Cattell, Owen (1897-1940)

Owen Cattell, right, and Charles Phillips, a fellow opponent of conscription, at the time of their arrest in 1917. Library of Congress, photograph in the public domain.

The contribution of Owen Cattell to the history of early ethnographic film consists of the series of films that he shot in Zuni pueblo in 1923. At the time, he was a member of staff of the Museum of the American Indian (MAI) in New York, and he made the films as part of the MAI’s Hawikuh project, which although primarily archeological, also fostered ethnographic research among the Zuni. This project ran from 1917-1923 and was directed by Frederick W. Hodge (1864-1956), also then of the MAI.

As director of the project, Hodge was also, in effect, the director of the Zuni films, but Cattell appears to have made the films largely in his absence, with the assistance of Donald A. Cadzow (1894-1960) an MAI archeologist and later Arctic expeditionary, and Lorenzo Chávez, a Zuni. This seems to have been particularly the case in the making of Shalako Ceremonial, Cattell’s best known and also most controversial film. 

Outside this period working for the MAI, it is difficult to discover a great deal about Owen Cattell’s career.

His father was Professor James McKeen Cattell (1860-1944), a leading psychologist in the US in the first half of the twentieth century. His mother, Josephine Owen Cattell (1865-1948), who was of British origin, also became a distinguished figure, but in science publishing rather than academic life.  

Cattell senior became a controversial figure when he was dismissed from his post at Columbia University in 1917 for speaking out against US conscription for the First World War. His son, who was then a general science student at Columbia, shared his views, and the same year was arrested and charged with obstructing conscription. The photograph at the head of this entry derives from that event. 

Shortly afterwards, Owen Cattell appears to have left university and followed his parents into science publishing. But by 1921, he is reported to have been taken on as photographer on an expedition to the headwaters of the Amazon led by Henry H. Rusby (1855-1940), a Professor of Botany at Columbia and a leading figure in this field. 

it is unclear how Cattell came to be employed at the MAI. Nor is it clear under what circumstances he left, though he appears to have returned to work in science publishing. He died, of pneumonia, in New York in 1940.