Driving up highway 101 south of Orick, Calif., I kept an eye out for a scenic rest area that, according to a memoir by his wife, Theodora, had once been the site of a cabin owned by Alfred Kroeber.

            It's through Kroeber that the Yurok people made their way in the world of learning, their lives distilled into a monograph and footnote. In 1900, Kroeber, the father of academic anthropology in California, began a series of encounters with the Yurok that lasted many years. Many of these Q & A sessions were at this cabin, formerly located in the scenic rest area where I was now peering under the hood of my wagon, trying to figure out why my brakes had stopped working.

            Here, at the place known as Sigornoy, Kroeber would interrogate Indians, chiefly Robert Spott, a Yurok theocrat. Their conversations eventually had academic consequence in such works as "Yurok Narratives" and figured in Kroeber's dispassionate reflections on the supposed "character" of the Yurok, scattered through various works. The Yurok were, he wrote on one occasion, an "inwardly fearful people . the men often seemed to me withdrawn." Kroeber mused that "for some reason, the culture had simply gone hypochondriac." Kroeber never got around to mentioning that between 1848, the start of the Gold Rush, and 1910, the Yurok population in the region was reduced from about 2,500 individuals to about 610. Disease, starvation and murder had wiped out about 75 percent of the group. It is as though an anthropologist studying the inward fears of Polish Jews never mentioned Auschwitz.

            In his "Handbook of the Indians of California," published by the Bureau of American Ethnology in 1925, Kroeber wrote that "there is one Indian in California today for every eight that lived in the same area before white man came." Then he mused that "the causes of this decline of nearly 90 percent . are obscure."

            Kroeber, eager to identify American anthropology in terms of "millennial sweeps and grand contours," had little patience with that shorter chronological span encompassing the extermination of most of the California tribal groups he was presuming to study. As he put it, "the billions of woes and gratifications of peaceful citizens or bloody deaths" were of no concern. He visited the desperate Native Americans of California, writing these tranquil ethnologies, sometimes after only a couple weeks with the group, all but ignoring the end of history elapsing before his eyes.

            This posture bothered some of Kroeber's professional associates. The linguist Edward Sapir wrote him in 1938, "You find anchorage -- as most people do, for that matter -- in an imaginative sundered system of cultural and social values in the face of which the individual has almost to apologize for presuming to exist at all. It seems to me that if people were less amenable to cultural and social mythology, we'd have less Hitlerism in the world."

            In the back of my station wagon I had the special 1989 California issue of The American Indian Quarterly, in which Thomas Buckley discussed Kroeber's attitude to the Yurok and his relationship with the Yurok aristocrat, Spott. Buckley described how Kroeber was once asked why he hadn't paid any attention to recent Yurok history and acculturation. Kroeber answered that he "couldn't stand all the tears" that these topics elicited from his Yurok informants.

            Not that Kroeber was indifferent to pain. He'd been through a fairly harrowing time in the century's second decade, suffering from Meniere's Disease and psychic ailments, undergoing some lengthy sessions with a Freudian psychoanalyst. He also corresponded with Freud himself. Kroeber's remark about the tears reminding me of a sudden outburst from Freud once, to one of his intimates, about the filthy and despicable lives of people who ended up on his couch in Berggasse 19. There may be a secret text here. A fellow who had it from a Yurok once told me Kroeber was a closet gay and Spott was his lover.

            Freud fortified Kroeber's addiction to the sweeping cultural judgment. "Among other things," Kroeber wrote in his big work, "Anthropology," "Freud set up oral and anal types of personality ... The personality of anal character is orderly, economical and tenacious; or, in its less pleasant aspects, pedantically precise, conscientious and persistent; miserly; and obstinate to vindictiveness . Now, just as the anal-type description fits certain individuals quite strikingly, it seems to agree pretty well with the average or modal personality produced under certain cultures. This holds for instance for the Yurok of native California and their cotribes of the same culture. It holds also for certain Melanesians . On the contrary, within Oceania, Polynesians, Indonesions and Australians are wholly unanal in character, the Australians in fact standing at a sort of opposite pole of living happily in disorder, in freedom from possessions and in fluctuations of the moment. And the Siamese are certainly oral if the type has any validity at all."

            Kroeber was basing his perceptions of the Siamese on the work of Ruth Benedict, who had never been to Siam but was keen on majestic generalizations about native traits, having begun her career by contrasting two American Indian cultures, that of the Plains bison hunters and that of the Southwestern Zuni and other Pueblo farmers, as being respectively Dionysiac and "Apollinian" (to use Kroeber's spelling). During the second World War, the U.S. government commissioned Benedict to write a study of Siam, and she responded speedily enough, stating in her book that much in Siamese politics and society could be explained by early child nurture, during which period infants were permitted to manipulate their genitals freely.

            Spott was once reproached by his nephew for spending so much time with Kroeber, whose work didn't do the Yurok much good. "Ah, Harry," Spott answered, "white men hurt so much. We have to help him."

            I think the Indian had a surer grip on the ethno-cultural problems.

            Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2003 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.