Leslie Spier (1893-1961), American anthropologist, was born in New York City and educated in the New York public schools. He graduated from the College of the City of New York in 1915 with a degree in engineering. His interest in social science began when he spent a summer doing field work as an archeologist with the Geological Survey of New Jersey. Spier entered Columbia University as a graduate student in anthropology and came under the influence of Boas; as an assistant in anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History he was also influenced by Wissler and Lowie.
Spier’s first university appointment was at the University of Washington, where he established a department of anthropology. There he combined teaching with research among the tribes of the Puget Sound area. He taught at Yale from 1933 to 1939, at the University of New Mexico from 1939 until his retirement in 1955, and for shorter periods at Chicago, Harvard, and other universities.
Throughout his academic career, Spier continued to do field work among North American Indians. He resisted the lure of far-off places and “untouched” tribes in order to pursue systematically the problems that had gained his attention early in his career. His field work was largely in two geographic areas—among the tribes around Puget Sound and in the Southwest, where he passed over the picturesque Pueblos in order to concentrate on the peripheral peoples who were less well known but of equal theoretical importance. His major ethnographic contributions were Havasupai Ethnography (1928), an ethnographic classic; Klamath Ethnography (1930); and Yuman Tribes of the Gila River (1933).
Spier made his chief theoretical contributions to anthropology in ethnology, where his major interests were in exploring the relations of peoples over time and analyzing cultural process. His doctoral dissertation, The Sun Dance of the Plains Indians (1921), is a model of culture-historical analysis. Mapping the distribution of the different elements in a single widely distributed ceremonial complex, he identified a clustering of traits in a central area, which he suggested was the probable place of origin—a conclusion that was supported by an analysis of the organizational structure of the ceremony. The final section of the study deals with the integration of the ceremonial complex into the different Plains cultures, foreshadowing theoretical concern with cultural themes and configurations in anthropology. However, Spier rejected as too subjective the attempts of Benedict and others to categorize culture wholes in terms of “pattern” or “ethos.”
Spier’s interest in the relationships of Southwestern cultures began with archeological research in the Little Colorado valley. In An Outline for a Chronology of Zuñi Ruins (1917) he developed a statistical method for establishing chronological relationships. This unpretentious paper is important chiefly for the light it throws on the movements of peoples in the area and the linkages it suggests between the Puebloan and Mexican tribes. Similar interests dominated his studies among the Yumans of the Gila and Colorado basins. On the basis of cultural distributions he suggested a new alignment of peoples, refuting the supposed isolation of the Puebloan peoples and placing the Southwest in a wider geographical and historical perspective.
Pursuing the idea that all cultural phenomena, even responses to cultural disorganization, have historical antecedents, Spier traced the aboriginal complex of beliefs and practices that provided the basic pattern of the Ghost Dance, a nativistic movement that swept the northern Plains in 1890, and identified the specific sources of the Christian accretions (1935).
Spier’s major contributions deal with the analysis of specific historical conditions rather than with the development of general theories of historical process. He was critical of generalizations for which broad or universal validity was claimed. He emphasized the accidental and unpredictable, as opposed to the directional, in culture growth, but he recognized the existence of a universal pattern of human adaptation as well as regional patterns that allow predictions of limited scope. Although change is accidental, subject to influences lying outside the cultural system, “borrowing” and innovation are not random, but selective. However diverse the sources of cultural elements, they are altered and given new meanings in terms of preexisting patterns.
Spier served as editor of the American Anthropologist and of the Southwest Journal of Anthropology, which he founded in 1944 and edited until 1961. He also edited several series of monographs. Although he received many honors from his colleagues, he eschewed publicity. He did not write for mass media, and he made no attempt to popularize his ideas beyond the circle of his students and colleagues. He did not become involved in large government programs or in the direction of huge projects. As an editor and critic Spier was one of the best-informed anthropologists, but he continued to pursue his own interests and problems, uninfluenced by changing fashions in research. He died in New Mexico in 1961.
1917 An Outline for a Chronology of Zuñi Ruins. American Museum of Natural History, Anthropological Papers, Vol. 18, part 3. New York: The Museum.
1918 The Trenton Argillite Culture. American Museum of Natural History, Anthropological Papers, Vol. 22, part 4. New York: The Museum.
1921 The Sun Dance of the Plains Indians: Its Development and Diffusion. American Museum of Natural History, Anthropological Papers, Vol. 16, part 7. New York: The Museum.
1923 Southern Diegueno Customs. Pages 297-358 in Phoebe Apperson Hearst Memorial Volume. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 20. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.
1925a An Analysis of Plains Indian Parfleche Decoration. University of Washington Publications in Anthropology, Vol. 1, No. 3. Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press.
1925b The Distribution of Kinship Systems in North America. University of Washington Publications in Anthropology, Vol. 1, No. 2. Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press.
1927 The Ghost Dance of 1870 Among the Klamath of Oregon. University of Washington Publications in Anthropology, Vol. 2, No. 2. Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press.
1928 Havasupai Ethnography. American Museum of Natural History, Anthropological Papers, Vol. 29, part 3, New York: The Museum.
1929a Growth of Japanese Children Born in America and in Japan. University of Washington Publications in Anthropology, Vol. 3, No. 1. Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press.
1929b Problems Arising From the Cultural Position of the Havasupai. American Anthropologist New Series 31:213-222.
1930 Klamath Ethnography. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 30. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.
1930 Spier, Leslie; and Sapir, EdwardWishram Ethnography. University of Washington Publications in Anthropology, Vol. 3, No. 3. Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press.
1933 Yuman Tribes of the Gila River. University of Chicago Publications in Anthropology, Ethnological Series. Univ. of Chicago Press.
1935 The Prophet Dance of the Northwest and Its Derivatives: The Source of the Ghost Dance. General Series in Anthropology, No. 1. Menasha, Wis.: Banta.
1936b Tribal Distribution in Washington. General Series in Anthropology, No. 3. Menasha, Wis.: Banta.
1954 Some Aspects of the Nature of Culture. New Mexico Quarterly 24:301-321.
1959 Some Central Elements in the Legacy. Pages 146-155 in Walter R. Goldschmidt (editor), The Anthropology of Franz Boas: Essays on the Centennial of His Birth. American Anthropological Association, Memoirs, No. 89. Menasha, Wis.: The Association.
Basehart, Harry W.; and Hill, W. W. 1965 Leslie Spier: 1893-1961. American Anthropologist New Series 67:1258-1277. → Contains an extensive bibliography.