UARC: Interchangeable Indians

We have a new post on the Upward Anthropology Research Community blog from my friend Kerry Hawk Lessard. The post is on the (mis)use of Native American imagery to rewrite the history of Native struggles and colonization. Understanding the way that the dominant culture, and the media system that caters to it appropriates and distorts Native imagery and representations of other subaltern groups to perpetuate its own dominant position is an essential aspect of the Upward Anthropology project. It helps us to conceptualize and strategize counter-images and representations like those of Gregg Deal – the artist referred to in the post. Also check out Kerry and Gregg’s blog Kill the Man, Save the Indian.

Any expression of Indianness that falls outside of the accepted stereotype is immediately subject to invalidation and critique. It is also the case that non-Natives reserve for themselves the right to adjudicate what and who is sufficiently Native and who is not. America feels that we must accept their words simply because they say them, never mind our realities.”

Native people must, as a very basic human right, be accorded the freedom to assert their identity, to articulate their own priorities, and to do so with their own voices.”

Composing Method

Anthropology is – from its very inception – a discipline of engagement – building rapport, participant-observing, attempting to see the world from another’s perspective. Done with a desire to understand others and, perhaps, to better understand ourselves, these practices are unique in the social science world, and allow for a much deeper knowledge of the lives around us. But, if my influence is anything to the discipline, I would like it to be this: that ethnographic methods, broadly defined, are more than just ways of understanding, they are techniques for building relationships with and between others.

As I’ve mentioned before, I believe that understanding is just one among many kinds of relationships that can be built. I would argue, further, that it is always a secondary relationship – we cannot understand until we have already established some other kind of relationship. Ethnographic methods provide a guide – honed over many years of practice, though still imperfect – to begin building those relationships. When we begin to see ethnography in this way, the project of anthropology and the value of ethnography changes. No longer will we begin with the question “How can I better understand these others?” (which jumps the gun and risks developing an unbalanced, domineering kind of relationship, though the resulting knowledge may be very solid and useful) and instead we will begin with the question “How can I build the most effective and most mutually beneficial relationship with them?” 

This question is at the heart of the discipline of struggle forever. Struggle is the continual and continuous engagement with others – both human and non-human – with the intention of building better relationships and ultimately a better world. As a result, I see ethnographic methods as key to the struggle. In the next couple of posts, I plan to explore methodology – my first and true love as an anthropologist – and the potential for ethnographic methods, in particular, to contribute to the struggle to build a better world. I will begin with an analysis of scientific methods in general, and explain conceptually how I have come to understand methods as practices of relationship building. Then I will provide a specific example from my own research – working with the Shoshone and the Bureau of Land Management to protect cultural landscapes – to show how this methodology can be applied. Finally, I will explore some of the further possibilities that I see emerging from this methodology, and how I hope to apply it in future work and struggle.