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.





Family as a Site of Reproduction

[These notes connect with the lecture on Kinship and Family – audio notes]

Families can be described as “sites of reproduction”  – this can be the case in two senses:  People as individuals and people as future labour power.

Families, loosely defined (often times in anthropology we will say household – the group that is co-resident and share productive and consumptive activities) are the social institutions that typically produce people. Families tend to be the foundational unit of society that contributes toward the socialization of children and youth and acts as a primary site for the construction of social identity.

A lot of family studies -even anthropological research- examines the nature and structure of families as a way to understand what makes particular individuals the way they are. Educational studies of student success very often highlight family structure as being strongly correlated with student achievement.  Not surprisingly the so-called white middle class family – two parents, two or three children, parents educated in some manner beyond high school- tends to produce higher rates of educational attainment in children.  There is a problem, however, with such a limited approach.  This is an example of a type of study that doesn’t place the object of study within the wider dynamics of structural power, but simply looks at the organizational power within the family unit.

Two basic critiques can be offered:

  1. Educational success is predefined in such a manner, located within a particular cultural understanding of what success is, as to be in some sense a self-fulfilling prophecy
  2. Empirical evidence shows other factors play as strong, if not stronger, a role in shaping education outcomes than family structure alone.  For example, research at UBC in the Faculty of Education has shown that rather than family structure, household income is a far better indicator of educational success than any other factor.  Using real estate appraisals one group of researchers has shown that the higher the house values the higher the likelihood of the household’s children going on to post secondary education.

What we can see here is that while the structure of a family may have some bearing on outcomes for children, the structure itself is neither the causal factor nor the only one that has a role to play.  We need to take into account the wider ideas of “structural power” that Eric Wolf describes.  We need to locate families within wider processes of society to understand what is actually happening.

So here we see that simply looking at the family as a unit the produces individuals misses a significant part of the overall picture.  This takes us to the second aspect of reproduction – the reproduction of labour power that occurs within the family.

In the late 1960s a group of theorists, around a political campaign called “Wages for Housework” argued that the primarily female labour used to maintain the home and to raise children was actually a benefit being transferred to the capitalist system itself. Their argument went as follows:  women cook, clean, parent, manage the household, provide services for their partners.  All these activities can be costed in the larger labour market.  If their partners, or the firms that employed their partners, were to pay for these services it would result in a sizable amount of money.

This argument was also relied upon a conception of the role of patriarchy, a gender ideology that places domestic power and authority into male hands, in shaping domestic relations.  Their point was not that capitalism requires women’s unpaid labour in the home, but rather that capitalism as an economic system was able to adapt and deploy women’s unpaid labour in the home as a benefit to the accumulation of profits by reducing the amount of money businesses would have to pay their employees.  Thus, a pre-existing patriarchal gender ideology (that disadvantaged women) was deployed by capitalism to transfer the responsibility for the maintenance of labour power and the reproduction of future labour power from capital to individual women doing unpaid labour in the home.

Privatized care of children in the home – that is raising children as a ‘choice’ and without significant societal support, is also a cost transfer from capital to individual families.  That is, the costs of producing, raising, and preparing future labour power are transferred primarily to the domestic unit.  This is a critical point as it shapes public debates about childcare and education. The dominant ideology places raising children into a private domain of individual choice and responsibility.  Yet, from an empirical sense, capital saves money by transferring as much of the cost of raising and educating children as it can into families. Thus, the countervailing or more balanced argument tends to highlight the overall societal benefit that families provide by raising children and sees the provision of childcare services (either through socialized daycare or parental release with pay) as a society obligation rather than as an individual responsibility.

So, by maintaining women’s labour in the home as unpaid, by transferring the cost of the reproduction of labour power into the home, and by highlighting ideologies of individual responsibility above collective obligations the structural power of social class reproduces a wide range of social inequalities.  Keep in mind that the wealthier members of society can purchase labour power to replace their own personal labour in the home.  So, for the wealthy, the privatization of labour within the family does not directly affect them, or at least it affects them in a quantitatively and qualitatively different manner than working class or poorer families.  The end result becomes a transferring of critical aspects of societal responsibilities onto the backs of those least able to pay and then telling them that it’s their fault.

A rather back to front situation if ever there was one.


What is Anthropology?

by Beth Penny (Anth 300 2011)

Upon telling people that I study anthropology, I am generally met with one of two responses: either intrigue about the idea of digging up dinosaurs or envy at the possibility of travelling to faraway “exotic” places. These responses embody the commonly held misconceptions about what anthropology really is. Ideas that the discipline has relevance only in shedding light the past, the exotic or the extinct (or the non-human) neglect to realise the discipline’s significance in contemporary Canadian society.

As a most simplistic definition, anthropology is the study of humanity. This subject matter encompasses all aspects of the human experience, everything from social structure to environment, kinship to politics. Though once considered to be the “handmaiden of colonialism”, anthropology has long since rejected this characterization. No longer solely focused on studying “exotic” peoples of foreign lands, anthropologists have expanded the scope of their subject matter to include peoples and cultures closer to home. Anthropological research has played an increasingly pertinent role in issues, policies, and debates in local, everyday society.

Canada is not culturally homogeneous; the idea of a melting pot society has been replaced with renewed interest in maintaining and celebrating cultural differences seen within people comprising one nation. Cultural difference, however, is not found without some degree of conflict. The issues arising from the cultural heterogeneity are where the role of anthropological study gains relevance, particularly with respect to First Nations.

First Nations have been and continue to be at the forefront of anthropological research in Canada, as historically marginalised and displaced peoples. The colonial process disrupted existing cultures, with lingering effects that are still felt today. In our seemingly modern, equal-opportunity society, not a day passes without a news article bringing to light an issue involving First Nations peoples in some respect. This alone should illustrate the still very present division between commingled peoples and cultures.

Anthropology can serve as a much needed cultural translator to open a dialogue and promote mutual understanding between historically distinct cultures. The need for this translation became very apparent in cases such as the Delgamuukw land claims of the 1990s, and persists today. This case saw two cultures at opposition: claiming ownership of the same land through different culturally practiced forms of documentation. The Delgamuukw case was essentially a ruling on validity of tradition and culture; although it was later overturned, that the initial judgement ruled against oral documentation as evidence keenly illustrated cultural miscommunication and marginalisation that continues in the postcolonial era. These are not issues of the past; a simple Google search for news articles on this topic will consistently yield articles that are merely days old.

Land claims cases such as this bring to light some of the tangible effects of an often unrealised cultural divide within what many consider to be a unified Canadian culture. Understanding the historical and cultural processes behind these cases is paramount in resolving these conflicts that have persisted far too long. In working closely with communities, developing relationships, gaining cultural knowledge, and expanding understanding, anthropologists play a key role in preserving cultural diversity and resolving conflict.

Humanity is fluid, constantly changing as the world changes; cultures evolve, politics vary, relationships transform. These changes present anthropologists with an infinite subject for study. Anthropology is not simply focused on the past or the foreign. Carrying out anthropological research at home is of relevance not just to the narrow world of academia but for communities being researched, policy-makers, and the general public. Developing mutual understanding and replacing the dominant colonial voice in favour of an open dialogue can help bridge this outdated but still prevalent cultural gap.