Professor shares travels, research with K-State


The Dutch have an ongoing joke they say divides the people in their villages: there are those who never travel anywhere, and a small section who can be found across the world.

Harald E.L. Prins, distinguished professor of anthropology, falls into the latter category.

Born and raised in the Netherlands, Prins teaches anthropology at K-State. However, his journey to Kansas was no one-stop trip.

Stepping into Prins’ office, one might be overwhelmed by the artifacts telling the stories of his world-wide journeys – a rug made in Guatemala covers his desk, a mask from Nepal hangs on the wall and reels of film line his shelves.

“If you really start searching, you can find more,” he said, “but it’s nothing compared to my home.”

Prins has worked in numerous countries and has studied anthropology, archaeology, comparative history and 16 mm filmmaking.

In addition to his adventures, Prins has more than 100 publications, an international filmmaking award, numerous documentaries and a number of teaching awards, including University Distinguished Professor at K-State in 2005 and Kansas Professor of the Year in 2006.

Betsy Cauble, head of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work, said members of the department nominated Prins to be a distinguished professor because of his scholarship and teaching.

“He’s a very special person to have here, and he is also consistently bringing an international perspective to K-State,” she said. “He has made K-State visible in places where we would not have normally been well known.”

Prins said he enjoyed encouraging students from small towns to travel if that’s what they want to do.

“It’s a real joy to make that dream and then put reality into their dream and say, ‘OK what’s stopping you? Stop dreaming, and put your dream into action,'” he said.

Sarah Kruse, sophomore in hotel and restaurant management, said she took Prins’ introduction to cultural anthropology class.

“You can tell that he is passionate about his work,” she said. “He knows a lot about certain areas from his personal experiences.”

Prins said he considers his greatest accomplishment to be his involvement with the Aroostook Band of Mi’kmaqs in Maine, a regional culture that was once poverty-stricken and landless.

Prins said he became the director of research and development for the group and helped it form the Aroostook Mi’kmaq Council. With the help of his research, documentary and publications, the federal government later recognized the council as an Indian tribe, making the group eligible for federal services and assistance. The government also granted them 5,000 acres of reservation land.

Throughout the process, Prins also served as an expert witness for the tribe in front of the U.S. Senate.

“I look back on my work, and, yes, there are good big books,” he said, “but what I really believe is that to have been able to be an instrumental factor in improving the lives of an entire community is something that I really think, when I go to my grave, that will be the best contribution I’ve made.”

Prins also has worked in the Middle East on banana plantations and archeological excavations, and has spent much of his time doing fieldwork in North and South America.

“Much of what has driven me, I guess, is really a sense of adventure and a sense of getting off of the beaten trail,” he said. “If I knew other people were going there as a tourist destination, I would probably stay away. So, no Cancun, (Mex.), for me.”

Throughout his studies, Prins has created documentaries showcasing his knowledge. He said he was trained to use 16 mm film cameras when he attended film school in New York.

“In my mind, it was really to learn another language, a visual language, and how to tell a story,” he said. “If I could translate my knowledge in a form of a film, then I could reach so many more people who would never pick up a book or never pick up a journal article.”

New York also is where Prins met his wife, Bunny McBride, a writer, author and an adjunct faculty member at K-State.

“I’m very lucky that I ran into her in 1979,” he said. “It was, as they say, love at first sight.”

Prins said he and his wife have been partners and co-authors for different publications and projects.

Most of Prins’ work surrounds indigenous people, and he said his passion started when he was 8 years old and fascinated with American Indians.

“I didn’t know the different tribes spoke different languages, but every time I saw statements made in books, I wrote it down and memorized it, and then I would speak the language when playing with friends,” he said.

Prins said he grew up admiring people who were always traveling, including his father, A.H.J. Prins, a Dutch anthropologist; his godfather Harold E. Lambert, a British anthropologist after whom he is named; and his neighbor Johan Fabricius, a well-known Dutch writer.

“There have been people that I have admired, not so much as role models but beacons, showing me what they had done and what they had not done,” he said.

Next fall, Prins will be on sabbatical. He said he wants to visit the research sites where his father and godfather worked.

Prins also is a co-principal investigator with McBride in a National Parks Service ethnographic research project and a guest co-curator for an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History.