James Mooney

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James Mooney

James Mooney (February 10, 1861 – December 22, 1921) was an American ethnographer who lived for several years among the Cherokee. Known as "The Indian Man[1]," he did major studies of Southeastern Indians, as well as those on the Great Plains.[2] His most notable works were his ethnographic studies of the Ghost Dance after Sitting Bull's death in 1890, a widespread 19th-century religious movement among various Native American culture groups, and the Cherokee: The Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees (1891), and Myths of the Cherokee (1900), all published by the US Bureau of American Ethnology. Artifacts from Mooney are in the collections of the Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution and the Department of Anthropology, Field Museum of Natural History. Papers and photographs from Mooney are in the collections of the National Anthropological Archives, Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution.[3]


James Mooney was born on February 10, 1861 in Richmond, Indiana, son of Irish Catholic immigrants. His formal education was limited to the public schools of the city. He became a self-taught expert on American tribes by his own studies and his careful observation during long residences with different groups.[2]

In 1885 he started working with the Bureau of American Ethnology at Washington, D.C. under John Wesley Powell. He compiled a list of tribes which contained 3,000 names. It ended after the US Army's 1890 massacre of Lakota people at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Mooney was recognized as a national expert on the American Indian.[2]

He married Ione Lee Gaut on September 28, 1897 in Washington, D.C., and had six children. One son was the writer Paul Mooney. Mooney died of heart disease in Washington, D.C. on December 22, 1921. Mooney's obituary is available on JSTOR in American Anthropologist 24, #2 (New Series), pp. 209–214. He was buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery (Washington, D.C.).

A fuller biographical profile by George Ellison can be found in "James Mooney's history, myths, and sacred formulas of the Cherokees."

Writing Career[edit]

Mooney's writing style was widely considered as evocative and his sympathetic treatment of Native Americans is owed much to his upbringing and ethnic heritage. Although he wrote as a scientist, his clear objectivity towards Native Americans was in sharp contrast to how most other pieces of writing about the Native American population were written during this time. He largely accepted the goal of Indian assimilation as outlined by reformers of the era. However, he still had the restraint to watch what what was being done to these innocent people and remained objective.[1]

The late 1800s was a time where Native Americans were criminally disrespected and subjected to genocide by the United States of America. The reputation forced upon the Native Americans by the majority of the white press available to Americans spoke unnecessarily ill of the Natives. Mooney was able to speak on the situation objectively, and considering the alternatives being published at the time, made Native Americans out to be rightfully a lot less dangerous then perceived by the majority of white Americans who read newspapers.

Mooney took the time to observe various Native American tribes the way they lived, instead of observing from a far, which prior to Mooney's findings, was the only way people outside reservations knew what was going on in the Native American community. He did not do anything groundbreaking, looking back. But he took the time and effort to treat Native Americans with the respect they deserved and wanted to learn an teach others about their culture. He did so by publishing various books documenting his time with Native American tribes.

The Ghost-dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890[edit]

The book, perhaps Mooney's most famous, is prefaced with a historical survey of comparable millenarian movements among other American Indian groups. In response to the rapid spread of the Ghost Dance among tribes of the western United States in the early 1890s, Mooney set out to describe and understand the phenomenon. He visited Wovoka, the Ghost Dance prophet, at his home in Nevada and traced the progress of the Ghost Dance from place to place, describing the ritual and recording the distinctive song lyrics of seven separate tribes[4].

Calendar History of the Kiowa Indians (1898)[edit]

"The desire to preserve to future ages the memory of past achievements is a universal human instinct,"Mooney said. "The reliability of the record depends chiefly on the truthfulness of the recorder and the adequacy of the method employed."[5] Mooney was able to confide in the Kiowa Indians and find out that the first calendar keeper in their tribe was Little Bluff, or Tohausan, who was the principal chief of the tribe from 1833 to 1866. Mooney also worked with two other calendar keepers, Settan, or Little Bear, and Ankopaingyadete, In the Middle of Many Tracks, commonly known as Anko. Other Plains tribes kept pictorial records, known as "winter counts".

However, what was unique to the Kiowa was they recorded two events for each year, offering a finer-grained record and twice as many entries for any given period. Silver Horn (1860–1940), or Haungooah, was the most highly esteemed artist of the Kiowa tribe in the 19th and 20th centuries, and kept a calendar. He was a respected religious leader in his later years[5].

Myths of the Cherokee (1900)[edit]

Mooney also spent a lot of time with the Cherokee studying their language, culture, and mythology. His research resulted in this comprehensive volume, comprising 126 Cherokee myths, including sacred stories, animal myths, local legends, wonder stories, historical traditions, and miscellaneous myths and legends. Some myths included:

  • How the World was Made
  • Why the Deer's Teeth are Blunt
  • How the Turkey got his Beard
  • Why the Possum's Tail is Bare

The book also includes original Cherokee manuscripts, relating to the history, archaeology, geographic nomenclature, personal names, botany, medicine, arts, home life, religion, songs, ceremonies, and language of the tribe[6].

Historical Sketch of the Cherokee (1975)[edit]

Published posthumously, this account of the Cherokee started with their first contact with whites and, through battles won and lost, treaties signed then broken, towns destroyed and people massacred, ended around 1900. There is humanity along with inhumanity in the relations between the Cherokee and other groups, Indian and non-Indian; there is fortitude and persistence balanced with disillusionment and frustration. In these respects, the history of the Cherokee epitomizes the experience of most Native Americans[7], Mooney writes. This, among with most, if not all of Mooney's works, is considered dispassionate and matter-of-fact, which is why his works are found in the Bureau of American Ethnology.


Grave of James Mooney at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
  • Mooney, James. Linguistic families of Indian tribes north of Mexico, with provisional list of principal tribal names and synonyms. [1] US Bureau of American Ethnology, 1885.
  • Mooney, James. The Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. US Bureau of American Ethnology, 1885-6 Annual Report, 1891.
  • Mooney, James. Siouan tribes of the East. US Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin, 1894.
  • Mooney, James. The Ghost-dance religion and the Sioux outbreak of 1890. US Bureau of American Ethnology, 1892-3 Annual Report, 2 vols., 1896.
  • Mooney, James. Calendar history of the Kiowa Indians. US Bureau of American Ethnology, 1895-6 Annual Report, 1898.
  • Mooney, James. Myths of the Cherokee. US Bureau of American Ethnology, 1897-8 Annual Report, 1902.
  • Mooney, James. Indian missions north of Mexico. US Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin, 1907.
  • Mooney, James. The Swimmer manuscript: Cherokee sacred formulas and medicinal prescriptions, revised, completed and edited by Frans M. Olbrechts, 1932.
  • Mooney, James, 1861–1921. "James Mooney's history, myths, and sacred formulas of the Cherokees :containing the full texts of Myths of the Cherokee (1900) and The sacred formulas of the Cherokees (1891) as published by the Bureau of American Ethnology : with a new biographical introduction.
  • Ellison, George, James Mooney and the eastern Cherokees, Asheville, NC: Historical Images, 1992.

Full etexts of many of the above are available at: https://archive.org/search.php?query=creator%3A%22Mooney%2C+James%2C+1861-1921%22


  1. ^ a b Moses, L.G. (1984). The Indian Man: A biography of James Mooney. University of Nebraska. ISBN 0-8032-8279-6.
  2. ^ a b c "Register to the Papers of James Mooney" Archived 2014-04-21 at the Wayback Machine, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, accessed 10 Nov 2009
  3. ^ "James Mooney," American Anthropologist, Vol. 24, No. 2 (April–June 1922), pp. 209-214.
  4. ^ Mooney, James. (1996). The Ghost Dance. North Dighton, Ma.: JG Press. ISBN 1-57215-201-X. OCLC 35759732.
  5. ^ a b Mooney, James, 1861-1921. (1898). Calendar history of the Kiowa Indians. G.P.O. OCLC 875150017.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  6. ^ Mooney, James, 1861-1921. (1982). Myths of the Cherokee ; and, Sacred formulas of the Cherokees. Nashville, Tenn.: Charles and Randy Elder-Booksellers. ISBN 0-918450-22-5. OCLC 8885748.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  7. ^ Mooney, James, 1861-1921, author. (5 July 2017). Historical sketch of the Cherokee. ISBN 978-1-351-51568-9. OCLC 994145663.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)

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