29 September 2011
Post 431: Grave Matters
I am such a white person. I really, really am. The older I get, the more white I realize I am, and by that I mean I am fairly privileged in the sense that no one judges me as being "less than" or an "exception" based on my skin color. Other visual criteria, sure, but nothing so basic and less physically important as my skin color.
This condition of whiteness became more important when I decided to become a history major. Not only because my senior project focused on the topic of whiteness,* but because the field as a whole has some, er, issues regarding who has written history in the past and how they have written it. Anthropology has of course gone through and perpetrated some of the same issues aaaannnndddd they have the added onus of desecrating graves and/or profiting professionally from the desecration of graves. I will admit, before attending to Antioch College, I never could quite understand why Native Americans didn't want to share their history and culture by allowing anthropologists to study and publish about their culture, but the more I was exposed to the concept of white privilege and what that actually meant, the more I was taught, came to learn, and accepted that my previously held belief was from a position of power. Whereas I and my ancestors have and had the authority to allow people to exhume bodies** for research purposes, etc., Native Americans have not traditionally had this privilege, and even today there are people who look for burial items as a hobby.
Some of this stems from objectification of items sacred to another culture. By disturbing these items, we (white people) also remove their inherent sacredness. We treat them as mere artifacts, rather than the precious and wonderful things they are. The fact that we also do this to Native American remains, having actually displayed them in publicly funded museums until about the 1990s, does not say much for white people as a race, especially one that seems to think of itself as "superior."
Of course, part of the problem is that many of us consider Native Americans extinct as a people. We're all aware that there are Native Americans on reservations, but we also have it in our heads that they're all going to die of alcoholism and diabetes in the next 20 years, so why should they care of we dig up their grandmothers and grandfathers? Which ... oh man, I cannot tell you how wrong that justification and those assumptions are. And I learned exactly how wrong that line of thinking is in a very uncomfortable and personal experience.
During my first summer term at Antioch, I decided to take a memoir class. One of the books we were required to read was Banana Rose by Natalie Goldberg, who was gracious enough to visit the campus and speak with our class as a favor to the professor. She was confronted by a couple of my classmates, among them a Native American woman, about the following scene where Banana Rose finds a turquoise bead in an anthill,
"The ancient people had given something to me. I wanted to show Gaugin. Leaping over a dirt mound, both legs spread in the air like scissors, I swallowed it. It wasn't big enough to feel go down, but I knew it. I stopped dead. The last of the American Indians, and I had been stupid enough to swallow it. I took a deep breath and walked steadily back to camp, half angry, half foolish, and another half wild--I had ancient turquoise inside me." ***
The problem wasn't that the bead was found, although there might have been some discussion as to whether the bead belonged to Banana Rose as she seems to think it did, but with the phrase, "The last of the American Indians". At the time, I was upset with this incident. I thought it was rude to so angrily and harshly confront someone who traveled all the way from New Mexico to speak with us, but in retrospect, those students were speaking for a group of people who didn't have a voice in the past, and who no longer have the luxury of being nice and polite if they want their needs met and their rights respected.
The last reason for my change of heart regarding this type of anthropology and display of cultural artifacts and even history, is that without cultural context we can never really get a full picture of what people were like. What good does it do to dig up these items if the people they belonged to feel so violated that they have no desire to share any of their cultural heritage with us? By taking these items, we prove ourselves unworthy of learning anything about them and we also make assumptions based on previous, and patronizingly wrong-headed, research and opinion. That research may still be valuable, but the context of the sensibilities of the time also need to be taken into account and ought to be reevaluated, preferably with the help of those more knowledgeable about the culture... like those native to it.
My review can be found on Goodreads.
LibsNote: Review copy provided by Netgalley.
*For those interested, the project was called Die Volksamerikaner: Perceptions of German Immigrants to America during the Civil War, WWI, and WWII. I can recommend reading material on request.
**Or at least the recognition that this was a punishable offense and scandalously wrong.
***Quote found via Google Books.