Indigenous Cultures, Anthropology, and Linguistics

The American Philosophical Society's collection contains material related to the languages, traditions, history, and continuity of over 650 different Indigenous cultures throughout the Americas, with a special emphasis on Native North American peoples.

The ethnographic and linguistic collecting of the Library & Museum can be traced back to the Society’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, who sought to gather word lists of Indigenous languages in order to better understand the cultural relationships and interrelated histories of Native peoples. From this information he also developed federal Indian policies that were devastating to Native societies. The linguist and APS President Peter Stephen Du Ponceau (1760-1844)attempted to expand Jefferson’s data through broader collaboration with explorers, missionaries, academics, and Native language speakers themselves who were passing through Philadelphia. These activities expanded massively in the 20th century when the Society began to actively seek documentation recorded by field linguists and anthropologists who were dependent upon the linguistic, cultural, and historical knowledge of the Indigenous people with whom they worked. 

Among the most commonly sought collections are the American Council of Learned Societies linguistic collection, the papers of Franz Boas, and the papers of many of his students (and their students,) such as Mary R. Haas, Frank Speck, and Ella Deloria. The collections also include the papers of historians, anthropological thinkers such as William Shedrick Willis, major historical figures such as Ely S. Parker, and oral histories from contemporary Indigenous people.

While manuscripts make up most of the material, the collections also contain over 130,000 photographs and other images, and over 3,500 hours of audio recordings, the latter of which are nearly all digitized and available through the APS Digital Library. The Library & Museum continues to collect widely in these areas and currently houses material dating from 1553 to 2019, relating to over 650 Indigenous cultures of the Americas. 

A few of the major collections are highlighted below.