Anthropological futures are difficult to envision without reckoning with anthropological pasts. The present is filled with an increasing theoretical emphasis on the trans-cultural and trans-national, but on a material level, we are still haunted by the legacies of collecting the Indigenous (a practice that has long been central to the anthropological project).
Ethnographic museums were built to serve as permanent repositories of cultural treasures, since (antiquarians insisted) Indigenous peoples were vulnerable to theft, political disorganization, factionalism, and cultural decay. During the salvage era, a cadre of white male scholars embarked on a collective mission to heroically “rescue” Indigenous stuff. Yet, there is ample evidence that those same scholars trafficked in the sacred and patrimonial, damaging cultural continuity, and re-shaping public perceptions of Native American, First Nations, and other Indigenous cultures. By re-examining those exchanges, we can gain new insights into the desires of our anthropological forebears, while recognizing why Indigenous people remain so sensitive about the materials and histories captured in museums.
Anthropological histories are, in essence, records of encounters with lived and theorized selves, bodies, societies, and places. If we envision the practice as encompassing a world-view, rather than a neutral scientific inquiry, we might see that our anthropological ancestors acquired unusual power and assumed mythical status. They situated themselves as modern and normative vis-à-vis the Indigenous “others” they studied, while imagining Indigeneity to be an inherently pre-modern identity, situated inescapably in the past. Their theories formed foundational knowledges, their methods shaped community behaviors, and their beliefs are encoded in professional rituals and recitations; even in death, they continue to exert theoretical if not political control over the peoples they studied.
Yet, we do not live in a conceptual world governed by anthropologists alone. Algonkian Indian hunters (some of the earliest anthropological informants) point to the co-existence of “other-than-human” beings (animals, shapeshifters, ancestral spirits, natural forces, etc.) living side-by-side with humans. These relationships have long been integrated into hunting and healing traditions, and linked to specific locales in the physical landscape, influencing how beings share resources over time. If one recognizes all beings as “persons”—living causal agents with the capacity to manifest, transform, and direct power—one becomes more attentive to the delicate balances among the human and other-than-human worlds, and the need for reciprocal relationships, especially with ancestors.
There is enormous healing potential in processes of reconnection, restoration, and repatriation, but only if we critically re-conceptualize the histories and material traces of the encounters that led us to this shared present. A large part of the future of anthropology will, I suggest, be shaped by developing new protocols for engagement in the field and in the museum. Looking backward, we can address the distortions and misrepresentations, while also gleaning the material that is still alive. Some Indigenous ancestors were talking, not just to anthropologists, but to their future communities, by conceptually (if not literally) leaving clues and planting seeds. Looking forward, we can work with their descendants to articulate protocols for less colonial encounters and more collaborative engagements, planting new seeds for more sustainable and less cannibalistic cultural futures.
Bruchac, Margaret M. On the Wampum Trail: Restorative Research in North American Museums (blog).
Hallowell, Irving. 1960. “Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior and World View.” In Culture in History: Essays in Honor of Paul Radin, edited by Stanley Diamond, 19–52. New York: Columbia University Press.
Hill, Richard W. 2001. “Regenerating Identity: Repatriation and the Indian Frame of Mind.” In The Future of the Past: Archaeologists, Native Americans and Repatriation, edited by Tamara Bray, 127–137. New York: Garland Publishing.
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