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Saturday, April 19, 2008

THE AMERICAN INDIAN AS A BRICOLEUR

The abiding dilemma of Indian education is how to function in the formal academic world without giving up “Indianness.” Is it a matter of method (Euro-linear-hierachy vs. free-form-associative-poetry) or a matter of content (records of artifacts, legends, ceremonies, physical culture vs one’s own family and tribe)?

"Tribes urged to control research," Missoulian. April 18, 2008.
Copyright 2008 Missoulian. All Rights Reserved.
http://www.missoulian.com/articles/2008/04/18/news/mtregional/news08.txt

"A key difference between an American Indian tradition and an Amish religious practice is simple: One has a sovereign government to legally defend it. Tribal communities must use that legal power to regulate who gets to define their identity, or risk losing control of their cultural heritage, speakers warned at the "Intersecting Interests" conference at the University of Montana this week. And they face mountains of scientific research and legislation that have already painted their picture without their consent or participation. 'It's a waste of a Ph.D. if you're going to spend your life whining about your powerlessness instead of doing something about your powerlessness,' American Indian Graduate Center director Philip 'Sam' Deloria said Thursday. 'We need to learn how to bust somebody's chops in this business. Keep lists of people who aren't allowed to do research in tribal communities and enforce them.'..."


In early Christianity this practice of keeping the outsiders “out” is called “fencing the Communion.” That railing where the people kneel on the outside was originally meant to keep out those who had not declared their identity as Christians. Since Sam comes from an Episcopalian family, he will know what I mean. But I’ll come back to this “fencing” in a later blog. Today I want to go in a different direction.

Sometimes reviews are as interesting or even MORE interesting than the books they’re supposed to be reviewing. My most recent example is Scott McLemee’s review of Richard Sennett’s book, “The Craftsman,” which turns out to be a kind of response to “Sam” Deloria. (Haven’t gotten hold of Sennett’s book yet -- it might be as good as the review!)

McLemee says that Claude Levi-Strauss, in his book “The Savage Mind” defined a bricoleur as “a kind of handyman. Unlike the carpenter or the electrician, he has no particular tools or domain of expertise. He can perform any number of tasks, but his knack is for improvising. ‘The rules of his game,’ as Levi-Strauss put it, ‘are always to make do with whatever is at hand.’” “'The Savage Mind’ argued that the traditions and narratives encountered by anthropologists were a sort of bricolage.” Heck -- I decided “The Savage Mind” was politically incorrect and threw it out -- now it’s back! This idea is subversive to Ph.D. level anthropology, though not to the Ph.D. level journalism that Sam Deloria has achieved.

Then McLemee sets up a contrast. “For many years the whole thrust of academic life has been to cultivate the ethos of professionalization.” That is, training, credentialing, defining limits and standards that are presumably enforced by the professionals themselves, like doctors and lawyers. “Status-minded.” This is what Sam is describing when he says “busting the chops” of anyone trespassing on the defined turf. That is, an educated Indian is a professional Indian, which is why the enormous outcry over “fake” Indians always begins with academics, a resentment picked up at pow-wows by less loftily educated Indians, sometimes renegades already fueled by a sense of exclusion against THEM, though they have been the ones who dropped out of school. (One suspects they dropped out BECAUSE they felt excluded. They never seem to realize that the professional Indians themselves are using them only as subjects, not equals.)

This book by Sennett is supposed to “be the latest in a series of reflections on the damage to the social fabric caused by the reigning economic system.” I would propose that excluding uncertified white (professionalized) Indians on grounds that they are insufficiently Indian (“Keep lists of people who aren't allowed to do research in tribal communities and enforce them.") is less a matter of making sure scholars have skills than assuming that tribal knowledge is a sort of geological deposit that will be exhausted by too much mining. Knowledge becomes a source of wealth rather than a sense of identity. This is a Euro-linear-hierarchical-power-based way of looking at it. But Deloria’s denomination (Episcopalian) IS a mini-Anglo version of the Roman Catholic Church which takes its assumptions from the Holy Roman Empire, the root of hierarchy.

McLemee says Sennett “has focused on the everyday level of world formation and shared ways of making sense of things through the experience of making a living. ... Our options for understanding life fluctuate when the conditions of life and work themselves are in flux.” This is not just the situation of Indians now -- we are all in this “flux” together. McLemee paraphrases Sennett as questioning the “autonomy and progress-mindedness formerly embodied in the aspiration to ‘have a career’... The risks and rewards of the marketplace disrupt the routines of even its more powerful members.” If is risky to plan a career as an anthropologist when the very discipline of anthropology is reconfiguring, how can anyone have a career as an Indian?

Then here comes the good stuff: “Every good craftsman conducts a dialogue between concrete practices and thinking. This dialogue evolves into sustaining habits, and these habits establish a rhythm between problem solving and problem finding.” McLemee says, “The ability to enter this dialogue, to find the rhythm of involvement with the materials, is slow to develop. It requires both long practice and regular communication with others who have mastered the craft. And while techniques do evolve, the pace of change within a craft tends to be slow. This is not a defect.” Back to Sennett: “The slowness of craft time serves as a source of satisfaction; practice beds in, making the skill one’s own. Slow craft time also enables the work of reflection and imagination -- which the push for quick results cannot.”

That’s the way to be Indian: to do what Indians do, over a long period of time, without hurrying, until it seeps into your blood. This is like the New Testament example of the “tent-makers,” who went into communities as missionaries but made their livings by sewing tents in those communities, side-by-side with the people. Lodge-makers, one might say.

4 comments:

Art Durkee said...

In my experience as a former ethnomusicologist and anthropologist, the best of those do practice the slow learning and absorption you mention at the end. The craftsman's way of learning.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, there was also a wave of self-awareness growing in the ethnographic (field research) disciplines that what they do is a form of literature, a form of selective and constructive writing. No anthropologist is ever truly objective, not even a complete insider; as you say, the professionalized academic Indians have already got a different worldview than the less-educated (proudly anti-intellectual?) rez Indians. Nor is this separation of worldviews any different in any similar group of which I am aware.

It does strike me that this does come back down to being a (political?) power struggle. It's perhaps just another arena in which control of definition of self seems to give one power over the world, and the way the world views oneself. If only that were true.

BTW, the really terrific books on that new wave of literary awareness in anthropology begin with the two below. I've kept them to re-read, even though I'm long out of academia.

James Clifford, "The Predicament of Culture"

Marcus & Clifford, eds., "Anthropology as Cultural Critique"

prairie mary said...

Thanks so much, Art. It's great to tackle a difficult subject and have someone really understand. I've been a great reader of Clifford Geertz, so I was interested in the "rhyme" of "The Interpretation of Cultures" by Clifford Geertz with "The Predicament of Culture" by James Clifford. Do you think there's a relationship? I'll look for these two books you recommend

Prairie Mary

Art Durkee said...

I know for a fact that Clifford was in fact responding to Geertz, and that the title was a deliberate pun. Clifford's Introduction in this volume tells a whole story about why this all came to his attention, and why he chose to write about it. Part of it is that the world has changed; fieldwork is rarely as isolated as it used to be, for example.

I was in grad school in the late 80s and early 90s, just when this wave of self-reflexive awareness was infiltrating the academic ethnographic disciplines. It was fascinating to be part of all that. (I was studying ethnomusicology and folklore, mostly; I finished all my classwork requirements, and defended one version of my thesis, but many personal reasons I never finished the degree.)

Personally, I think this self-awareness has been good for anthropology. But it is also part of the wave of post-modernism, where people are becoming aware of the (political) privileges in many kinds of relationships. The whole history of anthropology was being called into question on moral grounds, as a product of colonialism. It was about this same time that I started hearing about Indian nations who wanted their ancestors bones back from where they were stored in a basement in the Smithsonian; I think a lot of those restorations were done, which is a good thing.

Since then, I haven't been deeply involved in academia: I escaped. But I kept this group of books, as I think they had some profound things to say about many subjects, even beyond fieldwork.

I think you'd enjoy those books a great deal. If you want more, let me know, and I'll post some more titles. Cheers!

prairie mary said...

Thanks, Art. I'm back to reading my Geertz books now. Then I'll go on to Clifford. Not enough hours in the day, even retired!

Prairie Mary