Towards a Native-Centered Anthropology


[Note: this is a draft essay I wrote in 2005 in preparation for the comprehensive exams at U. Oregon.]

The position or role of Native people in anthropology has always been an issue of contention. Many Native people, from all areas of Indian Country, and in the academy, believe that Native people should have nothing to do with anthropology and have no business being in such a field. This is a tough socially constructed theory that persists among rural and urban Natives, that anthropology is largely responsible for continuing the colonial and even imperial rule and control of the European and Ex-European powers over the indigenous peoples of the world. That it is anthropology, and its kindred sciences, sociology, political science, etc., that is responsible for not only continuing oppressive relations with Native peoples but for re-inscribing those worldviews onto colonized Native peoples (Smith 1999). We see examples of this when experiencing “Native” cultural events that are more intended for the entertainment of non-natives than intended for the continuation of Native culture.

Yet for a few others, the practice of anthropology holds “the greatest hope” (Deloria 1969) the key to understanding why Native peoples are the way they are, what has caused their current situation, what happened to their ancestors over the past 500+ years and how Native peoples are to survive this phenomenon. Those Native theorists that have taken steps towards this direction are rarely included as part of the ‘canon’ of anthropology. They have been written of as political activists, dissenters, critics, or have simply been ignored outright and labeled as “biased” writings by people too close to their own culture. Writings by these Native theorists have been “peripheralized” (Harrison 1997), thrust to the borders of the field.

However, the volume and frequency of such peripheralized writings has increased and is now becoming a subset of the field of anthropology. Such writings, which I call Decolonizing Anthropology, are already included in the fields of Native American Studies and Ethnic Studies but these writings have yet to make serious inroads into anthropology. The canon of Decolonizing Anthropology deserves recognition as a subgroup of anthropology as the writings have proven to be one of the greatest forces for change in the discipline.

Why is this the case, or is it? Has anthropology truly been impacted and changed by Decolonizing Anthropology writers? Perhaps the first impactful writer was Vine Deloria Jr. Deloria published a paper called Anthropologists and other friends, and in this paper he wrote from his Native perspective what he believed was the problem with anthropology. Deloria utilized his unique brand of Indian humor to present his case of how ridiculous was the field of anthropology. But Deloria represents the most popular of a growing body of academic decolonizers. These critical theorists ask a variety of questions of anthropology’s mainstream that serve to effectively change the discipline. It is perhaps Linda T. Smith in her book “Decolonizing Methodologies” (1997) who most effectively brings all of these myriad issues to effective and relative questions. Among these questions are; whose research is it? Who owns it? Whose interests does it serve? Who will benefit from it? Who has designed its questions and framed its scope? Who will carry it out? Who will write it up? How will its results be disseminated? As well, these questions are part of a larger set of judgments or criteria that a researcher cannot prepare for, such as: is her spirit clear? Does he have a good heart? What other baggage are they carrying? Are they useful to us? Can they fix up our generator? Can they actually do anything? (Smith 1999). These general critical questions are the beginning of many more specific questions regarding the social sciences. Among Native American theorists there are several writers that have specifically critiqued anthropology and have added a domestic back-yard context that lends increased critical vivacity.

Central to all indigenous critical analyses of anthropology is Vine Deloria Jr. As a scholar Deloria has affected all areas of Native American studies and his work has served as the jump off point for any comprehensive study of the critique of anthropology. Deloria’s pivotal essay on the topic “Anthropologists and other friends,” in Custer died for your Sins (Deloria 1969), and subsequent books God is Red (Deloria 1994), Red Earth White Lies (Deloria 1995), and “Anthros, Indians and Planetary Reality,” in Indians and Anthropologists (Biolsi and Zimmerman 1997), have laid the groundwork for every other scholar of these critical studies.

The issues Deloria has been responsible for are how he has highlighted practices and policies of anthropology. Through the use of humour, sarcasm and outright challenges, Deloria has served as the strategic general of the forces of indigenous criticism, coaxing anthropologists, coyote like, into learning to respect the perspectives of native peoples. In the nearly forty years since Deloria began his crusade, he has witnessed and led scores of anthropologists and other social researchers to seek out cooperative relationships with indigenous peoples. And, his work has been the backbone of generations of Native researchers who have carried on in his tradition (Deloria 1969, 1994, 1995).

However, Deloria has not seen fit to simply critique anthropology, but instead he has criticized some of the specific practices of anthropologists and of how scientific knowledge is gained in the discipline. From his first works, Deloria saw anthropology as having the ability to help Indians as well as impact their livelihoods. Deloria questions how anthropologists gain all types of benefits in their studies, make their careers, yet what they gain is not always returned in kind. He likens the practice of anthropology to an entrenched quasi-religion, where theory and practice have not changed since its beginnings (Deloria 1969, 1994, 1995, 1997).

Deloria’s primary call to action, and critique of the academy has been on the topic of empowering native people to conduct their own anthropological research. One of his first themes is that anthropology has a great potential to do good things for natives. However, the academy serves to protect itself from the entry of native people into its ranks. And, the non-native anthropologists continue to proceed in a biased way, promoting their own personal interests above the needs of the natives they are studying, which includes the useless creation of theory and piles of useless paperwork, and discussions, polemics about useless topics. Deloria’s solution is that native people should be doing this work, so that they can work for their own communities and so that anthropology can then do something useful and helpful. He believes that only people who have a stake in the outcome of their research can truly do the right research. A pragmatist and decidedly applied in his focus, Deloria disbelieves that natives will be too biased in researching their own cultures.

Another native scholar of importance is Tsianina Lomawaima for They called it Prairie Light (Lomawaima 1994), who tackled the Boarding school traditions and effectively analyzed the effect of the Boarding schools on native students and culture. In opposition to what the prevailing stereotype is of Indian boarding schools, Lomawaima posits that the harsh reality and conditions at the boarding schools (in her study Chilocco), did not destroy native culture or identity, but instead served to strengthen it. The native students banded together and protected their culture and identities by teaching one another aspects of their individual cultures and continued to defy authority by speaking their languages. The older students protected the younger students and passed on their culture to them. The effect the boarding school did have on culture and identity was to force the students to create pan-Indian identities. The pan-Indian identities were made up of different cultural elements from different native cultures. And, these identities became a sort of hyper-culture where their identities became larger than life. The situation was very much like urban ethnic gangs who become hyper-vigilant about protecting their heritage. Lomawaima also presents how information gleaned from student’s letters provide accurate descriptions of the environment of Chilocco. She compares the written accounts with first-person eye-witness accounts which she obtained by interviewing former students.

Linda Smith for Decolonizing Methodologies (Smith 1999)who effectively analyzed the impact of social research on indigenous societies. She wrote her book as if to other indigenous peoples, so that they might apply her suggestions to their work. Smith’s primary argument is that research on native peoples is colonized. Anthropology and all social sciences in their studies of indigenous peoples are colonial in that they are full of biased and stereotypical views about the “Other” and feed off of a primitivist discourse. That the original research designs are structured such that European culture is the modern and the norm and indigenous cultures and peoples are less then the norm. Western style research is a continuation of centuries of colonization, which seeks to continue to put natives in their place as subservient and primitive, and is a re-inscription of the power to define the world in their (European/Western) terms. This power to define the world is a continuation of the imperialist idea of controlling indigenous people and subjugating them to the will of the colonizers.

Smith calls for a decolonization of research. Decolonization is a process which engages imperialism and colonization at multiple levels. One attempt at this has been the post-colonial critique. However, post-colonialism is a theory, and the colonies continue for indigenous peoples in reality under heavy imperial and colonial controls. In effect the colonizers have not left, and remain in control, managing the resources of indigenous peoples and their lands for the benefit of the West. So post-colonialism is another re-inscription of colonialism, where academics seek to manage the appearance of colonization. The model for research in post-colonial studies is exploration, discovery, exploitation, and appropriation, the same model as for anthropology and for imperialism.

The main problem, (like Deloria) is that indigenous peoples are not allowed into the academy. And, indigenous intellectual traditions are not respected, and are considered primitive attempts to explain the world. One aspect of this is how people from the colonies, usually mixed indigenous peoples, have been socialized to believe the western models and are now agents of re-inscription of the model. People are not simply colonized physically, but mentally as well (also see Ngugi Wa Thiong’o). Through feminist critiques of the formation of his-tory, and indigenous attempts to tell their stories, a powerful decolonization sovereignty movement is forming. Part of this movement is the attempt to reclaim homelands and cultures, an movement that begins with the reinscription/restoration of indigenous oral traditions, and histories.

Smith uses the term “Empire writes back” to describe the process of decentralizing the knowledge base from Europe to indigenous centers. The writers can then appropriate the English language to their purposes and also they can then write in their own languages. The issues that will then be discussed are chosen by indigenous people and the Western disciplines are decentralized and are not then the norm. The tradition of writing back must include indigenous people because they are the only people who know what it means to be indigenous.

Gerald Vizenor, for Manifest Manners (Vizenor 1994), where he analyzes the socialized behaviors of whites and Indians. He also critiques the lessons and history we are taught, as social constructions whose aim is to create obedient and managed Native Americans. Vizenor identifies the underlying structures of modern society, modernism, that seek to control and dominate native peoples and cultures. The colonized socialized behaviors of native and non-native people toward the ideas and stereotypes of the “Indian” Vizenor coins “Manifest Manners.” All those who act in a stereotypical “Indian” way are exhibiting Manifest Manners. Vizenor also coins other words, the concepts of the “post-Indian” and “survivance.” He posits that people, and especially Natives, who work “for an active sense of presence,” and a “continuation of native stories,” are working toward survivance, or within that realm, and they are the post-Indians. Vizenor deconstructs the idea of the ‘Indian’ as the absence of the Native, and only an image of the tragic primitive, a simulation of the “Indian traditionalist, an ironic primitive with no cultural antecedent.”

Vizenor must literally create a complex vocabulary of new words in order to describe his theory. And this theory relies heavily on the inclusion of ‘colonized’ vocabularies, a literary act which other Native scholars criticize as academic jargon (see Churchhill 2003). But this is a necessary and intentional act as Vizenor is embodying the transformation to post-Indianism that he is writing about. He shows how the stories of Manifest Destiny are stories of the dominance of Europeans over Natives. Whereas, post-Indians are countering the stories of dominance by writing stories of survivance, where tribal consciousness is the simulation of what is real.

Vizenor also deconstructs the ways in which popular culture banks on images and stories of the dominance of tribes. Images of the stereotypical Indians, as primitive, savage, wise and drunken are salable images that attract the American public in the form of novels, movies and television. This process may only be reversed by Native artists (writers, directors, actors, etc) representing their own culture.

Bea Medicine, for Learning to Be an Anthropologist and Remaining Native (Medicine and Jacobs 2001), where she presents her life’s work as an applied anthropologist in service to her people.

Medicine writes:

“Native anthropologists can gain access to tribes and work closer with them than white anthropologists. Women natives have access to women’s societies and are limited in their access to men’s knowledge. Historic anthropologists (Boas) used natives and women to gather in formation so that they get the credit. However, native anthropologists have more moral obligations to the subjects they are studying and they may sometimes not be able to use the information they have gathered.”

Medicine questions the way anthropology has worked, where researchers come to her reservation and go away to write their reports. These reports are not always made available to the tribe. However, Native people are doing their own research and collected anthropological knowledge has become part of the general cultural knowledge. Although, many Natives do not look to ethnological reports as possessing any value and so they look to Native people to write their own histories. And contemporary native life should be a focus of studies, while the bulk of research is on the golden ages of the past.

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o is also one of the primary indigenous scholars to be critical of anthropology. His book, Decolonising the Mind (Ngugi 1986) deconstructs how scholars of Africa ignore the role of past and current imperialism in their analysis of the place and peoples. Native knowledge is ignored in favor of that from Europe and children are taught to read English while they speak an African language. The disconnect disempowers the native language and English is then required for any further educational advancement. This process (like Smith 1999) inscribes Europe as the center of the world’s knowledge where Ngugi writes, is the “location of the great mirror of imagination.”

Ngugi further criticizes the way African literature is written in English and French. By writing in these languages, the works add to the disciplines of English and French literature and to their knowledge bases. Ngugi criticizes calling these works “African” as true African Literature would be written in an African language.

He also writes that colonial individuals, peoples from native places but who have been colonized and socialized in a colonial environment, feel more comfortable in that colonial environment than in their native cultural environment. This is a social lie to the masses that is imposed by the colonial elite (similar again to Smith 1999). This is what Ngugi calls a colonized mind.

The scholars represented here are not the first to make their arguments, nor the last. In fact, indigenous people from many societies throughout the world have known of these issues for some time. The indigenous societies are thus truly the most important scholar not represented here. They made the call for their people to be educated, politically pushed the colonial authorities to allow access to resources, and provided the insight to and about all researchers everywhere who study them. They were the first to ask “what are you giving us in return for our help?” They are also the first to realize that to survive they must have their own people looking out for them.

The prevailing themes of this brief survey are; a recognition that the colonial system is not working for indigenous causes, colonialism will continue if the process of re-inscription of the values is allowed to continue, indigenous people must gain access to educational resources, indigenous people must then use and change the colonial systems from the inside out, and continued survival depends on the restoration of traditional indigenous value systems within indigenous societies. Overall this process has been

Biolsi, Thomas, and Larry J. Zimmerman

1997 Indians and anthropologists: Vine Deloria, Jr., and the critique of anthropology. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Deloria, Jr., Vine

1969 Custer Died For Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. New York: Macmillan.

1994 God is Red: a Native View of Religion. Golden, CO: Fulcrum.

1995 Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact. New York: Scribner.

Harrison, Faye V.

1997 Anthropology as an Agent of Transformation: Introductory Comments and Queries. In Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further toward an Anthropology for Liberation. F.V.E. Harrison, ed. Arlington, VA: Association of Black Anthropologists, American Anthropology Association.

Lomawaima, K. Tsianina

1994 They called it prairie light : the story of Chilocco Indian School. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Medicine, Beatrice, and Sue-Ellen Jacobs

2001 Learning to be an anthropologist and remaining “Native” : selected writings. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Ngugi, Wa Thiong’o

1986 Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai

1999 Decolonizing Methodologies : research and indigenous peoples. London; New York, Dunedin, N.Z: Zed Books, University of Otago Press.

Vizenor, Gerald Robert

1994 Manifest manners : postindian warriors of survivance. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press.




One thought on “Towards a Native-Centered Anthropology

  1. Very interesting. Obviously, white colonization of native anthropology historically has been very exploitive, in the collection of curios, artifacts, and eugenic-oriented, Smithsonian, skull collections. But native spirituality itself, such as articulated by Chief Joseph–“This country holds your father’s body. Never sell the bones of your father and your mother.”–holds such reverence for tradition that it would be a sin to even disturb the bones of one’s ancestors.

    Perhaps modern Native Americans (and I probably use that term at my peril) would tend to hold similar sentiments, and feel somewhat spiritually compromised working on an archeological site, disturbing the graves of ancestors.

    Whites, of course, not so much; and thus, the possibility and obvious historical reality of colonization.

    On the other hand, in the sentiment of fiction writer, Sherman Alexis, “Indians should be telling the story of Indians”–or something like that.

    But when it comes to anthropology, they could have a spiritual conflict.


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