Tag Archives: Indigenous Peoples

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.”

“Upriver” now available in German

Brown_Upriver-GermanUpriver is now out in a German edition published by Konstanz University Press.

Information on Stromaufwärts: Das bewegte Leben eines Amazonasvolks, translated by Laura Su Bischoff.

 

 

 

20 December 2015.  A review of the German edition appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 18 December.  (PDF copy here: faz_review_reduced.)  My German-speaking friends tell me that it’s a favorable review.  It contains a factual error, however:  Evaristo Nugkuag does not serve as a member of the Peruvian parliament; it’s Eduardo Nayap as stated in the book.

Pondering the Law of Unintended Consequences

Awajun_bible
Sample page from 1973 SIL translation of bible (mostly the New Testament) ,Yamajam Chicham Apu Jisukristu Pachisa Etsegbau,.

“Growing old ain’t for sissies” is an adage one hears a lot from the AARP set, a group to which everyone over 50 automatically belongs,   One unsettling aspect of working in a discipline for decades is that some truths once regarded as self-evident reveal themselves to have been misguided or false.  Depending on the situation, this reversal of fortune may be discouraging or uplifting.  But for anyone committed to reality-based understanding, unexpected outcomes can be of great interest.  They are also humbling.

An anthropological assumption that now looks less tenable than it did in the 1970s and -80s concerns the impact of evangelical missionary work on the indigenous peoples of Latin America.  Arguably the largest and most successful Protestant missionary organization of this period was the Wycliffe Bible Translators, whose sister organization, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (now SIL International), sent trained linguist-missionaries to scores of remote indigenous communities for the express purpose of creating an alphabet for previously unwritten languages, providing literacy training, and using this understanding of the local language to translate, print, and distribute bibles. WBT and SIL were once two faces of the same organization.  As far as one can tell from their websites, they now appear to have taken divergent paths, with SIL International focusing on language  documentation and preservation (although it continues to describe itself as “faith-based”), whereas Wycliffe retains its explicitly evangelical mission.

In the 1980s SIL was controversial for several reasons.  Critics felt that the imposition of Western, Christian ideologies on vulnerable indigenous peoples represented a form of cultural imperialism, which it surely was.  The U.S. origin of the SIL and the organization’s sophisticated infrastructure of radio communications and air transport in remote parts of the Amazon inevitably raised suspicions that it was a covert arm of US intelligence.  More broadly, aggressive proselytizing by a minority religion in overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Latin America was considered a threat to the region’s national cultures.  In these contexts SIL downplayed its link to WBT in ways that critics found deceptive. These factors led several Latin American nations to expel the SIL, although it continued its work in Peru by muting its religious commitments and providing invaluable services to a Ministry of Education grappling with the challenge of providing bilingual teaching materials to children in Peru’s jungle villages.

Two books helped to frame anthropologists’ overwhelmingly negative view of American missionary work in the Amazon: Søren Hvalkof and Peter Aaby’s Is God an American? (1982) and David Stoll’s Fishers of Men or Founders of Empire? (1983).  Both have a polemical tone in places, but they also provide detailed historical and ethnographic information on the impact of American evangelical missionaries on a diverse set of indigenous communities.  Neither book may have influenced popular opinion about American missionaries as much as the late Peter Matthiessen’s novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965), which was brought to the screen in 1991 by director Hector Babenco.

I shared some of those negative views when working with the Awajún in the 1970s and -80s despite my minimal contact with American missionaries in the field.  In the years since then, however, circumstances have made my prejudices look simplistic and in some cases misplaced.

For one thing, the work of the SIL brought literacy and bilingualism to the Awajún much earlier and faster than would have been the case had SIL not been there.  The Awajún have embraced literacy with great enthusiasm and today have one of the highest literacy rates of any Amazonian community in Peru.  Literacy in the Awajún language, which might not have been promoted by the Peruvian government if it had been in control of Awajún education in the early years, is now a significant factor in Awajún cultural survival and political mobilization.

A more subtle effect of Awajún contact with American missionaries is the sense of cultural separateness—the idea that the Awajún are technically Peruvians but have their own distinct identity and destiny.  I can’t prove that this was explicitly promoted by the SIL, but it seems like a probable result of long involvement with powerful outsiders who thought of themselves as distant from Peruvian national culture and values.

It’s true that evangelical missionary work had negative consequences as well.  For a time it promoted factionalism between traditionalists as well as converts to Roman Catholicism.  It caused many Awajún to abandon traditional rituals and related cultural expressions, including the search for visions by young people.  As I report in Upriver, this reflected a genuine desire of some Awajún to break out of the cycle of revenge killings with which the vision quest was strongly associated.  But in the years since those early missionary contacts, more sophisticated Awajún are starting to return to the visionary language and practices of their ancestors while focusing more on the constructive, life-affirming possibilities of ayahuasca visions. A few are even converting to the Baha’i faith on the grounds that it is more ecumenical than Christianity and therefore more open to the Awajún’s own cultural traditions.

Thoughtful Awajún intellectuals recognize the positive as well as the negative impact of the missionary work of Protestants and Roman Catholics in Awajún country.  They value the literacy and bilingualism promoted by both groups, as well as the global contacts that involvement with missionaries promoted. At the same time, they are critical of the paternalism of missionary organizations and their past reluctance to fight for Awajún civil rights and political self-determination.

Thomas Hobbes wrote that “science is the knowledge of consequences, and dependence of one fact upon another.”  In my case, growing recognition that things often turn out differently than expected, both in good ways and bad, has made me more wary of the sanctimony and moral certainty that pervades the discourse of cultural anthropology today.  My personal convictions remain firm.  What has changed with age is my certainty that “doing the right thing” (as understood at a particular moment of history) inevitably leads to the results for which one hoped.  What anthropology and other social sciences need today (Are you listening, economists?) is a large dose of humility tossed back with a chaser of ironic sensibility.  And we all need the willingness to revise our views in response to the lessons of history.

For additional information on the impact of evangelical missions on the Awajún written from the perspective of committed Christians, readers may want to track down a copy of Mildred Larson and Lois Dodds, Treasure in Clay Pots: An Amazon People on the Wheel of Change (1985) as well as scholarly papers by Robert J. Priest, including this one.  Sections of the Bible translated into Awajún can be found online in various locations, including here.


It’s worth noting that David Stoll followed up his book on SIL with Is Latin America Turning Protestant?, a work that revolutionized anthropological thinking about the direction and significance of Protestant conversion in Latin America.

Two reviews of “Upriver”

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The linguist Daniel Everett has just reviewed Upriver for the online and print versions of New Scientist.

Everett describes the book as “even-handed and insightful,” and “one of the best books I have read on Amazonian peoples in a long while”—written, he says, with “flair and clarity.”

This is high praise from a scholar whose own recent books, including Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes, and Language: The Cultural Tool have garnered both a wide popular readership and sparked one of the most interesting and fiercely fought debates in modern linguistic theory.  (A 2007 New Yorker profile of Everett and his research lays out many of the insights of his work in the Brazilian Amazon and why it has generated so much controversy among linguists.)

Everett correctly points out that Upriver concerns itself, among other things, with the question of what it means to be “civilized,” both historically and today.  Indeed, an irony central to the book is that the violence that was once so prevalent in Awajún society, and which lives on today in attitudes if not in actual practice, has arguably outfitted the Awajún people to withstand and sometimes prevail over the interventions of a developed world that smugly considers itself more advanced and “civilized” than the indigenous peoples it would happily steamroll into extinction.

As for the broader problem of civilization and violence, one is tempted to ask: How “civilized” is a United States that accepts as inevitable the firearms-related deaths of tens of thousands of people annually based on the pronouncement of a legal document written over two centuries ago at a time when the only firearms to which most people had access were black powder muskets?

There is one aspect of Everett’s review that merits correction, however. He states that [according to Brown] “more than half of all deaths of Awajún men are due to murder, while more than a third of deaths among Awajún women are suicide.”  These percentages should be reversed: the book notes (p. 214) that my small and largely retrospective sample of remembered deaths found that about a third of male deaths were reportedly due to homicide and slightly more than half of the deaths of adolescent and adult women were attributed to suicide.

The book presents those figures as rough percentages based on a total of 134 cause-of-death reports, a tiny sample by the standards of modern demography.  More important still, these data were recorded in 1977-78 and document deaths that stretch back in time to the 1940s. So they do not accurately reflect Awajún circumstances today.

More unsettling than the prevalence of homicide in the distant past, which has numerous parallels in other societies living in what Brian Ferguson and the late Neil Whitehead called the “tribal zone”—that is, the often chaotic interface between indigenous peoples’ heartlands and the expanding state frontier—is the suicide rate.  Suicide, especially among young women, remains a problem in Awajún country to this day, although there is reason for cautious optimism about its trajectory according to some reports.  (A recent UNESCO-sponsored study of suicide in Amazonian societies considers the Awajún case in some detail.  The report, published in Spanish, is downloadable here.)  As Everett notes, suicide threats and attempts are not uncommon in Amazonian societies where women have limited power to influence their husbands, although the Awajún seem to have developed this strategy to an exceptional degree.


The second review appears in the October 24, 2014, edition of the Times Literary Supplement, which unfortunately remains behind a pay-wall for the time being.  The reviewer is John Hemming, a prolific and distinguished historian of the Amazon.

Hemming judges Upriver to be “powerful, moving and entertaining,” an assessment that I’m happy to leave unchallenged.  There is one contextual problem that grates a little, though.  Hemming quotes me as claiming that a village in which I lived was “a breeding ground for sorcery, lechery, and drunkenness.”  In that passage I am not expressing my own opinion but that of a moralistic Awajún teacher who had converted to evangelical Protestantism (p. 135).  In Upriver I take great pains to communicate my admiration and affection for the Awajún among whom I lived even if, like the rest of us, they have their share of flaws.

Anyone who has had a book reviewed in the trade press, even by first-rate thinkers such as these, knows that there are often disconcerting problems of contextualization and emphasis.  Given the current state of publishing, I feel fortunate that Upriver and the ongoing story of the Awajún people are receiving attention in publications of this quality.