A presentation by Prof. Patricia Erikson
(formerly of Smith College)
Five College Anthropology Conference
Good morning. I'm very pleased to be here for the Five College
Student Anthropology Conference. As I understand it, this conference
has a tradition where the hosting college invites an alum to come
and give the keynote address. At Smith this year there was the
coincidence of having one on faculty. That's me, and I thank the
department for the invitation.
Smith College, Northampton,
MA; April 18, 1998
How many Smith students imagine themselves teaching here some
day? I certainly couldn't have imagined that this place would
become a touchstone, a place where I was privileged to start an
educational journey and where I have circled back to once again.
Perhaps because I have circled back to this place, I ponder a
great deal what it means to me to teach here and what I hope to
accomplish. It has led me to consider something I heard British
anthropologist Paul Gilroy say, he said "you have to dig where
you stand." What does this mean? It refers to practicing anthropology
from a critically-engaged morality. The digging of mine that I
refer to this morning connects Native American Studies, the practice
of anthropology, and the classroom here in the Pioneer Valley.
It's difficult to speak of digging where I stand, without mentioning
the ground that I am standing on. At a Native American conference
yesterday up in Hanover, an Abenaki speaker began her presentation
by saying "we gather our minds together here today on traditional
Abenaki land." It was important for her that everyone remember.
Especially given the nature of my topic this morning, I would
like to echo her statement and say that here at the Five College
Anthropology Conference "we gather our minds together on traditional
Pocumtuck land, and the homelands of other Connecticut River tribes."
It is important to remember.
Remembering, or perhaps the lack of remembering, has a good
deal to do with my thoughts this morning. In my opinion, there
is a pressing need to talk about the Vanishing American paradigm
and anthropology's opportunity and responsibility to disrupt it.
By Vanishing American paradigm I refer to the notion that First
Nations and their members are perpetually on the brink of biological
extinction or cultural assimilation. How our society manages to
reproduce this framework that casts Native Americans as anachronisms
is a primary concern for me. Why is deconstructing this paradigm
important? Primarily because it has dangerous political effects
on contemporary Native peoples. Real issues, human rights issues,
are substituted with nostalgia, objectification, and caricatures.
I would like to provoke you this morning to think about what we
can do about this paradigm, and what the next generation of anthropology
might look like if we sought to disrupt it.
Allow me to start by sharing a few scenarios with you to demonstrate
my point. A very close friend of mine teaches English at the high
school level in a New Hampshire boarding school. Two weeks ago
she introduced a new unit with the novel "I Heard the Owl Call
My Name." by Margaret Craven. She first opened discussion by asking
the students what they knew about Native Americans. One student
genuinely replied "They are all dead." Another remarked that he
knew about teepees, and bows and arrows. It is helpful to know
that this woman is Ojibwe and had, at times earlier in the year,
shared with the class that she and her community of origin were
Native American. Despite literally standing before them, and despite
self-identifying, she still faced the effect of the Vanishing
American or extinction paradigm. This phenomenon is far from new.
Here's another example: Thomas Doughton, a Nipmuc tribal historian,
recently visited my class and spoke about his research into the
19th and 20th century popular discourse of the Vanishing Native
American. His research has shown that between 1825 and 1895, obituaries
in major New England newspapers marked the passing of individuals
known as the "Last of the .." -- fill in the blank with a tribal
name -- 150 different times. Of these 150 individuals, 15 of them
were the Last of the Nipmucs.
A final example is that school children in the public schools
of Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the national capital of the Cherokee Nation
re-enact each year the 19th century Oklahoma land grab. Indian
and other children dress as settlers and run a race to stake their
land claim. That Indian children are subjected to this re-enactment
erases their contemporary presence and negates what this history
means to their communities.
I mention these as just three incidences of the innumerable
expressions of this paradigm. It also infiltrates the history
of American literature, historical pageantry, television, film,
boy scout, girl scout and campfire girls' lore, museum exhibits,
and on and on. For those who are sensitized to Native American
issues, highlighting the Vanishing American paradigm may seem
cliche. But it is critical to remember that we are collectively
still living with a legacy of symbolic genocide in this country.
By symbolic genocide I mean the process of uncritically representing
Native peoples as culturally or biologically extinct. The effects
of symbolic genocide in shaping the perceptions of children --
both Indian and white -- are particularly profound.
So I turn to bringing this closer to home where I'm digging,
home to where I and all of us stand, even if this is a little
uncomfortable. First, I ask myself why Smith celebrates Otelia
Cromwell as the first woman of color to graduate -- which was
1900 -- yet leaves unacknowledged a Winnebago woman named Angel
DeCora who graduated four years earlier from the Smith Art School,
the predecessor to the art and museum program. Deirdre Almeida,
School of Education at UMass, has been researching DeCora's career
as an art teacher, and hopefully her work will highlight this
chapter of our institutional history. It is not uncommon for educational
institutions, particularly in the Northeast, to remain unfamiliar
with the Native American dimensions of their own history.
Secondly, I would like to point out that students arrive here
in Five College classrooms with sensibilities about Native North
America that have been bombarded with expressions of this paradigm.
I will share with you two examples of this from my Native Peoples
of North America class. And although I don't use their names here,
I want to thank them for generously giving me permission to share
their reminiscences with you.
One student wrote in an assignment "I think one of my earliest,
if not first, consciousness of Native Americans occurred around
age four or five. It was November, which means time for Thanksgiving
and time for American nursery school and kindergarten teachers
to talk about the pilgrims and the indians. And I'm sure I was
far from being the only child who brought home a picture of a
pilgrim with his trade buckled hat and an indian wearing a headband
full of feathers. For a long time, however, Thanksgiving was the
only time I thought about indians, or was reminded of them. I
don't think I knew Native Americans still existed until fourth
grade, when we did a unit on Connecticut's history and I found
that indians weren't limited to Plymouth rock."
Another student wrote: "Back in second or third grade, my elementary
school class visited the San Juan Batista Mission on a field trip.
After finishing a two month long unit of the native peoples of
California...we were knowledgeable of the various housing, hunting,
gathering, textile making and games that were employed by the
people who originally settled in the northern area of the "Golden
State." While at the Mission, we were given a tour of the church
and we examined the architecture of the old, white plaster walled
building. In the barn, we discussed how horses and carriages were
used to travel more quickly than by foot....Back then I saw the
San Juan Mission as a fun filled day of walking around old buildings
and eating a picnic lunch on the grass lawn. Looking back, I have
come to realize that there was so much more about the Mission
than I really knew. In reality, the Mission was the home to many
native peoples who were forced to convert to the Catholic religion
and adopt mainstream ways of living...My perception of the mission
has altered dramatically since my youth."
These Smith students and many others have directly experienced
well-worn patterns of teaching and speaking about Native peoples
endemic to our school systems and popular culture. These patterns
often follow a cultural portrait style of depicting native societies
in pre-Contact or early colonial contexts. That is to say, this
pedagogy seeks to represent the essential and distinct Native
American. Yet, the nature of the power differences between Whites
and Indians is either not emphasized or it is softened. Furthermore,
the contemporary experience of Native peoples is de-emphasized.
I have strong feelings about anthropology's particular responsibility
as a discipline to play a leading role in deconstructing the Vanishing
American paradigm. The reasons are perhaps obvious. The study
of Native Americans is synonymous with the founding century of
American Anthropology. Yet, Since the days of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft,
an early ethnologist, anthropology has had an ambiguous relationship
to the discourse of the vanishing american. In 1846, he said,
"The tomb that holds a man, derives all its moral interest from
the man and would be destitute of it without him. America is the
tomb of the Red Man." " In other words, as anthropology was poised
on the threshold of becoming a scientific endeavor, a nationalist
teleology framed indigenous peoples as once pristine, primitive,
and non-historical societies but now superceded by American civilization.
Living people then become monuments to the process of cultural
adaptation on this continent - a subject that becomes all the
more worthy of scientific interest because of the expectation
of extinction. The logical outcome of this expectation was "salvage
ethnography" and "assimilation studies." "Salvage ethnography"
sought to piece together from multiple sources the remnants of
the original or pure fabric of native society before it was impossible
to do so. Later, assimilation studies charted the fraying of the
fabric. Between the two, anthropology narrated a kind of cultural
shriveling at the same time that it attempted to increase public
appreciation for Native cultures.
Anthropology has the necessary analytical tools to foster this
deconstruction. Many anthropologists also have the political desire,
as demonstrated by various initiatives to support indigenous rights
and to confront racism. Yet, it is my observation that the opportunity
to deconstruct the Vanishing American paradigm is blunted by a
general, ongoing anthropological flight from Native North America.
I can point to three reasons for this flight. The assimilation
studies I just mentioned characterized Native communities as culturally
white posturing as Indian for strategic reasons. The premises
of this approach largely removed cultural difference from Native
communities as a quality attracting anthropological attention.
Secondly, the disciplinary boundaries between anthropology and
sociology in the 20th century have assigned third world, international
field sites to anthropology and first world, industrialized, inner
city contexts to sociologists. This penchant of anthropology for
encouraging international and third world field experiences has
compounded the flight. When my dissertation research on the Makah
Reservation was funded by the National Science Foundation, one
anonymous, NSF reviewer commented on my proposal "I support this
field work on the reservation because she has demonstrated that
she can handle cross-cultural research by conducting field work
in Mexico." This suggested to me that my international rite of
passage had earned my ability to conduct field work within the
Further contributing to this flight has been the relative empowerment
of Native peoples with respect to anthropologists. Tribes now
expect anthropologists to seek permission to research in their
communities, and often demand that the work achieve some relevance
to their people. The passage of the Native American Graves Protection
and Repatriation Act in 1990 marks one shift in power relations
with respect to museum artifact and osteological collections.
This has sent shock waves, especially through the museum and archaeology
communities, and has forced new forms of collaborative research.
However, some say this is forcing anthropologists either into
the archives where they are not dealing with contemporary issues,
or to abandoning working with Native Americans altogether. I should
add that it is also flushing out non-Native scholars who are intensely
interested in the ways that Native self-determination demands
that anthropology take a close look at itself. This has accounted
for much of any recent surge in interest in Native North America.
It might not surprise us, then, that our classrooms --nationally
and here in the Five Colleges -- would experience repercussions
from the legacy of this flight. There has been until this year
only one regularly offered anthropology course treating contemporary
Native Americans, and this is at UMass. Another course was introduced
this year at Smith after a 37 year hiatus. Furthermore, a pattern
continues where contemporary Native American courses in Anthropology
are taught by part-time faculty or short-term hires who have a
harder time stabilizing and fully integrating these courses into
the system in the way that I describe below.
Of course I'm following what Native intellectuals have been
saying in print and in conference settings for nearly forty years
-- intellectuals such as Vine Deloria, Beatrice Medicine, Roger
Echohawk, Tom Hill, Richard Hill, and many others. I re-emphasize
their messages here because I feel we're in a situation where
anthropology is missing an opportunity to disrupt an aspect of
the American experience which desperately needs to be disrupted
-- the Vanishing American paradigm.
So what are we to do? WHO should do it? And how does this pertain
to us here? I think we can begin by applauding members of the
Five College Native American Indian Curriculum Committee who are
contributing to the paradigm shift. Neal Salisbury (Smith history)
has, since 1989, participated in a workshop for teachers through
the public school partnership program. This provides primary and
secondary school teachers with current scholarship in Native American
issues, as well as exposure to contemporary issues. Marge Bruchac
(Smith Ada Comstock scholar and Abenaki storyteller) -- who is
here in the audience presenting today -- lectures and performs
widely for primary through college-level audience, as well as
for other public programs. She and Neal participated in a workgroup
that consulted with regional museums who badly needed to have
discourses of vanishing american flushed out of their exhibits.
There are many others. The point is that the Five College anthropology
community has the opportunity to participate in a sea change gaining
momentum nationally through the Native American Studies approach.
So I will conclude by briefly outlining the NAS approach and
by reflecting upon what the next generation of anthropology might
look like should we open our doors to this approach. Clara Sue
Kidwell (UOklahoma) offers the following synthesis of the Native
American Studies approach. She notes that it strives for the following:
- extensively incorporates indigenous ways of knowing
- seeks to make scholarship relevant to the survival of First
- ensures the above through the leadership of Native intellectuals
- entails primary themes such as sovereignty, language, and
- proceeds through multi-disciplinarity
This approach points the way toward how to achieve collaborative
pedagogy in the Five College system. We can begin by doing at
least two things: 1) our anthropology departments can join other
departments in providing a base or launching pad for a multi-disciplinary
Native American Studies program. UMass has achieved a certificate
program on their campus and the Five College Native American
Curriculum Committee is planning an NAS certificate program that
would involve all five campuses. Becoming launching pads means
sponsoring new courses where they do not yet exist, and remaining
open to pedagogical initiatives.
In academic communities, we are quick to interpret "making Native
Americans visible" as representing them in our curriculum -- whether
it be portions of survey courses, or as a course dedicated solely
to Native peoples. Obviously having courses about Native Americans
in the Five College curriculum is a good start to having a forum
to discuss at length the kinds of history and issues I am alluding
to here. The emergence of the Native American Studies approach,
however, challenges us to think about the anthropological canon
broadly and to further critique processes of representation, not
only in our monographs, but in our classrooms.
What it comes down to is that there is a difference between
an anthropology course about Native Americans and a Native American
anthropology. The latter embodies a pedagogy that incorporates
Native American ways of knowing. As best as I currently understand
it, these ways of knowing emphasize how knowledge is received
and exchanged. Knowledge is often received through fasting, prayer,
dreaming and other contact with the supernatural world, and through
the oral tradition of the Elders. The exchange of the knowledge
itself is not competitive, but entails building relationships
between different people, and between people and the natural and
supernatural world. In all of this, a ritual dimension demonstrates
respect for continuity between those who have already passed on,
those who are alive today, and those who are not yet born. All
Given this, the question is how do we enter into collaborative
working relationships to reform curriculum and pedagogy? Teaching
about Native Americans isn't enough if we continue to frame Native
peoples as passive objects. UMass offers an anthropology course
in Contemporary Native American Issues, which, as I understand
it, sponsors a visiting Native speaker each week.. This is definitely
a step in the right direction. We can do more.
We can proactively support other initiatives to open our institutions
to the reforming influences of Native intellectuals and epistemologies.
We can support an upcoming elders conference here this fall which
seeks to build a two-way discourse on how to interweave indigenous
ways of knowing with academic knowledge-making. It is distinctly
not just a forum for elders to speak out. It is an initiative
to question the academic tradition of knowledge-making in provocative
ways. Exactly this format is occurring at Dartmouth College today
and at U.C. Davis this past week. Interweaving indigenous and
academic knowledge implies, among other things, questioning the
classroom format itself. If Native peoples are interested in participating
in collaborative pedagogy, but wish to do so more on their own
terms and in different spatial frameworks, then we need to get
the students out of the classroom.
Perhaps Smith's institutional review process provides a creative
moment for identifying some of the mechanisms for achieving a
collaborative pedagogy. The intention to develop "An Internship
for Every Student" may be promising. Also, the intention to augment
international study programs may provide the opportunity to talk
about international exchanges. Specifically international exchanges
that nonetheless cross boundaries between nationalities. I refer
here of course to First Nations, or what Vine Deloria has called
Nations Within. How might exchanges between the Five Colleges
and tribal colleges be mind expanding? -- both 1:1 student exchanges
and 1:1 faculty exchanges.
I would be naive if I suggested that disrupting this paradigm
will occur quickly. This isn't going to be easy given our established
ways of doing things, and some of these changes could be more
radical than we realize. Nonetheless, I remain hopeful that initiatives,
such as UMass' NAS certificate program that seeks to become 5
college, is a seed that has been planted. It is my hope that as
a Five College anthropology community, proactive support and receptivity
will participate in shaping the future relation between Native
Americans and anthropology. One of the treasured results of working
toward deconstructing the Vanishing American paradigm would be
collaborative knowledge-making with Native Americans.If we could
work toward achieving that on a level playing field, we would
be mutually enriched by the collaboration.