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Salvage ethnography is "an explicit attempt to document the rituals, practices, and myths of cultures facing extinction from dislocation or modernization". It is generally associated with the anthropologist Franz Boaz. The term is used by anthropologists beginning in the 1960s as part of a critique of 19th-century ethnography and early modern anthropology. The term was coined by Jacob W. Gruber, who identified its emergence with 19th-century ethnographers documenting the languages of peoples being conquered and colonized by European countries or the United States. According to Gruber, one of the first official statements acknowledging that a major effect of colonialism was the destruction of existing languages and ways of life was The report of the British Select Committee of Aborigines (1837). As a scholarly response, Gruber quotes James Cowles Prichard's address before the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1839:
- Wherever Europeans have settled, their arrival has been the harbinger of extermination to the native tribes. Whenever the simple pastoral tribes come into relations with the more civilised agricultural nations, the allotted time of their destruction is at hand; and this seems to have been the case from the time when the first shepherd fell by the hand of the first tiller of soil. Now, as the progress of colonization is so much extended of late years, and the obstacle of distance and physical difficulties are so much overcome, it may be calculated that these calamities, impending over the greater part of mankind, if we reckon by families and races, are to be accelerated in their progress; and it may happen that, in the course of another century, the aboriginal nations of most parts of the world will have ceased entirely to exist. In the meantime, if Christian nations think it not their duty to interpose and save the numerous tribes of their own species from utter extermination, it is of the greatest importance, in a philosophical point of view, to obtain much more extensive information than we now possess of their physical and moral characters. A great number of curious problems in physiology, illustrative of the history of the species, and the laws of their propagation, remain as yet imperfectly solved. The psychology of these races has been but little studied in an enlightened manner; and yet this is wanting in order to complete the history of human nature, and the philosophy of the human mind. How can this be obtained when so many tribes shall have become extinct, and their thoughts shall have perished with them?
Frances Densmore (1867–1957), an influential ethnomusicologist, worked in the tradition of salvage ethnography. Densmore recorded the songs and lyrics of Native Americans in an attempt to preserve them permanently. Many of her original recordings, preserved on wax cylinders, are archived at the Library of Congress.
Artists compounded the work of professional anthropologists during this time period. Photographer Edward S. Curtis (1868–1952) was preceded by painter George Catlin (1796–1872) in attempting to capture indigenous North American traditions that they believed to be disappearing. Both Curtis and Catlin have been accused of taking artistic license by embellishing a scene or making something appear more authentically "Native American". Edward S. Curtis notes in the introduction to his series on the North American Indian: "The information that is to be gathered ... respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost." This statement reflects the artist's paternalistic concern for documenting the culture of American Indians and is representative of both the popular and academic sentiment of the time.
Salvage ethnography started to be applied methodically in visual anthropology as ethnographic film since the fifties by filmmakers such as Jean Rouch in France, Michel Brault and Pierre Perrault in Canada, or António Campos in Portugal (early sixties), followed by others (seventies).
Salvage ethnography is often taught in film and media studies courses as a style of filmmaking that captures a civilization or people's former way of living. The best example of this would be Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North. In Nanook, Flaherty staged incidents and scenes that did not fairly represent the Inuit tribe's current way of life, but rather their "former majesty."
- Gruber, Jacob (Dec 1970). "Ethnographic Salvage and the Shaping of Anthropology". American Anthropologist, New Series 72 (6): 1289–1299. doi:10.1525/aa.1970.72.6.02a00040.
- Conn, Steven (2004). History's Shadow: Native Americans and Historical Consciousness in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-11494-5.
- Smith, Sherry (2000). Reimagining Indians: Native Americans Through Anglo Eyes, 1880-1940. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-515727-3.
- Carter, Edward, ed (1999). Surveying the Record: North American Scientific Exploration to 1930. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society. ISBN 0-87-169231-7.