At a regional Asian Studies conference recently there was a roundtable event held to highlight a documentary film on L. Keith Brown, professor of anthropology emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh. The film, produced and directed by David Plath, is “Can’t Go Native?” Keith was there on hand to answer questions about his long engagement with the people of Mizusawa, Japan. A few years ago Mizusawa folks held a 50th anniversary to honor his years of anthropological fieldwork there. Whoa. Huh? 50 years going to one fieldsite? One of Keith’s comments was that doing fieldwork in the same place over such a long period of time “keeps you honest.” You can’t, he said, blow into town for a one-shot roughshod survey like those University of Tokyo researchers often do. One question from the audience was “How many other anthropologists have been celebrated like this by the community where they do research?”
Great question. I can’t answer it.
Not many people come to mind, but then I wasn’t trained as a cultural anthropologist. I did, however, immediately offer William Bright as a similar case. Bill began to study the Karuk language of northern California in 1949 for a BA in linguistics at Berkeley. He was 21 and scared and lonely. His nickname was Uhyanapatanvaanich, “little word-asker.” His New York Times obit is worth reading, it makes it clear that there is a reason some of us studied linguistics in anthropology departments (thus “linguistic anthropology”) and not in linguistics departments under the oppressive weight of Chomskyian generative grammar. Quoting from the article, for Bill “language was inseparable from its cultural context, which might include songs, poetry, stories and everyday conversation. And so, lugging unwieldy recording devices, he continued to make forays into traditional communities around the world, sitting down with native speakers and eliciting words, phrases and sentences.”
Just before Bill died in 2006, the Karuk people honored his decades of work to document and preserve the Karuk language by making him an honorary member of the tribe. Bill told me that some younger Karuk asked if this would open the floodgates to other White People who would seek membership. But the Karuk Elders said if they spend over 50 years studying our language and culture like Bill did, then, sure, they can join us.
I was curious about whether or not there are other anthropologists in other subfields who have been honored in these ways? In addition, do new anthropology PhD students think about this? What if you knew you would be returning to your field site over a lifetime, would you write anything differently? With a shift to multi-sited ethnography (as in my own work), is this type of honoring of anthropologists a thing of the past?