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Deconstructing the Vanishing American Paradigm: Native Americans and the Next Generation of Anthropology


A presentation by Prof. Patricia Erikson
(formerly of Smith College)

Five College Anthropology Conference
Smith College, Northampton, MA; April 18, 1998

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.

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 country.

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 Nations
  • ensures the above through the leadership of Native intellectuals
  • entails primary themes such as sovereignty, language, and land base
  • 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 are listening.

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.

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