ePortfolio 9

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.

ePortfolio 8: The Vanishing Language

The video call with Mr. Francisco was a very cool opportunity to develop and pursue certain overarching themes we’ve discussed in class with someone who speaks about them from a position of lived authority, rather than the ethnographic authority which the texts we’ve read claim. Through this discussion, the most important thing I learned was the challenges and possible avenues to change for language education among the Tohono O’odham. Mr. Francisco explained that language acquisition in the community has been impeded historically by the boarding schools, where students were punished – sometimes violently – for the use of language, especially for talking back to an authority figure in Tohono. Therefore, Tohono fluency is pretty low. This observation dovetails nicely with the “Modern Developments” sections in nearly every chapter we’ve read in Oswalt’s book, where in nearly every group there are issues with low rates of native language knowledge and use.

But that’s where the similarities to Oswalt’s book end. Mr. Francisco explained that the greatest problem facing the language itself and its foreseeable adoption or neglect by the community was the fact that the lexicon hasn’t kept up with developments in contemporary American society. Since so many kids were and have been forced to grow up at boarding schools devoid of their native language, they aren’t at the reservation to be able to mold language as the malleable substance that it is. That is, the children consistently left the reservation in the second half of the 19th century for boarding schools, leaving both their land and their language behind them. Without new generations of speakers to respond creatively in their language to the changing demands of American society, the language was left in a sort of time capsule. As he said, this was hugely problematic since it means basic words like “computer” and “refrigerator” don’t exist in Tohono and have to be borrowed from English or Spanish.

That’s an issue that had never even crossed my mind. Through Oswalt’s chapters and articles like the one we read by Dr. Bender, I’ve seen language education solely as an issue of funding, gentrification, assimilation, and cultural value. In that sense language wasn’t even the issue; it was how it is institutionalized, promoted, and transported through time. But thanks to Mr. Francisco, I realized that I was considering Amerindian languages the way most people consider Amerindian culture: as an idealized form set somewhere in the past. I hadn’t thought about its ability to change and respond, its ability to endure. In my mind I found the myth of the “Vanishing Language” rather than the “Vanishing Indian,” given that I unconsciously viewed Amerindian languages as things needing crutches to allow them to hobble into the future, always on the verge of disappearing the moment too many kids went to English school. I now think that language education is as much about those means of promoting and supporting it as it is about linguistic maintenance, the upkeep of the vitality and creativity inherent in any linguistic system.

So as he pointed out, how can the language be taught or even desired to be taught if there’s no word for uniquely modern inventions or concepts? He offered one example of how a different group didn’t have a word for computer, so their language committee decided to combine their words for “electric” and “brain” to form the word for computer. He therefore concluded this tangent by saying that he would like to see his community create an official language committee to do just that, take on the task of introducing modern concepts into the Tohono language via the Tohono language itself, rather than just borrowing words for new concepts. This is such an important observation about Amerindian language education because it highlights the fact that challenges for language education can reside in the language itself, not just in the societal structures and patterns that surround it.

ePortfolio 7

I’ve never been a huge fan of AMC original series. From Breaking Bad to The Walking Dead, the lack of meaningful character development has consistently frustrated me. Whether through poor writing or lackluster casting (I prefer to blame a combination of the two), the characters are reliably flat and only acquire depth in the astounding lengths to which they go to fulfill hackneyed clichés. So when I started watching the AMC series Longmire (2012-present) on Netflix, my expectations were characteristically low. Walt Longmire is a hard living, sandpaper voiced sheriff in rural Wyoming. He carries a lever action rifle that seems about a century out of place, and when he rides to the rescue he does so on a (Ford) Bronco.

But what has alternately challenged and affirmed my arguments in favor of AMC’s propensity for stereotypes is the character Henry Standing Bear, Walt’s right hand man – a sort of sidekick. It’s hard not to immediately see this character as the Tonto to Walt’s Lone Ranger, which upon further examination seems to be a fairly accurate characterization. Henry is a Cheyenne bar owner, whose wisdom and tracking skills always help Walt in a pinch. In this role, one sees in him the tracker who aided US troop detachments in the advancing West and the Noble Savage whose ecologically based knowledge is at once useful to the whites, yet alienating in its delineation of a world that is less rational and practical than that of the white man. He may wear the same flannels and jeans as Walt, but his lack of a badge and the specific roles he fulfills in the series show him to be more of a marginal, representative image, a replaceable figure useful only for the ideas and skills for which he is a placeholder.

But analyzing just that character ignores the context in which he appears on the show, both internally and externally. Henry is just one of multiple Native American characters, given that Walt’s county lies alongside the Cheyenne River Reservation. Within the first 30 minutes of the series, Walt has already been beaten up by the reservation police. Despite his noble intentions to investigate the disappearance of a Cheyenne girl, the reservation police are unobliging and vindictive in their refusal to help the investigation. They’re holding a grudge against Walt for exposing their sheriff’s corruption and subsequently sending him to jail.

This part of the plot is problematic for deciding whether to indict or approve the show’s representation of reservation life. Yes, there have been and continue to be issues with corruption and bureaucratic mismanagement and malfeasance within tribal governments. So in this sense, the show does illuminate some very real contemporary concerns of Native Americans: corruption in tribal governments and the competing jurisdictions and reservation, local, and state governments. Furthermore, the issue of sexual violence against Native American woman based on unclear reservation-local jurisdictions is quite serious and has only recently been clarified, as Dr. Jones pointed out in class last week and as referenced by one woman in We Shall Remain who said she was fearful to walk alone in the streets of white towns.

However, this show neglects to shed light on the roots of such issues or the intra-reservation power dynamics that alternately support and contend with it. The police are portrayed as bullying cronies of the sheriff, and the residents of the reservation as the passive, terrified populace that lives under their heel. As we’ve seen in Oswalt’s book and in articles like those about the Lumbee and both bands of Cherokee, the tribal government and its police are just one arm of power on reservations; some Native Americans only recognize the authority of traditional councils or chiefs. And let’s remember that tribal governments were almost all created in response to Euroamerican political or military encroachment; what issues there are of legitimacy or corruption in these governments is the result of white America. So positioning the white Sheriff Longmire as the purely benevolent actor in this interaction is at best misleading in terms of historical context.

One last thing to point out is the real world context of the actors and the names they carry in the show. Henry’s actor is Lou Diamond Phillips, a Filipino American actor. He has no Native American heritage. Perhaps a Native American actor would have provided a more active, nuanced critique of the characters on the show. Furthermore, the name Henry Standing Bear comes from an Oglala Sioux peace chief around the turn of the 19th century. The choice of this name could actually be appropriate; this man acted as an intermediary between the Sioux world and its white counterpart (just like Henry does in the show), playing an active role in the writing of the Indian Reorganization Act. But no mention of this legacy is ever mentioned in the show, and in all likelihood the name was just an appropriation of Indian-ness in general, rather than of that specific history.

If you’ve got a Netflix account, feel free to check out the first episode of Longmire. Also, here are some links to photos, synopses, and trailers for the show, and one about the real Henry Standing Bear:





ePortfolio 6

It’s 2002. I’m standing in front of my desk as Mrs. Do, her teaching assistants, and very proud or very convincing parents mill around the room. I, along with the other 26 students in my third grade class, shift excitedly from foot to foot as we wait for a guest to be intrigued by the feather and marker decorated poster boards behind us. Or perhaps it was the Play-Doh diorama of a wigwam that caught their attention. Maybe the headdress my mom and I made?

It was Native American Day at St. Francis of Assisi Elementary School and each student was presenting on a culture area of North America. “The Plains Indians” headlined some posters, while “Indians of the Northwest Coast” advertised others. While not articulated explicitly at the time, we were studying Native Americans through the overarching framework of the “culture area concept,” as described by Oswalt in Chapter 1 of This Land Was Theirs. And although we didn’t approach this paradigm through the more robustly developed linguistic, descent, and subsistence characterizations that Oswalt relies on for his designation of culture areas, we nonetheless learned about the whole of Native American society through that focus.

There are some positive aspects about this educational framework. As my eager classmates and I demonstrated, it’s a very accessible way to present a fantastically large amount of information. Currently there are over five hundred federally recognized Native American tribes; it’s difficult to even fathom how many more there would’ve been before contact. Therefore, when considering a 7 year old elementary school student or even a PhD candidate, the culture area concept organizes and synthesizes a mountain of ethnographic information into a neat collection of ethnologic accounts: classificatory categories transcend individual cultures and a certain set of those common denominators allow the student to understand the cultures of a region without getting bogged down in the minutiae of each group.

But are those minutiae really minutiae? And if they’re not, what does it mean that I even felt comfortable saying that without the fear of being immediately divested of impartiality or intelligence in the mind of the average reader? This leads into the downsides of such an educational approach. The culture area approach subsumes the autonomy and uniqueness of Native American groups to a fictionalized representative culture and does so in terms dictated by Euroamericans and their respective ontology and epistemology. As seen in comparing the Cahuilla and the Towola – supposedly both accurately described as members of the California culture area – they live in different environments (desert vs coastal), live in different settlement patterns (sedentary vs seasonal round), and have entirely different political organization, to name a few differences. This consideration begs the question: how many other significant differences are masked by the culture area concept? This denial of diversity and creativity within Native American culture areas furthers shallow stereotypes about Native Americans and impedes an informed engagement by the American public with the multiplicity of contemporary Native American political, social, and economic claims and concerns.

For better or for worse, that’s how I learned about Native Americans. However, as described above, there are specific “betters” and “worses” to that educational framework, and they don’t balance each other evenly. Therefore, we need to make Native American studies better by effectively abandoning the culture areas concept in anything other than the earliest years of education. It can be used for introducing young children to the basics of Native American studies, just like broad categorizations of animals and body systems are used to introduce students to zoology and biology before delving into the specifics in later years. Therefore, any culture area study must necessarily be followed by more in depth studies of those areas in order to dispel any myths about Native American simplicity or homogeny. But I don’t see this as currently happening; and, as seen in Oswalt’s mention of culture areas in the first chapter of his university-level book, culture area frameworks are clearly widespread in the highest levels of Native American studies.

Culture areas should only be used as introductory maps to Native American studies that are exclusively seen as useful when employed in a process of ever increasing focus. Perhaps this is unfeasible, but my experience in ANT358 shows me there is a certain level of nuance that can be reached when studying Native American groups in a relatively short period of time.

Supplemental ePortfolio 2

Wendell Berry is an idol of mine. Apart from being a proud resident of Kentucky, he gains esteem in my mind through his four decade body of work, a patchwork of novels, essays, op-eds, poetry, protest, and oration. Educated and trained as a lawyer and farmer, he has been a vocal spokesperson for political and economic decentralization, the organic farming movement, and community-based development in a broad sense. He’s most well-known for his advocacy on behalf of small-scale farmers and his belief in the fundamental, inseparable connection between agriculture and culture.

At the moment I’m reading his book The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, a text in which he offers a series of essays delineating how disconnects between people and land (i.e. in the form of agriculture) manifest themselves in disconnects between people (i.e. culture and values systems). Such essays inevitably condemn industrialization in almost any context, and thereby Berry ends up advocating what seems to be a system of direct democracy or maybe European social libertarianism, but perhaps that’s just my interpretation and ultimately this book isn’t centered on political change. But needless to say, he has some strongly worded critiques of modern capitalism.

Yet, as a student of anthropology and of ANT348, one section of an early chapter in his book struck me as uncharacteristically misguided for such a thoughtful author. The two following quotes in particular caught my attention:

“If there is any law that has been consistently operative in American history, it is that the members of any established people or group or community sooner or later become “redskins” – that is, they become the designated victims of an utterly ruthless, officially sanctioned and subsidized exploitation.” (4)

“The only escape from this destiny of victimization has been to ‘succeed’… This escape is, of course, illusory, for one man’s producer is another man’s consumer.” (5)

Here Berry is attempting – in good faith, I believe, for whatever that’s worth – to provide a well-known example of oppression in America (in the form of the Native American experience) in order to demonstrate the inherently oppressive and hierarchical nature of American corporate capitalism. However, I feel that what I’m learning in my anthropological studies contradicts such a simplistic parallelism. While I absolutely agree with Berry’s characterization of capitalism as a inevitably recursive system of oppression, I think that equating it with the process of extermination and removal of Native Americans distorts and demeans their unique historical experience over the last 500 years.

As any census form will tell you, Native Americans are racially distinguished from their Euro-American counterparts; this is on top of the political, economic, and social ramifications of their class-based differentiation within the capitalist system. Rich and poor merely represent marginal variations within the bounds of a racially defined hierarchy. A wealthy Native American is still fundamentally considered a Native American in this country, unlike the relative degree of social flexibility afforded to Euro-Americans based on their fluctuations in wealth and income. So the powerlessness forced upon the wage labor and consumptive classes is qualitatively different than that of Native Americans.

And on top of that, the Native American experience differs from the experience of a producer turned dependent consumer by the exigencies of the market in that the situation of modern Native Americans is the result of centuries of specific federal policies and gross historical atrocities. There is no invisible hand to blame; millions of very real hands have signed the legislation and held the rifles that have disenfranchised, killed, and dispossessed an entire continent of peoples. Looking at tax code, it can be tough to see how regressive systems end up progressively disenfranchising and oppressing lower classes. Yet the federal government’s Native American law and history is much explicit in its mechanisms of removal, dominance, and violence. Blame can’t be outsourced to a disembodied system; its agents are as real and purposeful as its effects. (And while I believe the blame can’t actually be outsourced for the evils of capitalism, I mean to point out here that in popular opinion it is considered a disembodied system of abstract forces.)

However, it may be important to note that this particular book of Berry’s was written in the 1970s, so perhaps his access to more nuanced accounts of Native American history and contemporary experience was relatively limited. And beyond that, while he tries to utilize ethnologic accounts of Native American societies to form his analysis, he just isn’t trying to write an anthropologically acceptable piece. His arguments utilize relevant historical, sociological, and ethnographic evidence, but he doesn’t pretend to speak from an authoritative, scientific stance within any of those fields. His writing combines the aforementioned sources with personal experience and his own version of Christian spirituality, thereby crafting an easily accessible social commentary on capitalism, industrial agriculture, and modern value systems within Western culture.

Berry presumably has good intentions when making this comparison, yet that does not excuse it. The fact is that few Euro-Americans have an accurate idea of the ongoing oppression of Native American peoples in North America, a flaw that we have a responsibility to correct. The scales are already tilted heavily against them. The playing field is not level so such a mischaracterization carries even more weight. Therefore, it’s important for Euro-Americans to consider and contemplate exactly why Berry’s equivalence of Euro-American oppression of Native Americans and cyclical capitalist oppression of working and consuming classes is so problematic.

ePortfolio 5

The primary medium through which I learn the facts of the world is the textbook. From the colorful, pop-out kind I’d flip through in kindergarten to the veritable tomes I bought this January from the campus book store, printed compilations of histories, theories, and facts constitute the main gateway to knowledge for a career student. They can be really helpful: I’m not sure I could’ve learned cell bio any other way. But for one or two subjects I’ve come across, traditional textbooks weren’t the tools that eventually communicated to me the important takeaways from those courses. For multiple different concepts within this course so far, I’ve found this to be true.

In Nabokav’s Native American Testimony, the firsthand accounts provide narration of specific interactions between Euro-Americans and Native Americans, bringing the discussion of removal and conflict out the nebulous discourse on federal policy and into its concrete manifestations. Before I read the “Osceola Determined” account, the federal government’s disrespect and disdain for Native American nations was an impersonal abstraction found in my AP US History book, divorced from gut churning face to face experiences. But the transcript of this negotiation floored me. The measured, calm claims of the Seminoles were met only with condescension: “When you come here again, come prepared to act like chiefs, and honourable men; don’t bring to me any more foolish talks. Men do not listen to the talks of a child…” (127). I was speechless. How did those chieftains feel like they were communicating with anything more than bigoted cardboard? I wanted to yell at the book, and I was the one hundreds of miles and almost two hundred years from the encounter; how much worse must it have been to live it? Thus, seeing the interactions between individuals in Nabakov’s book grounds the faceless discussions of Native American policies into meaningful, personalized histories. I’ve learned each numb sentence in a history book can mask an encyclopedia of lived human tragedies.

Discussing Native Americans in the present tense – as living, contemporary peoples – combines with the above realizations in the forum on education concerning current Native American sovereignty issues. I’ve learned through research for my final paper that the relationship between Native nations and the federal government is dynamic; there is no given status quo to which one can blithely acquiesce without any sense of responsibility. The lived experience of current Native American life is the ongoing product of past and present policies. The responsibility for reforming Native American policy doesn’t lamentably lie in the past; it sits squarely on the shoulders of the present. Native Americans aren’t caught up in the Euro-American idealized current of progress bringing them ever closer to an ever better state. As McSloy points out in his article “Back to the Future: Native American Sovereignty in the 21st Century,” Native nations actually enjoyed a better position as equal and separate nations in the 19th century, when treaties recognized their special status as independent nations. Therefore, this past century has in some ways represented a regression for Native American sovereignty, a topic important culturally, politically, and economically for Native Americans; a talk about sovereignty is a talk about life chances and basic liberties.

Pointing this out in public education would preclude Native American studies from being lost in history departments. The visceral experiences of sadness, joy, and loss found between the lines of history books about Native Americans are present between the lines of today’s newspaper articles describing Lakota resistance to the Keystone XL pipeline and the problems with naming a team the Redskins. The bulldozers of TransCanada aimed toward the Black Hills are only following in the tracks of Custer’s cavalry. Ignorance of how oppressive political and economic relationships are reproduced and are translated into lived human experiences absolves the present of responsibility, but also removes from it the opportunity to correct for past transgressions and their contemporary manifestations in the lives of modern Native American nations.

ePortfolio 4

A common trope in discussions of Native American communities has always been the Noble Savage. He lives in harmony with nature, divorced entirely from avarice and ill will. Other times he’s the “red demon,” more beast than man in his adherence to his primal nature. Over the past 400 years this primitive, natural character has alternately been espoused and denounced – explicitly and implicitly – in discourses concerning Native Americans. This figures prominently in understanding today’s attempts to distance anthropology from the racist and demeaning studies of early evolutionary anthropology, as seen through the rejection of Native American conservationism (a point that Hunn et al. make clear). But this characterization of Native Americans as exploitative societies only sustainable due to their low populations – a generous and benevolent gesture by which anthropologists bestow upon Native Americans the same greed of Western, capitalist society – ignores the useful value systems that underlie the elaboration of those subsistence strategies. It’s this value system that made many Native Americans conscious conservationists, whether or not that conservationism was filtered through such a practically oriented, Western concept.

As we move along through this course, and as I’ve found moving through my higher education as a whole, the more something sounds like a normative statement, the more inclined one should be to reject it. So when considering whether Native Americans were (and are!) conservationists, it’s important to begin by recognizing the variability in behaviors and beliefs within the indigenous population of North America. There are some communities, like the Tlingit of southern Alaska, that develop nuanced systems of environmental knowledge with which to base subsistence strategies that, in this case, maintained stable gull populations for hundreds of years. This contradicts Smith and Wishnie’s assertion in the Hunn et al. article that “small-scale subsistence societies are not inclined to conserve when it is not in people’s self-interest to do so” (82). On the other hand, there are examples like this example of caribou killing by Amerindian descended Alaskans and in Pacific Northwest potlatches where subsistence practices seem wasteful and unsustainable. Therefore, this question must be answered in reference to a general trend that allows for a spectrum of behavior within it.

While our definition of conservation is rooted in practicality, morality, and intentionality, the conservationism of Native American communities is seen both in the form and effect of the predominant value system of the circle of life. While not ubiquitous, as Sioui maintains, this belief in reciprocity and interconnectedness does seem to be relatively common. Conservation (whether phrased as such or not) would therefore be a value in itself, given that any loss in another form of life affects all others. Our concept of intentionality thereby does exist in this conservationism because each individual intention in the action is structured by the individual’s adherence to the value of conservation and the circle of life. This belief system encourages individuals to consciously respect and monitor the non-human life around them, which in turn produces conservationist practices; so in this sense, it is a decidedly conscious effort. So although in a variety of forms and practices, conscious conservationism is prevalent among many Native American groups.

This is an important point because it distinguishes Native American conservationism from simply being a small scale, sustainable system not requiring conservation of resources. This matters because this non-conservationist characterization divests Native American communities of their didactic value. And by accusing Native Americans of adherence to exploitative techniques, it thereby partly rationalizes their removal and displacement. By saying Native Americans were only conservationist as a side effect of low population densities and simple technology, the importance of having an underlying ethic beneath the acquisition of a society’s necessary goods is glossed over. Native Americans weren’t conservationists by way of highly developed technology, systems analysis, or ecological studies, as Western society is trying to do. They were conservationists primarily by way of a holistic value system, a distinction Western society would do well to consider.