Friday, December 17, 2021

American Anthropology, Apologies, and Apologetics

 In November 2021 Akhil Gupta, president of the American Association of Anthropologists publicly apologized for the harm American Anthropologists have committed against Indigenous peoples. He doubled down on his apology with a presidential address that asked what anthropology might have looked like if it had foregrounded a decolonial perspective from the start. I wasn’t at the meetings but almost immediately saw my social media feeds light up with commentary (mostly positive) about Gupta’s presentation. Not all anthropologists were so supportive. One senior AAA member penned a letter to the effect and gathered a band of signatories to express their dissatisfaction. 

The Lewis letter takes umbrage with the idea anthropology is responsible for any kind of harm. Perhaps, Lewis and follows allow, there may have been problematic individuals, but the discipline itself has been well intentioned and a net positive contribution to humanity. Lewis discursively positions himself as a well-intentioned elder being undermined by younger voices that might not be as informed as they should be. He laments how Boas and others get tossed under the bus in the rush to a new political correct presentist anthropology. But Lewis’ critique of Gupta is misplaced and just plainly wrong. 

I came upon Lewis’ letter of complaint by accident. I receive the regular ‘communities’ update from the AAA but normally ignore and delete it. What caught my eye wasn’t Lewis’ initial letter, it was the small torrent of congratulatory cheering statements from a range of folks with increasingly inflammatory reasons for agreeing with Lewis. So I clicked on the link in my email (a mistake I’m sure) and started reading the thread building around Lewis’ letter. At the time most were supportive. They shared a tone of pained victimhood in which they positioned themselves as a stalwart minority holding out for truth against a horde of presentist youngsters who themselves were under the bewitching charms of some anthropological pied piper. Fact is the discipline is fairly middle of the road and many practitioners still pride themselves on their 'liberal' ability to solve other people's problems (even if not asked).

In response and over a couple of days I penned several comments. You may note that the tone changes over time from a quiet attempt to be considerate of Lewis to increasing diminishment of patience with them.   During this time I also wrote to Gupta himself to ask to read his comments, which he shared with me for that purpose. After reading Gupta’s paper I was even less impressed with Lewis as it becomes clear that Lewis did not listen to the presidential address, is factually incorrect in several cases, and clearly is motivated by a kind of political agenda that looks unkindly on Indigenous, Black, and People of Colour having our own voices unmediated by white sojourners. 

Below, modestly edited, are my comments (updated Dec. 19/21 with two newer comments).

Comment 1.
As both an Indigenous person and an anthropologist I can see the importance of the earlier fieldworkers (though to be fair much of Boas' work was down by my Indigenous cousins, people like William Beynon or George Hunt, for example).  Yes, this work was thorough, and dare I say maybe even more thorough and detailed than work being done today (but that's opinion, not observation).  The older work was also located within it's time irrespective of whether it took an anti-racist or supremacist tone. Indeed the progressives of yesterday are often the first maligned by the progressives of today as they seek to set themselves apart from their parents and grand parents, nonetheless to ignore the potential of having gotten it wrong is itself a problem that does require attention.

We can, however, still learn from the past. I am currently reading the amazing book by Aaron Glass on writings about the Hamatsa. As Glass trawls through our intellectual past he clearly, cleverly, and engagingly identifies what was right, wrong, and confused (he is able to do this through a careful reading of the actual sources, many of the earlier ones borrow freely from each other without acknowledgement.  My point is that his 'critique' does not reject the legacy, worth, and detail of the past writers and anthropologists, but he does make very clear that their interests really weren't about understanding a 'native' view, but rather in drawing fact and data from our societies to elaborate and advance their own stories in which we were often mere characters on their theoretical stage.  

Despite Gupta's passionate and heartfelt critique many anthropologists are essentially still doing what anthropologists have always done - drawing from others to move their own theory.  I'm actually okay with that, but I think it is important that anthropologists realize what they are doing, and stop grandstanding.  Glass does a good job, in fact is an exemplar, in this regard.

A few years ago I published Standing on the Shore with Sabaan  which challenges anthropologists to stop using Indigenous societies as laboratories and date mines.  The story of getting the paper published is one that reveals some of the hidden prejudices within the mainstream of the discipline, despite the progressiveness of today's advocates. Nonetheless, it eventually came out. The point was not to deny a euro-centric American (or Canadian) anthropology, but to suggest that Indigenous peoples have also tried to figure you out as you were trying to figure us out. We don't always get you (American Anthros) right, but you do howl when you don't like the image we paint - way more, than we do I might add (and you still have control of many of the levers).

So while I can appreciate Hebert Lewis' complaint, I think he feels the attack too strong, he over exaggerates the change of the ground.  From my years attending the AAA, though time spent in a US grad school to working with colleagues (many of whom trained and originating in the US) in Canada, I can assure Dr Lewis that what he laments as lost is still the dominant perspective in the discipline no matter how moving a presidential address may have been.

Comment 2.

I am confounded by all the emerit(a/us) profs going on like the sky is falling and finally someone grabbed a stick to prop it up. A hardy band have come running to put their hands out to help hold up the sky. It would seem they have finally found their voice and courage to speak against the horde of young ungrateful children finding fault with the disciplinary ancestors.

How tiresome that our discipline has a poor sense of its own history. Every decade or two there is some crises that might foretell the end, some heretical saying that denies the early good work. So simplistic a story. I take delight in being able to cite Boas' critical piece about anthropologists of his day (WWI era) prostituting their science (a gloss on his own words) to aid an imperialist power (USA). He got censured by the AAA for that one. So yup Boas did some nifty things, things that can be admired. That doesn't leave his work free from critical inspection. That doesn't make his work untouchable.  What it says is that sensibilities change over time and what is important and valuable at one time may not be at another.

What I find intriguing about all the championing and complaining over Lewis' little comment is how offended he and his signatories seem to feel. It is as though they feel the sting of criticism against their own work, but in their minds and memories they were doing good things - the thought that maybe the subjects of their work might think differently is potentially threatening to them. Perhaps this group of elder colleagues feels their own work is being diminished by imagining an anthropology based in something other than theory making out of Indigenous cultures? Intent and desires are hard to parse out from the intense and passionate defences of old time anthropology. But it certainly seems that they are more concerned about what they feel they might lose then with imagining what a future anthropology might be if were based on something other than extracting data from other folks.

I'm no spring chicken myself (having begun my anthro journey as an undergrad in the 80s) so can appreciate how it feels when younger folks with 'new' ideas pop up with critical introspection in lectures, seminars, or talks. When one considers oneself radical, militant, or progressive and then realizes that for some of our current young scholars these once progressive ideas are retrograde - it can really pull one up short. But rather than taking a knee-jerk reaction, I am interested in how this has come to be.  I was never on board with the so-called post modernist moment, but aspects of the experiments in writing and thinking have served me well. Same with the current moment of decolonization, there are excesses indeed (like with anything new) but there are also valuable lessons. I'm interested in the lessons and would urge my senior colleagues (a few of whom I actually know) to take a sober second thought about signing onto Lewis' letter [and retract their support].

Comment 3.

If my colleagues had reflected on what I wrote, they would note I in fact said it is hard to tell the author's and supporters' intentions and desires - except in so far as to note their explicit words and indeed they do take great umbrage with the youthful critiques (but most of us critiquing aren’t that young!) that have been happening in the very academies they were formerly part of.

I do find it engaging. As an Indigenous anthropologist I have long experienced just this kind of correction as non-Indigenous 'experts' patiently explain to me why their analysis of my home is the right one. I have read the pages of explanations (in peer reviews) of why my own observations and those of my indigenous colleagues, relatives, and friends are definitely wrong.  I particularly recall an experience wherein a group of community leaders and Smgyigyet sat silently as we listened to a young 'expert' quote Boas to us to explain to the Sm'ooygit why the young 'expert's' understanding was the right one:  So I am familiar with this highly regarded 'true' history that Lewis and others rush to defend and regularly meet it in my everyday work life.

But they, Lewis and Band, really and truly miss the point.  They have had their cake and they continue to eat it. Though retired from the field they still occupy a large space within the body politic that is their imagined American Anthropology. The fact that they still have space and platform and desire to keep hold of the discipline demonstrates the power they still deploy, even if they think they are being dethroned.

Gupta's address and article isn't tossing anyone under the bus. His ideas aren't even particularly new. As recently as 1969 Kathleen Gough said something very similar and she lost her job, in part because of it. But one needn't restrict themselves to recent radicals, go back further to the anthropologist William Beynon (researching 1915-1955). Perhaps you have heard of him?  Maybe not, but he was the source behind the majority of Boas' Tsimshian materials. He was also the source behind Drucker, Garfield, Sussman, Barbeau, and countless others who rarely name him in their published works. Beynon eventually wrote a multi volume ethnography that was never published - if one were to read it one might appreciate the fact that however brilliant Boas was (and I believe he was) he was interested in extracting from Indigenous peoples to advance his own model of humanity - I do not begrudge him that - he was far better than the majority of the conservative physical anthropologists and archaeologists of his day. But Beynon had a different, more accurate view and when one reads his own words unmediated by Boas, Barbeau, or the others, we see a high complex civilization within which Beynon operated as himself a sm'oogit from a storied Tsimshian lineage.  While Boas theorized, Beynon understood and deployed that knowledge locally and through his attempts to shape the research of the follows of Boas who washed ashore in our laxyuup.

But there were also other non-Indigenous anthropologists working at the time of Boas doing things differently, in fact doing along the lines that Gupta calls for.  Consider James Teit, a community-based anthropologist before the term was invented. (see review of Wendy Wickwire's amazing biography here: ). Working at the same time, even in correspondence with Boas. Teit did anthropology in a way that paid attention to Indigenous intellectual traditions - it was an exemplar of what today we might call decolonial anthropology.  But rare is the student of American anthropology that has heard of let alone read James Teit.

So yes indeed, let's pay attention to history - not as it was written by the cold war generation in triumphalist America, but as it actually played out on the ground, with attention to how the institutional power was enacted in departments, who got hired, who was relegated to the margins, who do we remember, who actually was doing the work? The mid 20th century myth of American Anthropology that centres a harmonious four field study all of humanity does more of a disservice to the men and a few women who practiced it in the early 20th century than does Gupta's calls to reimagine our future.

Comment 4 (Dec. 18/21).

The thing is we [those commenting in support of Gupta's address] have been discussing your letter of complaint [this in response to several comments from Lewis & his supporters that his critics aren't listen, just cherry picking and name calling]. What you are not hearing is that we have experienced and heard these types of criticisms for many years and for much of our lives. You are blind and deaf to the criticisms which you have a priori disregarded. For each point you say "what about this, Boas was in fact this or Willis was in fact that..."  But it misses the point. No one really wants to take away your sense of comfort with the 'imagined community' you exist within, we just want the edges rolled back a bit so that what created the imagining can be made a bit more clear.  We want younger IBPOC to have experiences that were better than ours, we want our junior colleagues to move through the ranks without being undermined by the self-centring 'whitestream' ideas.

As an Indigenous faculty member I can attest to the problems IBPOC colleagues experience, and it is partly our institutional structures but it is also the disciplinary histories and traditions that continue to draw from us as data and ignore our perspectives when it becomes uncomfortable.  You might find this comment on the tenure process for Indigenous faculty at UBC of interest.  You [H.Lewis] may bristle at having your ideas and responses tabled 'white fragility,' but that is a meaningful concept and it is far from bullying, it is an analytic descriptor.

Comment 5 (Dec. 19/21).

[In response to a series of comments from Lewis' supporters who say they know a thing or two about hardship.]

I often say to my students your grade does not define who you are, it's a measurement of something you did at a particular moment in time.  This seems apt here. 

Our evaluation, or grade if you wish, of earlier (and current) anthropologists is not a measure of who they were/are, how hard they work(ed), or a diminishment of the struggles they may have endured.  Yet so many of the passionate defences of the letter of complaint roll out examples of how "hard I worked/I struggled" or point to all the "good I did."  That misses the point. It's the classic liberal defence and cry to be exempted from critique 'because I had it tough too."  While one may appreciate the stories of "I had it hard too" are designed to show that supporters of Lewis' Complaint aren't silver spoon babies, that misses the point. 

Another example.

When I teach about the colonial appropriation and history of Indigenous peoples along Canada's west coat I often talk about what Annie Booth (that is the first person I read who used the term) called microbial colonialism and the waves of small pox that rolled like death waves through my late ancestors' homes. I don't focus on individual acts of aggression in this story, but on the many more acts of structural indifference that were (to my mind far worse). Like the 1862 wave of smallpox that swept up BC's coast propelled by settler constabularies driving my kin out of Victoria at gun point. When students hear about this it is not unusual for at least one of them to come up to me after class, crestfallen and distressed who then express a sense of sorrow and offer an individual apology for what happened.  Then there are others who say that was bad but my family wasn't here during that period, you make it sound like all of us are guilty, we worked hard for our lives in BC and Canada.  

Both responses miss the point, it's not about you, the individual, how hard you worked, how sad you feel, it's about understanding the structural contexts that made that wave of genocide possible and now, a century and a half later doing something to make sure it doesn't happen again. And, and, and to drive the point home, the society that made it possible, settler Canada (and our settler sister state to the south) is responsible for the harm inflicted which was real, measurable, and unreasonable even in it's day. And each of us toady, in our respective settler states, benefit from those harms.

To all those who share and say "I too have suffered (even if I am a settler)" I think you miss the point. We are all implicated as 'anthropologists' in the historical acts of our discipline, we are all bound to make amends for past harms, and as sensibilities turn and cultural values transform it becomes (one hopes) less acceptable to hide behind the normative values of a euro-whiteness that presents as universal and colour blind.

For those who say they have done good work, why not examine that work and ask how can those lessons of your 'good work' apply in your departmental review processes for tenure and promotion (how many Indigenous faculty made the cut in your unit?), consider your mechanisms for graduate recruitment - what hidden criteria restrict IBPOC applicants? In your courses you teach ask yourself are these Indigenous 'content' courses in which all the sources that focus on Indigenous  communities are constructed as doing research 'on' rather than 'with' Indigenous peoples?  In your Indigenous content courses do you have a place for Indigenous intellectual traditions or do you use Indigenous societies as data to explore external theories and models? Start with these self questions and reflect.

In our university we have a new Indigenous Strategic Plan that is quite different from the typical strategic plan. It is designed, on a university level, for us to all ask these kinds of questions [as in paragraph above] and to see about meaningful response to Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  UBC is no bastion of radical revisionism, it is a big neo-liberal research university. But those on its board and in its administration realize that they have to stop talking about themselves, what great things they did, and how their predecessors are really being misunderstood and actually were great folks. Instead they have taken a brave path to actually confront the harms of the past while drawing forward what might have been okay, tossing out what was clearly wrong, and in the entire process trying to bring the university collectively forward. To my mind and heart Professor Gupta's presidential address was something similar (in intent). Paying attention to what Gupta actually wrote and said has a good chance to keep anthropology relevant.

Comment 6 (Dec. 20/21)

[In response to a Lewis supporter saying some voices (those critical of Lewis?)are divisive and we should all strive for unity.]

Yes, everyone is flawed and we are all products of the society we are raised in, but the effects work out differently depending upon one's class, gender, racial, etc location. So the everyone is the same claim is simultaneously wrong and right. The call for unity, however, is one that actual seeks to deny difference and the effects of structural power. I see more than a devolution here into binaries, but rather a fairly nuanced circle of differences, some more pronounced than others and on the edges (as the circle moves through time) are those who deny the circle does in fact shift and transform over time. The edge views become increasingly rigidified, increasingly less tolerant of differnnce, and ultimately inflexible o to the point of brittleness and fragility.