By Geoff Bell
(Reading time: 3 mins.)
An 1893 article on James Mooney by the Chicago Inter-Ocean newspaper correctly claimed that he knew more about the North American Indian than anyone else in the world. The son of poor Irish immigrants, Mooney never had the chance of higher education, yet amazingly he became not only a champion of Native peoples, but also one of the most influential anthropological fieldworkers of all time. His books written more than a century ago are still considered classics in the field.
Mooney possessed a talent for detailed and disciplined research that one of his colleagues later described as genius and he left several volumes of research. At a time when most Americans considered Native American culture barbaric and primitive, Mooney’s fascination with Irish myth and deep identification with its culture informed his view of Native Americans. Mooney saw Ireland as a spiritually rich, though materially deprived culture, which shaped his sympathetic views of Native Americans.
The Mooney family came to America as famine refugees. His father James Mooney was an itinerant scholar who taught Gaelic and Irish history at a time when it was a crime to do so. Born in Meath about 1832, Mooney’s father left for Liverpool in 1849, but life was hard and prospects limited, so he decided to move to the United States. Arriving in New York City in 1852 aged 30 he Married Ellen Devlin, 12 years his junior. He had known her family in Meath and asked for Ellen’s hand in marriage, but at first she refused the impoverished teacher. In New York they experienced the grim life of the tenements.
Ellen had family in the Midwest and in 1852 they moved to Richmond, Indiana. James Mooney died soon after his son’s birth, leaving the family to contend with poverty. His mother, who made her living as a housekeeper, supplemented her son’s public school education with tales of her native country, stories about the former grandeur of Irish culture, and memories of oppressive British rule. After graduating from high school in 1878, Mooney taught public school for one year and then joined the staff of the Richmond newspaper, but Mooney was a romantic who chafed at the limitations of small town life.
Since childhood, Mooney had a fascination with Native Americans and he longed to study them. Lacking any credentials whatsoever, Mooney applied for a position with the Bureau of American Ethnology, which was run by the famed explorer John Wesley Powell, the first white man to see the Grand Canyon. Amazingly, Mooney talked his way into a non-paying position and eventually became a paid member of the Bureau and one of the first “professional” scholars studying Native Americans.
His first field work was studying the few remaining members of the Cherokee Tribe in North Carolina. The Cherokee were victims of the brutal expulsion policy of President Andrew Jackson who sent them west to Oklahoma on the infamous “Trail of Tears.” Mooney lived with the Cherokees, learned their language and soon gained their trust. Mooney believed that the only way to learn their ideas and study their character was to live and work with them. At a time when the general attitude towards Native Americans was dismissive, Mooney saw the Cherokees not as inferiors, but as humans who shared a common humanity with people from more materially advanced civilizations. The more time he spent with Native Americans, the more his writing stressed their humanity. From his Irish roots, Mooney understood that some cultures put great store in charms and prayers and Mooney became a great chronicler of Native incantations and prayers, using them as a focal point to derive a deeper understanding of Native cultures.
At a time when the Commissioner of Indian Affairs had told government employees to do everything in their power to curb native ceremonies, Mooney’s detailed research into Native beliefs, rituals, folklore and traditions violated government policy and was nothing short of revolutionary. Mooney published his groundbreaking study of the Cherokee, The Myths of the Cherokee, which added a new dimension to the writing of Indian history by using sources from the Indians themselves. The comprehensive work compiled 126 Cherokee sacred stories, animal myths, legends, wonder stories and historical traditions. His account is tinged with a sadness informed by his awareness that Gaelic and Cherokee culture were both under threat, writing, “the older people still cling to their ancient rites and sacred traditions, but the dance and the ball play wither and the Indian day is nearly spent.”
Mooney’s career spanned thirty-six years and several Native American peoples. At a time when many whites wanted to force Native Americans to abandon their culture and assimilate, Mooney became an outspoken critic of assimilation and the boarding schools where forced assimilation occurred, making him an object of scorn for supporters of the practice.
He was also viciously attacked for his defense of two Native traditions: the Ghost Dance and the use of peyote in religious ceremonies. The Ghost Dance was a Native ritual that spread from tribe to tribe. Started by a Native American mystic and visionary, the Ghost Dance promised a physical regeneration of the world and the removal of all whites from Native lands. Fear of the dance led to the tragic massacre of Native Americans at Wounded Knee in 1890. Published in 1896, Mooney’s Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890 established Mooney’s reputation among anthropologists and historians. It has been called “The classic study of the American Indian revitalization movement.” Its power derived in large part from Mooney’s Irish heritage, which gave him an acute awareness of a people struggling to preserve their culture against economic, political and cultural oppression. Native American scholar Robert Utley said of Mooney, “No scholar since has tried to tell the story of the Ghost Dance in so comprehensive a fashion and that will never be done.”
Though his life was dedicated to Native Americans, he never forgot his Irish roots. He learned some Gaelic and sang Gaelic songs to his five children. In 1907, he hosted Douglas Hyde, founder and president of the Gaelic League, at a meeting that laid the groundwork for the Gaelic League of Washington. Mooney became President of the Gaelic Society of Washington and thanks in part to Mooney’s efforts, Hyde won support for the establishment of the first Irish Studies programs at American universities.
Mooney also suffered opprobrium for his defense of the Native American rituals using the Peyote cactus, which has hallucinogenic properties. In 1891, he became the first white man to ever witness a peyote ceremony. Mooney understood that peyote became for Native Americans a bridge to another spiritual dimension. Misunderstood like the Ghost Dance, the peyote religion counseled peace and brotherhood among the Indians and unlike the Ghost dance it did not pledge destruction of the whites. In February 1915, he testified in Congress in defense of the Peyote right, even though it jeopardized his government job.
Mooney died in 1921 believing that despite a lifetime of work, little had changed. He ended his career as he began it: convinced of the inability of one race to understand another. Mooney had committed his life to preserving Indian culture against a White world committed to its eradication. His mission flatly contradicted the Federal policy of assimilation, which assumed that, within a generation, there would be no more Indians, only “Americans.” Today, he is still recognized by whites and Indians alike as one of the foremost Native American ethnologists ever and a man who played a massive role in preserving Native American culture.
Moses, L.G, The Indian Man – A Biography of James Mooney, University of Nebraska Press Lincoln, Nebraska 1984