Re: Cultural Survival?

Brian Michael Howell (bmhowell@ARTSCI.WUSTL.EDU)
Tue, 16 Jan 1996 10:23:52 -0600

On Mon, 8 Jan 1996, Bret Diamond wrote:

> Lately, I have found myself saddened and angered upon the
> realization that the "salvage anthropology" that was being
> frantically conducted here in the states in the the early 1900's,
> continues today throughout the world. As the few remaining undisturbed
> indigenous groups are silently assimilated, Anthropologists for the most
> part seem content with merely gathering and preserving data (albeit an
> important task) rather than taking an active role in seeking to protect
> the groups that we study. For the past 100 years or so, our discipline
> has been inextricably linked with indigenous cultures, and yet today we
> do (IMHO) little or nothing to aid cultural survival.
One of the implications here which I hope anthropologists would
also be working to counteract is the notion of "culture" as the
quaint practices and remote lives of people living in the bush. Of
course people are threated with physical harm and even distinction,
but if we don't realize that "culture" is not just the traditions
of ancestors, we will fight a losing battle. I believe we would be
hard pressed to find people who really want to eschew all the
modern advances of medicine, hygenie, etc. that others in the world
> There are of course several examples of anthropogists
> very hard to protect the ways of life of the people they have come to
> know through their research; a short list would include Terrence Turner's
> work with the Kayapo, John Marshall's (and most of the Marshall family's)
> with the Kung!, and others.
The examples you cite are laudable but certainly not
uncontroversial. There are those, even among the Kayapo or
Yanomamo (in the case of Turner) who reject the kinds of "culture"
and the spokespeople he advances.
But for the most part, we seem content in gathering our data, and
> frankly, somewhat egocentric in the knowledge that when these cultures
> are long gone, we will be credited with presrving their languages, their
> rituals, their ways of life. But must we be limited to protecting only
> aspects of culture instead of the culture itself? What obligation do we
> have to act as activists an help preserve those that we study? What are
> the consequences of a more "activist approach" to Anthropology (i.e.
> being blackballed by governments, universities, etc.,) and how far can we
> go without damaging ourselves and/or the discipline itself?
> The word "activist " has so many negative connoctations the I
> hate to even use it, but activism does not necessarily mean protesting,
> getting arrested, etc. Sometimes activism can be very subtle--yet
> extremely powerful.
> A perfect example of the potential we have to protect indigenous
> peoples would be the 1993 filming of the Korowai people of Irian Jaya.
> Anthropologist Paul Taylor and director Judy Hallet set out to film the
> Korowai whom, even in 1993, remained very isolated to the outside world
> (Judy Hallet was allegedly the first white women that the Korowai had
> ever seen) The film was very entertaining, and informative, and it was
> particularly noteworthy because it dispelled the widely held belief that
> thy're really aren't any native peoples left that don't have frequent
> contact with modern society. What they failed to mention in the film (at
> all) was that the Korowai's land were slated to be logged (clearcut
> actually) in the next year, and they would be forced from the lands
> that they had inhabited for arguably thousands of years. So there wwas a
> golden opportunity to inform the world of the plight of the Korowai, yet
> not a word was said about their impending doom.
Informing the world of atrocities is, clearly, a mandate of
anthropologists and others who are aware of them. But this is
not the same as dictating a preservation of traditions which seem
especially "indigenous" or "authentic".

Brian Howell
Washington Univ.-St. Louis