Leipzig, he spent his remaining years on extensive research trips and field studies, and published on cultural identity among communities in the Pacific.

His senior authorship or co-authorship of 54 publications (he was sole author of 34 of them) during his tenure at Leipzig is a lasting testament to his scholarship. His treatise Die Organisierung des indianischen Lachsfangs im westlichen Nordamerika (The organization of Indian salmon fishing in western North America) is a prime example of his scholarship and his portrayal of realistic images of North American Indian cultures.

Frank Usbeck”


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