Research Projects and Fieldwork



Topics included language acquisition and bilingualism, bilingual interference, cultural curriculum, the relationship of language and culture, interactional etiquette, cross-cultural miscommunication, semantics of Algonquian grammatical categories, socialization, and intercultural education.  I taught Cree language and culture in collaboration with native speakers to both Native and non-Native students.  The course developed gradually from language teaching in the narrow sense to focus more broadly on the Cree communicative economy.  This course moved to the newly established School of Native Studies in 1985 where it is now taught by native speakers and forms the core of the School’s academic curriculum.




Joint research collaboration and publication with Anthony L. Vanek, a Slavic linguist.  My contributions focused on language acquisition and second language teaching for ethnic language maintenance.  The Doukhobor research led to a more general involvement with multiculturalism and language policy (official, immigrant and Indigenous), among various Canadian ethnic groups, particularly Slavic, as well as contacts with Canadian colleagues in related social science disciplines.  Edited three books uniting the study of Canadian Indigenous, immigrant and official languages.


III.       BANJUL, THE GAMBIA, WEST AFRICA – 1985, 1986, 1987


Emphasis on cross-cultural typologies of language use, particularly in contrast to Native North American patterns.  Focus on functional specialization of multilingualism.  The area is officially Anglophone but surrounding Senegal is Francophone, giving great prestige to French.  Arabic is the language of Islam.  Three local languages (Djola, Mandinka, Wolof) were observed among children and young adults in the multi-ethnic quasi-urban environment of Banjul.  Brief exploratory fieldwork was carried out in Kenya and Tanzania in the summer of 1988.


IV.         SLAVEY LANGUAGE - 1988-1990         


I began learning Slavey in order to compare the semantics of grammatical categories between the Algonquian and Athabaskan language families and have continued to explore the underlying semantic categories of Native North American hunter-gatherer traditions across linguistic family boundaries.


V.         ARCHIVAL RESEARCH (selected)


2007 -              Boas Papers, American Philosophical Society

1999-2002      History of the American Anthropological Association

1996-97           History of American Anthropology 1925-1945

1984-85           Edward Sapir

1976-77            History of Canadian Anthropology

1967-69           History of American Anthropology 1880-1920




In collaboration with Lisa Valentine [Philips] (and later Allan McDougall), this long-term project explicated the rhetorical and semantic features of the Englishes spoken by Native people in southwestern Ontario as a means to explore the miscommunication of Native and non-Native people in Canada.  Both researchers had prior extensive experience with traditional Native languages and cultures (Cree and Ojibwe) in small isolated communities.  Study of Mohawk language with Kanatawakhon (David Maracle), a collaborator in the research.  Supported by three consecutive Standard Research Grants from the Social Science Research Council of Canada.




This research theorizes Canadian national identity debates with the First Nations as a third founding strand that destabilizes the polarization of French and English.  Social cohesion is attributed to the structural complexity of cross-cutting dimensions of identity.  Canadian cultural imagination reconstitutes face-to-face community at an interpersonal level as the basis of the nation.  First Nations models of community resonate with the more intimate scale of Canadian society, compared to the United States, to produce a unique form of social cohesion.  Fieldwork and language study in Quebec enriched the previously studied standpoints of First Nations peoples, immigrant, and Anglophone Canadians.  Anthropology came to be seen as a microcosm of Canadian society.





Six core departments of anthropology in the United States (Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Chicago, Pennsylvania, Berkeley) and three in Canada (McGill, Toronto, British Columbia) exemplify how professional genealogies are constituted and diffuse as graduates disperse.  Individual socialization of fledgling anthropologists creates across North America a sense of immediate ties to elite institutions and their versions of the discipline.  This project explores how second and even third-generation descendants perceive their relation to the centres of North American anthropology.  The size of anthropology as a discipline and the personalized character of the fieldwork most anthropologists do are suggested variables enabling social cohesion based in the expansion of networks established during professional training.  Canadian data are treated as a separate analytic set.




Communities selected for investigation of social change and social conflict in organizational response to technical change in progress included institutions (e.g., libraries), ethnic communities, businesses, and social service agencies.  Traditional ethnographic methods were applied in the study of contemporary Canadian institutions.  This was a collaborative project with Gaile McGregor in Sociology and Catherine Ross in Media, Information and Technology.


X.         NOMADIC LEGACIES – 2003 - ongoing


This research was designed to counter the common public perception that Native people who live in cities, eat pizza and speak English have lost their Indigeneity.  Residential mobility between London, Ontario and local Reserves was documented as a strategy of retaining a home place on traditional territories while going outside to seek modern resources of employment, education, and social/medical services but retaining the right to return home.  The Reserves, therefore, are critical markers of continuous Indigenous identity for so-called urban Indians.  This pattern of movement is a “nomadic legacy” that increases individual options without dissolving identity within a home community.  Topics include the comparison to traditional subsistence strategies; policy implications for land claims, self-government, and band membership; life history and genealogy; the generational transmission of traditional knowledge; continuity of Indigenous identity in urban contexts and its dependence on Reserve land as homeplace.


XI.        ECOSYSTEM HEALTH; PUBLIC HEALTH – 2000 – ongoing


Previous documentation of Indigenous standpoint through narrative and analysis of cross-cultural miscommunication is applied to the domain of medicine, ranging from preventative to acute care.  Issues include cultural systems of traditional medical knowledge and practice that may conflict with Western biomedicine; social parameters of medical treatment and family or community support; ethics of informed consent and participation as research subjects (at both individual and community levels).  These issues are particularly urgent in First Nations communities that are vulnerable to outside intervention.

  • Working Group in Patzcuaro, Mexico, on ecosystem health, 2001

  • Annual Ecosystem Health conferences at UWO, 2001, 2002, 2003

  • Collaborative research with Walpole Island First Nation including community epidemiological profile; fish and wildlife consumption; human health effects of industrial contaminants; biomonitoring (with Ecosystem Health team, Department of Pathology, Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Western Ontario).

  • Comparative work at Attawapiskat First Nation and Lake Naivasha, Kenya.

  • Core faculty in developing a Master’s program in Ecosystem Health (Pathology) and Public Health at Western.




Team research project with Principal Investigator Janice Graham, Dalhousie University.  Standards and regulations were approached through case studies of the formulation (emerging proteomics research), implementation (unrolling a hepatitis vaccine in West Africa), and public response.  The Western team documented the activism of the Walpole Island First Nation community in response to a proposed Shell Refinery in Sarnia, Ontario and highlighted effective strategies of combining research collaborations with traditional ecological knowledge to produce policy intervention with industry and multiple levels of government.  A concluding workshop brought together additional cases and modes of generalization from them.




The relationship between ethnography and theory is posited as the defining characteristic of anthropology among the social sciences.  The project involves rethinking the role of such concepts as relativism and standpoint in qualitative anthropological research.  The conceptual ground for public anthropology critiquing the limitations of our own society is laid out in relation to changing standards of what constitutes good qualitative ethnography and its ethical grounding in collaborative relationships between communities and researchers.




A relational revisionist reading of First Nations/Native American literature in English from a social science point of view.




A joint project of the University of Western Ontario, the American Philosophical Society, the University of Nebraska Press, the Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw Tribal Council, and the University of Victoria, under a Partnership Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.  I serve as Project Director and General Editor for the forthcoming print and electronic edition of Boas’ professional correspondence arranged in thematic volumes (v. 1, 2015).  The project is governed by an Indigenous Advisory Council with a mandate of identifying and protecting culturally sensitive materials, returning materials to the communities from which they came through Digital Knowledge Sharing, and capacity building by training Indigenous students and community leaders in the methods of documentary and archival research for use in linguistic and cultural revitalization.

XVI.      Land, Language, Locatives – 2018 – ongoing


A 2018 conference drew together collaborators from law, political theory, language revitalization, and cross-cultural communication to examine commonalities in the failure of Indigenous elders and knowledge keepers to convey in English the meanings of land to the maintenance of Indigenous identity.  Although each language/language family has its own protocols and priorities, the grammar of polysynthetic languages of the Americas entails a relationality of personhood, family and community with the location on land or position in space.  Such structures operate below the level of conscious awareness and thus are minimally subject to manipulation for immediate political agendas.  By exploring common features of linguistic structure, narrative organization, common historical experiences of colonialism, and sharing of experience among contemporary Indigenous communities, this project aspires to bridge the gap between Indigenous law and common law.

Franz Boas Papers Project Initial Team: Michael Asch, Matthew Bokovoy, Rachel Flowers, Susan Hill, Julia Howell, Robert Hancock, Judith Berman, Regna Darnell, Martin Levitt, Peter Stephenson, Michelle Hamilton, Joshua Smith, Timothy Powel

Ryan potlatch (1).jpg

Boas Project members were honored to join in the celebration at the Ryan Nicolson/G̱wi'molas Potlatch in March 2016 at Alert Bay, British Columbia