While looking for a file related to my dissertation, I came across the following short piece on anthropological representation of American Indians. I can’t for the life of me figure out what I was writing it for, although the ideas, I know, come from my senior thesis, written almost 10 years ago. As the work references NAGPRA and the Kennewick Man case, though, it must be newer. I suppose this piece will find it’s way into my dissertation somehow, but the central idea seems to stand well on it’s own, so I figured I’d go ahead and post it here.

The anthropological study of Native Americans has been plagued by the same problems as anthropology elsewhere in the world. The scientific stance of anthropology, coupled with the anthropologist’s position as a member of the mainstream Western society has given rise to a situation similar to Edward Said’s “Orientalism”, a situation we might call “Indianism”. Like Orientalism, Indianism is “a discourse that… is produced and exists in an uneven exchange with power political, power intellectual, power cultural, power moral” (Said 1978: 12). The power of the anthropologist, as a member of the mainstream scientific community to define and represent Native Americans, generally to the exclusion of Native American voices, is firmly entrenched in the colonial and hegemonic position of anthropologist vis-a-vis Native Americans. The image of Native Americans thus produced, the “Indian”, like the “Oriental”, emerges “according to a detailed logic governed not simply by empirical realities but by a battery of desires, repressions, investments, and projections” (Said 1978: 8).

At the core of most anthropology dealing with Native Americans is a belief in the concept that there is something about Indians which marks them as clearly different from the mainstream society. This concept is ultimately grounded in the evolutionist hierarchy of “savage” (or “primitive”),”barbarian”, and “civilized” societies (Morgan: 3-28). Since the “primitive” was seen as clearly not “civilized”, s/he was seen is somehow different from the Westerner, who was “civilized”. While the rise of relativism in anthropology has (somewhat) erased the notions of inferiority and superiority from this model, the cultural otherness implied remains. As a category of otherness, the Indian has been defined according to a group of supposedly shared characteristics, including a greater degree of closeness to the land, a smaller basic unit of community, a simpler form of leadership and inner cultural division, etc. (Note that the identifying characteristics of Indian-ness are all in relation to “civilized”, or Western, society.) What may have been uses a term of convenience for early white colonists has become excepted as a scientific fact.

By classifying all these people as Indians, “Whites categorized the variety of cultures is societies as a single entity for the purposes of description analysis, thereby neglecting are playing down the social and cultural diversity of Native Americans…. [The] idea of the Indian has created a reality in its own image as a result of the power of the Whites and the response of Native Americans” (Berkhofer 1978: 3).

By virtue of the anthropologist’s scientific authority and positioning in White society as representer of the Indian, this simplified version of Native American lives has become accepted as what Indians are really like. For the Native Americans so defined, “the power of the Whites all too often forced them to be the Indians Whites said they were regardless of their original social and cultural diversity” (Berkhofer 1978: 195).

In addition to the simplification of Native American diversity, anthropologists have also perpetuated an image of Indian cultural timelessness in their portrayal of Native Americans, especially to the use of the “ethnographic present”. Thus anthropologists have denied the processes of cultural change in Indian communities in a way no anthropologist would accept if the subject were his or her own culture. Western culture has obviously change in the 500-plus years since Columbus first landed in the New World, yet Indians are considered of remain static throughout the same time period. “anthropological monograps and texts… describe Indian life in the timeless ethnographic present,” writes Berkhofer, “… as if the only true Indian were a past one” (1978: 67).

The simplification of Native American diversity and denial of cultural process is compounded by the use of anthropological data by the government in the design and implementation of policy, forcing Indians in turn to adopt such representations in their dealings with their government. Anthropologists have

succeeded in burying Indian communities so completely beneath the mass of irrelevant information that the total impact… has become one of simple authority. Many Indians have come to parrot ideas of anthropologists because it appears that the anthropologists know everything about Indian communities (Deloria 1969: 87).

Anthropology “perpetuat[es] the motifs, values, and studies of Indians of 100 to 150 years ago as if Indians of today should follow those guidelines” (Deloria 1973: 96), and thus judges Native Americans on who they were, and not who they are. The discipline “has unconsciously fallen into the position of blocking very significant movements in the American Indian community” (1973: 93-4) in portraying this timeless image of Indians, who must choose between following an outmoded way of life in order to retain their Indian identity, or denying the anthropologist’s image and thus risk losing their cultural identity. The anthropologist has left no middle ground by denying legitimacy to the cultural forms found among Native Americans today.

Anthropologists, with their objectivity grounded in scientific detachment, have given the impression that they consider it their right to study Native Americans, making it clear that the advancement of science comes before the needs and desires of mere people. This is especially apparent in the furor over NAGPRA, for instance in the Kennewick Man case. In the eyes of many Native Americans, anthropologists have exploited them for their own professional advancement, offering little besides irrelevant theories and dangerous policy advice in return. Like the Orientalists of Said’s description, anthropologists have invented a type of Indian “suitable for study in the academy, for display in the museum, for reconstruction in the colonial office, for theoretical illustration in anthropological, biological, linguistic, racial, and historical theses about mankind and the universe” (Said 1978: 7) but inherently unsuitable for the preservation and evaluation of actual Native American culture, society, and people.

Berkhofer, Robert, Jr. (1978). The White Man’s Indian. New York: Vintage Books.
Deloria, Vine (1969). Custer Died for Your Sins. New York: Avon Books.
Deloria, Vine (1973). God is Red: A Native View of Religion. New York: Grosset and Dunlap.
Morgan, Lewis Henry (1963 [1877]). Ancient Society. Cleveland: World Publishing Co.
Said, Edward (1978). Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.

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