Voices of a Thousand People: The Makah Cultural Research Center
November 4, 2013
Review By Michael Marker
THE MAKAH TRIBE at Neah Bay, Washington State, has become one of the most visible and controversial Indigenous communities in North America due to the media gaze on their efforts to revive traditional whaling in a modern/postmodern context. This book presents information about Makah culture and history while examining the challenges and ironies that occur when an Indigenous group utilizes a contested colonial institution (the museum) for goals related to identity and self-determination. Patricia Pierce Erikson, an anthropologist, wrote this text in collaboration with tribal members Helma Ward and Kirk Wachendorf. She leads the reader through a critical discussion of anthropology and museums, including Boas’s and colonialisms effects on Aboriginal communities. She tells the story of the phenomenal Ozette village excavation, which brought world attention to the Makah in 1971. Tribal youths and elders worked with archeologists to retrieve thousands of objects preserved when a village was covered up 500 years ago. This project, in essence, marks the beginning of the Makah Cultural and Research Center. She ends the book with a brief description of the explosive political climate in the midst of the 1997 whale hunt as an epilogue to a broader discourse on “Indigenizing the museum.”
The book’s five chapters are divided into two halves: Part 1 is a survey of anthropology’s collusion with museums and the confinement of Indigenous identity; Part 2 begins with the Ozette discovery and reviews the decisions and events leading to the creation of the Makah Cultural and Research Center. While the book has some important things to say about the uneasy tensions between Indigenous people and academics regarding the ways that artefacts are displayed, analyzed, and sometimes repatriated, there are gaps in the conversation. In particular, there are methodological questions that are distincdy not answered by simply having two tribal members “collaborate” on the writing. With a subheading in Chapter 1 reading “Why Should I Tell You Anything?” Patricia Pierce Erikson explores, but does not answer, the question of why Aboriginal people might be inclined to talk to an ethnographer. She does NOT entertain questions that Indigenous people are often too polite to voice to outsiders: “Why are you here? What do you want? Why dont you ask questions about your own village, language, and culture instead of coming here?” Another subheading asks “Who Are Anthropologists Writing For?” Again, the response from the author, while acknowledging that “there are unequal power relationships at the heart of the plagiarism critique” (64), is unclear with regard to how “we go beyond textual solutions” and “address the institutional contexts in which anthropology is produced and reproduced” (65). Interestingly enough, the answers to her questions can be found in the voices of the elders whom she quotes: “People have asked me why I want to pass on my culture to my children. And I say to them, ‘you have a culture, don’t you want to pass yours on to them?,” (113). The point is that, while anthropologists are usually only interested in the details of Indigenous traditions and artefacts, Aboriginal people are willing to have a broader conversation that frequently asks anthropologists to account for their own cultural values and choices.
Anthropologists and Indigenous scholars tend to see a book like this in completely different ways. The complaints from Indigenous people often center on the motives and conduct of ethnographers. Compare, for example, Brian Thorn’s review of Crisca Bierwert’s Brushed by Cedar, Living by the River (American Anthropologist 101, 2 , 376-7) to Jo-ann Archibald’s review of the same book in a previous volume (124 [1999/2000], 110-1) of this same journal. While anthropologists like Thom have praised Brushed by Cedar, assessing it as groundbreaking and respectful, Archibald, a Sto:lo scholar, sees it as careless and disrespectful. She notes the book’s emphasis on aboriginal family disfunction and poverty along with irresponsible displays of personal knowledge and private community matters. She is disappointed to see such a book touted as representing the future of anthropology.
Patricia Pierce Erikson’s Voices of a Thousand People leaves us wondering about the future of museums. The topic of personal and private knowledge gets scant attention in her book. Peter Whitely, in American Anthropologist (105, 4, 2003: 712-22), has discussed how human rights and multiculturalist discourses corrode the protection of Indigenous knowledge. His point is that Native ways of engaging with the world are often so different from what is represented in colonial cognitive maps and discourses that almost all contact with outside forces and pressures are inherently dislocating and destructive to Aboriginal community knowledge. The fact that the Makah nation controls the Makah Cultural and Research Center can certainly lead to an interesting and new way of dealing with artefacts and space, but this book fails to show us how this museum will be substantively different from mainstream museums during this era of political correctness regarding things Aboriginal. What will a Vancouver or Seattle suburban family come away with after driving five or six hours to reach the Makah Cultural and Research Center? Will they discover that their own families’ historical trajectory of privilege and power is implicated in the marginalization of Native peoples? I admit that I am uncomfortable in museums. And this has little to do with the actual displays. I am usually uneasy because of the people absent-mindedly wandering around me. I see them enter into an uncritical imaginary about the Indigenous Other as a mode of entertainment. I see too much of what Renato Rosaldo has called “imperialist nostalgia,” a naive affection for a way of life that the colonizer’s way of life destroyed. The problem with museums is profoundly parallel to anthropology’s failure to move beyond a fixation on the cultural Other without provoking a critical examination of the cultural self. If museums, tribally controlled or not, cannot induce this moment of cultural critique in an audience, then they simply continue the legacy of colonialism’s commodification of Indigenous knowledge. Museums must cease to be telescopes into a remote past and become wide-angle mirrors into the present. And, like the wide-angle mirrors with which we are familiar, they ought to include the words, “objects may be closer than they appear.”