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J. Christopher Crocker

Professor, Emeritus

Ph.D. Harvard University 1967


Indians of North and South America; ethnology of Europe; structural analysis of kinship; rationality and myth; shamanism; political anthropology; comparative studies of kingship and sacrifice in Africa and Meso-America. 

7 February 1938 - September 19, 2003 

In His Own Words

An initial interest in structuralism and the ethnography of "elementary societies" led me first to a year in Paris, to listen to Claude Lévi- Strauss, and then to field work among the Bororo of Brazil. The Bororo have both the full range of social and cosmological institutions characteristic of dual organizations and a complex system of shamanism. They also practice secondary interment. My comparative research on these three modes of ritual practice introduced me to the work of Victor Turner, to historical studies of witchcraft, and eventually to a concern with relations between society and ceremony in medieval Europe, especially France and England.

One ethnographic area I now find especially fascinating is the Pacific Northwest Coast, which combines all the research topics above, and which I finally managed to visit in the spring of 1994. That trip rekindled a long standing interest in "art and society" and totemism.

Finally, I have intermittently published on and studied aspects of historical re-enactments and ceremonial sites, such as Williamsburg.


Remarks for the Memorial Service
for J. Christipher Crocker

by Frederick H. Damon

September 24, 2003

Chris Crocker’s death brings to a close the beginning of my life, not as my parents conceived it, but as it was born in an institution like this one where, usually with respect to some particular person,  we all came to define who we were, what we are to be and therefore, what we will do next.  Chris was cognizant of that, of course, and right from the beginning was prepared to remind me of the meaning of alma mater.  This was when he was still at Duke and I had gone off to graduate school at Princeton; he was wise enough to try to prevent me from defining my present by my past, which, then, was only in relation to him.  In any case, It is now an expected paradox of this particular man, who had much difficulty defining who indeed he was, that so many other people took the measure of their lives with respect to him.

The Crocker lakeside cabin was a cherished retreat where Chris ruminated with his friends and colleagues.

This is time fitting for reflection.  As I think about Chris and the timing of his final death, amidst Hurricane Isabel, King Lear comes to mind.  My mentors in Papua New Guinea would say of course to the coincidence of these two happenings: the deaths of especially important people are always marked by such macrocosmic echos.  Yet the second reflection is, ... the ‘play’ or the ‘person’?  The person commanded and gave much, and everyone around him followed in some distinctive fashion.  Eric Gable wrote ‘he made us all feel we were chosen to be in a special, and significant, calling.’  Yet many of us – I can speak for many but not all – were conflicted about how to return, ... and to whom.  It is with this speculation that one thinks that maybe Chris was not the ‘person,’ but rather the ‘play--’...Too powerful to comfortably fit on any stage life affords.  He created a form that everybody sought to follow, but, so far as I know, nobody quite could, or, after a while,  really wanted to.  Invariably we all were forced to go our own ways....perhaps precisely the effect fathers must have on their offspring, literal and figurative.

Unparalleled at instigating searches for the deep orders that govern our fates, Chris was too ambiguous a figure to be anything more than captivating.  And for those of you who do not know him, trust me, there are hundreds of people touched by his inexpressible, and incomparable, dynamism, however painful it was.  Some few of us followed his magic out of one or more of his undergraduate classes into the discipline of anthropology.  We sprinkle the audience here, and directly and indirectly lap up on near and distant shores.  But many more went on to do other things, Chris being the epitome of their undergraduate experiences, and so, another model many of us try to emulate.  Appalled at what I see as the thoughtlessness that runs our current world, I started one of my courses this semester virtually shouting at the assembled students telling them it was their job here to learn, to be more intelligent, and to do something better with their experiences here, or at least with me, and for the future....As with Chris, some could stand to stay for the serious lessons that are following....  It was a bit intense, but I could do this thinking I was remaining faithful to what I received from Crocker. One of my fondest memories of Chris is not of him at all, but of an undergraduate of a few years back.  This young woman let me know in no uncertain terms that her mentor was Chris, and I could just shut up and play the supporting role I was assigned.  I think she took my wonder that he was still doing that for a challenge.  It was not.  It was wonder.  And pleasure, at seeing another person still touched by his gifts, however sick of heart and body he then was.

That pleasure, of course, has its ways of spreading.  Some time in the late 1980s, maybe early 1990s, Chris confessed to me that his book Vital Souls had hit the water and not even caused a ripple.  Given the fashions of the time, that was correct.  Yet though we have not been close for a decade or more, it has been my pleasure to meet scholars of South America, and elsewhere, and learn that they too hold his work in high regard.  Clearly the center of Andean studies for decades has been the University of Illinois at Urbana and under the wing, mostly, of Tom Zuidema; I know  that all of his students were early introduced to Chris’s work.  Juan Ossio told me when I was with him in Peru that Vital Souls “is just a beautiful book.” So not a ripple on the water.  But perhaps instead a rewarding retreat from this noisy world to visit every once in a while....  For respite, .... for reflection, ....for contemplation, and then maybe a better way to approach this busy world of our’s.  We all hope to provide this; some few of us do.  In his Introduction to Hocart’s Kings and Councillors Rodney Needham writes of the benefits of “communicat[ing] with remarkable men.” Chris was one of these remarkable men.


Indians of North and South America; ethnology of Europe; structural analysis of kinship; rationality and myth; shamanism; political anthropology; comparative studies of kingship and sacrifice in Africa and Meso-America.