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Thank You, Dan, For All The Keys

Below find the eighth in a series of guest posts offered in celebration on the occasion of our colleague and friend Daniel C. Swan’s retirement from the University of Oklahoma, where he has served with distinction as a Professor of Anthropology, Curator of Ethnology, and Interim Director of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. Reflecting here on an aspect of Dan’s work and his personal impact is Abby Wightman, who is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Mary Baldwin College. This series of guest posts has been organized in partnership with Michael Paul Jordan. –Jason Baird Jackson

Thank You, Dan, For All The Keys

by Abby Wightman

When my friends Michael Jordan and Jason Jackson asked me to write this piece in honor of Dan Swan, I was surprised – honored and pleased, but still surprised. Dan did not serve on my dissertation committee. We have never been work colleagues. I am not a museum anthropologist, and we have never co-authored a publication. In anthropological terms, we did not have formally-defined roles with assigned duties and reciprocal obligations. Yet it is precisely this list of “nots” – of all the ways Dan and I are not connected – that is so important here.

When Dan arrived at the University of Oklahoma in 2007, I was nearing the end of my doctoral studies in cultural anthropology, so he did not serve on my dissertation committee. Despite this, Dan reached out to me twice in later years – first, to ask me to participate on a conference panel and then several years later to work with him on a bigger, but also more complex and delicate project.

At the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, Dan had inherited a binder full of photographs of the Plains Apache community of Oklahoma, taken by anthropologist J. Gilbert McAllister in 1933. McAllister spent one year collecting kinship data among the Plains Apache, and this fieldwork became the basis for an important chapter in the well-known volume Social Organization of North American Tribes, edited by Fred Eggan (1937). As part of his research, McAllister also took many photographs of the Apache people and families he came to know. These photographs, through a rather circuitous route, came to the Sam Noble Museum and eventually to Dan’s care.

Together, Dan and I developed a modest pilot project with three goals: to learn more about the context and people featured in McAllister’s photographs, to ascertain community interest in the collection, and to find a place to archive the collection.  In the summer of 2013, with the support of the Sam Noble Museum and a small grant, I spent a summer of fieldwork in Anadarko and Caddo County, visiting with Apache friends. Apache folks patiently went through each photograph to provide the context missing from McAllister’s sparse annotations. The majority of unknown individuals were identified, as were location and context. The results were pretty astonishing, considering the age of the collection and the poor quality of some photographs.

Unsurprisingly, McAllister’s photographs strongly appealed to many Apache people. Unlike anthropologists, who might value historic images for their ethnographic value, Apache people primarily valued McAllister’s photographs for their social value. Although some of McAllister’s photos feature examples of material or expressive culture, the majority of the collection, over 60 photographs, are portraits. These photographs emphasize individuals and families in everyday dress, posed in front of homes, camps, cars, or – rarely – tipis. For many Apache people, McAllister’s photographs were valuable because of these portraits and their kinship ties to people in the present. While the photographs were visual representations of beloved relatives, they also had a material value and use beyond the image, as evidence of kinship claims and connections.

Like most fieldwork, however, this project wasn’t wrapped up tidily in one summer. While we made both hard and digital copies of photographs available to participants, I knew the entire collection should be stored in the community. In 2013, however, that was not possible. For six years, the binder with copies of the collection sat in my office, a constant reminder of my unfinished obligations to the Apache community. Last year, after checking with Dan, I was able to deposit hard and digital copies of the McAllister collection to the Apache Tribe of Oklahoma Cultural Preservation Office. The negatives will be archived, and accessible to the community and scholars, at the Western History Collection at the University of Oklahoma.

As the latest in a line of University of Oklahoma graduate students working with the Plains Apache, it made sense, perhaps, that Dan would ask me to help with McAllister’s photographs. But in a very real way, it also didn’t make sense. At my small university, requirements for tenure and promotion prioritize teaching and advising undergraduates. Dan knew that I could not reciprocate his offer of research support with support from my own institution – yet he offered me opportunities anyway, even without a formal student-advisor relationship. He became an invaluable connection back to Southern Plains scholarship and to the institution where I received my doctorate when I had few other links to this world.

Writing one of the later pieces in this blog series, I have had the opportunity to read previous posts that celebrated Dan as a dissertation advisor, mentor, confidant, father figure, and colleague. Like others, I have benefited and learned from Dan’s expansive knowledge, inclusivity, and respectful collaboration with the communities in which he works. To me, though, Dan’s lasting impact was as a generous provider of opportunities, opening doors to new possibilities without expectation of return. Perhaps a better analogy is that Dan handed you the key and trusted you to unlock the door yourself. It is an advising model based on mutual respect, and it has inspired how I advise undergraduates – providing students with the keys to opportunities and experiences, trusting their judgement and abilities.

Thank you, Dan, for all those keys. Best wishes on all your future adventures!

Wightman

Photograph by the author. Anadarko, Oklahoma. 2013.

 

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