Title graphic of the Moonspeaker website. Small title graphic of the Moonspeaker website.

Where some ideas are stranger than others...

TURTLE ISLAND at the Moonspeaker

The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

A Meddling?

"What do you call a group of anthropologists?"
"I don't know, a meddling?"
- Molly Swain and Chelsea Vowel

The Métis in Space podcast is one of the best and funniest to listen to out there, one in which the hosts Chelsea Vowel and Molly Swain identify and critique the terrible racist tropes about Indigenous people that riddle most mainstream science fiction and fantasy works. At times sad and at times furious, always funny, they engage with works many of which are their own favourites, and many they have not seen before they watched them for the show. While their epic takedown of James Cameron's movie Avatar is not to be missed, neither is their nuanced and yes, still funny exploration of the Disney animated feature, Lilo and Stitch. In fact, Lilo and Stitch is one of the stranger examples of a Disney production, not because it is bad, but precisely because it is good in unexpected ways, including, as Vowel and Swain point out, in its representation of Indigenous Maoli of Hawai'i. I am not going to spoil the episode here, except to refer to their brief discussion within the first five minutes of how to refer to a group of anthropologists, transcribed and quoted above. I may be trained as a field archaeologist, which technically makes me an anthropologist, but I couldn't help but find their proposed group noun both hysterically funny, and utterly appropriate. Indigenous people in general have seen too much of the wrong sort of anthropologists, alas.

Today the general understanding of anthropology, as reflected in dictionaries like the OED, is that it is "the study of humankind... comparative study of human societies, human cultures, and their development." This sounds great, an entirely reasonable area of study and interest. Most people who have taken an introductory anthropology course in north america will have read and heard the story of Franz Boas, who immigrates to the united states and founds the "four field approach" in anthropology. That is, anthropology understood as broadly divided into four areas, archaeology, linguistics, physical anthropology, and cultural anthropology. This type of division and compartmentalization reflected Boas' time and milieu at the turn of the twentieth century, still beholden to the collection and classification urges of the victorian and edwardian periods. Not spoken about as often, is Boas' leadership in continuing the rationalization of pillaging Indigenous communities of every type of removable artifact and ancestral remains in so-called "salvage anthropology." Boas did not invent this practice, and the term post-dates his death – during his life, it was just considered "anthropology." This means that few Indigenous communities have not had terrible experiences with anthropologists, regardless of their motivations.

Brazilian electric spocket compatible with three types of plug, photograph by WT-Shared, 2010. Via wikimedia commons, released into the public domain. Brazilian electric spocket compatible with three types of plug, photograph by WT-Shared, 2010. Via wikimedia commons, released into the public domain.
Brazilian electric spocket compatible with three types of plug, photograph by WT-Shared, 2010. Via wikimedia commons, released into the public domain.

The thought behind salvage anthropology starts with a not so innocent or harmless starting assumption. On first encountering Indigenous peoples, europeans had at least two immediate problems, one ready solution that didn't solve both problems, and a newer solution they thought did. The first immediate problem was explaining and categorizing humans that until then they had no idea existed. The second was somehow justifying what they wanted to do to those people, primarily colonizing, enslaving, and dispossessing them for european glory and profit. The immediately available solution was the pre-existing model of the "noble savage" invented in its earliest version by roman writers like Tacitus. This solution didn't work very well, because Indigenous peoples failed to do what "noble savages" were supposed to do, quietly fade away, rather like J.R.R. Tolkien's elves. Worse yet, it is very difficult to justify incessantly attacking and exploiting people deemed noble. Even the invention of the mirror ignoble savage didn't help the bad optics. Under pressure, a new idea took flight. Non-europeans who were not christians lived outside of time, never changing, mindlessly repeating the same patterns as their ancestors, therefore lacking law and reason. Faced with such tragically bereft people, now the europeans could triumphantly insist that their colonialism was in fact benevolent. They were bringing these "savages" into time, where at last they could be properly human and rational, making new inventions and properly indoctrinated with christianity. One more version of being cruel to be kind, that led to intensive meddling in every aspect of Indigenous societies right down to the individual.

With all that meddling "for their own good" going on, plus the insistence that left alone Indigenous people would never have changed, regardless of how ridiculous on its face that claim is, by the nineteenth century europeans were worried. The "real savage" was vanishing away, along with what they considered unchanged and therefore authentic Indigenous cultures. Soon, the europeans expected Indigenous peoples to lose all ability to produce their extraordinary art, tools, and architecture, to be forced to forget their own languages and lifeways. It seems that europeans also expected these losses to so completely cut Indigenous peoples off from their ancestors that even their burial places would have no meaning to their descendants anymore, and so could be pillaged at will. At the least, europeans seemed to believe that if an Indigenous group was not christianized, the end of funeral ceremonies meant the end of any further thought of, knowledge of, or care for the deceased. Therefore, to prevent the total loss of their cultures, europeans would have to gather the remaining fragments. Collectors, whether part of the new discipline of anthropology or not were happy to take advantage of poverty to pay for artifacts at cut rate prices, of social disorder to raid graves including the most recent, and of settler governments' use of force to prevent Indigenous peoples from protecting their sacred places. Boas and other early anthropologists hoped to curb the free for all by monopolizing the "salvage" of Indigenous cultures. He was especially worried about the loss of Indigenous languages, and that was why he made sure linguistics was one of his four fields.

There's a linguistic oddity to note here about the words "savage" and "salvage." "Savage" has origins in latin, from the word silvaticus, meaning "a man of the woods," the silva. As the latin term wended its way into old french, it began to change shape a bit, becoming "salvage" or "sauvage" corresponding to two of the most common pronunciations. The latter won out in modern french, and in its passage via norman french into english, it came to have the familiar modern english pronunciation and spelling. "Salvage" also has latin origins, starting from the verb salvare, which many will recognize immediately as the root of terms like "salvation." Salvage has a somewhat odd shape derived from its medieval latin origins, and it fundamentally began as a legal term for what was successfully retrieved from a sunken ship. The superficial resemblances of "savage" and "salvage" are accidental, but even this quick tour of their etymologies provides considerable perspective on the expectations of the europeans involved in "salvage anthropology."

Northwest Métis have had their own unhappy experiences with anthropologists, most occurring in the mid to late twentieth century, which stands to reason as they are a post-invasion Indigenous people. The earliest studies by anthropologists I have found, such as that by Paul Driben, was formally published in 1985 after revision from his PhD dissertation completed in 1975. Derived from his time spent at East Prairie Metis Settlement in alberta, it is far from a pleasant read, rife with the racist and ethnocentric leanings of its time. Driben came there fully apprised of the origins of the alberta Métis settlements in a provincial legislative effort to get impoverished Métis families off relief, out of sight, and firmly corralled into northern alberta. Most anthropological interest in Northwest Métis started from presumptions of inherent deficit and disfunction related to a compounding of the doomed nature of Indigenous peoples with the supposed degradation and/or cultural confusion of being "mixed bloods."

This is not to say that Northwest Métis never had any pleasant or even directly helpful experience with anthropologists, especially those involved in the contested field of "ethnohistory," which uses anthropological methods to collect and then repackage Indigenous histories in western terms. Many scholars engaged in ethnohistory strove to understand how the Northwest Métis could have come about at all, trying to come to terms with the very idea that people could still create new societies and cultures. Since this got away from systematic denial of Northwest Métis existence and legal rights, that was certainly an improvement. Just twelve years later, Peter Bakker published his study of Michif, one of a continuum of Northwest Métis languages developed from a combination of Cree verbs and French nouns spoken across the Northwest Métis homeland. Here was a considerable change in perspective, compared to earlier assumptions that they must speak barely grammatical jargons. Just six years later Guy Lavallée finally published his own monograph on his own Northwest Métis community of St. Laurent, based on his own graduate research in anthropology at the university of british columbia. He started this work in the early 1980s, revealing that Northwest Métis were busy asking their own questions, sometimes including taking up the tools of anthropology themselves.

To be sure, "meddling" is not an entirely pleasant word. It has connotations of interference and intrusion, acting without permission. It's etymological origins are the same as the french word "métis," from the latin verb miscere, "to mix." Too often, "meddle" has been what anthropologists have done in Northwest Métis communities specifically and Indigenous communities in general. Yet the best and most respectful anthropological work does entail mixing with Indigenous communities – or any other community, for that matter – mixing necessary to properly learn the language, protocols, and history. Mixing certainly need not be bad, when done with permission, within limits, and with a commitment not to interfere with the community in order to facilitate exploiting or dissolving it. While referring to a team of anthropologists as "a meddling" carries a sharp sting, it is well worth the reminder of less savoury history and early practice that today practitioners are far more likely to avoid.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2023
Last Modified: Monday, January 02, 2023 00:54:19