The link above details a contentious plan to build a mall essentially on the east rim of the Grand Canyon on Navajo land. It does a nice job of providing a voice to all of the stakeholders: Navajo opposition, Navajo proponents, environmentalists, developers, National Park employees, and Euroamerican local residents. This is a complex issue involving indigenous sovereignty and our conceptualization of conservation. Is the point of the National Park System to make these protected places accessible to all or to preserve them against overuse by people? Do we value capitalism above environmentalism as a society? Do the wishes of local residents outweigh national conservation policy? Let me know what you think.
I tasked the students this week with describing their thoughts on whether Native Americans should be depicted as the original conservationists and whether that is a good or bad thing. I will offer an anthropological view of conservation biology theory, which states that conservation must be an intentional, altruistic act. As such, small scale societies that simply exist in a sustainable state do not count. This view asserts that all people, at all times and in all places, will overexploit and pollute their environment if given the opportunity. From an anthropological standpoint, there are two problems with this theory. First, it marginalizes small-scale societies. Because they are not “advanced” enough to destroy their environment, they are not altruistic enough to then feel bad about that destruction. Conservation is thus a hallmark of “civilization”. It has a bit of a unilineal evolution ring to it. It’s more complex than that, but it veers very close to that line. When Native Americans are involved, it has the potential to further the Noble Savage Myth and depiction of them as underdeveloped or uncivilized. Second, the theory removes agency from small-scale societies and does not consider their reproductive and demographic strategies. What if they consciously maintained lower population sizes as we see in a number of small scale societies either through birth spacing or taboos? Is that conservation? It gives agency to modern state-level societies and little to none to small-scale societies.
This post will be short because I (intentionally) gave the students a question–whether Sioui was right that Amerindian culture has influenced Euroamerican culture more than vice versa–that they were not quite equipped yet to answer it. As such, I do not want to give away things that will show up throughout the semester. Whether you agree with Sioui or not (or even think it is an oversimplification), his question requires thinking beyond the outwardly observable. It’s important to dive below the cultural surface. We definitely see Amerindian influences in modern American culture. The hippie and environmental movements definitely saw their ideas as being influenced by Native Americans, even though both involved over-generalized, stereotyped Native American ideologies (and sometimes wholly appropriated in the case of the former). Looking in the other direction, we see the impacts of boarding schools and reservations on Native American communities, societies, and cultures. Discussing which influenced more on this level is somewhat silly in the context of colonialism and resistance. To be interesting and meaningful we must explore deeper symbolic structures. Identity. Values. Ideology. How much did colonization change these things? How much of American ideology and identity uses/borrows/steals/appropriates Native American concepts? These are the questions that matter within an anthropological framework and that we’ll address throughout the semester.
This is the third time I have started ANT 358 by reading and discussing Georges Sioui’s For an Amerindian Autohistory. Each semester I teach the course, I go back and re-read his book and go to the notes/discussion guideline from the previous time I taught the course. As I was doing so last week, I noticed that each time I have found myself finding a deeper understanding of Sioui’s message and as a result agreeing more and more with him. The work is no doubt polemical, as Bruce Trigger notes in the forward and as Sioui himself I’m sure would agree, but the theoretical and resulting applied themes within the work are incredibly important to consider for any scholar studying any portion of the Native American experience, past or present.
There are still parts of Sioui’s argument I do not agree with. He creates a strawman of anthropology based on a 1950s version of the field. His broad brush approach to both Amerindian and Euroamerican cultures and values undermine his arguments. But, I would argue those are not the critical components to this work. The critical component is the constant underlying message that the Native American experience has been a critical component of the formation of American and Canadian societies, yet that has not been acknowledged. In fact, it has been actively and willfully ignored and suppressed at times. Sioui makes the argument that this process has been one of the most egregious crimes against Amerindians. This is because this biased history has been used in court cases and in legislation to oppress and repress Native Americans. This is clearly shown in Sioui’s ludicrous tale of being arrested for destruction of wildlife when making a sapling hut in a provincial park mere miles away from sections that were clear cut for industrial purposes. If Wendat history were taught accurately and effectively in Canadian schools, would this event have ever happened? This is a relatively small-scale example, but the same principles can easily be expanded to question larger policies and actions taken by private and government organizations. Examples include Greenpeace protesting Makah whaling, states attempting to tax Native American-owned businesses, and the U.S. procedure for a nation to become federally recognized. For Sioui, these are directly related to the telling of history. Education about Native Americans is woefully inadequate at all levels of education in America. The primary goal of this course is to try to remedy this with the hope that these students and those that they educate, formally and informally, use a more balanced telling of history when it comes time for them to make important decisions that affect other peoples’ lives.
Throughout the semester I will be posting my own thoughts about the course and the topics we are discussing. I will also provide links to particularly insightful posts by the students and hopefully engaging in blended online and classroom discussions with the students.