Recently a friend of mine discovered a picture of her grandfather in one of the ethnographic books about the Sherpas. Underneath the picture, next to his name, it said “assistant.” She found this insulting. As she saw it, her grandfather had always occupied a space of respect and honor. In this book, he was reduced to an assistant.
Why does her irritation make sense to me? And, at the same time, why do I think the title of “assistant” is appropriate in this context?
I am a Sherpa anthropologist—an anthropologist, who is a Sherpa, and a Sherpa, who became an anthropologist. I make no claim to know everything about Sherpas or related to Sherpas. How could I?
After hundreds of hours of interviews over the years, everyday participant observation, and continuous reflection—filled with pleasure and pain—the only thing I can say authoritatively as a Sherpa anthropologist is that there is no one authority on the Sherpas.
Once in a while, I get asked to write an authoritative description of who we are, once and for all. “We need to know our tradition; we need to know our rituals; we cannot forget our culture,” they say. And I wonder: if, for a second, I accept this proposal, should I start with the Sherpas from my village, the Kathmandu Sherpa world I grew up in, or the American Sherpa life I now live?
In 1990, Jim Fisher prophetically wrote:
“If a loss of Sherpa identity occurs, it will be among this new generation of Kathmandu children. Understanding Sherpa when they hear it but speaking only Nepali…and going to Kathmandu schools, they are unlikely ever to return to Khumbu except for occasional visit. They will instead become the Nepalese equivalent of the second- and third-generation Sherpas who live in Darjeeling—still ethnically Sherpa but so far removed from the social and religious traditions of their homeland that they have become marginal to them. The roots of this new generation of Sherpas will no longer be planted in the potato fields and pastures and peaks of Khumbu, but in the cement and brick and asphalt of Kathmandu (Fisher 1990, p. 176).”
Jim was talking about me!
I understand the Sherpa language when I hear it (I can also respond although in a funny Nepali accent, I was told by a young fellow villager). I went to Kathmandu schools, and visited Pharak occasionally, when our schools were closed. The month-long Dashain (a major Hindu festival) holiday was a perfect time for such visits. Born and raised in Kathmandu, I was marginal to the “pure” culture in our village, and my roots were definitely in the cement and brick and asphalt of Kathmandu. Having to walk from the Lukla airport to Monzo, a whole day’s hike, was torturous for the 8-year old me. (If you ask me now, I’ll tell you it’s great.)
The Sherpas had created a term to refer to a new kind of themselves in the 1980s. These “tourist Sherpas” were those that no longer wore sheepskin pants, and were conspicuous by their down jackets. They were part of an incipient new class produced by the economic shift to tourism. They were Sherpas, who looked like tourists. They nevertheless knew who they were, and “largely remain[ed] as culturally rooted in Khumbu as the plain dirt potato farmer” (Fisher 1990).
In graduate school (2007-2012), upon processing what I had been reading—numerous books, articles, news paper clips, magazines, institutional reports, brochures, websites, and others—I found myself having created an image of the Sherpas. This mental image resembled the rare picture my family has of our youthful grandmother standing barefoot in front of our ancestral home, perhaps fifty years ago. I was then faced with a frightening question: Am I Sherpa enough? Am I a Sherpa?
It took me years before I realized I am sufficiently and confidently Sherpa, different from my grandmother, but a Sherpa nevertheless.
The literature was swamped with stories of mountaineering Sherpa men. In fact, there was no shortage of literature on the Sherpas. Kurt Luger (2000) once wrote that the Sherpas, “have captured the attention of anthropologists the world over in the same way as North America’s Hopi Indians, whose typical family—so runs the academic joke—consists of Hopi mother, Hopi father, Hopi children and an anthropologist.”
Galen Rowell quoted Sir Edmund Hillary describing the Khumbu as, “the most surveyed, examined, blood-taken, anthropologically dissected area in the world.” And that was in 1980. One can only imagine how this area might be described today, in 2017.
The problem is that my story, my friend’s story, and my mother’s story are missing from the literature. What will I do about this as an anthropologist? Do I plan on capturing all of our stories, all of our lives in books, articles, and blogs…? How can I? How can any anthropologist?
We are only human. What we present will always be a snippet, a perspective, a quick look through an anthropological lens—an attempt at getting a holistic view.
My friend, trying to tell her sibling about her grandfather’s picture, was distracted by another book. In this next book, an anthropologist had described, in quite a lot of detail, the Sherpa customs, values, and morals. This was a great find for her family. They read about how to be a Sherpa. Then, there was another one. This next book was a basic Sherpa language dictionary—extremely useful for everyday use!
Fisher, J. F. (1990). Sherpas: reflections on change in Himalayan Nepal. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Luger, K., & East, P. (2000). Kids of Khumbu: Sherpa youth on the modernity trail. Kathmandu: Mandala Book Point.
Rowell, G. A. (1980). Many people come, looking, looking. Seattle: The Mountaineers.