Friday, January 15, 2016

What are you going to name yourself?

After getting massively excited on the Library reserve system - they can get things for you so you don't wander lonely as a crazed dyslexic trying to figure out the numbering system and alphabet ending in tears - I carted home my 29 on hold books.  A couple of the books were about archeology on Turtle Island.  Last night I started reading "Ontario Prehistory: An Eleven Thousand Year Archaeological Outline" by James V Wright published by the Museum of Man in 1977.  As I have written here before about how our family really enjoys watching the television program "Time Team" where the archeologists work together to explore a particular area.  I particularly enjoy the episodes where they find things from the pre-Roman periods.  I really like learning about the religious and cultural practices of these periods.  Did you know that there is one area where everyone was buried with exceptionally nice buckets?  The connections to ancestors in these societies and their understandings of our relatedness and the fibers of time, brought me to a place of confluence with the metis/indigenous ideas on these things.  So these books were choosen to further my knowledge in this area. 

In addition, over the holidays I read an article called "Beyond Racism: Some Opinions about Racialism and American Archaeology" which brought a whole other set of questions to light for me.
The article describes itself as wanting to engage in a dialogue about racialism in modern archeology.  It is positioned as a blend of narrative text and dialogue quoted from a on-line group the two authors participate in.  They raise the issue that while the idea of race is now known not to biologically supportable, there is a continued support for racialism and the related mental constructs that harm the search for a more unbiased understanding of how the past shapes our current realities.   Racialism, is described as a belief in and acceptance of race and racial groupings.  So that the ideas of "American Indian" or Indian Studies would be racialist. They note that while these groupings are commonly used, once they are used to rank or segregate people then there is a move into racism. However, racialism is pretty wide spread, but racism is generally bad, so there is tension inherent in the very production of the categories.  Categories that are intended to help those in a particular group may themselves be a precursor to racism and the dehumanization of those included in the grouping, undermining the very good that is being attempted.

The authors note that this tension shows up in cases like the Kennewick Man or debates about whether Indians were here first or if it was some other group and if it was another group then does this pardon the colonization? Europeans only treated the Indians like the Indians treated the ones before them - that just good Darwinian sense right? So that rather than a robust conversation on  the lingering effects of colonization, indigenous groups are drawn into a defensive posture to uphold some unchanging status quo.  We have always been just this way.  It leaves Indians/ness to be  affirmed by the colonizers gaze - essentialized like we are stuck in an Edward Curtis picture.  This construct, they argue, eliminates space to address the ongoing effects of our particular history and hinders the process of re-imagination in the modern (often urban) context.

They then come back to the issue of archaeology in the Turtle Island context, which they argue is colonial in its roots, starting with Thomas Jefferson exploring burial mounds on his property.  The authors explore how this early work led to the construction of a difference between the post contact indigenous peoples and these earlier "modernized" peoples (they could build mounds).  These earlier peoples were hypothesized to be "white" given the sophistication of their culture and the authors argue that this white washing was used to support a prior white ownership to the land which ultimately came to be expressed through the rhetoric of Manifest Destiny.

In the later parts of the paper, they explore the sore point of their discussion.  They see the potential that the articulation of a Pan-Indian identity and the social action that came out of it are a risk as they propagate an acceptance of racialism and walk a fine line with racism.  They encapsulate this conversation with the following, "Writing about "the history of Indians" seems qualitatively very different from preparing scholarship on the "history of adherents to racial Indianhood."  The later of which strikes me as being the solution aimed for within the Métis community.  It is the life that matters, not if you look/name yourself a certain way.  The solution they propose, beyond lots of dialogue of course, is that we should work to deracialize academic study.  For example focusing on considerations of historical process rather than racial definition as the basis for assigning identity. 

I personally like this option to focus on historical experience and the remaining impacts of these experiences as a source of identity and shared support.  I have a friend who was born in Africa and I am continually surprised by the similarities of experience of growing up in colonized societies and living with the lingering impacts.  I think this whole questions comes back to the richness of experience when we can focus beyond the specifics of the situation we are in and work/share together.  We are better together and the language we use to describe ourselves can bring us closer to or farther away from others.  I don't have the academic background to critique this piece or to see all the sub-text it contains, but I do think it raises some interesting questions which I am going to carry with me as I read about the archeology on Turtle Island.

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