Review of How 'Natives' Think by Marshall Sahlins (anthro)

Steve Brock (
20 Sep 1995 00:37:57 GMT

Sahlins. University of Chicago Press, 5801 South Ellis Avenue,
Chicago, IL 60637, (800) 621-2736, FAX: (312) 665-2235.
Illustrated, index, bibliography, notes. 328 pp., $24.95 cloth.

Reviewed by Steve Brock

Sahlins, a Professor of Anthropology at the University of
Chicago and noted authority on Hawaiian and Polynesian people, has
written his reply to the award-winning "The Apotheosis of Captain
Cook" (1992) by Gananath Obeyesekere, where he was denounced as an
ethnocentric imperialist who had no business speaking for non-
western people. Initially, the dispute was over Sahlins' claim
that Hawaiian people believed Captain James Cook was their god Lono
when he landed on the island of Hawaii in 1779, but the debate grew
to include western anthropological interpretations of "native"
perceptions in general.
In "How 'Natives' Think," Sahlins stridently defends his
methodology and conclusions and takes on revisionist
anthropologists who, he feels, are bowing to political correctness
instead of performing unbiased scholarship. Sahlins also accuses
Obeyesekere of reverse ethnocentrism: bestowing on Hawaiians a
pragmatic rationality (that would cause them to understand that
Cook was no God) while asserting that western anthropologists are
confused by native rituals and beliefs. While Sahlins makes many
good points, he never comprehends that no matter how much academic
training and skills of interpretation one possesses, they are
worthless without containing understanding of, compassion for, and
even identification with cultural differences, that no amount of
satire will conceal. The book addresses one of the fundamental
arguments in anthropology, however, and should be read by all
serious anthropologists and historians. Grade: B.