John R. Swanton

From New World Encyclopedia

John Reed Swanton (February 19, 1873 – May 2, 1958) was an American anthropologist, who pioneered the ethnohistorical research technique, and who did significant work on Native Americans of the Southeastern and Northwestern United States. His work focused on the traditional stories and myths of the various tribes that he studied, particularly the Haida. His work has preserved many beautiful examples of poetry and stories from the indigenous North American peoples, whose culture brings the spiritual and physical realms of life into a closer relationship and harmony than found in Western civilization. He found their beliefs to include mystical thinking, including the presence of supernatural beings on the earth. Swanton was fascinated by this spiritual aspect of life, and studied Emmanuel Swedenborg's teachings as well as conducting research into the paranormal.


John Reed Swanton was born on February 19, 1873 in Gardiner, Maine. He graduated with a Bachelors degree from Harvard University in 1896, and earned his Masters degree a year later. His mentor at Harvard was Franz Boas, who influenced Swanton in his approach to anthropology.

In 1900, Swanton received his Ph.D. and started his fieldwork on the Northwestern coast of the United States. At that time, Swanton began working for the Bureau of American Ethnology, where he remained employed for almost 40 years. He served as an editor of the American Anthropological Association's flagship journal, American Anthropologist in 1911, and again from 1921-1923.

In 1903, he married Alice Barnard, with whom he had three children: two sons and a daughter. Swanton was a family man, and spending most of his life with his family and friends.

Swanton was a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Linguistic Society of America. He served as president of the American Anthropological Association in 1932. Swanton received the Viking Medal and award in 1948 for his contributions to anthropology, and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Swanton published numerous books and papers, among which were his famous Haida Texts and Myths: Skidegate Dialect (1905), The Indians of the Southeastern United States (1946) and The Indian Tribes of North America (1952). He retired in 1944.

John Swanton died on May 2, 1958 in Newton, Massachusetts.


Swanton’s work in the fields of ethnology and ethnohistory is well recognized. He is particularly noted for his work with indigenous peoples of the Southeastern United States and American Pacific Northwest. His first assignment for the Bureau of American Ethnology was the study of Haida Indians. The project was directly supervised by Franz Boas and William John McGee. He produced two extensive compilations of Haida stories and myths, and transcribed many of them into a compiled volume. Swanton did comprehensive study on the Chinook, the Dakota, and the Sioux peoples, as well as work on the Tlingit. He later turned his focus from the Northeast to the Southeastern United States, and become one of the best authorities on the Native Americans in that area.

Swanton studied Muskogean speaking peoples in Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. He published extensively on the Creek (later called Muskogee) people, Chickasaw, and Choctaw, as well as recording information about many other less well-known groups, such as the Biloxi and Ofo. He also worked with the Caddo Indians, and published briefly on the quipu system of the Inca.

His works included partial dictionaries, studies of linguistic relationships, collections of native stories, and studies of social organization. He argued in favor of including the Natchez language with the Muskogean language group. He also worked with Earnest Gouge, a Creek Indian who recorded a large number of traditional Creek stories at Swanton's request. These materials were never published by Swanton, but were finally published in 2004 under the title Totkv Mocvse/New Fire:Creek Folktales.

Among Swanton's most famous works on the Haida are his Contributions to the Ethnology of the Haida (1905) and Haida Texts—Masset Dialect (1908). They were the first comprehensive study documenting Haida myths and stories. Swanton coined the "Haida spirit theory" in order to explain the beliefs of the Haida people. Haida see the natural world full of forces, with supernatural beings walking among humans. These supernatural beings have great power, and can disguise themselves as Salmon People, Herring People, Forest People, Bear People, Ocean People, Mouse People, and so forth.

Swanton had the highest regard for the mystical and religious thinking. He himself was the follower of Swedenborgian philosophy, and published a book under the name Superstition - But Whose? on the topic of extra-sensory perception.


Swanton’s contribution to anthropology is significant. He was the foremost authority on the beliefs and customs of the Southeastern Indian tribes, and as such enhanced our understanding of that part of American culture. His essays on particular Indian tribes, especially the not so well-known ones, still serve as the source of information for modern scholars.

Swanton’s transcriptions of the Haida literature have served as the basis for Robert Bringhurst's (1999) translation of the poetry of Haida mythtellers, Skaaye and Gandl.


  • Swanton, John R. 1908. Haida texts—Masset dialect. G.E. Stechert & Company.
  • Swanton, John R. 1911. (original 1905). Contributions to the Ethnology of the Haida. AMS Press Inc. ISBN 0404581056
  • Swanton, John R. 1918. An Early Account of the Choctaw Indians. American Anthropologist, 5, 51-72.
  • Swanton, John R. 1927. Religious Beliefs and Medical Practices of the Creek Indians. Forty-second Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, pp. 639-670. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.
  • Swanton, John R. 1928. Social Organization and the Social Usages of the Indians of the Creek Confederacy. Johnson Reprint Corp. ISBN 0384590403
  • Swanton, John R. 1931. Modern Square Grounds of the Creek Indians. Smithsonian Institution.
  • Swanton, John R. 1931. Source Material for the Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw Indians. Reprint Services Corp. ISBN 0781241030
  • Swanton, John R. 1943. The quipu and Peruvian civilization. U.S. Government Print Office.
  • Swanton, John R. 1948. Superstition: But whose?. J. Swanton.
  • Swanton, John R. 1952. The Indian Tribes of North America (Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 145). Washington, D.C. :Government Printing Office.
  • Swanton, John R. 1991. (original 1905). Haida Texts and Myths: Skidegate Dialect. Native American Books Distributor. ISBN 1878592297
  • Swanton, John R. 1995. (original 1929). Myths & Tales of the Southeastern Indians. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0806127848
  • Swanton, John R. 1998. (original 1911). Indian Tribes of the Lower Mississippi Valley and Adjacent Coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Dover Publications. ISBN 0486401774
  • Swanton, John R. 1998. (original 1922). Early History of the Creek Indians and Their Neighbors. University Press of Florida. ISBN 0813016355
  • Swanton, John R. 1999. (original 1946). The Indians of the Southeastern United States. Reprint Services Corp. ISBN 078120514X
  • Swanton, John R. 2003. (original 1909). Tlingit Myths and Texts. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 0766177165
  • Swanton, John R. & Dorsey, James O. 1912. A Dictionary of the Biloxi and Ofo Languages. Reprint Services Corp. ISBN 0781240476

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bringhurst, Robert. 1999. Story As Sharp As a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World. Douglas & Mcintyre Ltd. ISBN 1550546961
  • Fenton, William N. 1959. John Reed Swanton (1873-1958). American Anthropological Association.
  • Ghandl. 2000. Nine Visits to the Mythworld: Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas. University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0803213166

External links

All links retrieved August 3, 2022.


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