Buell H. Quain was a promising young anthropologist in the 1930s who worked with the Indigenous peoples of Fiji and Brazil. Quain was born into a prominent family in Bismarck, North Dakota on May 31, 1912. He received his bachelor's degree in 1934 from the University of Wisconsin. Quain went on to study anthropology at Columbia University where he was mentored by Franz Boas and worked closely with other prominent anthropologists of the time, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. He wrote the section on the Iroquois for Mead's book, Cooperation and Competition Among Primitive Peoples.
After completing his master's degree in 1935, Quain went to Fiji where he spent a year studying the culture, stories, and songs of the Fijian people. He completed his dissertation upon his return to the United States and received his PhD from Columbia University in 1936.
Quain received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1938 and went to Brazil to conduct a research project on the Trumai, an indigenous community from the upper Xingu River. After three months, Quain left the community for more supplies, but was then prohibited from returning to the Trumai by government agents. This caused Quain great frustration which he expressed in his correspondence. Ultimately, Quain shifted his research focus and went to work with the Ge speaking Kraho people in the state of Maranhao.
Quain died by suicide on August 2, 1939. In a letter dated August 12, 1939, Quain left instructions for his estate and burial in which he claimed to be dying of a contagious disease and asked that his death not be investigated. However, his two indigenous companions suggested that Quain had been in good health prior to his death but had been distressed by recent letters received from family. Communications from him had indicated his continued feeling of discouragement after being prohibited from returning to the Trumai, in addition to describing family troubles.
All of Quain's books were published posthumously. His original field notes were in various states of organization at the time of his death. His mother, Dr. Fannie Dunn Quain, arranged the notes and gave them to Columbia University so that they could be prepared for publication.
A fictional account of Quain's final days, called Nove Noites, was published by Brazilian author Bernardo Carvalho in 2002. The English translation, Nine Nights, was published in 2007.
Eriksmoen, Curt. "Promising Anthropologist from Bismarck Died Young." The Bismarck Tribune, April 3, 2011.
Thomas, Erika. "Buell Quian (1912-1939): an Ethnologist without a Grave," Human and Social Studies, vol. VII, no. 2 (2018): 69-77.
1912 May 12
Born in Bismarck, North Dakota
B.A. in Zoology, University of Wisconsin
Registered with Department of Anthropology at Columbia University
First trip to Fiji Islands
1939 July 31
Left Kraho village with men nicknamed João and Ismael
1939 August 2
Died near Fazenda Serrinha, Brazil