Published on October 15, 2012 by Amy
Frank Gouldsmith Speck (November 8, 1881 – February 6, 1950) was an American anthropologist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in the Algonquian and Iroquoian peoples among the Eastern Woodland Native Americans of the United States and First Nations peoples of eastern boreal Canada.
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Early life and education
Born in Brooklyn, Speck was sickly as a child. His parents sent him at age seven to live with a family friend, Fidelia Fielding, in Mohegan, Connecticut in hopes that the rural environment would improve his health. She was a widow and Native American, the last speaker of her Indigenous, Mohegan Pequot language. While living with her, Speck acquired “his interests in literature, natural history and Native American linguistics.”
When Speck became one of the first students of anthropologist Franz Boas at Columbia University, he found his direction for life study as an anthropological ethnographer while earning an M.A with a thesis on the folklore the Native American peoples of the Southeastern United States. He then completed a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania (1908). While his doctorate was technically awarded by the University of Pennsylvania, his dissertation was supervised by Boas. It is an ethnography of the Yuchi people of Oklahoma, among whom he studied in 1904, 1905, and 1908.
In 1907 Speck joined the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), first on a one-year fellowship. The fellowship was next held in 1908 by his colleague Edward Sapir.
Speck was unique among many anthropologists of his generation in choosing to study American Indians rather than people of more distant lands. Because of the changes that had taken place in the 19th century and drastic declines in population, Speck found his work was in part a “salvage operation” to try to capture ethnological material at a time of great stress for the peoples. He started studying Native Americans in Connecticut and the Northeast.
At Penn, Speck advanced to full professor and became chair of the Department of Anthropology, after its creation by the University. Among his students at Penn, Speck nurtured a generation of prominent anthropologists: A. Irving Hallowell, Anthony F. C. Wallace, Loren Eiseley, and James W. VanStone. He especially loved fieldwork and lived with the people he studied. He donated to museums many of the artifacts of material culture which he collected over the years. Speck also sponsored Native American students at Penn such as Molly Spotted Elk and Gladys Tantaquidgeon.
During his fieldwork with the Iroquois, Speck became close to members of the Seneca Nation, who adopted him in honor of their relationship. He was given the name Gahehdagowa (‘Great Porcupine’) when he was adopted into the Turtle clan of the Seneca people. Speck was interested in how family and kinship systems underlay tribal organization. In Canada, he developed maps of individual family bands’ hunting territories to document Algonquian land rights. These later became crucial to Native American land claims.
From the 1920s through the 1940s, Speck also studied the Cherokee in the Southeast United States and Oklahoma. Through the years, he worked extensively with tribal elder Will West Long of Big Cove, western North Carolina. Speck credited Long as co-author of his book Cherokee Dance and Drama, along with his colleague Leonard Bloom. It was published in 1951.
Speck’s papers were collected and archived by the American Philosophical Society, of which he was a member. There are also collections of his papers at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec and at the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.
Speck was elected to numerous professional associations, where he took an active role on committees, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Anthropological Association, American Ethnological Society, Geographical Society of Philadelphia, and Archaeological Society of North Carolina (honorary). He conducted work for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.