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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Stories from Ethnographic Field Diaries in the Edward C. Green Collection

On October 27, 1971, anthropologist Ted Green was on the way to the airport with his wife and one-year-old son to begin his doctoral field research among the Matawai Maroons in Suriname. “1st day must be worst in anthropological history,” he wrote as the first line of his fresh field notebook. “Attaché case and tape case lost en route to airport containing everything. I’m set back a year, if indeed I can start work at all now. Complete despair.” In the cases were traveler’s checks, letters of introduction, and the family’s medications – essential items for a long foreign stay. More bad news was to follow: “Other things screwed up: house promised not available, museum friend has emigrated, etc. etc.” Fortunately for Green and his family, the cases were found the next day and sent on to meet him in Suriname. “Awoke this morning to learn via phone from Washington that both cases found…Fantastic good fortune. Contents were priceless, irreplaceable,” Green noted.

A page of a field notebook, Suriname, 1971, Box 4, Edward C. Green papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Green would spend the next two years in Suriname with his family, documenting the Matawai dialect of the Saramaccan language and Matawai kinship structures. (Green’s dissertation, completed in 1974, was entitled “The Matawai Maroons: An Acculturating Afro-American Society.”)

Ted Green in Suriname, 1974, Box 3, Edward C. Green papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

The field notebooks he kept during this time now reside among the Edward C. Green papers, c. 1970-2016 at the National Anthropological Archives (NAA). In addition to standard field note fare – such as interviews, observations, and analysis – Green’s field notebooks capture intimate moments where his professional life as a doctoral student intersected with his personal life as a husband and father. Green’s young son borrowed his father’s notebooks for handwriting practice. Scrawls and loops in earlier notebooks turn into doodles in later ones, with big block-lettered “TIMMY” scratched across pages. The antics of the family dog, Karl, make the cut as well, as do the concerns and ethnographic observations of Green’s first wife, Shannon.

In December 1971, Green wrote, “We flew to Jacobkondre because we were afraid the boat trip would be dangerous for the baby…Gaddan [Jarien Gaddan, a member of Parliament] and the village (missionary) schoolteachers were quite interested in us. We were given a house by the airstrip, the upstairs of which is used for radioing Paramaribo. Then Gaddan and the plane left. A number of children came over to look at Timmy and our big dog, and soon they were all playing.” Perhaps no notebook entry is so dramatic as the opening salvo, but the diaries nevertheless capture the intimate and messy process of ethnographic field work – including the loss of traveler’s checks and their miraculous recovery!

Three field notebooks, Suriname, 1971-1972, Box 4, Edward C. Green papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

The Edward C. Green papers, c. 1970-2016 were processed with funding from the Wenner-Gren Foundation. The collection is open for research at the NAA. A finding aid for the collection is available on the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives (SOVA). Sound recordings in the collection, including field interviews among the Matawai, are currently being digitized process so they can be made available online within the next year.

Kate Madison, Processing Archivist
National Anthropological Archives


  1. What a remarkable collection to have! Worth the trip to the Smithsonian just for that!

    1. Jeff your materials from your 3 different careers should--must--be archived too! You and I both went on to challenge prevailing paradigms in our later careers.