15 September 2006

Indigenous Anthropology

I had an interesting encounter this summer while in Sitka doing “field research”, and I just had an inspiration about it as well as an enlightening conversation with one of my professors.

Roby Littlefield, bless her, was taking me around town to meet a few of the native Tlingit speakers living in Sitka. She took me to see Daasdeeyaa, naa tlaa of the L'úknaxh.ádi in Sitka, and introduced me to her in Tlingit. Of course I was shy and didn’t say much, just muttered a little bit in Tlingit and disclaimed some of Roby’s praise. Then Daasdeeyaa asked me a few questions about my family and clan, what I was doing in school, and what I wanted to do in studying Tlingit. No surprises there. But she went on to ask me something really jaw-dropping, to wit whether I’d be able to compensate her monetarily when working with her on the Tlingit language.

I tried very hard to not be astonished, but I’m afraid it slipped out anyway. That’s not a surprising thing to be asked if one is an anthropologist or linguist talking to Native Americans. Most communities are used to being investigated and are quite familiar with the routine practice of compensating informants and consultants for their time during research studies. It’s a normal thing to ask of an outsider. But I’m not an outsider! She was inquisitive about my Tlingit background, and seemed quite satisfied once I recited the appropriate amount of genealogy. She seemed to have accepted me as Tlingit much as any of the other elders I met during that trip, with an introduction from Roby and some minor display of cultural background sufficing to prove that I’m not just some random pretending to be something. Being asked for compensation for working on the language, our language, just seemed inexcusably rude to me. I felt like an object, or a cipher. This bothered me for the rest of the trip, but I let it pass and since then sort of forgot about it.

Yesterday, however, I was reading a book on language documentation which had an essay covering ethical problems for documenters of endangered languages. Naturally compensation was mentioned among many other subjects. That brought the summer situation back to mind, and I brooded about it for a while. This morning after finishing my Hawaiian language homework I was reading that book again and it struck me – I’m in school to learn solutions for these sorts of things. So I went to see Michael Forman, my professor in linguistic anthropology, and told him the tale.

I’m intensely gratified that he was willing to discuss the issue with me. He told me right off that his initial assumption was that she was testing me. He felt that she was aware of my having feet in different worlds, and that asking me something which was perfectly acceptable in one but palpably rude in the other was a way of probing where my sympathies ultimately lied. He felt that my astonished response was probably just what she was looking for, or at least something like what she was hoping I would do. He pointed out that if I had reacted like an ordinary field researcher, saying something like “Well yes, there’s a good possibility of payment depending on my grant schedule and we can take up this matter when I have solid funding”, she would have seen me as less Tlingit and more Anthropologist. However my response was more Tlingit and less Anthropologist.

We went on to discuss some connected cultural issues, such as the opposition of clans and the intermoiety payment system. He agreed that it might be possible that she could expect return payment for labor in the context of clan opposition, but that in this case the labor involved is fairly minimal and very important for so many other reasons that it’s unlikely she was seriously considering this. He went on to discuss how the very problem that Daasdeeyaa addressed in her probe is something which I will have to deal with in the future, that of being at once both a linguist/anthropologist trained in the American tradition and a Tlingit man faced with the continuation of the language and culture.

So although initially I hadn’t seriously considered it, now the notion of indigenous anthropology is something I’m planning to look into deeply. I’m not sure where to start, but given that there’s a fairly well educated Hawaiian community here I’m bound to meet a few fellow people floating around campus. As well, it seems that the anthro department offers a course titled “Indigenous Anthropology” which is probably something I should take in the near future.

As to dealing with Daasdeeyaa, I have some time to think it over. She’s a very important woman in the community, and as a knowledgeable speaker she is vital to my future. There are many different things I could do at this point, and I want to make sure that I’ve given thought to as many possible paths as I can before I make a decision. Indeed, I think I’ll consult with a few other elders before I do anything, just to ensure that I’m considering it clearly. However, my gut feeling tells me that I should not wander around wearing my linguistic hat, but instead keep my metaphorical spruce-root hat firmly tied around my chin.