John Napoleon Brinton Hewitt

Undated portrait of John Napoleon Brinton Hewitt. (NAA INV 02858800, Photo Lot 33, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.)

Native American (Tuscarora), Ethnography, Linguistics,
Museum Work

John Napoleon Brinton Hewitt


JNB Hewitt was an Indigenous anthropologist of mixed ancestry who worked for the Smithsonian Bureau of American Ethnology for 51 years, devoting his scholarship to preserving aspects of the languages and oral traditions of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.  

John Napoleon Brinton Hewitt was born in 1859 on the Tuscarora Reservation near Lewiston, New York, to Harriet Printup Hewitt, a Tuscarora enrollee, and Dr. David Hewitt, an esteemed physician of Scottish heritage, who had been adopted and raised as a child within the Tuscarora community. Although his parents, fluent Tuscarora speakers, homeschooled him in English until age 11, Hewitt later learned to speak Tuscarora fluently from his classmates when he left the reservation to attend school. In his final year of secondary school, a serious illness prevented him from completing the required courses to attend college, so between 1876 and 1879, Hewitt worked as a farmer, newspaper correspondent, and ran a private night school for young single and family men. 

Hewitt found his calling in 1880 after he was hired as a transcriptionist of Haudenosaunee sacred stories collected by Smithsonian anthropologist Erminie A. Smith, one of the earliest women field ethnographers. Smith sought to document Native American cultures before they disappeared. Learning to transcribe phonetically while on the job, Hewitt worked with her on a Tuscarora-English dictionary as her field assistant until 1884. However, after Smith refused to acknowledge Hewitt’s contributions and instead claimed their collaborative work as her own, Hewitt left the project to work as a streetcar conductor.

Hewitt was called back to the Smithsonian Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) to complete the dictionary after Smith’s death in 1886. Self-taught, he continued to work at the BAE for 51 years, maintaining a commitment to fieldwork, meticulous documentation, and comparative analysis of Tuscarora, Seneca, Onondaga, and Mohawk languages and oral traditions. He earned regard as the leading authority on Iroquois languages and oral traditions. Hewitt’s native scholarship moved beyond salvage ethnography. He transcribed Haudenosaunee cosmologies and epistemologies in ways that are only now being understood by scholars. In contrast to Arthur C. Parker, who translated the gist of Iroquois stories and traditions, Hewitt documented Haudenosaunee languages and cosmologies in meticulous detail, and he attempted to decipher the conceptual, philosophical, and epistemological underpinnings of these cosmologies to make them accessible to Western readers. 

Hewitt was a member of the Society of American Indians but questioned some of their agenda; a founder of the American Anthropological Association; and the Anthropological Society of Washington (ASW), serving as its president from 1932 to 1934. He was honored with the Cornplanter Medal for Iroquois Research by the Cayuga County Historical Society of Auburn, New York. Only a small portion of his scholarship has been published, much posthumously. 

Among those of relevance to folklorists:

Iroquois Cosmology, part 1 (1903) & part 2 (1925)

“The Iroquoian Concept of the Soul” (1895) Journal of American Folklore, 8 (29) (Apr. – Jun.): 107-116

Phyllis M. May-Machunda 

(coming soon)