Tanana and Chandalar: The Alaska Field Journals of Robert A. McKennan.


266 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 978-1-55238-291-X
DDC 306'.09798




Edited by Craig Mishler and William E. Simone
Reviewed by Joan A. Lovisek

Joan A. Lovisek, Ph.D., is a consulting anthropologist and
ethnohistorian in British Columbia.


Robert A. McKennan is considered one of the “classic” ethnographers of the interior Alaskan (Athapaskan) native peoples. He undertook ethnographic studies between 1929 and 1933, at a formative period of ethnography. McKennan was a dedicated letter writer, photographer, and journal keeper. His field journals are retained by the Dartmouth college archives in New Hampshire where McKennan ended his career as professor emeritus. Mishler and Simone, both scholars working in many of the same communities as McKennan, have carefully transcribed and annotated McKennan’s field journals, which comprise the subject of this book. The editors provide useful background on the contributions of McKennan, including an overview biography. The field journals complement McKennan’s ethnographies by adding the indispensable day-to-day interactions McKennan experienced while in the field. They also provide scholars with data from which to reconstruct the historical context of the period in which McKennan undertook his ethnographic work. Evident from the journals is how McKennan viewed one of the ethnographer’s field methods of the time, anthropometry, a now discredited method. While McKennan found this practice of measuring his subjects’ body parts to be invasive and a “nuisance,” he dutifully recorded the measurements. McKennan also collected numerous examples of Athapaskan beadwork, a task which he apparently enjoyed. This collection of beadwork, which included slippers, bags, and mittens, appears in several colour photographs. The bead collection is now housed in the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka Japan.


The editors clearly hold McKennan in high regard, which comes through in their careful annotations of the field journals. The locations cited in the journals are supported by detailed maps and photographs. As scholars who now work with the descendants of McKennan’s informants, the editors have personal knowledge of how McKennan was received and remembered by members of the communities documented in the field journals.


The field journals provide important historical and cultural context from which to assess the ethnography of this historical period, particularly with respect to Athapaskan studies. This book contributes to the history of ethnography and provides important historical context to the ethnographic methodology.


“Tanana and Chandalar: The Alaska Field Journals of Robert A. McKennan.,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 24, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/28093.