Decolonizing anthropology

Biskowski, Marty (biskowsk@ANTHRO.SSCNET.UCLA.EDU)
Mon, 30 Jan 1995 09:09:00 PST

With all due respect, these proposals seem to ask us to participate in a
charade. While I am sympathetic with some of the concerns embedded in these
proposals, the proposals themselves are far too vague and inexact.

Johnson writes:

Proposal #1

There should be an immediate moratorium on all anthropological and
archaeological endeavors within the United States which appropriate
the cultural heritage, indigenous knowledge, and sacred geography
of its indigenous peoples.

Perhaps my understanding is off, but I do not see how it is possible, in any
strict sense, to appropriate anyone's cultural heritage through
anthropological or archaeological endeavors. Since the inheritance is
composed of ideas, emotions, meanings, and methods of living, it seems
difficult for anyone to steal these away from the sons and daughters of
anyone except through genocide and similar practices which, I fervently hope,
are outside of anthropological and archaeological practice.

It may be that Johnson is objecting to the borrowing of indigenous
knowledge by those he considers non-indigenous and the incorporation of such
knowledge into new cultural matrices. Now, this may be objectionable as
profanation, but such passage of knowledge is not, in any sense, an abnormal
part of human society. I am quite confident that such transmission of
knowledge occurred between Native American groups throughout the ages, not
always with the permission of the originators, so one can hardly describe
this borrowing as purely "colonialistic" without ascribing the same
characteristic to Native American groups (and nearly everyone else, too).

Proposal #2

The indigenous knowledge of Native American peoples must be
acknowledged as unalienable property.

One may "acknowledge" this, although there are obvious problems with the
notion of any knowledge being unalienable property, if by unalienable one
means "permanent". As a practical matter, I have yet to see any idea of my
own remain my property after I've opened up my mouth about it to someone
else. And, strangely enough, other people have come up with the same
interplay of ideas which I have, without my ever saying anything to them.

Again, it is possible that Johnson is referring to people who borrow and
apply indigenous knowledge in ways which some indigenous people might find
objectionable. Unfortunately, short of modifying the freedom of expression
measures in the Constitution, there is little that can be done about this,
and that measure cuts a little too close to what is sacred to me.

Proposal #3

All sacred geography must be returned to Native Americans.

This covers a great deal of ground (no pun intended), since nearly every
landform in existence over the last 10,000+ years is a candidate. And, short
of revealing aspects of sacred knowledge, how does one justify designating a
landform as "sacred"?

Proposal #4

Reparations must be paid for the appropriation and destruction
of Native American lives, land, and indigenous knowledge.

I am all in favor of this, under the following conditions:
(1) Native Americans promote the paying of reparations to those of Lithuanian
descent (like myself) whose ancestors were denied their language and culture
by Russians, and were, at various times, trashed by Mongols, Germans, and
hosts of others.
(2) Similar reparations be payed to every descendant of other cultural
groups that have ever been abused by another (including various indigenous
cultures that were extinguished by contact with other indigenous cultures).

I suppose after embracing these tasks, we might all be clear on the
difference between seeking justice and seeking advantage. I think my own
effort at paying reparations for the wrongs done by my ancestors would be to
waive payment of reparations for the wrongs done to them.

Marty Biskowski