The We and Them of Anthropology

I think about the ‘we’ and ‘them’ of anthropology quite frequently. I have always found the royal ‘we’ a bit of funny notion. Who is included in this ‘we’? Such a simple word, all of two letters, and yet it has an ambivalent presence. It can be an act of loving kinship—we are here together. We look out for one another. Or it can be an act of violence through the denial of difference: ‘we’ are just like you, so your concerns are invalid. We know what’s best. We are not amused.

The complex negotiation of simultaneous and often contradictory sameness and difference across legal orders, societies, nations, communities, disciplines, and histories drives my research of human-fish and colonial relations in Canada, and this negotiation of sameness and difference is encapsulated in the use of the word ‘we’. The State often tells Indigenous people in Canada that we are a ‘we’. It does this by asserting ‘we’ are all Canadian, so we are all one happy family of Canadian citizens loyal to the laws and principles of the Canadian State. But, paradoxically, when it suits it, the Canadian State does recognize difference (on its terms), and in so doing it frames all Indigenous peoples in Canada (through the state’s preferred moniker ‘Aboriginals’) as a contemptable ‘them’: one amorphous group of vaguely inter-related First Peoples it can treat with the same indifference and barely veiled disgust. (This produces the further problem of forcing upon Indigenous peoples a ‘we’ unasked for by any of us: the ‘we/them’ as The Other which situates the default body of authority and knowing as a white, non-Indigenous one). In Canada, it bears noting that the since the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples issued its report in 1996, the Canadian State claims to recognize (though often fails to honour) a ‘nation-to-nation’ relationship between itself and First Peoples. This speaks to the articulation, in this place at least, of Indigenous peoples as nations and/or societies with our own laws, histories, language and claims to land/territory. However, the actual mobilization of this nation-to-nation relationship is another matter entirely. All too often, ‘we’ as Indigenous peoples are denied this nationhood and framed instead as a social, economic, and legal  ‘problem’ the State is saddled with. We and Them as distancing tools to avoid acknowledging ongoing legal-governance duties across nations.

As of 2011, there are 1.4 million Indigenous peoples–First Nations, Inuit and Métis—across the entire mosaic of territories claimed by the Canadian State. Each community, nation, people enacts and enlivens their own rules of relating to one another, to delineating respectful relationships to the land, to the other-than-human constituents of their nations, to determining legal and accountable membership. To frame Indigenous people as simply the Other, collectively and paradoxically denoted by settler-colonial actors as both a ‘we’ and a ‘them’ to serve various aims of the State, is to conflate our unique and plural nationhood and peoplehood, to flatten our long-rooted legal-governance practices that are informed by the places each of us lives. At the same time, however, there is a collective understanding of the place- and temporally- specific experiences different Indigenous peoples have experienced, and continue to experience, as peoples colonized by the French and British Crowns and now by the Canadian State. If we have one uniting factor, it is in the experience of having our legal orders and self-determination denied by various Empires and Nation States. This is a complex sameness and difference that is negotiated each and every day. Dwayne Donald (2009) describes this negotiation as ‘ethical relationality’–the recognition of difference while also negotiating what it means to live accountably and ethically within a shared place shaped by complex (and I would argue painful) historical realities.

It matters, then, who asserts the ‘we’. Is it a nation or people themselves defining kinship and governance relations for themselves, or someone else imposing the ‘we’ upon them? I puzzle through this question quite often as I study the relationships between Indigenous peoples and the state in Canada, and as I study human-fish relations within Indigenous legal orders. The ‘we’ and the ‘them’ employed within research, policy and political discourses matters. It creates walls, sometimes permeable, often not. As Sara Ahmed argues, quite often the people doing the describing, the citing, are not those who belong to a particular group being described to begin with. Her idea of ‘white men as buildings’ (Ahmed 2014) speaks to the pervasiveness of white, male scholars being the default voice and hive-mind of academia. If we continue to use the same citation practices, which Ahmed calls a ‘reproductive technology’ (Ahmed 2013), then it is very much within a discipline of White Men as Buildings that we find ourselves committing anthropology. The statistics bear this out in Britain, where of 18,500 professors in the entire country, only 85 professors are black and only 17 are black women (Grove 2014). I have tried, but failed, to find data for how many Indigenous and/or POC [People of Colour] scholars there are in departments in British anthropology. But my personal experience within the discipline demonstrates that it is still a very white space (though thankfully there are POC and WOC [Women of Colour] working in the discipline in the UK), which is not surprising when we look at the work of Brodkin et al. (2011), who demonstrate the racialised realities of the practice of anthropology in the USA.

So, anthropology is itself an interesting locus of ‘we’ and ‘them’. Who is being referred to in discussing the ‘we’ of anthropology? Who is doing the anthropologizing, and who is being acted upon? Which bodies do you conjure up in your mind’s eye when you envision the discipline? Who are the scholars of note describing when they discuss the ontological, the political, the theoretical? How often do you encounter an Indigenous scholar on a conference panel about Indigenous issues? How often do anthropologists acknowledge Indigenous peoples as active intellectuals and thinkers rather than informants passing down static ‘Indigenous knowledge’ or ‘traditional knowledge’?** Dr. Val Napoleon has taught me to move away from ‘Indigenous Knowledge’ to Indigenous thinking and thinkers because the latter reinforces the active and present nature of the intellectual labour we perform as Indigenous peoples working in and across relationships to one another, to the land, and to the State and its institutions.

Holbraad et al. (2014) explain that to them, the politics of the ontological turn “means giving the ontological back to “the people,” not the people back to “the ontological.””. But what if ‘we’—the people out there that anthropology, broadly, sees itself describing–never gave away the ontological? As I said in my previous post, indigenous self-determination in my home territory of amiskwaciwâskahikan/pêhonan/Treaty Six pre-supposes the ontological. We never gave ‘it’ away because ‘we’ have always incorporated the other-than-human and the understanding that many nations operate within their own cosmopolitics into our relations across nations, legal orders and geographies. We have continued to assert our legal orders in the face of the Euro-Western legal-governance and ethics of the French, British and Canadian States. We had treaties with one another through which we negotiated our own relationships to place, people and stories, such as the nehiyaw-pwat. We never relinquished our self-determination, ontological or otherwise. We have continued to think, write, speak, move and act within our dynamic and living intellectual practices. We don’t need anyone to give that (‘the ontological’) back to us, because we’ve held it all along.

So what would anthropological discourses look like if the halls of the academy physically reflected the actual societies we belong to? In Canada, one cannot avoid the daily encounter with the self-determination of Indigenous peoples because we all live in Indigenous land. Every city in Canada is in Indigenous land. Every scholar lives in Indigenous land. Every University is in Indigenous land. Every department, therefore, rests within sentient and knowing lands that long precede the Euro-Western state and its institutions, including the Euro-Western academy. On the other hand, my experience in the UK that it is much easier to render conversations about Indigenous self-determination and Indigenous peoples into philosophical or theoretical language—distancing language– because the ‘we’ doing the talking does not necessarily incorporate the people being described. But in Canada, the unruly and fleshy bodies of Indigenous peoples, which Vanessa Watts (2013) argues are inextricably bound to the soil and to the land–like the Mouthy Michif writing this very piece–are present and actively resisting the ‘we/them’ anthropology has employed in the past. We as Indigenous peoples are in your halls. We are actively asserting our legal-governance and intellectual lives in dynamic ways. We are working across sameness and difference. We will demand that the academy be responsible for how it impacts Indigenous sovereignty, just as we ourselves are responsible to our nations, communities, peoples for how our work impacts self-determination. We will ask how on earth you can write about Indigenous self-determination without citing Indigenous thinkers. We will write with or without you. We, the non-dominant voices and bodies of the discipline, will keep discussing the things that matter to us, and anthropology must decide whether it will keep being ‘white public space’ (Brodkin et al. 2011) that reproduces ‘white men as buildings’ (Ahmed 2014), or whether it will embrace the vulnerability, and potential, that comes with radically dismantling the ongoing patriarchy and white supremacy of contemporary Euro-Western academia. Anthropology re-imagined is anthropology unbound from its current  Euro-Western institutions and logics.

Either way, ‘we’ as Indigenous peoples and those not currently reproduced by the citational practices of the discipline and/or the Euro-Western academy, will do many things, because we are here to stay. It’s up to anthropology, broadly, to decide if it’s going to join us.

*special thank you to my colleague Danielle Lorenz for reading the first draft of this piece and offering editorial input.

**I say without hesitation that the work of scholars like Julie Cruikshank demonstrates a praxis of what I call ‘thoughtful anthropology’ that teaches all of us so much about what an accountable, reciprocal anthropology can look like. There is a lot of very good work being done in the discipline.

Works Cited

Ahmed, S. (2013). Making Feminist Points. Accessed April 24, 2015.

Ahmed, S. (2014). White Men. Accessed April 24, 2015.

Brodkin, K, Morgen, S. and J. Hutchinson. (2011). Anthropology as White Public Space? American Anthropologist 113(4): 545-556.

Donald, D. (2009). Forts, Curriculum, and Indigenous Metissage: Imagining Decolonization of Aboriginal-Canadian Relations in Educational Contexts. First Nations Perspectives 2(1): 1-24.

Grove, J. (2014). Black academics still experience racism on campus. Times Higher Education. Accessed May 16, 2015,

Holbraad, M., Pedersen, M. and E. Viveiros de Castro. (2014). The Politics of Ontology: Anthropological Positions. Fieldsights – Theorizing the Contemporary. Cultural Anthropology Online, January 13, 2014. Accessed May 16, 2015,

Watts, V. (2013). Indigenous place-thought and agency amongst humans and non-humans (First Woman and Sky Woman go on a European Tour!). DIES: Decolonization, Indigeneity, Education and Society 2(1) (2013): 20-34.

Zoe Todd (Red River Métis/Otipemisiwak) is a PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. In July, she will become a Lecturer at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. She is a 2011 Trudeau Foundation Scholar. She researches human-fish relations, colonialism and Indigenous legal orders/governance in Canada.

5 thoughts on “The We and Them of Anthropology

  1. Zoe – these thought-provoking questions chime with some of the discussions that took place at a recent workshop (September 2014) on who ‘we’ anthropologists think ‘we’ are. The online version of the project is still open, so do feel free to add your voice to the conversation! For more details, see We’re currently putting together a special issue/edited volume on the theme and would love to hear from you and other interested parties.

  2. Hi Liana,

    Thank you! The workshop looks like it was very interesting. I hope that readers see this link to your project site and add their thoughts!



  3. Zoe, I have been thinking about what you have written so beautifully here. The more I think about the questions you raise, the more uncomfortable I feel.

    First, a little background. I am neither Canadian nor First Nations. I am a U.S. citizen who has lived and worked in Japan for nearly thirty-five years. Based on statistics for 2011 cited in Wikipedia I am one of just under 50,000 U.S. citizens who make up only 2.4% of the foreigners living in Japan, most of whom are Chinese or Korean. Anthropology is my hobby, not the way I make my living.

    When I think about my own mixed, most Scots-Irish-German ancestors and the national mythology and world history I was taught growing up in southeast Virginia in the 1950s and 60s, I think about people who were indigenous somewhere else and chose to emigrate to what they dreamed was a New World, where they could recreate themselves freed from the traditions in which they were raised. As an anthropologist I know that the continent to which they migrated was already populated. I can only imagine the pain and humiliation of those who survived the resulting wars on the losing side. How to ease that pain and demonstrate respect are, to me, important issues. Are they more important than the polarization of income between the 1% and the 99%? Or the likely impact of global warming or artificial intelligence on the lives of my grandchildren? Should the rights of “nations” take precedence over these issues?

    As a political activist whose politics have been shaped by the pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty, my aims are to minimize suffering and, as far as possible, ensure equal opportunity for every human child. I am aware that, as Rorty argues, national pride, coupled with a sense of shame when the nation with which one identifies does evil things, is essential for effective political action. The alternative is political apathy and a future in which things fall apart. At the same time, I am deeply uneasy about romantic concepts of nationhood, in which blood, soil and language not only exclude “the others” but also become traps for individuals who might wish to live different lives. The bloodiest and most intractable conflicts on earth are rooted in these concepts. So I have some questions for you.

    How do you feel about African immigrants dying at sea in desperate, illegal efforts to reach Europe? Or would-be immigrants from South or Southeast Asia to Australia confined to what are, in effect, concentration camps on Nauru? What about Israel and Palestine? The aspirations of Kurds or Chechens? Or the competing claims of China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan to islands in the South China Sea, in a resource-hungry world where who controls the maritime resources within the 200-mile economic exclusion zones around those islands is a very big deal, indeed?

    I am not for a moment expecting you to have ready answers for any of these questions. These are, as current jargon puts it, “wicked problems.” No one has ready answers for them. What I am suggesting is that your work has a global context and that those who search for solutions to problems that may look straightforward when the focus is restricted to First Nations versus the Canadian state may need to broaden their perspective, both to better understand resistance to what they propose and to find allies with whom common ground can be found.

  4. These are great questions….and ones I also struggle with. In the language applied by Canada, it chose the ‘nation-to-nation’ framing through the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) in 1996, but many Indigenous scholars would be quick to add that an Indigenous nation within North America is not analogous to the nation-state as we know it within Euro-American governance and legal orders familiar to us in Internaitonal law {caveat: I’m not a lawyer, so my understanding of law, as such, is by no means expert!}. However, there is still the difficulty of negotiating around the language of nationhood and the baggage that ‘nation’ carries in the english language. This is why, in the piece, I also use the nouns ‘peoples’ and ‘societies’. Val Napoleon explains in this link here why she prefers to use the terminology of Indigenous societies vs nationhood: and Métis scholar Chris Andersen chooses instead to discuss Métis as a ‘people’ ( These alternate framings put the emphasis on relationship, working across relationship, and holding one another accountable. I have to admit I prefer the latter two framings (Indigenous societies, peoples) for these reasons. However, I also acknowledge that the idea of nationhood in Indigenous languages is not the same as we understand it in english. I think we would do so much better, broadly, to shift to understandings of ourselves having reciprocal duties to one another across collectivities. This is the tough work we are all negotiating today, and it is the tough relationship we must lean into as we try to address the great violences and sufferings people experience around the globe.

  5. Zoe, the generosity of your response is much appreciated. You may already know of this piece:


    Review of

    Laws and societies in global contexts: contemporary approaches BY EVE DARIAN-SMITH
    – See more at:

    I just stumbled across it. Seems relevant to the questions with which we struggle.

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