Eighmey on decolonizing anthropology

Alx V. Dark (avd5863@IS.NYU.EDU)
Thu, 2 Feb 1995 22:51:46 -0500

Although Jim Eighmey's recent post was directed at Robert Johnson, who
can certainly defend his ideas himself, I think it is good that it was
posted to the entire list for discussion. The original post was long and
has been left out here.

Eighmey essentially asks who should set the standards as to what
constitutes "appropriation" of culture, land or property, and asks what
moral principle would justify defining "appropriation." He then goes on
to suggest that any attempt to do so becomes a reductio ad absurdum, "the
infinite regress of antiquarian claims" to compensation. Thus, the
claims of Native Americans and anglo ranchers to land (all land? Sacred
land?) are perhaps best treated equally -- that is, the ranchers would
get to keep the lands in question, uphold the existing status quo. This
partly stems from Eighmey's dislike for monetary compensation, on the
grounds that it could not properly address past moral wrongs. I address
his points in turn, putting forth my own position on this.

The standards for what constitutes the appropriation, i.e. the removal of
knowledge, land or property from native control without due compensation
or consideration for the wishes of the community, should not be
determined imperiously by the researcher but decided jointly with the
communities the researcher is approaching (or who come to him or her with
their concerns). Clearly the range of objects, ideas, and places is
definable for practical purposes based upon the concerns of native
peoples and keeping in mind that most of this stuff is of concern to
white anthropologists specifically because of its "ethnic" content. Is a
picture or a translation a potential appropriation of native heritage?
Obviously no Indian argues that all pictures of his or her people or all
translations should be returned. But a picture of some delicate event is
an appropriation. This has to be established in dialogue, and
anthropologists must be willing to accept limits as a condition of their
research. To act as if we were getting these things, but not really
interested in them for the same reason that native people are interested
in them (their representation/revelation of the ethnic identity of a
people, of their culture) is simply bad faith. The point is obviously
that they ARE valuable to all parties concerned.

I'm no philosopher but I'll hazard that the moral authority to set these
limits comes from a basic consideration of the right of any group of
people to control their destiny, including the future of their cultural
identity and their relationship to a surrounding society that continues,
actively, to seek their assimilation. If one keeps in mind that anglo
ranchers in California were paid bounties for every Indian they murdered,
the outline of this historical situation casts removing sacred objects
from a people's control, or other appropriations, in a new light -- as
practices that lie on a spectrum from assimilation to genocide. What
moral argument would JUSTIFY such actions? More pragmatically, if you
want to work in these communities in the future, you are bound to address
the concerns that people raise in the wake of these assaults upon
human dignity and autonomy.

A number of counterexamples, including churches and anglo ranches, were
brought up by Eighmey to suggest these moral issues were too murky to
pursue. It is amazing that anglo ranchers, whose land is directly the
result of warfare and colonial policies on the part of their government
(and sometimes subsidies in the form of sub-market price grazing fees as
well) would chaffe at the idea of returning sacred lands, probably some
small overall portion of U.S. grazing lands. As for
monetary compensation for lands stolen without due regard for law -- who
is arguing that private property holders should bear the full cost of
such renumeration? Individual whites needn't suffer for justice to be
done, so this is really not worth an argument about "quality of life."
Such money comes from the government which bears the
responsibility for these policies whether we agree with them now or not
(as whites, we all bloody well benefit). Far from being hopelessly
complex or muddled, there is a substantial body of law and numerous
treaties addressing this issue, and a clear path forward toward their
solution. Prehistory aside, there is a body of law which addresses
native-settler land relationships in North America.

It is otherwise ridiculous to suggest that money can not compensate for
the loss of lands that serve every year to make their new owners a large
fortune of money. They may not feel that money can do justice -- many a
reserve I'm sure could put the money to good use.

All of these issue I'm sure bear upon the responsibilities of
archaeologists to discuss their research and the disposition of materials
found at a site with local native peoples. In the case of materials at
Ozette, they were put into a tribal museum on the Makah Reservation.
This seems to have suited everyone, Makah and archaeologist. There is no
reason to become alarmed if we can't just ship the stuff off to our local
museum, and anyway, am I naive or hasn't this kind of ethical
consideration been a routine part of archeology and fossil finding for
some time now? (not just a rhetorical question!)

Finally (and I just said that I hate long posts!) I never got the
impression either that Johnson is suggesting anthropologists should bear
all the responsibility for history, or that the dismissal of moral
considerations, which is what I read Eighmey's post to be, as a
sufficient mediation by us anthropologists on "universal human rights."
Johnson appeals to rights and I think that makes a great deal of sense --
Indian rights have not in the past been respected.

______________________________ ____________________________
Alx V. Dark Department of Anthropology
internet: avd5863@is.nyu.edu New York University
"Wash your brains, think 25 Waverly Place
again, double check" -- H3O New York, NY 10003 USA