Saturday, September 25, 2010

Indigenous Anthropology

Some of my indigenous friends might consider the phrase "indigenous anthropology" to be an oxymoron. Indigenous peoples have been the subject of anthropological research for so long that anthropology is seen (and if truth be told, it is) a colonial enterprise. And colonialism has not been kind to indigenous peoples all over the world, so there has been a backlash against anthropology by indigenous peoples.

However, there are some indigenous peoples that are using anthropological methods to benefit their communities. Some, like me, grew up outside our communities, so anthropological methods have become a way to understand more about our cultures and to connect with our communities and reclaim our identities. That's how it is for me. My work is intensely personal.

In recent weeks, I have been asked to audio-record myself reading a chapter I wrote on teasing cousin songs among the King Island Inupiat Eskimo and to be interviewed by a documentary filmmaker researching Kotzebue's "Lost Dances", including the Wolf Dance.

These have been interesting exercises because I ended up revisiting my master's degree research from 17-19 years ago and my Ph.D. Research from 11-13 years ago. (gosh, has it really been that long ago? I don't feel that old!) As I tell my grad students, choose a subject that you are passionate about because you have to live with it a long time.

I found out doing the audio recording and the filmin that I still really enjoy these topics so I think that means that I need to revisit them professionally. Fortunately, my book proposal was accepted at OSU Press, so this year, I will be rewriting articles on teasing cousin songs and on the Wolf Dance.

I recorded myself reading the article and pronouncing the teasing cousin songs. The recording was requested by professors at University of Alaska Anchorage who were using that article in a freshman composition class. I found out later that about 10 or 11 sections of this class were using it, which means that upwards of 200 students were listening to it. I thought maybe 15 or 20. That was a bit overwhelming. They wanted to post the recording on a public blog for the class but I declined; I do not know the language well, so I feel lie my elders should do the more public recording.

And today, I just finished a three hour interview with the filmmaker. It took a while to find a spot that was quiet and had good light, which in the end, was my office. Boy, it was intense, but in a good way. It meant focusing on my words, making sure my information was correct, paying attention to where I looked and making sure I didn't rustle and mess up the sound for the mic. It was intense because it brought up all these feelings about why I got into anthropology to begin with -which means I cried because my work is so tied to how I feel about who I am in relation to the King Island community and how strongly I feel about trying to document, save, and find scattered bits of information about our culture before it becomes "lost". I want our community to be proud of the accomplishments of our ancestors and of who we are today (playing on Facebook, staying in touch via the Internet, etc.). My dissertation research on the King Island Wolf Dance was really a process of pulling together hints of information that I found in archives, in ethnographic literature, in museums, in schoolteachers' diaries, in photographs, drawings, and film. Anthrology gave me the skills to find it; my passion for the information causes me to be observant of the many places I can find it; and my desire to help the community document our history and culture helped me to pull it all together to tell a fuller story than our communities might get otherwise.

All of that came rushing back because the filmmaker, Norman Jayo and community member, D'Anne Hamilton, are helping the youth in Kotzebue to do the same thing that I have done. It brought up many emotions about why I do what I do. So the session was emotionally intense today, but good.

I am tired.

I have been conflicted of late about being in academia, primarily because of the energy and time demands required of a professor. Cancer treatments do take away your energy. So I don't know if I can put the same amount of time into the job as my colleagues. I also want to be very strategic about what I do -your priorities shift with a life-threatening illness. I would rather hang out with my son or my family when I feel good rather than waste my precious time in some silly committee meeting that win't make a difference anyway. It really means making sure that I use my time doing things that have the most impact, both for me personally (my research) and for indigenous peoples generally. Undergraduate advising doesn't have the same impact as my spending several hours today with filmmakers talking about the Wolf Dance, because that film will help those kids who made the film. My audio recording for a composition class, introducing those students to how another culture composes something, has more impact.

So, I need to figure out ways to invest my time wisely at work. And what I want to do is outside the norm for most professors and people aren't quite sure how to make that work for me. But we are starting the conversation soon . . . And if all goes well, I won't be as conflicted about my job any longer.

So thank you, UAA English profs, and thank you, Norman and D'Anne, for reminding me of what is important to me and giving me the opportunity to make a difference!


Gail said...

Dr. Kingston--I really enjoyed reading this, and think you are an inspiration. Thanks for finding and recording our lost histories. I remember seeing my first Native dance when I moved to anchorage for school in 1972. I think it was the King Island Dancers. I felt very conflicted because we had it ingrained in us by well-meaning but mistaken missionaries that our traditional dancers were not good. Since then, I have to say I love watching our men (and women) dance, and will learn to do the same someday. Thanks for sharing.

Dee said...

Thank you, Gail! I wrote the post, in a way, as part of a larger conversation I am having at work, about how I can best use my time. It wasn't so much to toot my own horn, but rather to explain why I am I went into this field. So thank you!