“I don’t think any anthropologist should be satisfied with their ability to reciprocate adequately,” said Danilyn Rutherford.

The president of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research was discussing her work in the Indonesian province of West Papua. But her sense of commitment and obligation also extends to aspiring anthropologists and to the discipline itself. The Research Matters editors visited Rutherford, a former SSRC fellow who later served as an International Dissertation Research Fellowship reviewer and faculty mentor, in her Manhattan office as she and her colleagues were coming to the end of the foundation’s spring grant cycle. Wenner-Gren supports hundreds of anthropology PhDs and postdocs each year, reaching every corner of the globe. Rutherford left UC Santa Cruz’s anthropology department, where she had served as chair, to head the foundation in 2017. The position has offered her an “opportunity to have a bird’s-eye view on the kind of research anthropologists are doing and a chance to be a cheerleader and advocate for the discipline, which I feel passionately about.”

She first became familiar with West Papua, her own research site, while teaching in Java as part of Volunteers in Asia after graduating from Stanford University. “There were a lot of students from other parts of Indonesia, including what was then called Irian Jaya” (now the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua). She also became familiar with the enduring stereotypes of the region’s inhabitants—“Stone Age tribes, the most primitive of the primitive.” Even today, she said, “It’s the one place that you can still say incredibly colonial and racist things and get away with it.”

After her program ended, Rutherford returned to the United States and worked for a nonprofit giving out small grants, but she knew that she wanted to go back. She “liked living someplace else, being part of other people’s households, learning to adapt to other environments.” She had no interest in being a tourist and reasoned that a graduate program would allow her to return to Indonesia for an extended period of time. And so, in a sense, Rutherford explained, “I came to anthropology by way of Indonesia.”

Rutherford ended up getting her doctorate in anthropology at Cornell. She enrolled in her PhD program having never taken an anthropology class. She had only read a handful of texts on her own. “I read Clifford Geertz’s The Religion of Java in Java. That was as much anthropology as I’d ever read.” The appeal of Cornell, at first, was that its program had the fewest requirements, and it was the home institution of renowned scholar of Indonesia Benedict Anderson. Anderson was blacklisted by President Suharto’s New Order in the early 1970s. At the time, she said, “That was good enough for me.”

In 1990, the SSRC awarded Rutherford an International Doctoral Research Fellowship “For Research in Indonesia and Holland on the Social and Symbolic Construction of Authority and Its Relation to Social Relations on the Island of Biak.” (“That’s a horrible title,” she laughed when reminded, “how dreadful.”) But her less-than-provocative title was a deliberate attempt to make a project in a highly contested region of Indonesia sound “mildly benign.” When Rutherford applied to do fieldwork in West Papua, it was a “longshot for funding”—no one had gotten the Indonesian government’s permission to conduct research there since the 1960s. Three decades later, it seemed like the barriers might be lifting, but her choice of locale was still risky. But the SSRC took a chance on Rutherford’s project. She also received a grant from Wenner-Gren and with the support of both organizations was able to get funding from Fulbright. Rutherford lived on the island of Biak for 18 months from 1990–91 doing research for her dissertation, in addition to 12 months of archival research on the Dutch colonial regime. “Having that extended research has really sustained me through a whole mess of my scholarship.”

Rutherford on a trip back to Biak in 2016.

She still has close ties to West Papua, and continues to feel a sense of responsibility toward those she met and worked with there. The people she met in Biak during her fieldwork were far from the stereotypes she had encountered during her stint in Java: “they were incredibly cosmopolitan, outspoken, extremely conscious of their place in world history.” Over the course of her career, she formed close relationships with Papuan scholars and activists, many of who were involved in the pursuit of national self-determination. “Every time you do ethnography, you enter into ethical relationships.  You face ethical demands that are in the end impossible to fully satisfy.” “My third book, which is in press right now, is perhaps the most explicit in trying to provide some kind of a recompense.” Living in the Stone Age: Reflections on the Origins of a Colonial Fantasy draws on archival research in the Netherlands to tackle the legacy of colonialism and the lingering effects of the “Stone Age” stereotype, which historically has been detrimental to Papuans’ aspirations for independence and continues to threaten their well-being.

While studying at Cornell she was also “seduced into more purely theoretical work,” an attraction that has held throughout her career. “I came into anthropology as someone who was fascinated with Indonesia, fascinated with this particular place, and had to turn myself into an anthropologist. Then I ended up at the University of Chicago teaching theory courses.”

Rutherford stayed at Chicago for 11 years. Two life events during her time there would end up shaping the rest of her career. She had her daughter, Millie, who was diagnosed with severe disabilities. And shortly before she got tenure, her husband passed away. At that point, she said, “the part of the job that involved service and being supportive of other people suddenly became much more meaningful for me.” Although she had anticipated returning to Indonesia to do more fieldwork, “because of Millie’s situation I wasn’t able to do extended research.” Mentoring and advising early-career anthropologists became a central component of her career.

If Rutherford’s path into anthropology was unconventional, the story of how Axel Wenner-Gren, a wealthy Swedish industrialist and the foundation’s namesake, came to establish one of the discipline’s central funding sources is downright strange. Paul Fejos, an avant-garde filmmaker whose claim to fame was a film “about the last five minutes of the life of a man killing himself by drowning,” persuaded Wenner-Gren to devote the foundation to anthropology. The two men responsible for the creation of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research (originally the Viking Fund) in 1941 at first had only a faint idea of what anthropology actually was. In this fortuitous origin story, Rutherford sees an opportunity—and duty—to leverage the foundation’s resources for the betterment of the discipline as a whole, not just to advance the careers of individual grantees. Even applicants who don’t receive grants are given advice and guidance about how to make their projects better. “It’s this crazy accident that we exist. This is the resource that really belongs to the community that is anthropology. Figuring out ways to make the foundation as responsive to its constituents as possible is something that I’ve tried to prioritize.”

Danilyn Rutherford and daughter
Rutherford with her daughter Millie.

Rutherford has also been working on a new, National Science Foundation–funded project closer to home, one that she hopes will have an impact beyond academia, dubbed the “Millie project.” Inspired by life with her daughter, the project explores “what you can learn from the social worlds that emerge around people who are cognitively very atypical and are atypical sign users.” Though still in its early stages, she hopes that her current research will address questions within the discipline but also speak to a broader public. It’s an impulse that she’s seen permeating the discipline more generally. More and more budding anthropologists are proposing projects they hope will have an impact outside their field. This is not to say that potential real-world impact is a prerequisite at the foundation. Rutherford maintained that “there needs to be space for people doing deep thinking on topics that are not immediately operationalizable in the form of a product or policy.” Rutherford remembers what a colleague once told her: “Wenner-Gren is a place where you don’t have to pretend to be anything but an anthropologist.” What that means, exactly, has evolved over the course of Wenner-Gren’s 77-year history. Since the foundation’s unlikely beginning, Rutherford said, “We’ve always been trying to figure out what anthropology is and can be. We still are.”