Monday, November 2, 2015

The Anthropology Problem

from A Contemporary Winter Count
page 14
Kerry M. Scott
Thesis, University of Lethbridge, 2006
(Link) pdf

Anthropology, more than anything else, has indiscriminately wreaked havoc on the history and the lives of Indian people in the Americas. As the historian Milloy (1972) writes, the anthropologists used Native Americans as their private subjects, to promote the anthropologist message to suit its own needs, and to discuss and uphold the anthropologist agenda against all objections by other groups, including the Natives who were, and continue to be, the subjects of the debate.

The actual damage of early anthropologists in the Canadian context cannot be singled out. Legends of the Blackfoot were the traditional narratives of all bands, Aamsskáápikani, Aapáhtosipikáni, Káínaa and Siksiká, and a misinterpretation of one legend affected all Blackfoot people, regardless of their location. When Natives became literate (in the European sense) during the residential school era, they were able to read accounts of Blackfoot legends recorded by early European explorers such as Henday and Henry. The misinterpretations of these early European writers served to cast doubt on oral traditions because they were in direct conflict with what Natives confined to residential schools had learned from their elders.

Certainly the mystery surrounding Indians and the nature of their social and political development has been exacerbated by the fact that they have customarily been the exclusive preserve of anthropologists who have produced, through the application of their own specialized, non-historic methodologies, conclusions embedded in the particular terminology of their discipline.  Many of the anthropologists’ justifications for their views of Indian peoples have been driven by academic self-promotion - researching and referencing the papers of other anthropologists. One example of this type of poor research is Changing Configurations in The Social Organization of A Blackfoot Tribe During the Reserve Period, by Esther Goldfrank (1966), a book that is testimony to the method used by many anthropologists.

The text is filled with annotations, quotations and references from the accounts of early ethnologists such as Wissler, Maximilian and Ewers. Ten days of camping and living alongside the Káínaa during a Sundance Ceremony by Goldfrank should hardly be considered adequate time or sufficient research to comprehend the social life and the most sacred ceremonies of the Káínaa. How a person could condense the thousands of years of evolution of the Káínaa religious rites and social life into one small book of 120 pages, including the bibliography, overwhelms the mind.

An accurate literary description of the Indians’ pre-reservation life cannot be found in the writings and transcripts of early anthropologists, as many of them wrote about the Indians only after they had been confined to reservations. Natives, Deloria (1988) writes, had few weapons to defend themselves against the powerful anthropologist:

Anthropologists came to Indian country only after the tribes had agreed to live on reservations and given up their warlike ways. Had the tribes been given a choice of fighting the cavalry or the anthropologists, there is little doubt as to whom they would have chosen. In a crisis situation men always attack the biggest threat to their existence. A warrior killed in battle could go to the happy Hunting Grounds. But where does an Indian laid low by an anthro go? To the library?

On the subject of Indian people, anthropologists have been so successful in advancing their theories that many Indians themselves have come to repeat the anthropologists’ ideas, perpetuating them as fact because of the illusion that anthropologists know everything about Indian people. However, as Milloy (1972) found, the tendency of the anthropologist was to concentrate not on the crucial history of a tribe, but on those events or factors which were uncommon or which had been more recently introduced to the Natives.

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