History of Anthropology at Ethnohistory 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee

From November 9-12, 2016, the American Society of Ethnohistory (ASE) convened its Annual Meeting at the Hutton Hotel in “Music City” Nashville, Tennessee. The meeting assembled scholars from a diverse range of fields including history, anthropology, linguistics, indigenous studies, and environmental and cultural studies, as well as representatives from various indigenous political, environmental, heritage, and cultural institutions. The canopy topic, “Ethnohistory of Native Space”, encouraged analyses that ranged from dwelling and diaspora notions of ‘home places’, to other experiences of space, place and time. This included inquiries into how native spaces are represented through narrative and performance and studies of different forms of colonial legacies. It also involved a focus on uses of mapping technologies employed to display place-based histories, interactions, and social transformations.

The conference took place in a historically resonant location, a junction of various indigenous nations situated along the Cherokee portion of the Trail of Tears. During a field trip guided by Native History Association’s president, anthropologist/archaeologist Pat Cummings, participants had the opportunity to experience some of the site’s embodied history by walking a portion of the trail. Another excursion instructed on the large Mississippian Period town and ceremonial site Mound Bottom located on the Harpeth River in Cheatham County, Tennessee. The region’s history of competing identities and land claims complicates concepts like homelands, contact zones, and middle grounds, especially given Nashville’s legacy as a key player in the interstate slave trade and Indian removal policies. This history challenged conference participants to attentively (re)consider issues of mobility, continuity, displacement, and migration. All were invited to comparatively ponder these issues in the context and messy process of (re-)making and mapping human landscapes, colonizing and dispossessing indigenous peoples, and losing and reclaiming native spaces.

Trail of Tears trail marker. Photo by S. C. M.

The meeting was inclusive and intimate, thus allowing for a lively, stimulating, and engaged event fostering generous exchange and mentorship while also appealing to a broad range of interests, ideas, and dialogues across and beyond the humanities and social sciences. It engaged nuanced reflections regarding (ethno)historical methods and their intergenerational histories.

A considerable number of papers focused on the history of anthropology. Many discussions revolved around the imperative of collaborative research, public intellectualism, and the relational ethics of research in indigenous contexts. Further discussions explored indigenous sovereignty and self-determination vis-à-vis colonial discourses and practices; language and cultural revitalization; race; racism; identity politics; land tenure; indigenous rights and treaties; naming and mapping of indigenous places; the positionalities and politics of scholars; and the decolonization of (ethnohistorical) research methods, thought, memory, body, and land.

There were a number of highly anticipated panels on the history of anthropology that presented diligent research into the relationships, methods, theories, and legacies of distinguished anthropologists. For example, the panel “Reconsidering the Work and Lives of Frank G. Speck and A. I. Hallowell” brought to life and into discussion the ethics, methods, qualities, practices, and habits of two pre-eminent ancestors in the history of anthropology. The panel included Joshua J. Smith (University of North Carolina) as chair, Ian Puppe (University of Western Ontario), Robert H. McKinley (Michigan State University), Raymond Fogelson (University of Chicago), Jennifer S. H. Brown (University of Winnipeg), Maureen Matthews & Roger Roulette (The Manitoba Museum), and David C. Posthumus (University of South Dakota). Some of the presenters were mentees of Hallowell, which resulted in profound and genuine insights into their scientific and personal lives and respective legacies. Regna Darnell, distinguished professor at the University of Western Ontario and general editor of the Franz Boas Papers: Documentary Edition, synthesized and provided stimulating commentary. Artifacts, stories, understandings of animist ontologies and many more remnants from this period would not be the same without Hallowell, the presenters concluded. Speck, another anthropologist of the Boasian intellectual lineage, also attracted gifted students, relied on his own extensive research and, like Hallowell, “identified with the Indians” in complex ways. A highly engaged audience seemingly longed for panel discussions to continue, and attendant dialogues echoed afterwards in hotel hallways generating visions for future panel proposals on the history of anthropology.

Another panel on “The Contribution and Legacy of Ella Cara Deloria”, organized by David C. Posthumus and Ian Puppe, featured Puppe as chair, and presenters Posthumus, Sebastian Felix Braun (Iowa State University), Joshua J. Smith, and Nicholas I. Belle (Indiana University). The panel discussed Dakota scholar Ella Deloria’s endeavors against the commodification of indigenous peoples, ethnic fundamentalism, tribal ethnocentrism, and her relationship to Franz Boas. Concluding remarks highlighted the fact that this session managed to unveil the “real Ella”, particularly in the context of her public life and as a very humble anthropologist in Lakota fashion.

Other noteworthy presentations on the history of anthropology included reflections by Nicholas Barron (University of New Mexico, HAN editor) on the (dis)entanglements of anthropology and imperialism in Southern Arizona, with astute comments by David Dinwoodie (University of New Mexico). Sarah C. Moritz (McGill University) likewise spoke on the long history of St’át’imc Salish self-determination in British Columbia as well as the distinct role of anthropological engagements and activism by James Teit and Franz Boas. Moritz’s presentation was followed by insightful comments from Daniel M. Cobb (University of North Carolina).

Ostensibly, each of the panels managed to challenge the annihilating effects of a fashionable post-modern “just so” approach to our disciplinary past, which has effectively downplayed connections with predecessors whose scholarship has been generalized as uncomfortably colonialist, antiquated, and non-self-reflexive. In contrast, to borrow from Regna Darnell’s insightful account Invisible Genealogies, many presenters resuscitated history of anthropology’s intellectual and ethical concerns as pertaining to different aspects of a consistent method, theory, and practice. This encouraged participants to sustain the scholarship of their anthropological predecessors by treating these historical ancestors as relevant participants in current debates and addressing past debates in the context of our times.

Overall, the conference was characterized by extraordinary reflexivity, dialogue, and mentorship. Participants were often challenged to reflect on their respective methodologies and theoretical innovations and to explain critically the impact that their research might have on the indigenous communities involved and on the places that are (re-)made in the process. To quote Maureen Matthews, who in turn paraphrased A.I. Hallowell with an epitomizing take-home message: “In an environment of metamorphosis, where form isn’t taken for granted, the truth is in the voice.” Presenters, particularly those engaged in the history of anthropology, highlighted their own (in)visible genealogies in the context of an accountable, aptly-chronicled historicism. Dialogues were innovative and constructive. We are much looking forward to more history of anthropology at the next American Society for Ethnohistory 2017 Conference in Winnipeg.

Sarah C. Moritz: contributions / sarah.moritz@mail.mcgill.ca

1 Comment

  1. I have agruria=cultural and land questions reguarding the preservation of …while I hope this email finds all in good health and spirits.


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