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Kenneth M. Kensinger



Ken Kensinger standing in front of a diner

Ken Kensinger at the Blue Benn diner, Bennington, August 20 2007. Photo courtesy of Michael F. Brown ©2007.

From Warren DeBoer and Sara Stinson:

Dear Salsa members: Sara and I are deeply saddened by news of Ken's death. Rarely do such ample doses of kindness, gentle wit, and sharp intelligence occur in one individual. Take a bunch of cantankerous, underemployed, yet vain academics, put them in cushy chairs in a room just small enough to be cozy, and let the papers begin. In 1970s archaeology, this would have been a recipe for melee ending in the arrival of a SWAT team. At Bennington Conferences, quietly steered by Ken, the ideal format of scholarly exchange was actually approached. I was allowed to speak as an archaeologist without being chided for not being an ethnographer. Sara talked about the anthropometry of native South Americans at a time when, according to some anthropologists, anything smacking of biology should be suppressed. Being an "old-timer" of four field persuasion and knowledge, Ken always saw to it that different perspectives were not only tolerated, but encouraged.

I don't remember where I first met Ken - perhaps Berkeley where Pat Lyon introduced him as the "legendary" ethnographer whose fieldnotes were in Cashinahua, perhaps the 1970 SAA meetings in Mexico where Ken, Don Lathrap, Trudy Dole, and a bunch of grad students presented papers on Panoan ceramics, or perhaps in an elevator on the Upper West Side where, if memory can accurately penetrate 40 years, Ken, Mike Harner, Josie Kramer, Ruth Bunzel (!), and I were ascending to some party hosted by Roberta Campos and Joan Abelove. It was Ken, sensing that I was the young (!) foreigner from the left coast, who introduced me to Ruth Bunzel - for me to meet the author of the Pueblo Potter was as thrilling as meeting Papa Franz himself, and was one of those coincidences that stimulated my study of ancient pottery. For years, Ken offered advice couched in anecdotes, edifying, if annoying, facts that suggested otherwise, and always those eyes simultaneously intimating sadness and good cheer.

I last saw Ken at the Seeger party following the Annapolis meetings. I last heard from him in a late-night phonecall. He asked: Warren, what do the Shipibo call this kind of fish trap? I don't remember what I told him. Take care, Warren (DeBoer) and Sara (Stinson), both honored to have our lives graced by the legendary ethnographer.

A group of anthropologists holds up letters that spell out the words Hi Ken

Attendees at the 2010 SALSA conference send Ken Kensinger a photographic greeting. Photo courtesy Jean Jackson ©2010.

From Janet Chernela:

When, in the early eighties, Brian Burkhalter and I (both graduate students of Robert Murphy's) moved the NYC movable feast of Lowland South Americanists to the home of Bob Murphy, Ken Kensinger was a loyal visitor. Whether driving up from Philadelphia (where he studied at Penn), or driving down from Bennington, Ken was always early to arrive and late to leave. I believe this was because Ken came less to meet with the students and faculty from in and around NY, than to pay respects to Murphy, whom he much admired and who was then suffering from paralysis. Yet it was Ken who took that group to a different level when he initiated his weekend summer meetings at Bennington. At those meetings Ken opened his home to intellectual meanderings and eccentricities as participants explored field stories and scholarship. At Ken's home pedantry was vehemently unwelcome, but most everything else was. Many of the anthropologists who later formed SALSA were nurtured by his generosity and encouragement. Ken initiated the series Working Papers on South American Indians that later became South American Indian Studies. The simplicity in the names speaks to his memory: ever suspicious of pretentiousness, Ken espoused a scholarship that was honest and close to native American expression. As a student of Ward Goodenough, Ken favored an emic approach that was based in Kenneth Pike's, not Marvin Harris's distinctions of emic and etic. He sought an anthropology that did not veer far from the source. And that source was, as I think Ken would remind us still, the people with whom we work. His book How Real People Ought to Live is one of the most important contributions of the lively South American anthropology that thrived at the end of the twentieth century.

Ken Kensinger with Pat Lyon and Jeffrey Ehrenreich at the 2004 conference of SALSA in Miami

Ken Kensinger with Pat Lyon and Jeffrey Ehrenreich at SALSA's 2004 conference in Miami. Photo courtesy Janet Chernela ©2004.

From Tufí Torres Silva, Huni Kuin from Balta:

Pucallpa, 24 de Mayo de 2010

Peki nukun haibu KIN nun habe dayapaunikidi en matu bana bimaai, en el año 1959 y 1962 anudan

Bueno, les hago saber lo que hemos trabajado con nuestro amigo Kin entre los años 1959 y 1962.

Haskaken, nukun haibu KENSINGER nuticia(kaka) nun ninkaa, nun nui haidaxinaki, el dia 16 de mayo de 2010 anudan ixinkendan.

Por eso nosotros hemos escuchado la noticia sobre nuestro amigo Kensinger, y estábamos tristes el día 16 de mayo de 2010 cuando sucedió.

Peki nukun haibube dayaai inun nun beyuspauni, en matu bana bimaai ninkakanwe. Beyusidan nun eskapauniki: Katxa nawaidan, tete pei peu wa txidindan, Hai ikaidan, Bake mixtinbu nixpu pimaidan, beyus betsa betsapa nukun haibu KINbe nun beyuspauniki.

Bien, hemos trabajado junto con nuestro amigo Kin realizando fiestas típicas. Les voy a hacer saber cómo realizábamos esas fiestas: entiéndame. Danzamos el marirí con la pluma de gavilán, bailando hacia atrás; cazamos animales sin darles de comer nixpu a los niños; diferentes juegos hemos realizado con nuestro amigo Kin.

Ha dukundan nun katxa wapauniki, tau pustu senkexun, naxtintan buxun mae anu, iti anu datanxun saimana bestiki nun nami wapauniki yuinaka betsa-betsapadan. Hati yuinaka nun tsakapauniki: awadan, txaxudan, yawadan, anudan, madidan, hasindan, kuxudan, kebudan, isudan, dudan, xinudan, yaixdan, kapedan, xawedan. Hati yuinaka tsakaxun nanekin bawaxun katxa nawakin, nun pipauniki.

Primero realizábamos la danza de marirí cortando el tronco de la barriga de pona, llevándolo a la aldea y colocándolo allí donde la fiesta se iba a celebrar una semana después; nos fuimos a buscar carne de diferentes animales, y cazábamos sachavaca, venado, sajino, majás, añunje, paujil, pava de monte, pucagunga, maquisapa, coto mono, mono negro, carachupa, lagarto, motelo, tortuga: todos estos animales cazábamos, los asábamos, los ahumábamos y los comíamos durante en la danza de marirí.

Hati nukun haibu KINbe nukun beya nun beyuspauniki:

Estos somos los que jugábamos con nuestro amigo Kin en esos rituales:

Hati Ipaunibuk KIN bedan.

Todos ellos estaban con Kin.

Ha mae anu hiweidan Conta anu nun ipauniki, Curanja manankidi anudan. Hanua Balta anu nun hiwepauniki.

La aldea donde vivíamos era Conta, en el alto río Curanja, y luego pasamos a Balta.

Hania ainbu midima haida inibuki:

Y también varias mujeres trabajaran con él:

Hati ipaunibuki, hanua ainbun nukun haibu KIN disi waxun inankin, kanun neaya inun tadi sampu waxun inankin, dani maiti waxun, binu waxun inankin wapaunibuki nukun haibu KENSIGERdan.

Las mujeres hicieron hamacas para regalarle, ropas como el sampu, la túnica del jefe; (los hombres) regalaron a nuestro amigo Ken arcos, diademas de plumas, mazas.

KINdan, haibun kenexuki,

Escribí a Kin,

Tufí Torres

Tufi Torres Silva, DNI 00190037, Profesor Cesante Comunidad Nativa Conta – Río Purús, Perú.

From Alf Hornborg:

Although my memories of Ken only extend to the early nineties, I share with so many other Salseros the feeling that we have lost a dear friend whose central role in convening a community for Amazonian studies was based on his personal as much as his scholarly qualities. Since some of you may be intrigued to hear that Ken donated his extensive ethnographic library to Uppsala University, and that there is a hall at its Department of Cultural Anthropology formally designated the Kensinger Room, I would like to provide a glimpse of this Swedish connection. I was scheduled to deliver a paper on Panoan marriage sections at Ken’s panel in the 1991 meeting of the International Congress of Americanists, in New Orleans, but was unable to participate because of fieldwork in Nova Scotia. My Uppsala colleague Jan-Åke Alvarsson kindly agreed to read my paper, however, which initiated many years of collaboration across the Atlantic. Whether in Uppsala or Lund, or over our recurrent dinners at AAA meetings, my encounters with Ken have left memories of an exceptionally kind and generous colleague.

Alf Hornborg

From Nancy Flowers:

Here are two photographs of Ken Kensinger at a Bennington meeting.

Ken's unique talent for bringing together colleagues as friends, along with the warmth of his hospitality, made each meeting a space for free and open exchange of experiences and fresh ideas. I miss you very much, Ken, as do all your friends, and I thank you for the memory of those summer meetings.

Nancy Flowers

Ken posing with friends outdoors at Bennington during one of the summer meetings.  Friends in this photo include Waud Kracke and Nancy Flowers.

Above: Ken Kensinger and friends at Bennington during the 1994 Bennington meeting.
From left to right: Gertrude Dole, Ken Kensinger, Jean Langdon, Waud Kracke, Lucia Villela, and Nancy Flowers.
Below: Ken addresses attendees at Bennington. Seated, left: Arthur Sorensen. Seated, right: Robert Carneiro.
Photos courtesy Nancy Flowers ©2010.

Ken Kensinger in the meeting room at Bennington, speaking to an audience.  All the audience members are laughing although Ken's expression is deadpan.

From Jean Jackson:

Here are some of my recollections; I hope my memories are accurate. I first met Ken the summer of 1971 when I was writing my thesis. I was living with a Stanford grad student, Ted Johnson, who had been a Master’s student of Ken’s at Temple. Both Ken and Ted had come from deeply conservative Protestant families. Ted had traveled with Ken to the Cashinawa back when Ken was still with SIL—Ted had been thinking of becoming a missionary himself. I don’t know the whole story, but that visit convinced Ted to choose another career, and he went to Yale, majoring in anthropology (and then to Madison Avenue for a couple of years before Stanford). Ken would spend his summers in San Francisco teaching at SF State, and trying to write his thesis.

Ken and Ward Goodenough, his adviser, constituted something of a folie à deux pair with respect to ethnographic comprehensiveness, and the thesis already was over 1,000 pages. Realizing that he was not going to finish was a long and painful process for Ken.

Ken was a wonderful person—to my knowledge, everyone who met him felt so. He had a great sense of humor, could laugh about himself, was extremely considerate, empathic, kind, just a totally decent human being. He loved his dogs, all of them, I believe, Dachshunds. He was a gardener and a great cook. He loved teaching, loved mentoring, loved supporting scholarship. It was he who for years made sure there was at least one AAA session dedicated to a lowland South American theme.


From Jean Langdon:

Jean Jackson has captured so well Ken in her memories – I think that all of us who participated in the Bennington meetings have similar memories of plants, dogs, great discussions, humor, kindness and honesty. I remember intimate talks with Ken, his crisis in his 50s and the liberation that came with psychoanalysis. Most of all I remember his honest reflexivity, combined with humor, and many of you must remember his narrative of how he was saved from Christianity by the Cashinahua Indians and then from Anthropology by ayahuasca. He took ayahuasca with them one night during his doctoral research and had this vision of a huge industrial stainless steel mixing bowl and mixer. The bowl was spinning and gleaming, with the mixer's blades churning and whipping something in it, which he couldn't see because of its height. He also saw a hand throwing letters into whatever was being whipped in the bowl - M A L I N O W S K I, B O A S, L E A C H, L E V I - S T R A U S S, G L U C K M A N, etc. He struggled to see over the rim of the bowl, pulling himself up by his hands, but blanked out as he got to the top. The next morning he asked the Indians if he had said anything about what he had seen, and they replied yes, you said mierda.

May we all be saved.

Jean Langdon

From Jan-Åke Alvarsson

Ken Kensinger in Uppsala, Sweden, to receive his honorary doctorate.Ken Kensinger at a reception in Uppsala after receiving his honorary doctorate.  He is speaking to a professor and a student, standing in front of a bookcase containing part of the book collection that Ken donated to the university.

Ken Kensinger during his visit to Uppsala to receive his honorary doctorate from Uppsala University in 1999. Ken Kensinger and Mary Douglas are the only anthropologists to receive this honor. First photo: Ken in tails at the University Park with the main University building in the background, just after the ceremony. Second photo: at the reception in the Department of Cultural Anthropology afterwards, with noted Africanist Anita Jacobson-Widding and young scholar Sverker Finnström. The room was later renamed the Kensinger Room in his honor. The books that appear in the background are from Ken's book and archive donation to Uppsala University. Photos courtesy Jan-Åke Alvarsson © 1999.

From Harriet E. Manelis Klein

Barefaced Lies and Post-Menopausal Potshots

Presented at the 20th annual South American Indian Conference, Bennington, VT, August 3 1996.

In Ken's book on The Cashinahua of Eastern Peru or his Feathers book as I've thought about it, he discussed some of the problems he encountered while trying to learn the Cashinahua language. One of these was the way to learn verbs. My rediscovery of his comments came about as I started to work on my presentation on greetings, that is, to answer the question of “how do languages deal with a question of greeting, equivalent to the English, ‘what's up?’ or to be more polite, ‘whatcha doin?’” Ken notes (Kensinger 1975:16):

Some time later, I realized what it all meant. Min hawa wai does mean “what are you doing?” and en hawa maki means “I'm not doing anything.” However, the significance does not lie in the meaning of the words but in the sequence and the cultural rules. The question is not asked in order to find out what a person is doing. One's actions are visible. Rather it's a query about one's mood. If the response to the initial question is a statement of one's activity, the implication is that the individual is busy and does not wish to be bothered, or that he is not in the mood to be sociable. A response of “I'm not doing anything,” implies “pull up a turtle shell and talk.” This sequence is not unlike our “how are you?” which generally calls for a “fine, thank you, and how are you?” response. In general, only a doctor is looking for a detailed and accurate response to “how are you?”

After I read the above paragraph, I thought it would be much more interesting to allow myself to disappoint those of you who were expecting a linguistic paper on greetings, and instead present a paper entitled “Farewells.” But that would be such a one-dimensional act. To be truthful, this presentation is not even a paper, but rather some attempt on my part to acknowledge the wisdom, virtue, and wit of my friend and colleague, Ken Kensinger, as we participate in the final South American Indian Conference at Bennington, in the way we have always interacted – with puns, giggles and often ribald humor. And that is why I have chosen to change my paper to a title of BAREFACED LIES AND POST-MENOPAUSAL POTSHOTS.

I owe this new title to one of Ken's works – Hardfaced Hussies and Flaccid Fellows. In that work, we are treated to Cashinahua concepts of shame, shaming and shamelessness. I didn't realize when I first met Ken how well I was going to understand those concepts.

For those of you who don't know it, I was Ken's TA at Columbia University, the year he taught there, that is AY 1970–1971. Part of my responsibilities was to sit in the lectures and demonstrations he gave to students in the introductory anthropological linguistics class. There was a particularly buxom graduate student who wore blouses which allowed a significant cleavage to be displayed and who incidentally sat in the front row – a lethal combination for a red-blooded ex-missionary. It was in that context that I came to understand the Cashinahua concepts of ‘to feel ashamed’ that is, embarrassment or the shame one causes oneself to feel. And shame – well that was something I was very good at making Ken feel, that is, I had great fun making Ken's face hot (that is the Cashinahua way of expressing shame), and I caused that as a result of both my verbal and nonverbal disapproval of his behavior, i.e. peering down the blouse of a well-endowed female graduate student. He would then say that I was shameless, that is, as the Cashinahua say, “one who has a hard face.” But we've never really played this out (or at least not yet!) in what the Murphys in Women of the Forest said is “the public fantasy of ritual.”

Another arena in which Ken and I have had fun was in terms of kinship – a semantic domain in which both socio-cultural anthropology and linguistic anthropology overlap. An understanding of Cashinahua concepts has enabled me to figure out Ken's relationship to me and my family. From his article on Panoan Kinship Terminology (Kensinger 1995:160), we learn that the cross sex sibling relationship, pui, is the most basic and enduring social relationship in Cashinahua society. It is characterized by affection, loyalty and mutual support and it is highly egalitarian. That's true! Furthermore, we learn from his work on Cashinahua siblingship (1995:95) that siblings and cross siblings are the most significant and enduring of social relationships. I also learned why I should consider myself to be (1995:91) Ken's older sister. Although I am five years younger than Ken, in the ideal world (not the pragmatic or existential – to use his terms), my daughter would be ideal for his son. Furthermore, the older sister or chippy, I mean Cashinahua chipi, often bears … responsibility … (I feel free to nag him about the dangers of smoking, for example, and he feels free to sit in my kitchen in Leonia, leave his car in my driveway, and sometimes to reveal his dreams). The bonds of affection created endure, according to the Cashinahua, for life, whether the chipi is an actual older sister or an older parallel cousin.

One of the first things I learned from Ken about the Cashinahua was their way of categorizing the world. Although the model for discussing classifications was especially robust in the early 1970s and there were plenty of examples to follow, I found Ken's approach to analyzing the Cashinahua world was one of the clearest examples of the ethnoscientific method that I had come across. Furthermore, it has allowed me to find a way of explaining to you a little bit about how I think Ken views you and me and himself. By setting up the real vs. unreal in kinship, marriage rules, food, and cosmology, for example, we get a handle on Ken's thinking as well. Thus, the model presented in Real vs. Unreal (1995:91) leads to an understanding of many aspects of Cashinahua. His classification of food into three dyadic pairs of categories: ideally real and jurally real vs. unreal food or, individually and existentially real vs. unreal food and pragmatically real vs. unreal food is truly “unreal.” Try it, you'll see!

As we all know from Ken's many opi, he has written a considerable amount on themes close to his late 20th century heart — sex, hunting, knowledge and the putative intersection of all three — or more specifically and I quote him …your knowledge is in your balls (Kensinger 1995:239). Of course, he was not referring to himself – or was he? – when he wrote about Tapir and his encounter with a beautiful land turtle – and Tapir's subsequent misadventures (Kensinger 1995). The title is something – The Body Knows — boy, does it!

Well, if one's knowledge is not in one's balls? Or if one does not have balls, does it mean that one does not have knowledge? Oh, no! Where does thinking take place then? — with apologies to the Cashinahua, for Ken — around pickled beans, rounds of brie, bread and “smokes” (both legal and controlled).

As to social knowledge — well the Cashinahua say it is gained through and resides in the ears. Ken's a great human being, a unique social being, even though he is considered by himself and his physicians to be somewhat deaf, which according to the Cashinahua means he is patapa ‘deaf’ and therefore either a social misfit (NAAGH!) or a person who flaunts social conventions (more easy to accept)!

And parenthetically, I'm sure you know that Ken has a twin brother. According to the Cashinahua (Kensinger 1995:210) discussed in Living with Spirit Beings, twins are called “spirit children” – I always knew Ken was a free spirit.

But I digress. And then there is Cashinahua liver knowledge – the Cashinahua say a person who is generous, pleasant and happy has a sweet liver, that is, his liver has a lot of knowledge. “His face is sweet. His whole body is sweet.” O!K! – we can grant him that.

But to return to Ken's sexual – oops, I mean textual interests. In “Hunting and Male Domination in Cashinahua society” (1995:31), Ken comments on the relationship between perceived scarcity and the high value of meat. He notes that endorphins lead to “good hunting which causes good pain.” I think that comment is very revealing. You'll see why a little later. He discusses the fact that the Cashinahua have three styles of hunting – real, regular and play. Real hunting is done with intensity, and is equivalent to a new love; regular hunting is non-intensive and like an old love; play hunting – well that's something else again – it's done to escape domestic nagging. I think the Cashinahua taught him how to avoid “play” hunting. They also taught him, however, about their link between food and sex. This link shows up all over the Cashinahua language – that is, in their vocabulary of eating and drinking, of the hunt, gardening, and of flora and fauna. These domains all are “sources of blatant and subtle sexual puns” and were part of Ken's learning Cashinahua culture (Ken's humming songs and the Cashinahua's hysterical responses, for example).

Which brings me back to food. In “Food Taboos as Markers of Age Categories in Cashinahua” (1995:194), Ken argues that

(1) Taboo systems are ideological systems and that the reasons for their perpetuation, and perhaps their emergence, are at least partly ideological; (2) that the viability of the taboo systems is to a large extent the result of the degree to which the taboo system is integrated with other aspects of the ideological system; (3) that taboo systems, and probably all aspects of ideological systems, may result in behavior which can be both adaptive and maladaptive; (4) that the degree to which societies enforce taboo systems frequently is related to prevailing economic circumstances, namely food shortages; and (5) that belief systems which consistently produce maladaptive behavior significantly reduce the survival chances both of the societies and their belief systems.

Now what do food taboos, ideology and belief systems have in common? They provide us with explanations for not eating certain foods. In fact, for the Cashinahua, there are three kinds of explanations: traditional, gustatory and cosmological. And so specific food taboos become one of the defining features or markers of the various stages in the life cycle of an individual. Informants frequently identify a person's membership in an age category by noting the observance of food taboo or lack thereof. This understanding of the Cashinahua that Ken provides us with, shows his own understanding of body knowledge: he/we are faced with taboos against acid-provoking, ulcer-producing, cholesterol-raising foods – thereby effectively also placing non-Cashinahua in age categories.

Well, since we don't have to worry about food anymore, we do need to think about How Real People Ought to Live. Ken enlightens us: hunting, next to sex, is the major passion in the life of a Cashinahua male (1995:11). But what about a Bennington male? Sex does seem to be a universal interest, what about hunting? From my point of view hunting is work – that is, hunting for data, clues, good students, friendly colleagues, savory friends, the bon mot, etc. And so, Ken is as impassioned as a Cashinahua hunter, which is why I said earlier that good hunting causes good pain and that is how real people live. Furthermore, we know that ideally each adult male has a hunting territory over which he has total exploitative control but not ownership (1995:12). Cashinahua beliefs have been transformed into Bennington beliefs (he doesn't own this place – alas!) and so I rest my case, temporarily.

Upon serious reflection of Ken's thinking, you don't have to search very far to get to another and more contemporaneous area of interest. There is an eminent quote which reflects a very real and dirty political situation that Ken has had to deal with these last few years here in Bennington in particular: "When a man is bathing in the river and a turd floats by, he doesn't have to see who shat in the river to know somebody is there. He [or his life–author's comment] is contaminated nonetheless" (Kensinger 1995:263) Again, alas.

Finally, I return once more to feathers – where I started earlier. As you probably know, the headman's symbol of office is a basket of feathers (Kensinger 1995:176). I tried to find one, but couldn't – you'll have to take my word for it. As Ken tells it, although a headman may have some influence outside his village because he is a man with knowledge, the village is his primary sphere of action. The headman, however, sees life as a constant struggle to allocate his resources, his energy, and his influence wisely among the multiplicity of often conflicting kinship (and other collegial) demands … For him, life is neither heaven nor hell; it is a chase of an elusive quarry; it is a hunt which demands all the skills he can muster. Our Ken is such a headman.

And with that I'll end my barefaced lies and post-menopausal potshots. Thank you all for your indulgence.


1975. Kenneth M. Kensinger, Phyllis Rabineau, Helen Tanner, Susan G. Ferguson, and Alice Dawson, The Cashinahua of Eastern Peru. Edited by Jane Powell Dwyer. Providence, RI: Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology.

1991. Kenneth M. Kensinger. A Body of Knowledge, or, the Body Knows. Lecture presented at the beginning of the exhibition “The Gift of Feathers” at the University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, November 13 1991. Expedition 33(3):37–45.

1995. Kenneth M. Kensinger. How Real People Ought to Live: The Cashinahua of Eastern Peru. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

Ken and Harriet Klein in the Bennington meeting room, August 1996

Above: Ken Kensinger and Harriet E. Manelis Klein during the 1996 Bennington meeting.
Below: Ken with Harriet E. Manelis Klein (right) and her daughter (left) at Harriet's retirement party, Montclair State University, 1998.
Photos courtesy Harriet E. Manelis Klein ©1996, 1998.

Ken Kensinger with Harriet Klein and Harriet's daughter Rachel, at Harriet's retiirement party, Montclair State University, 1998.