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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.

Ayahuasca update

Ayahuasca_prep
Ayahuasca being prepared with Psychotria viridis.  Source: Wikimedia Commons; Awkipuma, CC BY 3.0, 2010.

Time for contributing to his blog has been scarce in recent weeks.  This post simply catches up on some developments related to the growing use of ayahuasca and related entheogens for religious and therapeutic purposes in different parts of the world.

UDV in Santa Fe.  The União do Vegetal (UDV) Temple in Santa Fe, New Mexico, officially opened a few weeks ago after years of legal wrangling.  Its inauguration is documented by the Brazilian anthropologist Bia Labate in an article in the Huffington Post in late April.  In classic participant-observer fashion, Labate describes herself as “enjoying, alongside the members of the UDV, the pleasant taste of justice, freedom, and victory.”  A story not to be missed.

When ayahuasca lands on the pages of the Wall Street Journal, you know that something is going on.  The article, by Ryan Dube, includes obligatory references to ayahuasca sessions that have resulted in violence or psychological injury, but it generally avoids sensationalism.  As Dube notes, the explosive growth of centers oriented to international ayahuasca tourism in Peru’s jungle cities––Iquitos and Tarapoto most prominently––is both good for the local economy and a happy hunting ground for opportunistic shysters.  Even as I write, doctoral dissertations are being written about ayahuasca tourism and its effects.

Apropos of which, I recently corresponded with Miroslav Horák of Brno University, who has authored a report on a Tarapoto-based drug-treatment facility that uses ayahuasca as part of its treatment regimen.  The report, entitled The House of Song: Rehabilitation of Drug Addicts by the Traditional Indigenous Medicine of the Peruvian Amazon, is available for full-text download  (4.7 MB) from Horák’s Academia.edu page.


On a completely different note, don’t miss Indian Country Today‘s extensive coverage of a recent series of SAR public talks on the future of repatriation 25 years after the implementation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

UPDATE TO THE UPDATEI was contacted by Ricardo D’Aguiar, a freelance videographer and producer, about his documentary about ayahuasca therapy in Tarapoto.  Most definitely worth a look!

Here’s Ricardo’s description of the video and relevant links to view the trailer and the complete documentary:

The film presents the work of the research & treatment center Takiwasi based in the High Amazon region of Peru. Founded in 1986 by French, Japanese and Peruvian doctors, Takiwasi uses Traditional Amazonian Medicine combined with Western psychology to achieve a high success rate in the treatment of severe drug addiction, depression and other psychological ailments. Patients from around the globe as well as from the local community seek Takiwasi which also offers seminars for self-exploration and spiritual research. Takiwasi relies on a interdisciplinary, multinational staff of both western-trained professionals and traditional healers from around the region which is notorious for producing some of the greatest curanderos of the Amazon. The center has developed a unique approach of integration and articulation between Western science and traditional methods to produce a therapeutic protocol focused on long term, sustainable results for its patients.”

Trailer
https://vimeo.com/149336882

Full film
https://vimeo.com/146340483


ANOTHER UPDATE, 9/5/2016

Now in distribution: The World Ayahuasca Diaspora: Reinventions and Controversies.  Edited by Edited by Beatriz Caiuby Labate, Clancy Cavnar,  and Alex K. Gearin.  An excerpt from Glenn Shepard’s forward is available here.

ayahuasca_changeyourlife

The spectrum of cultural appropriation: Recent cases

Inuit_sweater_design
http://gizmodo.com/is-this-1-000-sweater-a-rip-off-of-a-sacred-inuit-desi-1744798184

 

Just when I’d begun to hope that egregious appropriation of indigenous cultural productions was beginning to decline, new cases are making headlines.  Nearly as troubling as the persistence of such acts of injustice is the viral spread of the “cultural appropriation” meme and its invocation in situations that flirt with triviality, a trend that risks undermining the term’s moral force.

In late November 2015, a UK fashion house was called out for selling very expensive sweaters that featured a design copied from a the parka of a long-dead Inuit shaman from Nunavut.  The shaman’s descendants complained, the story hit the media in the US, Canada, and elsewhere, and the company withdrew the product from sale after issuing a rather tepid apology.  Why a publicity-attuned corporation would think that their design theft would go unnoticed in a digitally interconnected world is anyone’s guess.

A more complicated case involves a group of Boy Scouts from southern Colorado who since 1950 have been performing Native dances that they identify as originating in the Hopi Tribe of Arizona, arguably one of the Indian nations that has most energetically defended its traditional religious knowledge and practices.  There is little question that the “Koshare Indian Dancers,” as the dance troupe is called, began as a romantic act of homage to Native Americans.  Over the years, the group has performed across the United States in highly publicized and celebrated events.  The director of the Hopi Office of Cultural Preservation, Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, has recently protested the performances, which Hopis regard as culturally insensitive because, among other things, the performers have no true understanding of the social and religious meaning of the dances.  Hopis are presumably offended because the dances—however unintentionally—threaten and implicitly show disrespect for Hopi religion by distorting traditional rituals and invoking spiritual powers about which the dancers are themselves completely ignorant.  Denunciations from other Pueblo communities are likely to follow.   (A recent article on the controversy, published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, includes a short video of the dances.)

Is the case of the Koshare Indian Dancers more or less troubling than the theft of an Inuit design by a commercial fashion house?  The latter was done solely for commercial gain, which doesn’t seem to be a factor for performers in the Boy Scout dance troupe.  In that sense, the Inuit case is a cruder form of theft.  The Boy Scouts apparently mean well, and they insist that their dance expresses appreciation for Native American culture.  But their dancing is perceived by Hopi people as hurtful and misguided rather than as admiring.  A case can be made that ongoing public performance of the dances constitutes a greater harm to the Hopi, who number around 20,000, than the sale of a handful of overpriced sweaters is to the more numerous Inuit people, although I don’t feel that I’m in a position to say whose hurt might be greater.

Then there’s the recent claim that teaching and practicing yoga by Americans, Canadians, and other people not native to South Asia is a form of cultural appropriation.  This made international headlines when a group at the University of Ottawa canceled a yoga course after concluding that teaching yoga in Canada was ethically fraught because the South Asian societies that developed it “have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy.”

Michelle Goldberg convincingly demolishes this argument in a piece in Slate.   She notes that Indian nationalists enthusiastically supported the introduction of yoga in the West to demonstrate the richness and sophistication of Indian culture.  The engagement of Indian advocates of yoga with Western audiences changed the discipline significantly.  The emerging, cosmopolitan version of yoga has become so identified with India, Goldberg reports, that in 2015 “Narendra Modi, India’s right-wing nationalist prime minister, succeeded in getting the United Nations to recognize International Yoga Day on June 21, which was celebrated with mass yoga demonstrations worldwide.”

The final stop of this tour of widely publicized recent allegations of appropriation is a protest by Oberlin College students who claimed that the apparently inauthentic or substandard ethnic food served in the college’s dining halls was not just unpalatable but represented a form of harmful cultural appropriation.   A Japanese student, among others, resented the poor-quality sushi served in Oberlin’s cafeteria.  She was quoted as saying, “When you’re cooking a country’s dish for other people, including ones who have never tried the original dish before, you’re also representing the meaning of the dish as well as its culture.  So if people not from that heritage take food, modify it and serve it as ‘authentic,’ it is appropriative.”

Most of the published comments that I’ve seen on the Oberlin tempest-on-a-sushi-tray are unsympathetic, even snarky, and justly so.  But the students’ denunciation is not just silly.  It is a classic case of misusing a moral claim in a way that degrades its meaning and power in much the same way that the casual, uncritical invocation of terms such as “racism” and “ethnocide” distorts their meaning and threatens their legitimacy.  When cultures collide, there is bound to be friction and boundary-infringement of many different kinds, some of which may be unjust and destructive, others of which are merely annoying.  Still others, of course, evoke delight and mutual appreciation.   For a multicultural society to survive and prosper, citizens need to learn to make critical distinctions and exercise judgment about what kind of injuries are worthy of complaint and which are best shrugged off as the price one pays for cultural difference—a price well worth paying.


Additional sources.

The IPinCH project at Simon Fraser University continues to lead the way toward sensible thinking on this topic.  Don’t miss their recently posted “final exam” on the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural borrowing.

The Santa Fe New Mexican has just published a comprehensive article by Khristaan D. Villela on the circumstances surrounding the 2015 publication of a book documenting Acoma Pueblo’s origin myth by Penguin/Random House, the sale of which is being vigorously contested by Acoma’s traditional authorities.

For aggregated links to other stories  related to cultural appropriation between 2003 and 2014, see the Who Owns Native Culture? website, updating of which was suspended in mid-2014.

An Awajún funeral, 1977

man-sitting
Man sitting on platform bed, Alto Río Mayo, Peru, 1978. Photo by Michael F. Brown

The following excerpt from Upriver brings together several of the book’s key themes and narrative strategies:  (1) close-in description of an emotionally charged event; (2) my attempt to unpack the complex interweaving of grief, loyalty, rage, and suspicion that characterized many important events; and (3) the difficulty of separating any one of these events from the history that preceded it, including previous deaths that were either overt revenge homicides or illness-related deaths thought to be caused by hidden sorcerers.

One thing worth noting is that the emotional tone of this funeral for an adult contrasted markedly with funerals for infants.  Infant mortality was so common that only the dead child’s parents seemed strongly affected by it.  –MFB


 [Abridged from pp. 146-150 of Upriver.]

Even a hundred yards short of the settlement the sounds of grief were unmistakable: the keening of dozens of women punctuated by shouts and wailing from men. The tumult failed to convey fully the intense anguish visible in and around the dead man’s house. Adults and children milled about outside, some peering inside through gaps in the palm-wood slats. Inside the house, which was divided in half by a partition, fifteen people paced back and forth, the women weeping or screaming, the men talking in loud voices about their sadness and their willingness to avenge the death if it was shown to be the result of sorcery.

The body lay on a sleeping platform in the second room, covered by rags and scraps of blankets. Only the lifeless face was visible, flanked by two burning candles. A copy of the Awajún translation of the New Testament, open to one of the color illustrations, rested on the blankets. Mourning women surrounded the body. One climbed on the platform and kissed Héctor’s face, keening in a high-pitched wail. Men walked in from the adjacent room and shouted, as if to the dead man.  Approaching the door, we saw a sudden scramble as a female mourner tried to run outside. “She wants to kill herself!” someone shouted. A man grabbed the woman by the hair before she could slip away. She kicked, struggled, and screamed frantically. The most stricken women, including the dead man’s widow and sister, were shadowed by male guardians. Once or twice these women made sudden dashes toward the edge of the settlement, but they were dragged back before they could harm themselves. The suicidal behavior was more than ritual drama: family histories included many cases of women who had committed suicide in the throes of extreme grief.

Outside, visitors continued to arrive from other communities. Mishít, alone with Héctor’s body, fanned his face while moaning, “My little brother, my little brother.” Late in the morning there was a flurry of activity around another house in response to a rumor that Héctor’s widow had tried to hang herself there. This proved untrue. A more credible story was that a grieving relative had attacked her for failing to take care of him properly. Others intervened to stop the assault, including a pregnant woman who took a blow to the stomach.

The dead man’s relatives debated how to bury him. In the past, adults were often interred in their houses, which were then abandoned and allowed to collapse on top of the grave. It was said that the corpse of a kakájam, a senior man whose success as a killer identified him as a vision-bearer, was left seated upright on his wooden stool, lashed to a house post. Young vision-seekers who could overcome their fear of the dead and endure the stench of a rotting corpse would spend a watchful night in the house in expectation that the deceased’s vision might pass to them. Resettlement in tightly clustered villages made such customs impractical.  In the absence of other options, Úwek, the dead man’s uncle, recruited some youths to help him carve a rough coffin from a trunk of balsa wood. Where it would finally rest was a matter to be resolved later.

Within a day, information about Héctor’s medical history trickled into Alto Naranjillo. Some stories described the death as a sudden, catastrophic affair. A more informed version came from a bilingual paramedic, the only indigenous health care worker in the region. She had treated Héctor for chronic dysentery for months. He recovered from a previous acute episode but was showing signs of malnutrition. When the second attack came, she sent an emergency request to the Rioja hospital for medicine to control Héctor’s vomiting. What arrived instead was two ampules of a pharmaceutical used to treat rheumatism.

Héctor’s death was tailor-made for accusations of sorcery, but his status as an innocent victim was complicated by the recent murder of the accused teenage sorcerer from the Río Potro. Héctor, too, had been named as an accomplice to the alleged sorcerer, which made him a target. He managed to elude a posse of would-be killers after being tipped off by relatives that an assassination plot was afoot. When the other accused sorcery culprit was murdered a day or two later, interest in killing Héctor seemed to have waned . . . .

The convoluted stories associated with Héctor’s final months defied efforts to make sense of his death. Was he killed by a sorcerer from the Río Potro region, perhaps to avenge the death of the young man who had been murdered earlier that year? Or was the sorcery a local matter engineered by one of the men involved in the failed attempt to assassinate him? There were wheels within wheels of grief, mistrust, divided loyalties, and simmering grudges. They overwhelmed people’s capacity to assign blame or settle on a compelling explanation. In the end, perhaps the maze of conflicting narratives was more consoling than a banal fact: that the immediate cause of Héctor’s death was a pharmacist’s clerical error.