Monday, July 04, 2011

Apologies to Edmund Wilson

Edmund Wilson’s book, Apologies to the Iroquois, was published in 1960. I have just now read it for the first time, more than fifty years after it appeared. I find this interesting and have begun to wonder why I neglected to read it during the 60’s. I remember being aware of it at that time. I was in Graduate School studying anthropology, you might think it is something I would have been interested in reading, but I wasn’t. It is true it is not one of Wilson’s better books. I guess he was more or less dabbling in anthropology at the time. I know he was acquainted with William Fenton, the leading authority on the Iroquois at that time, and through Fenton, Wilson managed to gain access to some of the Iroquois rites. The book is a combination of facts about the then current situation of the Iroquois and some descriptions of Iroquois rites that were still being practiced, a sort of marriage of what we now think of as ‘Applied Anthropology” and Ethno-history.

So why did I not read this book during the 1960”s? Perhaps one reason was because of a kind of anthropological snobbery. Wilson was not an anthropologist and books about Indians written by non-anthropologists (laymen) were considered somewhat questionable. Probably another reason, perhaps reasonable enough, was my geographical interests at the time, in Northwest Coast Indians and the people of the New Guinea Highlands. I had very little interest in the Indians of the Northeast. But more importantly, I think, was the lack of interest in what was to later become known as Applied Anthropology.

During the 1960’, the immediate post-Sputnik era, there were rather generous funds available for all kind of research, including anthropology. For anthropologists, largely romantics, the ideal was to get a grant for some kind of research and try to find some relatively unstudied, preferably remote culture, and spend a year or more there doing whatever it was you claimed to be doing. We made fun of what we called “salvage ethnography,” that was regarded as out of date, and prided ourselves on doing “problem-oriented” research. It was widely known that you could not expect to get a grant merely to do an “ethnography,” you had to have some kind of theoretical problem or hypothesis that was at least in principle amendable to verification. Although I have no evidence or statistics to bear this out, I would venture to guess the results of this problem-oriented approach in the end rarely produced anything other than more ethnographic descriptions (salvage ethnography), but we pretended.

Oh, how we pretended! Having turned our noses up at the previous “mere ethnography” approach, anthropological theory was the rage. We very seriously argued about whether anthropology was a Science or a Humanity, and even more to the point, we argued vehemently whether it should be more sociological or psychological. Some, following the work and claims of A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, argued for Social Anthropology, whereas others, following the work of Bronislaw Malinowski, insisted on Cultural Anthropology. And within these camps were arguments about the place or legitimacy of psychology or Psychological Anthropology. Whatever side you were on you took it seriously, but looking back it was of course largely a form of intellectual masturbation. In spite of this the work done by anthropologists was important. On the one hand it made it possible to understand the awesome diversity of cultures and cultural and human behavior around the world, and on the other hand it raised the concept of culture to a level not previously acknowledged. The term “culture” originally was merely a synonym for “civilization,” but has now become used (or sometimes misused) for something like “ways of life.” Ways of Life may not seem terribly theoretical or other than basic ethnographic descriptions of the ways people are led to behave, but it has proven to be useful in understanding how it is different cultures influence behavior, and we now speak of the culture of poverty, hospital culture, prison culture, the culture of various corporations, and so on. Anthropologist are now employed to study how these different cultural systems operate and how they influence what happens within any given system.

Such studies are now said to be examples of Applied Anthropology. But returning to Wilson there is another lesson to be learned. Although I somewhat dislike mentioning it, anthropologists of the 1960’s for the most part, were not really interested in the current status or problems American Indians faced at that time, nor were they particularly interested in Applied Anthropology. It was only later, when the research monies began to dry up, and when untouched or unknown cultures became more and more scarce, that anthropologists began to study contemporary Indian cultures and problems, that is, using their skills in applied ways to actually helping solve the many current and serious problems American Indians faced.

I confess to having been guilty of this. When I did my first fieldwork with a Northwest Coast group I wanted to know what they had been like prior to and during their first contact with Whites, I had no interest whatsoever in their current plight. My interests were purely ethno-historical. I suppose had I noticed them actually starving I might have been concerned, but although poor they were not starving and I hardly noticed the problems they were facing, that were considerable. I dug out facts about their history, what their culture had been like previously, and basically recorded the truth as I could determine it. Serendipitously, this turned out to have a happy ending, for in spite of my disinterest in their current lives, my ethno-historical work was eventually used as part of the evidence to see them finally attain Reservation land and status, as well as a thriving Casino and related business ventures. I was thrilled to learn I had been useful in spite of myself.

I believe that had I read Apologies to the Iroquois in the 1960’s I would have been more sensitive to the current status of those indigenous people I subsequently worked with, less selfish in taking from them with so little return. I regret not having been more sensitive. I hope Edmund Wilson will be kind enough to accept my much belated apology to him, as well as to all those I previously studied.

1 comment:

George Held said...

Confession is good for the soul and for those who hear/read it.