Re: Getting to know one's self in the field

karl h schwerin (schwerin@UNM.EDU)
Wed, 1 May 1996 14:07:48 -0600

On Thu, 25 Apr 1996, John McCreery wrote:

> Dear Friends,
> I have been arguing the virtue of an anthropologist doing fieldwork
> among Others sufficiently different from herself to challenge taken
> for granted habits and stimulate awareness of unconscious
> assumptions. Looking back at what I have written, I find it still too
> abstract. I wonder if those who have done fieldwork in what were,
> initially at least, exotic places would be willing to share personal
> anecdotes that illustrate how this may work in practice?
> Two moments stick in my own mind from my fieldwork in
> Taiwan. One was the day a neighbor, who knew that I was
> interested in Chinese religion, took me to the Temple of the Golden
> Mother. Going to a temple was something I had done a fair amount
> of. The shock came when, on entering the temple, he lit several
> sticks of incense, handed them to me, and invited me to bow to the
> goddess with him. It was then that the Protestant-Christian-Judaic
> heritage that I thought was pretty much erased by my B.A. in
> philosophy erupted inside me. I was "bowing down to graven
> images" and, for one very shakey moment, was seriously waiting
> for a bolt of lightning from heaven to strike me down and send me
> to Hell. It was there and then that I became quite interested in the
> curious fact that while the Chinese landscape is liberally littered
> with temples and cults, both foreign and native scholars could say
> with perfect seriousness that China had no religion.
> The second was being told that with my stocky frame, squarish face,
> large eyes and moustache, I bear a striking physical resemblance to
> The Jade Emperor, the supreme god in the popular version of the
> Chinese pantheon. Thus, to people much given to estimating
> character from physiognomy, I seem to be highly trustworthy. I
> have often wondered if this mightn't be one of the reasons, I found
> doing fieldwork in Taiwan a relatively painless experience. What, I
> wonder, would my research have been like if I had gone to the field
> with a long, rat-like face [a free translation of native terms]...the
> kind that arouses instant suspicion?
> Has anyone else out there had similar encounters?
> John McCreery
> Yokohama
> April 25, 1996
Some of it has to do with culture shock. Some of it has to do with
knowing how to ask the 'right questions.' Some of it has to do with
being in the right place at the right time.

The latter two are particularly pointed up by my experiences among the
Karinya of eastern Venezuela. I struggled mightily to get information
from my friends and informants about religious beliefs and practises, but
very little, most of it pretty sketchy. Even when I asked if there were
any "stories" about the stars, the best I could elicit was something
about Sirius being Atalumyo - the mother-in-law, and Orion's sword being
Piatimwa, the son-in-law's leg. A good six months after I arrived in the
field, Easter Week approached and I went off with a bunch of men, including Jose de los Santos, my principal
informant, to a lagoon along the Orinoco. We set up camp (slung our
hammocks from the trees and built a campfire, then hauled a dugout
overland to the lagoon). They did a little hunting, then we settled in
for the night.

The next morning Santos queried me: "Did the _amos_ visit you last
"No, why?"
"Well, they're English, so I thought they might have talked to you."
("English" in this part of Venezuela means a black Trinidadian or Guianan).

This opened up a whole rich world of supernatural spirits,
masters or guardians of
the streams, lakes and forests. A hunter or fisherman had to get their
permission (via a dream) before taking game of fish from their domain.
Failure to do so would bring certain bad luck - no game or fish, your
dogs would die, your canoe would capsize, you would shoot yourself in the
foot, etc.

Santos later regaled me with detailed accounts of visits to these
spirits and negotiations with them for various kinds of assistance. Once
a spirit master asked Santos to help in curing his (the spirit's) wife.

It turns out that Santos was a special kind of professional, _not_ a
shaman, but a dreamer. His role was to communicate with these spirits
via dreaming and ask for their assistance on all manner of things, from
hunting to childbirth, to illness. But he could not cure, only petition.
There were shamans who were powerful curers, but they functioned in quite
a different fashion.

Another minor example has to do with the Karinya manufacture of pottery.
One investigator who visited them a year or so before I worked there,
reported that they made pottery by the paddle and anvil technique. I
watched the whole process of pottery manufacture from digging up the clay
(whereby I was accused of planting a bomb, but that's another story) to
decoration and firing. There was *no* paddle and anvil. However, a
favorite tempering medium is the siliceous ashes of the bark of a local
tree. Local Venezuelan vernacular uses 'palo' to refer to a tree. I
suspect that the earlier investigator did not actually observe the making
of pottery, but when he asked about it was told something about using
"palo," or "un palo." *They* meant 'tree,' or the 'products of a tree,' but
*he* interpreted this to mean 'stick' or 'paddle.' (A cautionary note
about care in collecting field data).

Karl Schwerin SnailMail: Dept. of Anthropology
Univ. of New Mexico Albuquerque, NM 87131

There are people who will help you get your basket
on your head because they want to see what is in it.
-- African proverb