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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Alanson B Skinner: Collecting in the Wild Aurora

Alanson B. Skinner in Poling Canoe,
Big Cypress Reservation, Florida (P20154)
 In March of 2013 the National Museum of the American Indian, in conjunction with the Smithsonian Latino Center’s Central American Ceramics Research Project, will open a bilingual exhibition highlighting the Central American archaeological ceramics collection.  Alex Benitez, professor at George Mason University, and his team of researchers have been conducting intensive research in the Museum of the American Indian (MAI), Heye Foundation records, searching both for information about the ceramic vessels themselves and details about specific collectors. Spanning the Americas, MAI’s collectors, especially under the directorship of George Gustav Heye, purchased, traded, and collected a wide variety of Native American objects. Alanson Buck Skinner was one such archaeologist who worked in Costa Rica, particularly collecting objects from the Bribri in 1916. Skinner also spent much of his career in North America, notably among the Menomini and the Dakota tribes.

Alanson B. Skiiner with Amos Oneroad (Sioux), ca. 1920 (P27199)

Alanson Buck Skinner was born in Buffalo, New York, September 7, 1886. He developed a fascination for ethnology at a young age and even before graduating high school he participated in two expeditions; an excavation of a shellheap near Shinecock Hills Long Island, sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and a ethnological expedition to Cattaraugus, in western New York, led by Mark R. Harrington (who later also became a prominent collector for the MAI) for the Peabody Museum.  In 1907 Skinner was offered a position at as “assistant anthropologist” at the AMNH and conducted ethnographic field research among the eastern Cree in James Bay, between northern Ontario and Quebec, Canada.  While still at AMNH, Skinner pursued anthropology at Columbia and Harvard and came to work for the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundtion in 1916. At MAI, Skinner led expeditions among various North American tribes, as well as a large collecting trip to Costa Rica. Although Skinner left MAI to work at the Milwaukee Public Museum in 1920, he returned to NYC and the Museum of the American Indian in 1924, where he remained a member of the staff until his death a year later. Through the MAI records and Skinner's photograph collection, the NMAI Archive Center has hundreds of documents and images of his work among the Arapaho, Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Chippewa, Iowa, Iroquois, Mahican, Menomini, Ojibwa, Oto, Plains Cree, Potawatomi, Seminole, Seri, Shinnecock, Sioux, Winnebago and Zuni Pueblo.

In the last few years of his short life, Skinner began to write fiction based on his real life experiences travelling around the country. Many of his writings appeared in such magazines as Adventure and Frontier. In addition, he wrote a fair amount of poetry that represented his experiences as a collector. In 1980, Dennis Carey a researcher for the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences, wrote a biography on the life of Skinner that included the following poem by Skinner in an appendix. I believe that the following poem, “Slaves of the Lamp of Science,” very aptly describes the mindset that many of the early collectors for the Museum of the American Indian shared at the time.

Slaves of the Lamp of Science
By Alanson B. Skinner, 1924
Under the wild aurora, where shimmering ghost fires glow,
Where the sunbeams glitter at midnight on everlasting snow,
Where the muskox browse the tundra; where the seal and the killer whale
Play hide and seek in the northern ice, and the frost fiends ride on the gale—
Country of cold eternal; Home of the Eskimo;
It is there, if you seek, you will find us—far as man can go!

Slaves of the lamp of science, forever and ever we roam,
With God’s blue sky for a roof tree, and God’s green earth for a home.
Astride of the hot equator, where the tropic jungles steam—
Where the molten wings of the butterflies slip by like a softened dream;
Where death lurks grim in the palm fronds; where fever basks in the flowers;
Where the jaguar prowls, and the hell mouthed snakes are close companions of ours […]

Slaves of the Lamp of Science, we carry no gun or knife,
For he need not heed the arrow’s speed who has nothing to lose but his life.
Why do we travel, you ask me? Why do we journey far?
Go, beg the comets to tell you the why of the falling star;
Whistle the ranging coyote; speak to the startled dear—
And your answer from these will be but the breeze that blows in your empty ear.

Slaves to the lamp of science! And, oh, but our task is hard.
It has brought us nothing of riches, but foreheads wrinkled and scarred,
We are the earth’s last gypsies—we are her roaming seed;
When her uttermost covert is ended, the falls the last of our breed.
But we live or we die for a purpose, and who can gainsay us then.
Who live for the joy of creating the understanding of men?

Barely a year after writing this poem, Skinner died in an automobile accident in North Dakota. After rejoining the Museum of the American Indian in 1924, Skinner left with his companion and informant Amos Oneroad to continue work among the Dakota tribes. On August 18th, 1925 Skinner and Oneroad were driving near Tokio, North Dakota. The road had been wet from recent thunderstorms causing the car to stall, slip backwards down a hill and crash upside down into a ditch. Skinner was killed instantly. Oneroad was spared physically but described his anguish at the loss of his friend in a letter to George Gustav Heye, MAI director. In the letter, shown below, Oneroad notes how difficult he had been taking the loss and that he would never find another friend like Skinner.

Skinner’s loss was deeply felt by his closest companions and various colleagues. The October 1925 issue of Indian Notes (Volume II, Number 4) includes an obituary and bibliography of Skinner by close friend M.R. Harrington, which can be found here. Selected images by Skinner in our collection can be found here.

Rachel Menyuk, NMAI Archive Center


  1. Alanson Buck Skinner was my grandfather. I never knew him except through stories my mother told me. She passed away Monday, December 3, 2012 at the age of 91. I am trying to put together more information about him and his work. If anyone can point me in a direction, I would appreciate it.

    Thank you,
    Janet Carol Lawson Smith

  2. I am Alanson Buck Skinner's granddaughter. I am looking for information about him. My mother, who died this week (Monday, December 3, 2012), has told me stories of him, but they are limited. Can someone point me in the right direction or help in any way? Thank you. Janet Carol Lawson Smith

  3. Hi Janet,
    I would be more than happy to share additional information with you on your grandfather. The NMAI archive center has both manuscripts and photographs from the time Skinner worked for the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation which includes some personal papers. Feel free to e-mail us

    Looking forward to hearing from you,
    Rachel Menyuk

    1. Janet Lawson SmithAugust 22, 2014 at 12:57 PM

      This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. My name is Leslie S. Taylor Burke. In 1999 I was the Historian for a group founded in Staten Island n.y. called Mariners Marsh conservancy. At witch time I discovered that Mr. Skinner was involved in a dig at Bowmans Brook site in Mariners Harbor Staten island. This is where grew up and hade family ties to this parcel of land that was taken over by the iron industry. I was wondering if there was any information pertaining to this dig. Publick archaeology lab inc. was also involved with a dig in in
    july 2012 that is close to the area Mr. Skinner worked in the early 1900's.