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Feature Story
reed magazine logoWinter 2008

The Warm Springs Project:
Reed anthropology in the postwar moment

By Robert E. Moore ’82

Eva Winishut with David French at Warm Springs, 1952; Winishut, a Sahaptin, assisted with the Frenches’ anthropological research.

Photos: Papers of David and Kathrine French, Special Collections Division, Suzzallo Library, University of Washington–Seattle

The decade immediately following World War II brought dramatic changes to the social and political landscape of America. Reed, despite its location far from the metropolitan centers of cultural production, was no exception. Partly because it is so modest in scale, the story of the Warm Springs Project—unfolding on an out-of-the-way Indian reservation and at a small liberal arts college in a provincial Northwest timber town—allows an intimate glimpse at the forces that were reshaping American society. In particular, it permits us to see how these forces played out among an intensely local network of homegrown intellectuals, many of whom would go on to acquire genuinely international stature in academia and the arts: from sociolinguistics and ethnobotany, to film and poetry.

The Warm Springs Project was a multi-year collaborative program of anthropological and other field research organized by David French ’39 (1918–1994), who taught anthropology at Reed from 1947 to 1988, and his colleague and wife, Kathrine S. (Kay) French (1922–2006), also an anthropologist (both held Columbia Ph.D.s). Combining outside funding from the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) and the Wenner-Gren Foundation with support from the college, the Frenches brought a series of Reed students to live and work on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Central Oregon (100 miles east of Portland on the Columbia plateau). The project was active between 1950 and 1956—mostly in summer, with shorter trips during the school year when possible.

Several of the students produced senior theses out of the research they did on the reservation. Some applied for and received direct support for their individual research projects from the SSRC, while others took jobs on the reservation fighting fires, logging, or working in Indian schools. Many had the crucial additional support of the G.I. Bill, a pension from military service, or the equivalent. Most grew up in the Pacific Northwest, often in families of modest means but serious political commitments; as “veterans” in one sense or another, many had recently seen much of the world, including the then “Far East.”

As a group, they were significantly older than today’s undergraduates—many taking up or returning to college at age 25 or older. The dislocations of World War II (and soon, Korea) were experiences they shared with a cohort of newly arrived younger faculty members; the Frenches, after all, were scarcely a decade older than many of their early students. For David French, the theme of a “return” after the dislocations of the war years must have operated on multiple levels: he’d attended Reed himself as an anthropology student from 1936 to 1939 and both of his parents, as well as an aunt, had graduated from Reed with the class of 1915. So in one sense, the story of the Warm Springs Project is about the emergence of a cosmopolitan intellectual elite: people whose recognizably “modernist” sensibilities were reflected in their enthusiastic involvement in movements associated with abstract art, modern literature and/or the sciences, non-Western (i.e., Asian or indigenous) religions, and progressive (usually, Marxist) politics.

The importance of the G.I. Bill, and of this unique convergence of demographic and social forces in the postwar moment, can’t be overstated. The effects of similar large-scale forces were also felt in other out-of-the-way places, such as Black Mountain College in North Carolina, at exactly the same time; but they converged in particular ways in the Reed context, and in the Pacific Northwest more generally, to set the conditions under which this remarkable group emerged.

The Invisible College

If the scale of the story is modest, the ambitions—and subsequent accomplishments—of its protagonists are decidedly not. In fact, the most astonishing thing about the Warm Springs Project is not so much what the participants actually did during their (admittedly unusual) summer vacations, but what the project’s various alumni/ae went on to do later.

reed magazine logoWinter 2008