The Dorothy M. Spencer papers

At the end of my last post on the Stewart Culin collection of advertisements, I openly wondered if the Spencer collection of notes on the Munda tribesmen of India would be my last here at Penn.  Happily, that has not proven the case, as I have finished the Spencer collection with about a month to spare!  The collection’s finding aid may be found here.  Now, join me on yet another journey back in time, this time to the Chota Nagpur plateau of India’s Jharkand state in the mid-20th century.

Dorothy M. Spencer was born rather close to us in Chester, Pennsylvania in 1907.  She matriculated at the University of Wisconsin where she received her A.B. in 1930 right at the beginning of the Great Depression.  Just as Culin’s interests led him to ethnography, Spencer’s led her to the sister field of anthropology.  Fresh out of America’s Dairyland, Spencer returned to the good old Keystone State where she undertook studies for an M.A. here at Penn.  She earned her Master’s in 1933.  To relate this to another of our India-centric collections, Spencer’s M.A. studies occurred at the same time as the bulk of the correspondence between Richard Gregg and the leaders of the Indian independence movement.  Although this collection consists of materials from Spencer’s fieldwork in India, her initial interests lay in the South Pacific, and her M.A. thesis “The Dual Organization and Regulation of Marriage in Melanesia” is housed here at Penn.  This thesis and her work in the M.A. program was evidently enough to impress her professors, as she went on to earn a PhD here at Penn in 1937.  Following a short stint as a lecturer in anthropology, she traveled to India in 1939.  In the tradition of Frank Hamilton Cushing, whom you may remember from my last post as Culin’s friend and daring anthropologist who lived among the Zuni for years, Spencer became a participant observer among the Mundari-speaking people of the Chota Nagpur plateau in the Jharkand state of eastern India, living with them and observing their daily habits.

The Mundari-speakers, or Munda, are one of a number of Adivasi tribes, thought to be the aboriginal inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent.  The Munda have a colorful history.  In 1900, a charismatic tribesman named Birsa Munda led the ulgulan, a violent and bloody independence struggle against the British Raj in which the rallied Munda used poisoned-tipped arrows against police and civilians, British and Indian alike. They burned churches and the houses of the wealthy to the ground, before being put down themselves by the firepower of the British military.  Birsa himself died under suspicious circumstances in a British jail.  At the time of Spencer’s arrival, interestingly enough in an assemblage of villages all within walking distance of Birsa’s birthplace at Ulihatu, the ulgulan was still in living memory.  Simultaneously, the Indian independence movement was entering its final stages.  Gandhi loomed large over the subcontinent, and his peaceful, and ultimately far more successful, satyagraha movement had thoroughly penetrated the national conscience.  Spencer inserted herself into an India transitioning from servitude to swaraj.  That this Anglo-American cousin of the imperial overlords was welcomed by villagers whose grandparents had spilled British blood is, I aver, thanks in part to the influence of Gandhi’s gentle, forgiving spirit.

Spencer_Page_2Spencer’s time in India consisted of four trips.  The first lasted from 1939 to 1942, cut short presumably due to World War II.  Spencer returned in 1946 following the war’s conclusion and remained until 1948.  She may well have witnessed local iterations of India’s first Independence Day celebration on August 15, 1947, when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru proudly raised the Indian national flag over the Lahore Gate of the Red Fort in Delhi.  She returned again for two brief periods in 1951 and 1952.  Her research focused upon several villages within a day’s walk from each other, south of Ranchi, the capital of Jharkand.  Over the course of her expeditions Spencer collected a wealth of information on the habits and lives of Munda individuals in these villages.  Whether we have all of it in this collection or a mere fraction I do not know, but either way, the breadth of Spencer’s notes is impressive.  Upon initial inspection, I was met by reams upon reams of loose-leaf pages with hand-written notes, partitioned by the original air mail envelopes they had been shipped in, on topics ranging from myths to measurements, from diseases to dreams.  The collection also contains notes from village meetings, materials from courses Spencer taught here in the 1970s, records featuring the sounds and songs of native tribes, and several academic papers, including 4 autographed to Spencer “with regards” from Surajit Chandra Sinha, one of India’s premier anthropologists.  The only downside to this treasure-trove is that with the exception of a paper here and there, Spencer did not type up her notes.  Given the handwriting and the sheer volume of materials, I did not have time to read each individual piece, just to divide them according to genre and re-box them.

Spencer_Page_6Thankfully, Spencer cast a saving throw with her typed note cards.  The index cards are organized into series named after an individual Spencer extensively observed.  Each card features a local term or name which would have been difficult to decipher correctly from handwriting, and where in the notes to find them.  Sometimes (though not always) they even have a definition!  Thanks to the cards I was able to decipher the name of one village whose name recurred in the records, yet Spencer’s handwriting made two letters particularly problematic to make out.

Both the cards and records begin introducing the outsider to the mundus of the Munda.  Reading them leads one into a world of spirits, animal omens, village drama, and folk medicine.  While by the time of Spencer’s visit about a quarter of the Munda population had become Christian, a number still followed the tribal Sarna faith, focused around sacred groves and featuring a functionally innumerable number of spirits, called bongas.  Each location has an associated bonga.  In this way, Sarna (which focuses its worship around groves identified as sacred) is similar to other forms of ritual-driven animism, such as Chinese shenism, Japanese shinto, Greek prayers and sacrifices to the nymphs of mountains, groves, and springs, and Etruscan and Roman worship of the numina.  Spencer’s cards contain the names of many a bonga, from Sinabonga (roughly, “Great Spirit,” the supreme god in Sarnic conception) down to a bevy of local spirits.  Spencer’s cards have several mentions of villagers rendering service to these spirits, or blaming them for sending sickness, believed to be punishment for not performing their sacrifices.  One card mentions that a snake entering a house is considered an omen that wrongdoing occurred there.  Another, that horse hooves have been hung up to ward against disease.  Beyond the religious aspects of Munda life, Spencer also notes the topics of discussion at their village meetings.  If any city-dweller who has had no experience of country life waxes to me about the “simple cares of country living” (if he or she thinks “simple cares” mean only plump, smiling sun-flushed peasants and bountiful harvests, that is), I’m going to direct him or her to this collection for a taste of such simple cares.  The meetings deal with disputes between locals, and mete out punishments and fines for transgressions.

Probably not the idyllic paradise those self-righteously sick of city or suburban life imagine.  Instead, the contents of these meetings illustrate a very…well, human existence.  Despite some differences in appearance and content, at base, the essence of local problems and local drama does not change whether they occur in your hometown or halfway across the world in a Munda village.

Spencer_Page_3I was quite intrigued by the relatively frequent mention of punishments for mischievous boys, both in the meeting cards and others.  I don’t know if we can properly call these boys delinquent, they just seem to be your garden-variety local troublemakers–bored boys being boys, so to speak.  Regardless, it was interesting to see how common corporal punishment appeared, with the boys being punished for conscious actions such as stealing and holding a servant boy underwater, to seemingly chance occurrences like being stung by bees.  There was no further context around that last one, so I couldn’t ascertain whether the boys were purposefully disturbing the bees, or if there was a taboo on being stung, or what.  Regardless, corporal punishment appeared rather commonplace in the Munda villages, with fathers beating their sons for correction, and the wife of a man named Laro beating him for being too careless with their baby!

This was a rich collection to work with.  Spencer’s reams of thorough notes on the lives of Munda villagers during the first flush of Indian independence are a treasure for the anthropology of Indic peoples.  I did a search for Spencer’s publications, both book and journal articles.  I may have missed something, but I didn’t find any evidence in JSTOR or elsewhere on the net that any of this material was ever published.  It may well have and be buried in a print journal in a library stack somewhere, or it may have been a great project Spencer never managed to publish.  I would be surprised, since her ten months of fieldwork in Fiji from 1935-1936 (when she was pursuing her PhD) resulted in the publication of Disease, Religion, and Society in the Fiji Islands in 1941.  However, I do know from the embarrassingly large backlog in archaeology, that for whatever number of reasons, raw research may not make it to print.  If it is the case that we are sitting on unpublished research here, it would be wonderful if an anthropology grad student or professor came around to finish what Spencer started.  If it has been published, we still have the original records here that any Indian anthropologist may consult and build upon.  I’m thus very pleased to complete the processing of Dr. Spencer’s collection and to commend it to public use.

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