An anthropology of North America must encompass the breadth and the depth of the societies in the Americas, from Patagonia to the Arctic Circle. If planning its study or its presentation doesn’t seem absolutely daunting, I’m not sure you’re thinking about it right. However, I think that in terms of both its ethnography and its instruction in the classroom, an anthropology of Native America should be based loosely on the concept of Lila Abu-Lughod’s ethnography of the particular.
This postmodern stylistic, methodological, and epistemological orientation emphasizes that the only way to attempt to know something in anthropology is to engage with it personally and on a small-scale. In this way, neither an ethnographer nor a student can stretch their theories and conclusions past the scope of what they have interacted with personally or read about specifically. I believe that I, as a white straight Euroamerican male of means, have lost the benefit of the doubt concerning what I proclaim and about whom I proclaim it. After a century and a half of ethnologies burying Amerindian culture under an airtight mausoleum of harmful tropes and stereotypes, I feel that the academy doesn’t exactly deserve any extra slack on its leash. Having the leeway to speak on what you may not necessarily know and know well is a privilege and one that I, as a Euroamerican, have not earned.
It almost goes without saying that this would be an anthropology of the sort that Starn sees in contemporary times as “more explicitly politicized, activist.” Such a tendency is impossible to avoid in my mind if you have learned and acknowledged the actual course of American history. This anthropology won’t attempt to present a fair and balanced picture of a scale that has been unfair and unbalanced for the past 400 years. An anthropology of Native America is painful and uncomfortable.
While some might argue this particularistic style of study and learning is overly focused and prevents the accrual of meaningful, widely applicable knowledge, I think it’s the current paradigm of Native American studies that prevents the acquisition of meaningful knowledge. It was firmly in the paradigm of culture areas and culture cores that I spent the first two decades of my life learning about Amerindians, and I learned just enough to make an elastic headband with fake feathers on it. Arguing against a change here doesn’t mean one is doing nothing; supporting the status quo is a choice just as much as a switch to a particularistic anthropology of Native America. However, I do think that broad, basic survey classes and texts (like that of Oswalt) will remain useful in this new anthropology as introductory tools.
But looking ahead, in this this massive space (Native America) populated by very small, focused spaces (future classroom example: ANT352 Cosmology of Contemporary Hopi of First Mesa), there’s no room for subsuming the Tolowa and the Cahuilla under a California culture area, contrary to what Oswalt might argue. These small spaces for research and study can be wide and shallow (surveying federal recognition attempts across multiple tribes) or narrow and deep (the Lumbee push for federal recognition). Other types of subjects and courses one might see in this kind of anthropology: ANT316 Federal Recognition in the United States (wide and shallow), ANT378 Indigenizing the Academy (wide and shallow, a class that would in part elaborate my question to Dr. Lewis about the role of Euroamericans in this anthropology), and ANT346 Rosebud Sioux Land Claims and Legal Status Since 1850 (narrow and deep).
More importantly, this style of scholarship and teaching will question the very idea of an anthropology of Native America. Why is it that Native America is even considered a discrete entity capable of study? To my knowledge there’s no anthropology of Europe, even proposing it would elicit laughter at the idea that such a diverse group could usefully be subsumed under the heading of one field. Why is studying North American Amerindians a meaningful distinction from studying those of Mexico, Central America, and South America (something Oswalt never explains)? Perhaps it’s just an easy, arbitrary cut-off point to avoid writing a book 10 times as large, but are an author’s ease and time constraints meaningful considerations in the face of the generalizations that shorter works might end up facilitating? Obviously, it’s easy to ask these questions when I don’t have to live with their possibly difficult answers. But in the end, I feel that any course or research in a field of study of Amerindians that doesn’t provoke these questions isn’t particular enough, and the pixels lost are the ones that show the true outlines of the relationship between Amerindians, America, and anthropology.