Final Reading Notes
Anthropological Activism/Shannon Speed
This article was a “must read” for any researcher but most especially the anthropologist. I have made copies to pass on but in particular for my daughter Carla who is doing her dissertation right now on the Indian Child Welfare Act and its psychological impact on indigenous children. Speed has discovered a universal law: people everywhere have a pressing need to be recognized and respected. They need to not be treated as a bug under a microscope. That being said, the very fine line that separates “us from them”… between researcher and researched… is alarmingly thin. Speed found out for herself how terribly important and prohibitive that line can be.
As Speed entered the anthropological arena in Chiapas armed to the teeth with her academic skills she had every reason to believe that she knew what she was doing and was prepared to do it. What she discovered however, was a lesson she could never have learned in a classroom. As anthropologists we view culture as always in flux, ever changing and of course in many ways that is so. What Speed was not prepared for was how the indigenous people saw their own culture: fixed, steady and continuous. To them it was a legacy that was unchanging and dependable in a world full of uncertainty. In short, they saw it as their very inheritance.
Many would argue that both depictions are correct. The indigenous people of Chiapas knew well that their land had once belonged to ancestors going back thousands of years and had been passed down from generation to generation right along with oral histories that helped make them who they are. That, in a nutshell, they embrace as the essence of their indigenous culture. While others may declare that language is the key to defining a culture, the people themselves know better. It is never so simple. How and why we identify with a particular culture may have nothing at all to do with language. Particularly in the case of indigenous people, the language may have been lost long ago or they may have been discouraged from learning or speaking it to facilitate assimilation into a dominant culture.
Whatever the reasons, Speed discovered that the indigenous people of Chiapas did not agree with her view of culture fluidity. She discovered that “Scientific objectivity was not only an impossible goal but also potentially something more insidious: a cover for the harmful political effects of our work on those whom we researched and wrote about.” (Speed, 2006, p.213-214) It is an ethical dilemma for all researchers to ponder. As the Hippocratic Oath states so succinctly, “First do no harm.” Perhaps that should also be our mantra as we enter fieldwork as anthropologists.
Speed’s work with the community of Nicolás Ruiz as they faced the International Labor Organization (ILO) led her to the realization that “activist research” and becoming “critically engaged” were not just empty phrases. They had depth and meaning that she had never considered previously. To my mind they are the essence of performing as an effective and ethical anthropologist. As Speed suggests, the two can be practiced in tandem and productively. As tensions develop between researchers and researched, Speed believes they can be “productive tensions that we might strive to benefit from analytically rather than seek to avoid.” (p. 215)
Nicolás Ruiz had a long standing history among the Tzeltal Indians dating to 1734 when the community was formed, to their indigenous ancestors who settled the land long before that. Although by the mid-twentieth century few markers remained to identify the inhabitants as “indigenous” they nevertheless were self-ascribed as such. Worried that learning the language would be a hindrance to their futures, grandparents and parents has ceased to make learning the language a top