As an archaeologist who is invested in the project of decolonization, I admit to being wary of its overuse within anthropological discourse to such a degree that it is depoliticized. Decolonization must remain a political project. As Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang succinctly reminded us in the first issue of the journal Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, “Decolonization is not a metaphor.” (2012)
Recently The National Archives (UK) Blog posted a piece entitled, “Decolonising Archaeology in Iraq?” by Dr. Juliette Desplat. Whereas I am a big fan of archival research, in particular Dr. Desplat’s ongoing work on making the archive more publicly accessible through her blog posts, I was a bit perturbed by the generous use of the word decolonizing. Decolonization must be protected as a political act. The use of the word as a descriptor is naively violent if used to illustrate the manner by which bureaucracies articulate themselves in the post-colony — those are not acts of decolonization, more often than not they are in their first instances replications of previous power structures. Decolonization must continue to be thought of and contextualized as a mode of political action that, alongside dismantling colonial structures of power, provides the space for the oppressed to occupy equitable power relations. It is about reparations, it is about social justice, it is about equity, and it is about claiming power socially, politically, and psychologically.
How we can reclaim anthropology in Aotearoa New Zealand and stake out a new public and pedagogical space for the discipline? This question was at the heart of a panel at the recent Anthropology in Aotearoa Symposium, hosted by the Cultural Anthropology Programme at Victoria University of Wellington on 10-12 May 2017. My contribution to the panel–shared below–was as part of a group of anthropologists from across the country who collectively sought to address the above question.
Writing a poem was my way of overcoming the writer’s block that hit me when I tried to turn my abstract into a paper. I was inspired to do so after re-reading the work of my colleague Teresia Teaiwa, who has been a major influence on how I think about and practice anthropology and who sadly passed away earlier this year. My poem begins where I first encountered anthropology – as an undergraduate student in a first-year class taught by Jeff Sluka – and ends with a new class I will teach next term. Providing a view from Aotearoa, it retraces some key moments in my journey towards what Faye Harrison calls an anthropology for liberation.
I am grateful to Sita Venkateswar for showing me what a classroom agenda can look like when informed by a politics of decolonisation, and to Teresia Teaiwa for continuing to inspire.
Because I regularly teach the history of anthropology, I have thought a lot about classical texts and the shape of our discipline. I also recently had a chance to sit in on a roundtable on Decolonizing Anthropology at #AES2017. Sitting in that panel reminded me of something that Max Weber said. I first encountered Weber’s thoughts on value ideals and concept formation in the 1990s. That was back in the day when Weber used to come over to my apartment and we would smoke out and watch anime. The time I’m thinking of, he got the munchies really bad and ate a pint of Ben & Jerry’s — a pint — before we even got to the first commercial break of the Cowboy Bebop episode we were watching. I was all like: “Freckles” — back then everyone called him Freckles — “Freckles, you just ate a pint of Ben and Jerry’s in, like, two minutes” and Weber just looked at me and said:
“Reality is ordered according to categories that are subjective, in that they are based on the presupposition of the value of the truth that knowledge is able to give to us. We have nothing to offer a person to whom this truth is of no value. We all harbour some belief in the validity of those fundamental and sublime value ideas in which we anchor the meaning of our existence, but the concrete configuration of these values remains subject to change far into the dim future of human culture. Everyone who works in the cultural sciences will regard his work as an end in itself. But, at some point, the colouring changes: the significance of those points of view grows uncertain, the way forward fades away in the twilight. The light shed by the great cultural problems has moved in. Then science, too, prepares to find a new standpoint and a new conceptual apparatus. It follows those stars that alone can give meaning and direction to its work.”
At the time, those words had a profound effect on me, despite the fact that as he spoke them Weber had Cherry Garcia dripping down his beard. They made me realize that anthropology is merely an empty pint carton, and our existential projects — the things we care about — are the ice cream that fills it up. Continue reading →
I was born on a land declared an ‘Excluded Area’: a previously colonized region. A geographic landmass formerly carved out of Assam: lodged between Myanmar to its east, Manipur to its south, bounded by the plains of Assam to the west and snow clad mountains of the sub-Himalayan region of Arunachal Pradesh to the north. Now tagged for tourism purposes as ‘The Land of Festivals,’ it is the very same homeland where Naga ancestors were once branded ‘wild’, ‘savage’, ‘primitive’ ‘uncivilized’ ‘barbaric’ and ‘head hunters’ by the colonial powers. This colonial stereotype of the Nagas continues and is reiterated in the neighboring states and Mainland India. A case in point is Manpreet Singh’s article The Soul Hunters of Central Asia (2006) published in Christianity Today that describes the Naga homeland as “once notorious worldwide for its savagery”, now “the most Baptist state in the world.”
Abraham Lotha (2007), a noted Naga anthropologist, maintains that British colonialism in the Naga Hills is a story of double domination: political and scientific. This is evident in the production of mass ethnographic materials, topographical survey reports and monographs that aided colonial administration in their attempt to control the colonized. The museum collections that began in the early 19th century conveyed a certain awareness of the Nagas to the rest of India and the West by putting them in ethnographic museums, on geographical/ethnographic maps, and in weighty books (Schäffler 2006b: 292, cited in Stockhausen 2008: 64). For a visiting European, the Naga Hills were a ‘museum-piece’ and the objects (both archaeological and ethnographic) were collected from the colonies and displayed in the West as a way to authenticate the primitive stages of human development. The region was perceived as a cultural backwater. This part of India, that was once a portion of the Hill District of Assam, later came to be recognized, after much political unrest, as the 16th State of India called ‘Nagaland’ on 1st of December, 1963.
Although I was born in a small suburban town in eastern Nagaland, I grew up experiencing a typical Naga life. As a teen, I learnt how to swing a dao (a local iron machete), how to sharpen the blade most effectively, and how to shoot a target with a gun. I slashed and burnt thick forest for cultivation, learnt the traditional skill of fire-making, carried loads of paddy on my shoulder after a bumper harvest, built traditional houses with my peers, laid fishing traps and other traditional means of fishing, read animal tracks and hunted, roamed the deep forests foraging and gathering for wild berries, fruits, and edible vegetables. Not only were these moments a part of my leisure time but I took great pride in what I learned for it was a part of my heritage. Inculcating such traditional values was not only key to one’s survival but was also considered gender assigned roles for a Naga man. Little did I realize that it was these early experiences that drew me close to anthropology, a discipline that would allow me to study about myself and our Naga culture.
did i see that right? my skull is in a cardboard box in that basement? my bones are under an orange tarp from canadian tire, cracked. rattling plastic in the wind. my grave is desecrated my skull is in that white lady’s basement my bones are under that orange tarp from canadian tire cracked rattling plastic in the wind like a rake on the sidewalk. my body is tired from carrying the weight of this zhaganashi’s house. ah nokomis this shouldn’t have happened. your relatives took such good care. the mound so clearly marked. ah nokomis how did this happen? what have you come to tell us? why are you here? aahhhhh my zhaganashi welcome to kina gchi nishnaabe-ogaming enjoy your visit. but like my elder says please don’t stay too long.*
Beloved, she my daughter. She mine. See. She come back to me of her own free will and I don’t have to explain a thing. —Toni Morrison 
We knew we would be confronting a constructed division between our communities and profession before we even got here. We already had questions to critique that construction, to deconstruct the idea of the university as a place of enlightenment. And as the years go by, as we return to our ancestral homelands to conduct research, those questions become stronger and also more difficult to parse. Today we feel even more compelled to refuse certain colonial practices of our discipline, but the “why” spirals deeper and deeper. How deep do we want to go? What do we give and take in the descent? What do we lose?
What happens to our praxis once we start from a place of acknowledging difference in our persons, our histories, our bodies, and our aesthetics? This text starts from a standpoint of curiosity, consideration, and mindfulness as we explore how, who and what we are, inform structures we create. The moment and place of knowing requires a certain slowness to enter into our thoughts, movements, and research, allowing for nuance and precision, for care and humility, and for an aesthetic of difference to incubate our praxis. Once we allow our work to breathe, to reflect, to sense difference, it transforms structures around it or structures created through it. The act of research becomes praxis through which critical awareness of one’s own condition and the condition of others comes into high relief. One aspect of this praxis includes bodies co-producing the work. There are intricate processes that situate us between theory and practice as praxis, which must begin to take into account the many ways in which we are identified, the modes of address, our different bodies, and varied epistemologies.
Intersectionality allows us to occupy that praxis and standpoint critically. It takes into account systems of oppression within the world that hold marginalized people in place (often at an inferior position) in multiple ways. It is not a new idea to acknowledge that our vectors of identity (race, class, ethnicity/gender/body, et cetera) inform how we experience and consider the world, but what is significant in intersectionality is that that place holding happens in different ways at different times and for different reasons. On the flip side, it also means that privilege manifests itself in similarly multifaceted forms. If, due to your body experience, you have never had to question how the world looks at your race/class/ethnicity/gender/body, or if that has never impacted the way the world identifies your research or work, you should know that that is a privileged experience. And that privilege or lack thereof, informs you and your praxis.
I have an ambivalent relationship to Anthropology. And an even more ambivalent relationship to the idea of decolonizing it.
I work in Canada. I am from Treaty Six Territory in central Alberta, from a city that bears the nehiyawewin (Plains Cree, Y Dialect) name amiskwaciwâskahikan. I am Métis on my dad’s side of my family, with roots that stretch back to Métis communities throughout present-day Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. I offer this introduction so that you can place who I am, who I am related to, and which territories I am bound to through movement, stories and time. I do so in order to ensure that readers and interlocutors can locate my knowledge in its own complex relationality to the places that I and my ancestors come from and moved through. I also provide this information to foreground the focus of my piece, which is a meditation on the visceral decolonization of the academy – and anthropology—here in Canada.
As a non-native learner and speaker of Amharic, English, and Swahili, I have taken several journeys between these languages and my mother tongue, Tigrinya. Considering geopolitical domination and subordination, the passages between Amharic and Tigrinya or Swahili and Tigrinya are fewer than between English and Tigrinya. However, all crossings have similar purposes: to improve my comprehension, speaking, reading, and writing skills of these languages. In writing this post, I have taken a journey that merges Tigrinya and English in the service of two critical questions: 1) what role would a journey between two languages play in the process of thinking and writing about decolonizing archaeology? 2) What would the traveler feel and experience?
This journey took a few days to begin answering these two questions, but the first two days make the foundation of this and any future journeys.
Detroit moves quickly; issues of scale and pace in a city of this size pose major challenge to contemporary archaeological practice. I’m not sure what a decolonizing archaeology should look like here, but it’s happening nonetheless. It is grassroots. It connects with communities. It shares the skills we have as social scientists with people, places, and collections. The goals are simple – to tell stories that matter, to empower memory, to increase participation, and, hopefully, to spur action against destructive forces of erasure and exclusion. We don’t have the luxury of time and protracted theoretical deliberation on our side; this work is done in a climate of rapid late capitalist development and privatization, where most of places we encounter are at the mercy of irreversible decay from ruination or demolition by developers. Continue reading →
By: Faye V. Harrison, Carole McGranahan, Matilda Ostow, Melissa Rosario, Paul Stoller, Gina Athena Ulysse and Maria Vesperi
The massacre in Orlando was just two days before we sat together around a seminar table in an idyllic New England college town. A massacre of forty-nine people out dancing, celebrating life in a gay nightclub called Pulse. They were mostly young, queer, and Latinx. Gone. Already stories had turned to focus on the killer’s motivations. Was this primarily homophobic homegrown terrorism or the machinations of the Islamic State? We were meeting at Wesleyan University in Connecticut to discuss the creation of the Public Anthropology Institute (PAI) and contemplate ways to use our scholarly knowledge of cultural difference for greater service globally. Given the disheartening public debate in this moment reminiscent of Dickens’ best and worst of times, we were convinced that this work is necessary in the face of such violence and hate.
For too long anthropologists have retreated into the minutia of arcane disciplinary debate even when our knowledge can make a difference. It can be intellectually stimulating and important to turn inward, but conversations among ourselves cannot be the only ones we have. We also need to create work with a larger impact and a longer reach. As scholars who have studied across the global south and thought deeply about geopolitics, poverty, social and economic inequality, racism, homophobia, sexism and climate change, we believe it is time to reconnect with the obligation to produce knowledge that makes the world a better place. As the stakes get higher, anthropological perspectives can make critical, unexpected connections and offer direction beyond the logic of dominant assumptions. Continue reading →
By: Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall and Jennifer Esperanza
As young anthropology students in the 90s we heard Dr. Faye Harrison call: decolonizing anthropology is about “working to free the study of human kind from the prevailing forces of global inequality, and dehumanization…” As professionals, one way that we—anthropologist Dr. Jennifer Esperanza and design anthropologist Dr. Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall—have chosen to decolonize anthropology is to critically (re)examine the North American introductory anthropology textbook.
As Dr. Joyce Hammond and team discussed in their analysis of 47 introductory anthropology textbooks published between 2001 and 2007, the images chosen for the covers are largely comprised of people of color, specifically non-Western and/or Indigenous people. Our examination of textbook covers in subsequent years shows little change, which means that textbook images continue to infer that to study culture is to study a non-“white, middle class, capitalist-based” Other (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Group of covers resulting from Google Search “anthropology textbooks”Continue reading →
“The master’s tools,” Audre Lorde (1984) famously said, “will never dismantle the master’s house.” Her statement was a provocation to Western feminists to question their own racism and homophobia, to examine the “terror and loathing of any difference that lives” inside each of us. “What does it mean,” she asked, “when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow parameters of change are possible and allowable.”
Zodwa Radebe expresses a similar sentiment, using similar language, in her recent Savage Minds post, in which she dismisses the possibility of decolonizing anthropology. Radebe states that “it is absurd to think that anthropology can be used as a tool to decolonise because it was used to colonise.”
All of which raises the question: What are these “tools”? What can they be used to make, or to unmake? And by whom?
Over the past two decades, non-White and non-Western scholars have posed serious challenges to the politics of knowledge production in anthropology and the academy more widely. In the wake of critiques of Orientalism, the articulation of indigenous methodologies, and the exploration of indigenous epistemologies, not to mention critiques of whiteness and white privilege, we might assume a new, more inclusive time in anthropology has begun. But has it? Drawing on my experience as a scholar trained in anthropology, as well as a decade of experience as a member and four years as board member including one as chair of an international anthropological scholarly organization, in this essay I explore the continuing dynamics of marginalization of indigenous Pacific scholars in and through the claiming of scholarship and scholarly organizations and anthropology itself as white public space.
My time at University of Hawaiʽi-Mānoa has taught me many things about being a Pacific academic trained in anthropology, living, working, and researching in our linked communities. In particular, it has reinforced to me the importance of positionality and the way it shapes our research process and writing. In my work with Samoan communities, I have noted that non-Samoan researchers who work with Samoan communities are not bound by cultural protocols of respect, acknowledgement of hierarchy, and gendered expectations that I had struggled with throughout my graduate research, and remain part of my work as a researcher. They are not bound by community expectations and eventual opinion not only shaping how the work would be communicated to the public, but also in expectations of service to the wider community from one’s position within the university. As I wrote about in our earlier volume on Indigenous Research in/of Oceania (2010), this “weight” of expectation can be particularly fraught for our junior scholars, but remains unacknowledged labor not captured in CVs, contract reviews, or tenure dossiers. Some colleagues are unencumbered by expectations for care work, community work, and service work that are part of the reality for racialized minority and indigenous scholars. In addition to this care and service work, the legitimacy of minority and indigenous scholars’ research is often questioned because it does not fit neatly within canonized frameworks, or is suspect because it does not sustain the fiction of objectivity. All of these are serious structural problems in academia. This is not to say that we should be unencumbered, but rather all researchers in our communities should feel encumbered and act accordingly. Continue reading →
Decolonisation can be understood as the process that decolonises what was colonised; not what was used to colonise. Therefore, it is absurd to think that anthropology can be used as a tool to decolonise because it was used to colonise. We need to unthink anthropology and imagine something like decolonised ethnic studies, which Maldonado-Torres explains as: “studies of and from the lived experience of the damned, that are able not only to offer positivistic analysis and corrected facts about certain communities but can also offer a radical critique of the sciences.” (2009:127)
Decolonization has always been a fraught term for me. As a third generation Puerto Rican from the burbs of NYC who has studied anthropology and the politics of/at “home” for over a decade, this is probably not surprising. In today’s world, members of US Congress propose “solutions” to Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis in the form of financial oversight, wage cuts and increased exploitation and privatization of natural resources. Within this context, to speak of decolonization feels futuristic at best, oblivious at worst. And yet, the practices I associate with the decolonial—shifting, unlearning and reclaiming—are more important than ever.
This piece is a riff on a “social project of return”[i] that I have been scheming on as of late. It began as a dream of helping to foster alternative economies in Puerto Rico. Right now, I’m calling it the Center for Embodied Pedagogy and Action (CEPA) to signal its dual mission of building eco-social futures in Puerto Rico while fostering purposeful island/diaspora encounters at home. It is primarily a version of my teaching life—a curriculum for transformative justice that I have been developing on the margins of academia—integrated with my deepest political aspirations. CEPA will be a cooperatively run experiment in local self-reliance that bridges the divides that have (almost) broken me: diaspora-island/expert-community/study-practice. My hope is that by building a base for diaspora based Puerto Ricans and allies to live and work with others who have stayed, we can build a translocal approach to transforming island’s economic system. Continue reading →