Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Writing Culture: The beauty of fieldnotes and the death of Edward Said

A fascinating read: Camping With the Sioux: Fieldwork Diary of Alice Cunningham Fletcher (1881)

Although they contain scant ethnographic information, Fletcher’s writings provide an important insight into the attitudes of many white scientists and administrators in the late nineteenth century with regard to what they termed "the Indian Question." As Native Americans faced the threat of white westward movement and land-hungry settlers, as well as brutal military aggression, many concerned Americans felt that the only way to "save" the Native American from extermination by civilization was to introduce them into American society – to "Americanize" the Native American. Many late nineteenth century Americans envisioned the movement of American civilization as the inevitable evolution of man’s mental and physical capacities. In contrast, Native American societies were considered to be primitive relics of man’s ancient past, and therefore in danger of extinction. Alice Fletcher subscribed to this theory, and although many of her comments may seem nothing short of absurd to our late-20th-century sensibilities, her writings reflect the attitudes regarding the movement of history and social evolution prevalent in her day.

Additionally, the text provides a rare glimpse of the trials early ethnographers faced. Like many of her contemporaries, Fletcher was untrained in ethnographic methods, and her notebooks chronicle her burgeoning understanding of the methodology of fieldwork. She also struggled to cope with the racial confrontations implicit in her ethnographic project. She recalled on the first leg of her trip to the Omaha reservation, "As we sat eating our dinner, Wajapa said, 'I believe all white men tell lies.' … I looked up as he spoke and found him looking at me with a seriousness and concentration of gaze that I can never forget. In it was memory, judgment based on hard fact. There was seemingly no appeal – two races confronted each other, and mine preeminently guilty."

I was trained during the era of anthropology that proclaimed as we write culture, we learn as much about ourselves as we do about others. But still bound by the rules of scientific inquiry, we do not publish our field-notes. They are carefully sifted through and selectively presented in ethnographic accounts, our original observations and interpretations hidden in old notebooks that no one ever reads. In all fairness, we protect these notes to ensure the confidentiality of our informants. And so it seems that it is only after an anthropologist - and her subjects - die that we may read these observations.

Personally, I think it's worth the wait. In fact, I've never read fieldnotes that didn't strike me as interesting. There is something about the rawness - a peculiar combination of vulnerability and certainty - that reveals the humanity of our studies and makes it difficult to separate subject from object. Good ethnographic accounts do that as well, making our field experiences present even if our notes are not.

And all this makes me think of Edward Said - far more than a Palestinian activist, Said was an absolutely brilliant scholar who illuminated the power relations inherent in Orientalist thought and challenged our perceptions of culture, us and other. He died last Thursday.

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