Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 21. 5th September 1973
Anthropology — Through An American Indian's Eyes
Through An American Indian's Eyes
This article, about the weird practices of the anthropologists who study American Indians, is condensed from "Custer Died for Your Sins" by the famous Indian writer, Vine Deloria. It is a commentary on all anthropologists, if not all academics.........
Every summer when school is out a stream of immigrants head into Indian country. From every rock and cranny they emerge, as if responding to some primeval fertility rite, and flock to the reservations.
"They" are the anthropologists. Social, historical, political and economic anthropologists, all brands of the species They are the most prominent members of the scholarly community that infests the land of the free, and in the summertime, the homes of the braves.
The origin of the anthropologist is a mystery hidden in the historical mists. Indians are certain that all societies of the Near East had anthropologists at one time because all these societies are now defunct.
But while their historical precedent is uncertain, anthropologists can readily be identified. Go into any crowd of people. Pick out a tall gaunt white man wearing Bermuda shorts, a World War II flying jacket, an Australian bush hat, tennis shoes, and wearing a large knapsack incorrectly strapped to his back He will invariably have a thin sexy wife with stringy hair, an IQ of 191 and a vocabulary in which even the prepositions have I I syllables. He will also have a camera, tape recorder, telescope, hula hoop and life jacket all hanging from his elongated form.
This creature is an anthropologist.
An anthropologist comes out to Indian reservations to make observations. During winter these observations will become books by which future anthropologists will be trained. After the books are written, summaries of the books appear in scholarly journals in the guise of articles. These articles serve as a catalyst to inspire other anthropologists to make the great pilgrimage next summer.
The summaries are then condensed for two purposes. Some go to government agencies as reports justifying last summer's research. Others go to foundations to finance next summer's expedition west.
The reports go round agencies and foundations all winter. The only problem is that no one has time to read them. So $5000 a year secretaries are assigned to decode them. Since the secretaries cannot read complex theories, they reduce the reports to the best slogans possible and forget the reports.
The slogans become conference themes in the early spring, when the anthropological expeditions are being planned. The slogans turn into battle cries of opposing groups of anthropologists who chance to meet on the reservations the following summer.
One summer Indians will be greeted with a joyful cry of "Indians arc bilingual!" Next summer this great truth will be expanded to "Indians are not only bilingual, they are bicultural!"
Biculturality creates great problems for the opposing anthropological camp. For two summers they have been bested at sloganeering and their funds are running low. So, in a do or die effort the losing anthros adopt the cry "Indians are a folk people!" The tide of battle is turned!
Thus go the anthropological wars, and the battlefields unfortunately, are the live of Indian people.
You may be curious as to why an anthro never carries a writing instrument. This is because he already knows what he is going to find. He need only record his expenses, because he found all the answers in the books he read the previous winter. No, he only does "field work" to verify what he suspected all along — Indians are very quaint people Who bear watching.
The anthro is devoted to pure research. This is a body of knowledge totally devoid of useful application and incapable of meaningful digestion. Pure research is an abstraction of scholarly opinions about some obscure theory first put forward in pre-revolutionary days and systematically checked each summer since then. A 1973 thesis restating a theory of 1773 complete with footnotes to all material published between 1773 and 1973 is pure research.
Some anthros however are not so clever at collecting footnotes. They go on field trips and write long adventurous narratives in which their personal opinions are used to verify their suspicions. Reports, books and articles of this sort are called applied research. The difference is one of footnotes. Pure has many footnotes, applied has few footnotes. Relevancy to the needs of Indian people, is not discussed in polite company.
I am sure that if we had been given the chance of fighting the cavalry or the academics there is no doubt about who we would have chosen. A warrior killed in battle could go to the Happy Hunting Grounds. But where does an Indian laid low by an anthro go? To the library.
The fundamental thesis of the anthropologist is that people are objects, things he can use, inhabitants of his private zoo. People are objects to be observed, experimented with, manipulated, and then categorised for eventual extinction. Behind each programme and policy with which Indians are plagued (if traced back far enough) stands the anthropologist. He has provided the rationale for treating Indian people like chessmen. Our real problems have become invisible under the massive volumes of useless knowledge produced by anthropologists trying to capture real Indians in a network of theories. The worst of it is that many Indians parrot back the ideas of academics; What passes for Indian thinking is often in reality theories originally advanced by anthropologists and echoed and perpetuated by Indians in an attempt to sort out the real situation. We are losing the battle for the language to describe our own condition!
The real situation, according to the anthrosrests on a basic premise Indians are folk people, whites are an urban people and never the twain shall meet. From this premise come such sterling insights as Indians are between two cultures, they have lost their identity they are bicultural, they are warriors, These slogans, repeated with deadening regularity and pontifical authority become excuses for Indian failures. They are crutches by which young Indians avoid the task of thinking out their place in the white man's world.
To take one example, of the Oglala Sioux, perhaps the most famous, meanest band of Indians in history; among their past leaders were Red Cloud (the only world leader before Ho Chi Minh who ever defeated the United States in a war) and the great warchief Crazy Horse. After "pacification" the Oglala made a fairly smooth, relatively prosperous transition to farming. Community spirit was strong. But over the years immigration by other Indians caused over-population. The government allowed white farmers to encroach on the reservation and take the best land. Reservation control was taken out of Indian hands. During the war parts were taken as a practice bombing range. This land was not returned until 1968.
Now the tribe, because of its romantic past had always attracted anthropologists. Gradually theories arose attempting to explain the apparent lack of progress of the Oglala. One study advanced the startling hypothesis that Oglala with cattle were generally better off than Indians without cattle. Perhaps cattle Indians had more capital and income than non-cattle Indians! Innumerable graphs and charts demonstrated this great truth beyond the doubt of any reasonably prudent man.
But this type of study lacked the certain flair of insight, those "stimulating" but basically unintelligible flights of intellectual daring so beloved by anthropologists. The one day the thesis was put forward that the Oglala were "warriors without weapons".
The chase was on.
From every library stack m the nation anthros converged on the innocent Oglala. Every conceivable problem, every conceivable difference between the Oglala Sioux and the folks of Bosten was put down to this quaint warrior tradition. How can you expect an Oglala to become a small businessman when he was only waiting for the wagon train to come round the bend? What use education, roads, houses business or income to a people everyone expected would soon depart on the hunt or warpath?
And so the very real problems of the reservation were treated only as by-products of the failure of a warrior people to become domesticated. Past exploits became elevated to a demonic spiritual force. The real issue, white control of the reservation, was ignored completely.
Would not perhaps an incredibly low per capita income, virtually non existent housing, extremely inadequate roads and domination by white farmers and ranchers also make some difference? It this little Sioux boy or girl had no breakfast, had to walk miles to a small school, had no decent clothes and place to study in his one room log cabin house, should his level of education be expected to equal white middle-class standards?
What is needed is a return to real life Lumping together a variety of tribal problems and seeking the demonic principle at work may be intellectually satisfying, but it does not change simple realities. Anthropology tends to abstract away every problem that faces the Indian into some vague theory about the nature of man. But regardless of theory the Paiutes and Maricopas are poor because they have been systematically cheated of their water rights No matter how many cultures straddle the plains Indians have an inadequate land base that continues to shrink. Straddling worlds is irrelevant to straddling small pieces of land and trying to earn a living.
The ironic thing about this is not so much that Indians aid and abet academics in the compilation of this useless "knowledge for knowledge's sake", it is that these academies do nothing to help us in return. During the crucial days of 1954, when the Senate was pushing for termination of all Indian rights not one anthropologist came forward to support the Indians against this policy.
I suggest to all native peoples cursed with the presence of these ideological vultures; before permission is given for them to do fieldwork demand that they contribute to the community an amount equal to what they propose to spend on their study. In this way we can make the anthropologist begin to be a productive member of our society.
—from "Custer Died for Your Sins" An Indian manifesto.