Ruth Benedict, anthropologist, and two Blackfeet informants

Although Benedict pays homage to her particularist training and the description is thick, her assay of religion betrays a deeper interest in underlying patterns and themes. The tension is palpable. Her desire to explain is repressed.

Something similar can be found in “The Vision in Plains Culture” (open access), Benedict’s vivid account of the Native American vision quest and its varying deployment among tribes from coast to coast. Published in 1922, it remains the standard reference for those who study the distinctive vision complex of the Great Plains culture area.

Ruth Benedict with Blackfeet Informants

Benedict organizes her data around three patterns that others have considered characteristic of the Plains area vision quest: (1) the infliction of self-torture, (2) the lack of a laity-shaman distinction in seeking visions, and (3) the attaining of a guardian spirit. In typical Boasian fashion, Benedict then shows that while there may be some truth to these patterns, there are many variations and the generalizations don’t always hold. She does, however, identify one that does: in the Plains area, vision seeking is an “affair of maturity and not of adolescence.” Just east or west of the Plains and toward either coast, vision seeking is usually associated with liminal rites that mark passage from adolescence to adulthood.

In closing, Benedict mimics her mentor Boas and reminds us that all this variation argues against generalization:

The very great diversity of the vision pattern even in one culture area such as the Plains is therefore evident. Not only are the general traits unevenly and even entirely lacking in certain tribes, but local developments of one kind and another have overlaid the common pattern till it is at times hardly recognizable. A blanket classification under some such heading as the “acquiring of guardian spirits” leads us nowhere.

[T]he utmost diversity which makes of Plains “religion” a heterogeneity. Animism, magic, mana-ism, mysticism — all the known classifications of religion — jostle with each other in this one area; and after all these headings were tabulated, the real diversities would still remain outside.

These points are well taken. But as is so often the case with Benedict’s work, her appended admonition does little to obscure the larger patterns and explanations lurking throughout the article. Diversity is a pattern that tells us something important about nomadic supernaturalism: across time and space, it is fluid.

As is often the case with incisive thinkers and good writers, Benedict’s mere “description” is organized and presented in a way which smacks of analysis. By showing, she tells.

Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.