All posts by Michael F. Brown

In 2014 I became president of the School for Advanced Research (SAR) in Santa Fe, NM, after serving more than thirty years on the faculty of Williams College. SAR is a 110-year-old research center dedicated to supporting innovative scholarship in anthropology and related disciplines as well as Native American art. My academic interests include the indigenous peoples of the New World (especially the Amazon), religion, medical anthropology, ethnobotany, and the ethical dilemmas of intellectual property. "Upriver" is my sixth book.

Sound Thinking

Too_loud!Perhaps because in recent years I’ve had the pleasure of spending time with Steven Feld, a senior scholar at SAR, questions related to sound have been on my mind of late.  Steve is noted for many things, but his work on cross-cultural acoustics is widely regarded as inspiringly innovative. It’s also true that as I crossed into my mid-60s I experienced a degree of hearing loss —”consistent with your age,” as an audiologist told me, which was cold comfort.  That has led me both to regret some of the wall-of-sound rock concerts I attended in the early 1970s and to be much more protective of my hearing than I was in the past.  For anyone who cares a great deal about music, the prospect of losing the ability to fully enjoy it is troubling.  As I noted in this blog several years ago, the improvisational genius of jazz is something that inspires my writing as an anthropologist, even if the connection is loose rather than direct.

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Making Movies – https://www.facebook.com/mkngmvs/photos.  CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

So it was with some disappointment that I found myself forced to abandon a recent outdoor performance in Santa Fe by a terrific Kansas City-based Latino band, Making Movies, The group’s music can be described as an amplified, hybridized mélange of Latin American traditions.  As the band explains in their website, the latest Making Movies album is “a bold mix of sounds: psychedelia, experimental rock, son cubano, cumbia and various rhythms descended from Yoruba music.”  Aside from their formidable musical chops, the band members have been outspoken in their public support of DACA immigrants.

When Making Music started to perform on June 2, there was a crowd of perhaps a hundred, and the vibe was classic summer Santa Fe: cheerful, relaxed, ready to dance.  But the sound!  The amplified roar was beyond ear-splitting, beyond F16-taxiing-for-takeoff intensity.  Most of the crowd seemed unperturbed, but I had to retreat— first to a distance of about 50 yards, then 100.  At that distance, and behind rather than in front of the band’s PA system, the audio volume seemed about right. Conversations after the event suggested that I wasn’t the only person driven away by the unnecessary intensity of the amplification.

I had a similar experience a couple of years ago at a Dwight Yokum concert held at the Santa Fe Opera.  (Okay, Yokum’s music isn’t my scene, but it was a fundraiser to which I was invited by a friend.). I had neglected to bring ear protection, and my wife and I were reduced to wadding bits of kleenex in our ears in self-defense.  After twenty minutes our host was ready to evacuate, and we followed suit.  From the parking lot of the Opera—which, by the way, has excellent acoustics with modest amplification—the volume was about right. The sonic assault seemed to have no effect on most of the audience, some of whom were two-stepping in front of the massive PA speakers as we sprinted for the exit.

What’s going on here?  A little poking around on the web suggests that I’m not the first to wonder why performances have routinely become so loud that they make the sound of nearby jack-hammers seem almost meditative by comparison.  Edward Tufte, known for his book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information and related works, moderates a thoughtful exchange of views about this issue on his website.  He and others refer to a 2003 article by Lewis Segal published  in the L.A. Times that complains about the sheer acoustic brutality of many concerts. (See also this.). A 2016 article in the Daily Telegraph reported that thirty people walked out of a UB40 concert because the volume affected their heart rhythms and caused one person’s ear to bleed. Yet most of the concert-goers had no complaint about the sound level.

Various explanations for this phenomenon have been floated:  (1) The increase in ambient noise levels almost everywhere, which habituates people to high levels of background noise, at some cost to public health; (2) the ubiquity of in-ear headphones, which is causing premature hearing loss in the nation’s youth, in turn suggesting that performances must be louder to register on an audience; (3) performances are getting louder because performers want to “turn their amps up to 11,” which isn’t a theory as much as an anecdotal inference; and (4) the possibility that the sheer physicality or somatic impact of ultra-loud music is what draws people to concerts.

I’m inclined to view the situation as “overdetermined,” to use a word favored by theory geeks.  Urban Americans are now so habituated to high levels of ambient noise and ubiquitous digital music that concerts must achieve higher levels of volume to justify the price of admission.  I wonder, too, whether part of the draw is a desire for embodied catharsis, which is hard to find in a society where people work ever-longer hours for ever-smaller salaries.  From that perspective, the physical impact of ultra-loud concerts—ringing ears and the like—is a feature rather than a bug.  It’s also true that concert-goers have little control over audio levels at the events they attend.  Their only options, once they’ve gained admission, are to insert ear protection or head for the door.

Later this summer I’m traveling to a place where the only protection I’ll need is insect repellent and sunscreen: the Boundary Waters wilderness of Minnesota, which is blissfully out of cell phone range and where the dominant sounds are the splash of paddles on water and the haunting call of loons.  The BWCA lies just to the east of Voyageurs National Park, which has been voted one of the ten quietest places in the United States.  I look forward to giving my ears a rest.

Climate Change, Skepticism, Scale

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Writer Elizabeth Kolbert interviewed on stage by Michael F. Brown (left) and Terry Sullivan, NM state director of The Nature Conservancy. Photo by Garret Vreeland.

[This post is mirrored on the SAR Scholar Program blog.]

On June 1, 2018, the School for Advanced Research and The Nature Conservancy of New Mexico hosted New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert at Santa Fe’s Lensic Performing Arts Center.  The event drew a capacity crowd of more than 700.  Kolbert presented a 30-minute talk that was followed by an on-stage Q&A by Terry Sullivan, director of The Nature Conservancy NM, and SAR president Michael Brown. This event, the title of which was “The Fate of the Earth,” was presented under the auspices of SAR’s annual President’s Lecture.

Kolbert’s work for the New Yorker has covered a diverse array of topics, but in recent years she has become known especially for her work on species extinction and global climate change.  She was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2015 for The Six Extinction: An Unnatural History.

Although her talk discussed the astonishing rate at which species are disappearing in most parts of the world—a rate many scientists feel is comparable to five other mass extinction events dating as far back as 450 million years—many of the questions posed by her interviewers and members of the audience (via social media) turned on the matter of climate change. New Mexico and much of the Southwest are experiencing extreme drought conditions this year, as well as unusually high temperatures.

Air photo of Ute Park fire, NE New Mexico, June 2018. Photo Credit: U.S. Forest Service

During Kolbert’s visit, the Ute Park fire in northeastern New Mexico was expanding to 37,000 acres.  As of this writing, it has still not been completely contained.  An avid hiker, Kolbert’s plans were partially curtailed when the U.S. Forest Service closed some of the most popular hiking trails around Santa Fe because of the extreme fire risk.  In short, climate change was on the minds of everyone in the hall because it had a local salience that surpassed that of species extinction.


A question voiced several times during the event was why the American public is so divided on policies related to climate change.  Among the most frequently cited explanations for this troubling hostility or indifference: mistrust of educated elites; the rise of anti-scientism; the cynical manipulation of public opinion by politicians and business interests who stand to lose if the U.S. frees itself from dependence on fossil fuels; and fear of the massive social changes required to reduce our carbon footprint.  All of these factors play a role, yet they don’t seem entirely persuasive.  Are there deeper reasons for public indifference?

An important distinction to make is between contemporary climate change and explanations of its ultimate cause.  Evidence that the climate is changing is far more visible to the public than are the factors that drive it.  This is especially true in coastal areas ranging from south Florida and Louisiana to Alaska. Boston and New York City aren’t far behind.  Insurance companies are already figuring this into their risk algorithms and premiums, as is the U.S. military.  True, we still have to endure the nattering of televised halfwits who don’t understand the difference between climate and weather, prompting them to point to the latest record low temperature as proof that global warming is a myth.  On balance, however, people who are attuned to land and water—farmers, civil engineers, Arctic hunters, ski resort owners, and the like—are unlikely to dispute the reality of climate change.

As for causes, skeptics in this part of the world point out that cyclical drought has a long history in the Southwest and has been blamed for the apparent collapse of the Chaco Culture.  Looking farther back, ice ages reshaped much of the planet long before humans were in a position to register a significant impact on earth’s atmosphere.  By that logic, giving up our gas-guzzlers and coal-fired power plants is futile.  Of course, for that argument to carry weight one is obliged to ignore the cumulative impact of adding 2.4 million pounds of CO2 emissions to earth’s atmosphere every second.

Which brings us to the issue of scale—that is, how to imbue people with a sense of planetary duty when their individual contribution to the problem verges on the microscopic, especially when the processes involved extend beyond a human lifetime or more.  Would it truly make a difference to the earth if I skipped an annual vacation flight to Cancún?  Why should I acquiesce to the closing of my local coal-fired power plant when it means that I and other members of my community will lose our jobs and be reduced to penury while moralizing elites charge their Teslas with energy produced by wind or sunlight?  This is the tragedy of the commons on a planetary scale.

How to solve this problem is perhaps the greatest anthropological challenge of our time. A ray of hope emerged in a case mentioned by Elizabeth Kolbert toward the end of a panel discussion at SAR the morning after her lecture, an event that featured two scientists and a representative from Jemez Pueblo.  Kolbert briefly mentioned the Danish island of Samsø, which over the course of a decade voluntarily turned itself into a net-zero community.  This success story is easy to discount.  The island’s population is less than 4,000; islanders benefit from abundant and cheap wind power; Denmark is a wealthy country.  Yet in a case like this we can see a bridge between the individual and the collective. Solving the problem of scale may require thousands and ultimately millions of Samsø-like projects until a sense of a global commons can be created and embraced.  Whether this can happen fast enough to make a difference remains an open question

Are Human Bodies Private Property or Part of a Commons?

Ossuary, Sedlec, Czech Republic. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 License.[This post is mirrored in the Scholar Programs blog of the School for Advanced Research.]
On Wednesday, April 17, 2018, SAR was pleased to host presentations by Nancy Scheper-Hughes (Chancellor’s Professor Emerita, UC-Berkeley) and Òrla O’Donovan (School of Applied Social Studies, University College, Cork).  Les Field, chair of anthropology at the University of New Mexico, served as discussant.

Òrla O’Donovan’s presentation, titled “The Dead Body Commons,” outlined an Irish multidisciplinary project that is addressing questions of ownership of dead bodies and whether the idea of a dead body commons can begin to reframe public thinking about rights in and to specific body parts and human remains in general.  O’Donovan noted that the Irish are more comfortable with dead bodies than many other Europeans; in traditional Irish wakes the deceased are often laid out in kitchens or sitting rooms while mourners carry on around them.  The devastation of the Famine in the 1840s is reflected in the presence of mass graves throughout rural Ireland, which are still thought of as a major historical injury. She also briefly discussed the case of the “Tuam Babies,” a recently discovered mass burial of infants who died at an institution for unwed mothers.

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Òrla O’Donovan, University College, Cork

It is widely assumed, O’Donovan noted, that this and under scandals surrounding the disposition of bodies and body parts can be resolved through legislation requiring evidence of choice and individual consent underwritten by a notion of liberal individualism.  She and her research project colleagues, however, feel that this vision begs important questions, including attention to the factors that shape conceptions of individual rights and consent.  Their goal is to shift attitudes associated with the dead in a new direction.  They have been influenced by Derrida’s Spectres of Marx (especially the concept of “hauntings”), Laqueur’s Work of the Dead, and Anne Phillips’s Our Bodies: Whose Property?  The latter work, O’Donovan said, is leading the research team to ask whether human bodies should be thought of as belonging to a commons, the obvious analogy being to traditional communal land tenure practices in which individuals are considered owners while they are alive to work the common land, after which the land reverts to the commons.

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Nancy Scheper-Hughes, UC-Berkeley

Nancy Scheper-Hughes’s presentation, “Cannibal Markets and the Tragedy of the Dead Body Commons,” developed themes she has recently explored with others in New Cannibal Markets.  Her talk moved from issues of social inequality involving “voluntary” sale of tissues and organs by disadvantaged people in Brazil and South Asia to covert harvesting of organs by medical schools, a practice that has a long history that continues today in many places.  The most shocking example of market-driven “cannibalism” is the documented removal of tissues and organs from the enemy dead in war zones such as Iraq and Syria.  The texts and especially the images depicting these instances of “necropolitics” were not for the faint of heart.

In his discussant’s role, Les Field offered observations on the the links between bodies and territories—including the way that a commons may exclude a segment of the population from participation—as well as the effect of identifying anything, including human body parts, as “resources.”

In the subsequent Q and A, members of the audience expressed uncertainty about how a dead body commons could accommodate the wide range of death-related beliefs and practices found in multicultural societies.  Although there is universal agreement that the “cannibalism” documented so powerfully by Scheper-Hughes is a crime, would a commons approach lead to a situation in which the needs of a wider community for transplantable body parts (hearts, corneas, kidneys, etc.) prevail over the cultural preferences of the deceased’s family or religious denomination?  An illustration of the complexity of attitudes toward the dead is found in the range of responses that Native Americans have to the repatriation of ancestral remains.  The news media are happy to report the many instances when tribes gratefully welcome the return of their ancestors’ bones and see it as an important step toward healing past injustices.  Less frequently noted are those situations when communities decline to repatriate human remains. Some perceive contact with the dead to be spiritually contaminating.  Others lack a traditional ritual of reburial.  As a Native American elder once told me, “How can we bury these people properly when we know nothing about their family identity and the religious offices they might have held?”


This SAR colloquium reflects growing interest in death and dying in the humanities and social sciences, including anthropology.  In September 2018, SAR is sponsoring an Advanced Seminar,  “Death Culture in the 21st Century,” organized by Shannon Lee Dawdy (University of Chicago) and Tamara E. Kneese (UC-Davis).  A report on the preliminary results of the seminar will be distributed in the SAR website after its completion.

The Decline of Rural and Small-Town America and its Social Implications

Photo credit: Creative Commons Zero–CCO

Last fall I spent several weeks in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, where I had lived for more than three decades prior to my relocation to a new job in Santa Fe four years ago.  Berkshire County is the farthest west and most rural county of Massachusetts.  For New Yorkers and Bostonians, the Berkshires are known for their fields, forests, and outstanding cultural amenities, including the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, the Clark Art Institute and Williams College in Williamstown, and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams.

These are all wealthy, world-class institutions, yet under the glitz lies a darker reality.  As a recent article in the Boston Globe points out, poverty in Berkshire County has risen by nearly a third since 2000.  The median age is rising as younger people leave for places with better job prospects, meaning that the population will continue to be older and sicker and poorer in the coming years.  I caught a glimpse of this in a visit to Berkshire Mall in Lanesboro, the only major shopping center within 30 miles of Williamstown.  Having been away for awhile, I was shocked by the mall’s post-apocalyptic vibe now that most of its anchor stores have packed up and left.  The county’s economic decline helps to explain why the value of the house that my wife and I still own in Williamstown has declined by as much as 20 percent in the past five years.

To some extent the hollowing out of a place that I love has been under way for decades.  In common with many once-prosperous smaller towns and villages in the northeast, the factories began to close nearly a century ago, a process that accelerated in the middle of the twentieth century.  In the Berkshires, manufacturers of textiles, shoes, furniture, plastics, and electronics moved south, then offshore.  Despite this change, in the 1980s and 90s, real estate prices rose dramatically.  The Great Recession put a stop to that, and the economic arc has trended down ever since.


Journalists and to a lesser extent social scientists have now begun to take notice of this situation and assess its implications.   (For examples, see this and this.)   What caught the eye of many of them was the impact that rural and small-town voters had on the election of Donald Trump in 2016.  According to the Washington Post, rural counties favored Trump by 26 points, whereas urban ones voted for Hillary Clinton by a 32 point margin.  (Berkshire County was an exception to that pattern, favoring Clinton 67.5% to 27%, a majority consistent with Massachusetts as a whole.)

So far, I haven’t seen much ethnography focused on dying towns and rural areas.  Notable exceptions include Christina Walley’s Exit Zero (which documents the travail of a deindustrializing urban neighborhood rather than a rural one) and Arlie Russell Hochschild’s much celebrated Strangers in Their Own Land.  Reaching back to a time before the current political kerfuffle are books like Katie Stewart’s memorable A Space on the Side of the Road (1996).  There are doubtless other insightful works with which I’m not familiar.  Still, it’s hard not to get the sense that most ethnographers prefer to embed with embattled urban minorities—African Americans, Latinos, heroin addicts, LGBTQ youth—rather than with alienated and often angry white people hunkered down in blighted communities.  There is little question, though, that their sense of economic and social abandonment is a major factor in our nation’s current political malaise.  People who feel that they have nothing to lose aren’t likely to put much stock in the niceties of civil debate and dignified leadership.


For an upbeat view of a small American town that has managed to maintain its vitality despite the social and economic headwinds, don’t miss Larissa MacFarquhar’s article on Orange City, Iowa (“Where the Small-Town American Dream Lives On,” published in the New Yorker in November 2017).  As MacFarquhar points out, Orange City is about as politically conservative a place as one can find in the US, yet it doesn’t seem to have embraced the bonkers anti-government and anti-immigrant ideology that has gained traction in other parts of the country.  Therein lies a ray of hope.


Addendum, 2/19/2018.  Just happened upon a new book by sociologist Robert Wuthnow that addresses the sense of abandonment that afflicts much of rural America.  Wuthnow is one of the most prolific and reliably insightful sociologists of America working today.  A book not to be missed for anyone interested in this issue.

Time to Kill the “Anthropology of X” Meme

It’s usually a bad idea to vent pet peeves in a blog, but I’m going to do it anyway.

My complaint is about the persistent use of “The Anthropology of X” in the title of books and articles.  Feel free to insert the X of your choice:  disability, food, work, policing, lowriders, cell phones, rock videos, lawn care . . .  This usage is arguably the laziest intellectual move in our profession and one of the reasons why I sometimes despair for the future of anthropology, a discipline that needs all the help it can get at a political moment increasingly hostile to what we do and how we do it.

This regrettable disciplinary tic has a long history, going back at least to the mid-nineteenth century.  The early use of the term made sense because it was usually applied to places, as in “On the Comparative Anthropology of Scotland” (1865, a paper authored by Hector Maclean).  This is forgivable because the discipline was still in its infancy, and the author needed to communicate the fact that new methods were being deployed to shed light on the history and culture of a particular region.

The notion that “the anthropology of” communicates something specific retains a vestigial validity, I suppose, if one accepts that the document so named is likely to take a comparative, cross-cultural approach and that it’s based on ethnography to a greater or lesser degree.  (Today many anthropologists would disagree even with that minimalist characterization of anthropological methods, especially comparison.)  Mostly it says, “This was written by an anthropologist.”

And therein lies the problem.  Most general readers—and, I suspect, many academic readers as well—couldn’t care less about a writer’s disciplinary affiliation.  They care far more about whether the author brings a fresh, insightful perspective to an important topic.  Alas, this isn’t conveyed at all by “The anthropology of X” except in the increasingly rare case when the topic under consideration has never before been explored by an anthropologist, as in The Anthropology of Puff Pastry.  For all I know, an anthropologist has already written about that, too.


I came to this distaste for “The Anthropology of” during three and a half decades of collaborating with sociologists in a joint undergraduate department whose relations were mostly cordial and creative, largely because both wings were committed to ethnographic methods.  Although we maintained two separate majors, for administrative as well as intellectual reasons we decided to downplay the disciplinary divide except in a handful of courses—e.g.,  SOC 101 Invitation to Sociology.  So a course that at other colleges and universities might be called “Medical Anthropology” became “Illness & Healing in Comparative Perspective.”  A course that could be labeled “The Sociology of Consumer Society” became “Culture, Consumption, & Modernity.”  This liberated faculty and students from disciplinary constraints while encouraging everyone to focus on a range of analytical approaches relevant to the issues.

Ironically, this downplaying of disciplinary boundaries made our majors more rather than less attractive to graduate programs in those cases when students decided to pursue advanced degrees.  After all, doctoral programs generally do a good job of refashioning students into anthropologists, sociologists, etc.  But at the admissions stage, they want broadly educated applicants with demonstrated skills in thinking, writing, and research methods.


The most creative writers in anthropology avoid the “Anthropology of” meme, especially if they want their books to be widely read.  Sahlins and Graeber could have titled their recent book The Anthropology of Kingship, but they wisely settled for On Kings.  Tanya Luhrmann could have called her much-praised 2012 ethnography The Anthropology of Evangelical Prayer (yawn!) rather than When God Talks Back—although I’m confident that her editor at Vintage would have nixed the “Anthropology of” title in a nanosecond.

What’s at stake isn’t just titles, although they matter.  It’s making the effort to broaden one’s audience and write in a way that reaches them.  When writing for a journal with a narrowly disciplinary audience, “The anthropology of” is fairly harmless even if it flirts with cliché.  For work that aspires to broader impact, however, it qualifies as a missed opportunity.  Let’s lay it to rest in a remote cemetery devoted to expired memes.

Cultural appropriation and its Mayan discontents

Huipíl detail
Huipíl detail, Jilotepeque, Guatemala. Source: Wikimedia commons, Textile Museum of Canada.

I recently gave a talk on current thinking about cultural theft to an audience at Southwest Seminars, a Santa Fe-based organization that sponsors a public lecture nearly every week of the year as well as frequent field trips in the region.  As one might expect in Santa Fe, a town long known for its artists (Indigenous and otherwise), after the lecture a number of people expressed concern about whether their own art works represented cultural appropriation.  As one woman put it—and here I paraphrase—”My work is inspired both by the spectacular New Mexican landscape and the work of the Native Americans who portray it in their ancient artistic traditions.  Is that wrong?”

I have no way of knowing whether her paintings represent a commercial activity or only  a hobby.  In the latter case, it’s hard to see how imitations of, say, Pueblo pottery designs harm anyone.  Still, it reminded me of how complex and confusing the issue of cultural appropriation is for many people, especially at the non-commercial end of the arts spectrum.  And then there’s the question of how, or even whether, Indigenous artistic productions can be protected when appropriators imitate the style of a given tradition rather than actual works.

Some of these issues are addressed, and others dodged, in a recent news story about efforts to protect the intellectual/cultural property of Maya weavers in Guatemala.  According to the story, the IP laws of Guatemala explicitly excludes Indigenous art from protection.  A group of weavers has filed a lawsuit seeking government protection for their work:

Aspuac says that royalties received as a result of the patent would be divided among the community. The community will designate representatives to negotiate on their behalf with companies seeking to use their designs, and manage the distribution of funds back into the community. Aspuac and other leading members of the movement want to see the money invested in social projects like weaving schools and education for women and children.

The hope is that with the patenting of their textiles and designs, the Maya community would have more autonomy and control over their heritage and culture, thus alleviating two of the major hardships the community faces: cultural appropriation and dispossession. Royalties received from the patent would also give the communities the chance to end a long-standing cycle of poverty. [Source]

This sounds like a promising approach, and I hope it enjoys success.  Nevertheless, it begs the question of whether such a law would effectively prevent the sale of “Maya-inspired” designs that don’t consist of exact copies of existing works.  Where does Mayan creativity end and some other society’s creativity begin?  How far into the past would such protection extend? And would it protect the work of Maya weavers experimenting with radically new artistic forms?  The latter question might sound hypothetical, but after three years of hosting Native American artist fellows at SAR, I’ve come to appreciate how many of them are joyously breaking with tradition to pioneer powerful hybridized art.  An example is found in the paintings of Ehren Kee Natay, as well as his work in other media.  Ehren was SAR’s Rollin and Mary Ella King Native Artist Fellow in 2014. I expect that Indigenous Guatemalan artists aren’t far behind.

One possible solution for the Guatemalan case would be to complement conventional copyright protection of finished works with a licensing program that would allow manufacturers to certify their work as “Mayan” or “Maya-inspired” for a fee.  The licensing fee would have to be modest enough to be absorbed as part of the cost of doing business.  It would be similar to Fair Trade certification, which assures customers that they are doing the right thing by purchasing a certified product.  This strikes me as administratively more plausible than trying to enforce a “cultural copyright” on Maya weaving in all its forms and variations.


On a related front, be sure to check out the website of the Creative Sensitivity Project, the goal of which is to “get as many creatives as possible to understand the effects and ramifications of cultural misappropriation to understand how their job as creative practitioners will effect marginalised groups in society.”

Beyond hoop earrings: The damaging impact of the cultural appropriation meme

The Moana-themed costume that Disney pulled out of stores after intense public criticism, Fall 2016

The vapid debate about cultural appropriation continues in social media, the latest reductio ad absurdum being the claim that hoop earrings belong to Latina culture and shouldn’t be worn by Anglo women.  The neocon press loves these stories because they illustrate the alleged excesses of identity politics in American colleges and universities.

Conservative interest in accusations of cultural appropriation may explain why I was called by Alice Lloyd, a reporter for The Weekly Standard, and invited to explain why appropriation has become such a pervasive meme.  To her credit, she was more interested in efforts to limit the appropriation of indigenous knowledge than in tempests-in-teapots like the hoop earrings issue.  Her curiosity appears to have been sparked by criticism of the glacially slow efforts of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) to develop protocols for the protection of traditional knowledge and indigenous genetic resources.

Although I admire the efforts of legal thinkers such as James Anaya to nudge WIPO to promulgate global policies that provide an umbrella of protection for indigenous peoples, I’m skeptical that protocols on that scale can effectively address the particularities of local situations and multiple conceptual domains (e.g., genetic resources, biological knowledge, expressive culture, sacred understandings, etc.)  One has only to read WIPO’s draft documents to wonder whether endless micro-editing of terminology can lead to successful solutions in our lifetime.

Any way one slices things, legal protocols must resolve knotty questions.  Who qualifies as indigenous?  Who legitimately speaks for communities given local disagreements about whether formally constituted Native governments (e.g., the tribal councils of federally recognized Indian nations in the United States) are qualified to represent the community in matters relating to religious knowledge?  Can one ever reconcile a global IP system predicated on time-limited monopolies—patents and copyrights— with what indigenous peoples typically see as the eternal status of their values and practices?  Should the cultural-protection rights of indigenous communities always trump the right of indigenous individuals to share life histories that may include religiously sensitive information?  Can WIPO’s necessary focus on nation-states ever be fully reconciled with the complex and often fraught status of indigenous communities within those nation-states? These and other tough questions have made the journey toward international protections a painfully slow one.

The article that emerged from the Weekly Standard interview is more thoughtful than most, and I’m flattered that Lloyd says nice things about a book I wrote years ago.  Still, I feel obliged to correct an error in the account.  For the record, the School for Advanced Research wasn’t founded by “frontier-minded and Bryn Mawr-educated heiresses with cash to burn.”  It emerged from the efforts of an early anthropologist, Alice Cunningham Fletcher, and the archaeologist Edgar Lee Hewett to establish a center for the study of American prehistory that would rival institutions that studied the archaeology of the classical world.  The Bryn Mawr graduates mentioned by Lloyd are presumably Martha Root White and Amelia Elizabeth White, who built a home in Santa Fe in the 1920s.  Amelia Elizabeth White bequeathed the estate to SAR in 1972, 65 years after SAR’s founding.  Details here.

It’s fair to say, as Lloyd does, that many members of Santa Fe’s Anglo elite had an appropriative attitude toward Native American culture.  Early in the twentieth century, Santa Fe and Taos served as meccas for educated Anglos searching for an America that owed little to European high culture.  They found this primal authenticity in the New Mexico landscape and its indigenous and Hispanic populations, especially the Pueblo peoples of the region.  Although Hewett, the White sisters, and others like them were deeply sympathetic to Native Americans and in some cases fought vigorously to defend indigenous land rights and religious freedoms, their attitudes were often condescending.  They presumed that they were more qualified to speak for Indians than Indian people themselves.  In this sense they were creatures of their time.

The SAR of today is a different place.  In particular, SAR’s Indian Arts Research Center is committed to doing what it can to facilitate the transfer of indigenous knowledge between generations and to work collaboratively with the communities in which the IARC’s collections originated. And the IARC is extremely careful about maintaining the confidentiality of sensitive religious knowledge, to the limited extent that it can be found in the IARC’s records. Perfection achieved?  Not by a long shot.  But we are making progress despite the current economic and political headwinds.

It remains to be seen whether public understanding can move beyond trivial arguments about hoop earrings, yoga, and Asian cuisine to acknowledge the real injustices suffered by indigenous peoples when their hard-won traditional knowledge is commercialized or otherwise misused by outsiders.



On trademarks.
  The recent Supreme Court decision in Matal v. Tam has defined trademarks as a form of speech, thus voiding restrictions on disparaging marks and opening the door to continued legal protection of the controversial name of Washington D.C.’s football team.  I’m no legal scholar, and I understand that complex issues of free speech are at stake, yet common sense (for what that’s worth these days) says (1) that commercial speech is different from political speech, and (2) that trademarks are not a fundamental constitutional right but a license granted by the government upon satisfaction of a set of stringent conditions. Commercial speech is held to standards of accuracy that prevent a company from making wildly inaccurate claims (“Our toothpaste cures five forms of cancer!”) that are protected in the context of political speech (as when Donald Trump claims that his election victory was the greatest in American history).

I thus fail to see why the government should be obliged to authorize trademarks that disparage and hurt specific communities, especially minority ones.  Granted, the use of disparaging trademarks doesn’t seem likely to become widespread; after all, it will drive away many customers, thus defeating a trademark’s commercial intent.  But in an era as polarized as ours, I can imagine some people being moved to register and use offensive trademarks . . . well, just because they can.  Even legal scholars who defend the decision accept that it may also  void restrictions on “scandalous” trademarks, meaning that we can look forward to more vulgarity in popular media and on the shelves of our local shops.  It is hard to celebrate this decision as a positive validation of American free-speech rights.



Update on the STOP Act.
  On a more encouraging note, Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) has just introduced to Congress a revised version of the STOP Act (Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony).  The director of SAR’s Indian Arts Research Center, Brian Vallo (Acoma Pueblo) was involved in revisions to this bill and in promoting conversations between Native American leaders, attorneys, and dealers in Native art that have led to refinements in the proposed legislation.


Update, 17 July 2017.  Don’t miss Arthur Krystal’s essay “Is Cultural Appropriation Ever Appropriate?” L.A. Review of Books, 17 July 2017.


Update, 7 August 2017.  The Washington Post has just published a fascinating story about two men who have filed trademark applications for the Nazi swastika and a variation on the n-word in order to prevent hate groups from using them.  Their hope is that they can contaminate and degrade the power of the terms. “Maynard [one of the trademark applicants] . . . planned to co-opt the swastika by including it on baby products. Such ‘social satire,’ he said, could change its meaning and restrict its usage among hate groups. ‘One of the hopes is that people look at the swastika flag in 10 years and think: baby wipes,’ he said.”