While few papers at the meeting focused directly on the history of anthropology, the subject found its way into many of the discussions that rose up around the dominant themes of the conference, such as the ethics of research involving indigenous communities, repatriation, debates over the ways indigenous identities are defined, and the importance of language preservation projects. This was not particularly surprising, given how much common ground the history of anthropology shares with indigenous studies; indigenous peoples and communities, of course, have persistently been made the subjects of anthropological investigation and indigenous studies scholars, informed by these experiences, have been amongst the most vocal critics of anthropology. The two fields have much to offer one another and the meeting included opportunities where contributions from historians of anthropology would have added an important perspective and found an engaged and receptive audience.
For example, panels like “Contemporary Indigenous Uses of Franz Boas’ Research in British Columbia (and Beyond)” brought the history of anthropological thought into conversations about the usefulness of anthropological writings for present-day indigenous communities as they advocate to expand their rights and sovereignty. The panel featured University of Victoria scholars Deanna Nicolson, Ryan Nicolson, and Robert Hancock, along with Angie Bain, a historical researcher with the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs and Sarah Hernandez, a scholar of Native American literature. Susan M. Hill, the Director of the First Nations Studies Program at the University of Western Ontario and member of the Franz Boas Papers: Documentary Edition project team provided lively commentary.
A number of talks focused on repatriation, a particularly salient topic due to its connections to the history of research ethics and debates over how and if research, particularly anthropological research, can be “decolonized.” The nature of community partnership and participatory research—entangled with any debate over decolonizing scholarship—also emerged as an important theme. Panels on these subjects tended to focus on contemporary debates rather than historical perspectives, but the conversations that happened after panels demonstrated NAISA members’ interest in understanding the history of these issues, how they vary by national context (indigenous and otherwise), and what these histories mean for researchers today.
A number of panels brought together indigenous studies and science and technology studies, often engaging with the history of anthropology along the way. These sessions seemed to strike a particular nerve, generating vibrant exchanges about the nature of indigenous identities and the relationship of those identities to scientific knowledge-making practices. Kim TallBear spoke about the ways in which genomic testing technologies, which often target indigenous peoples, have helped perpetuate the practice of “playing Indian” and have become implicated in the maintenance of colonial biopower. Joanna Radin, whose work similarly draws attention to the need to view science through the lens of social justice, spoke about Cold War practices of blood sampling which aimed to preserve the biological material of “disappearing” indigenous populations as a resource for future biomedical research.
Overall, the conference was characterized by deep reflexivity: participants were often challenged to reflect on their methodologies, to consider new frameworks for analyzing and presenting scholarship, and to explain the role that their research might play for the peoples and communities involved. These conversations felt creative and generative, rather than confrontational. Curious about the absence of the history of anthropology at the meeting, I asked a few regular attendees and they reported that the field has had a greater presence in past years. Hopefully at next year’s meeting (to be held in Vancouver), more history of anthropology will be on the program!