Re: Decolonizing anthropology

Wed, 1 Feb 1995 10:43:35 -0700

I was asked to forward my response to Robert Johnson, so here it is.
Sorry to clutter your mailbox.

Jim Eighmey
Department of Anthropology >>>---------->
Arizona State University
Tempe, AZ. 85287-2402
----------------------------Original message----------------------------

Where to begin?

What does it mean to "appropriate" knowlege, geography, and
heritage? Does this include conservation, salvage, or restoration efforts?
And who is so arrogant to claim that what we "know", or claim to know, is
anything but our version of this knowlege? Is a translation an appropriation?
A photograph? A memory? Should we turn all of Boas and Kroeber's works over to
some group because we have no "claim" to it? And who would make that decision?
To what moral authority are you appealing here, on what grounds, and
furthermore why should anyone give credance to your claims?

More importantly, how do we establish that things such as indigenous
knowlege, cultural heritage, and sacred geography are unalienable property?
Are churches unalienable properties of the parish? Should the Benedictines
or Jesuits be able to reclaim all of their former missions, or should the
Native American descendants of the neophytes claim them ? How about the
current parish members? What about the family which has lived and ranched
on a "sacred area" for 100 years or so? Do we bow to the infinite regress of
antiquarian claims, or turn our head away from the displaced? Whose claims
take precidence, and on what grounds should a native american families quality
of life be given any less, or any more, consideration than an anglo rancher's?

And finally how is it we would redress the crimes of the past dear Judas,
wherein the sins of history lie at the feet of the living? What dollar amount
would bring back the dead, address the horrors, and restore a culture? We
cannot change the past, and I for one am not a beliver in buying dispensations.
Whould it make you feel better if we found the old buggers in the nursing homes
that we know participated in this genocide and polished them off? Or should
we, like the last two generations of Germans, spend our lives attempting to
convince a horribly wronged people that we wish to atone for the sins of our
ancestors? Do we think that the Lakota shed many tears for their enemies, or
that the Pawnee hesitated to help wipe out the Kansa and the Mandan?
I am not claiming these things as any sort of justification whatsoever, but
only to point out a thick vein of poorly elucidated ethical questions in this
line of thinking, and not a small bit of hypocracy. These are very complex
issues not amenable to simple blanket statements, and to paint one segment
(and a sympathetic one) of the society (anthropologists) as somehow
representing the historical exploitation of an entire people strikes me as
not only naive but a disservice to the Native Americans themselves.

Your propositions allude to undefined concepts of "rights", both legal
and perhaps universal. The former are an outgrowth of this political system
and this culture, which I think you will find difficult to superceed. The
latter is an issue that greater scholars than ourselves have wrestled with
for centuries. Since Anthropologists cannot, it seems, be entrusted with the
task of exploring "universal human rights", perhaps you would like to put
forth an alternative source of this knowlege that we in the dominant community
could be inspired to accept?

Jim Eighmey
Department of Anthropology >>>---------->
Arizona State University
Tempe, AZ. 85287-2402