Indigenous Rights, Title, and Sovereignty: is there a place for anthropologists?

I had the pleasure of participating in a plenary session of the CASCA 2015 annual meetings in Quebec City (May 13-16, 2015). Organized by Natacha Gagné & Sabrina Doyon (U. Laval), the session invited each participant to consider our (as anthropologists’) view of, and role, in politics. What follows below is an edited version of my speaking notes.

Additional context and background to this presentation can be found in two papers I have written:  Oil, Energy, and Anthropological Collaboration, and Standing on the Shore with Sabaan.  The first dissects the history of anthropological/Indigenous collaboration on the northwest coast.  The second examines the idea that anthropologists and anthropology must invert the gaze and stop using Indigenous peoples as data and our societies as laboratories.


When I began my journey into anthropology I used to say that while Anthropology was the methodology, Marxism was the discipline. For those trained in classic extra-parliamentary politics (and some Foucauldians) you will understand the multiple meanings. As I was professionalized I became beguiled by the idea of anthropology as discipline. Today, having shed many things, I have returned to the idea of anthropology as method.

I should also caution you that I have, to a large extent, left behind the study of anthropological subjects for the study of anthropologists. So, I suspect that as natives you [the audience] will find my generalizations, abstractions, and theorizing, disconcerting. You may only recognize figments of your selves in my words. As an Indigenous scholar I can appreciate your imminent surprise and disquiet. Yet, in your own words you hold power, you cherish ways of giving voice to the unvoiced.

So, here we go: I shall speak.

There are two public images of anthropology in North America:

One put forward by Florida Governor Rick Scott  (it’s a waste of time and money) and another promoted by New Age style populists who, like white knights to the rescue, race to save the hordes of endangered peoples, places, and languages.

Rick Scott understands the anthropological problem personally. His own daughter was a major. I can appreciate the father’s sense of anguish that one’s child will go down a rabbit hole of missed opportunities and wasted studies. Maybe he also watched the TV show “Community” and happened to catch that wonderful parody of an anth prof by Betty White. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you track it down: it’s worth it.

Scott’s point was that while a nice pastime, Anthropology doesn’t create jobs or build the economy. Anthropologists, understandably, reared up and said oh yes we do! And in so doing totally missed the point; we don’t actually build the neo-liberal economy or support the growth industry. We build something different. The response was predictable. The AAA’s letter to Scott summed it all up: “Perhaps you are unaware,” chided the AAA president Prof Dominguex, “ anthropologists are leaders in our nation’s top science fields, making groundbreaking discoveries in areas as varied as public health, human genetics, legal history, bilingualism, the African American heritage, and infant learning.”

Wow. That should set the governor in his place.

That answer, which was mirrored by YouTube videos, Tumblr pages, blogs, commentaries, across the US spilling over a bit into Canada as well, really did little to change the mind of Governor Scott.

Scott is not alone in this attitude. I can count among my extended family a great army of folks who share versions of  Governor Scott’s viewpoint. Even among the guild of anthropologists there is an underlying insecurity. Maybe, we worry,  there is no real value to the discipline: hence the many exhortations to make it count and to assert that one’s work is in fact making a difference.

Let’s not forget the other side of the public coin of imagination: the new age defenders who are valiantly selling coffee table books while saving the worlds languages, peoples, and special places. Whereas the Rick Scotts of the world focus on anthropology’s deficits (materially and figuratively), the new agers celebrate cultural diversity and their unique ability to translate this wonder of human diversity for the common man and woman.

“Renowned anthropologist’s first lecture earns applause and praise” begins the Vancouver Sun’s coverage of a recent appointment to UBC’s department of anthropology. “African voodoo, Haitian zombies, shamanic healing and a live demonstration of paralytic blow darts are all par for the course in [this]s first-year anthropology class.”

This is a kind of anthropology that captures public perception just as strongly as the Rick Scott version. It’s not that this type of anthropology builds the economy (at least not a wider public economy). This anthropology plays on populist and colonialist ideas of the noble savage, the wonder at the exotic, and the desire to possess the experience of difference.

Both public images of anthropology are partially correct. Perhaps guild members don’t like this representation, but a lot of mainstream anthropology is essentially locked within obscure debates (nothing in principle wrong with that) impenetrable to wider publics. The guild has deserted the main stage to the curators of cross-cultural exoticism. Charming crusaders stand on the stage in front of images of Indigenous peoples selling the masses an image of anthropology that makes the mainstream of the guild cringe.

That said I want to make clear that I do find value in a theoretically informed, content rich anthropology irrespective of whether it does anything practical or not. There is a place for an intellectual pursuit not constrained by the real politic of capitalism and related political struggles. I appreciate that my critique of theory rich anthropology can rankle. I also know that from time to time I also indulge in the delight of theory for theory sake. Today’s presentation, however,  is about the idea of a useful anthropology; anthropology that might make a difference.

Outside the mainstream of theorists and performers are a few of us whose membership in the guild harkens back to an earlier moment when we may well have used labels like science, objectives, and rigorous methodology in place of reflection, entanglement, or complicate.

We are a strange small corps of Canadian anthropologists who work preparing expert opinions and traditional use studies with and on behalf of First Nations in their struggle to defend their rights and title under Canadian law (I have for a moment excluded those working for the private sector proponents). Our work deploys ideas of thorough empirical content driven research. The ultimate audience for our work is the court.

The anthropological guild’s contemporary models and theories are unhelpful in this endeavor, potentially even antagonistic to FN rights & title. It doesn’t help securing Aboriginal Rights and Title if one’s model of culture is rooted in ideas of entanglement, hybridity, creolization, etc. Like it or lump it practitioners are working in a landscape of certitudes, objective facts, real data. All of which has serious real world implications for the communities concerned. So we have an obligation to think very carefully about what we have been asked (even told) to do. This is not simply a matter of one’s personal career; these reports are tiny pieces in a social drama that will affect the life outcome of many.

So, is there a space in this landscape for an autonomous academic research path?

The current context in work with Indigenous communities raises a question about the possibility of autonomous academic research. This is not to say there are no academics doing research: there are. This is not to say that each academic project is tied to a corporate or Indigenous agenda: it is not. This does say that most projects—archaeological, sociocultural, biological—are embedded in a compromised position, and as university researchers we need to be honest about this. Raymond Williams spoke about how social productions are aligned to particular structures of power. He described how social products (which we can understand as research, reports, and publications) are necessarily aligned to the dominant social order. As producers of these works either we find ourselves unconsciously accepting our social location within the fields of power or we take a position of self-conscious alignment.

I would suggest that a good number of academic researchers have abdicated their own responsibility to self-consciously acknowledge their positionality by hiding behind a veil of collaborative, community-based research. In so doing they forge alliances with “their” community, ignore research that contradicts their own community’s outlook, but then consider their work autonomous and objectively located above the fray of the corporate-counterpoint conflicts. That is, they act as though their own work is objective and somehow located outside of real contemporary struggles and conflicts. We can see this in a persistent academic orthodoxy that has emerged on the North Coast.

Finding a way out of such situations is difficult. I know. I personally have to deal with similar pressures in my own work on the North Coast. It’s not that people try to compel conclusions directly—they don’t—but one does know what it is they hope for. It takes a certain resolve to stand up in front of a room of hereditary leaders and offer a report that may not be to their liking. However, to be an effective resource and a true collaborative partner one must be willing to be honest and direct.

I suspect that my social location as Tsimshian, with real roots in the North Coast, gives me a perspective that provides guidance to my academic training. My academic training also provides guidance and context to my Tsimshian perspectives. This hybridized social location simultaneously positions me as outsider and insider. I am in this sense able to equivocate between perspectives. It is not always a comfortable position. It does, however, provide a vantage point to see that others, without social ties in the Tsimshain world, worry they are vulnerable to exclusion and desperately want to find their place on a team. Thus they blind themselves to their own engagement in the production of stories that masquerade as objectivist academic publications.

Many years ago Del Jones critiqued the naiveté of the outsiders coming to do “research for the community.” But who was the community? How did the outsider choose between factions within the community? Did the outsider even understand that such factions exist? How do these choices (made unwittingly or otherwise) shape the outsider’s alliances with other researchers? One of the inopportune lessons taken from the radical critique of anthropology is that all research must be for the community, even when the researcher has no understanding of whom or what might in fact constitute “the community.”

Academic research in decolonizing contexts will necessarily be embedded in current and historical conflicts and struggles. Claiming that one community has authorized a project does not negate the possibility that another community is opposed to the same project. Even within a particular community, the existence of factions and divisions will productively suggest the real possibility that “the community” is itself a figment of the researcher’s imagination. Ultimately, the obligation rests with the academic researcher to acknowledge and identify the ways in which one’s own work is embedded and aligned with local and larger social forces. To ignore that and to imply that one’s work is simply a matter of evidence and testing reveals a kind of intellectual bankruptcy.

Increasingly Anglo-Canadian anthropology is practiced by a guild that is more and more controlled by people dislocated from the places they work, by the performers of exotica, and by the corporate managers who have taken hold of our universities.

As a discipline anthropology has no agency, no unifying mission, no manifest destiny to be the universal comparative science.  As method, as part of a social tool kit, anthropology does has a place within the landscape of Indigenous North America. For the moment anthropologists need to set aside any naive belief in a capacity to conduct autonomous research or that they build local capacity through their own research. The value of anthropology is as method operating under the discipline of Indigenous peoples.