White Anthro Nonsense, Episode 1: Dr. Sahlins’s Facebook Rant

Earlier this week, the HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory Facebook page posted a rant on behalf of Marshall Sahlins. It was annoyingly Euro-centric. It was colonial. And it was full of white-savior attitudes towards black and brown cultures, which apparently will die without white anthropologist “custodians” teaching outdated, flawed research about exotic others to white students.

(Oh, and the act of posting a personal rant via a wide-reaching publication’s social media platform was the quintessential embodiment of white privilege. HAU, let me know when you start posting rants on behalf of anthropology students of color and not just on behalf of white professors emeriti. I have just as much to rant about.)

Below, the text of Dr. Sahlin’s original “rant” is printed in black. My admittedly unrefined gut-reactions are printed in red.

Marshall Sahlins’ rant of the day: please comment!

Emeritus rant
Maybe I’m wrong. It happens. But,
Where Have All the Cultures Gone?

Well, that was a nice three lines or so.

“The cultures” haven’t “gone” anywhere, despite the way you and other white anthropologists talk about us black and brown people upon whose backs you’ve built your careers. We, actual members of these cultural groups are still alive, still kicking, and on top of that, we have Facebook and we are sometimes even anthropologists ourselves, even though the attitudes of white “possession” over us and our knowledge as informants rather than researchers makes our careers immeasurably more difficult than you can fathom. Further, there is a really interesting culture of whiteness in the discipline itself that it seems you aren’t aware of, though you are participating in it. It might be a culture worth observing.

What happened to Anthropology as the encompassing human science, the comparative study of the human condition? Why is a century of the first hand ethnography of cultural diversity now ignored in the training and work of anthropologists? Why are graduate students in the discipline ignorant of African segmentary lineages, New Guinea Highlands pig feasts, Naga head-hunting, the kula trade, matrilateral cross cousin marriage, Southeast Asian galactic polities, Fijian cannibalism, Plains Indian warfare, Amazonian animism, Inuit kinship relations, Polynesian mana, Ndembu social dramas, the installation of Shilluk kings or Swazi kings, Azande witchcraft, Kwakiutl potlatches, Australian Aboriginal section systems, Aztec human sacrifice, Siberian shamanism, Ojibwa ontology, the League of the Iroquois, the caste system of India, Inner Asian nomadism, the hau of the Maori gift, the religion of the Ifugao, etc. etc.

Why have you only listed things that black and brown people do? Is this what you mean by “cultural diversity,”—those people who aren’t white, and who definitely aren’t anthropologists? Why are we only ever the subjects of study, and what makes you think that the studies carried out, not with us but upon us, are even accurate reflections of the knowledge in these communities? Because from everything I know, anthropology has a pretty good record of getting it wrong, due in large part to the solipsistic perspective of its predominantly white male composition and early lack of reflexivity on how this position influences the content and the quality of the research on all those things you mention. It’s not only possible but probable that the first-hand ethnography you mentioned is flawed, and maybe it isn’t taught anymore because anthropology should be learning from its mistakes. Continue reading White Anthro Nonsense, Episode 1: Dr. Sahlins’s Facebook Rant

On Educating Well-Meaning White People

handmirror edit


“I give blood to white people”

I give blood.
Every day, to white people, I give blood. Red Blood.

Culturally anemic academics beseech me
to provision them with “my perspective,”
their mouths open like baby birds,
hungry for intellectual exchange
that will move them
from asleep,
to sleepwalking,
to woke.

“Please, please, please; How will I learn if you don’t teach me?”
They chirp.
Underneath that, I can hear:
“Cheap, cheap, cheap: is how much I value your ‘diversity’ work.”

Knowing better, I pull out a blade and slit my wrist for them.
Re-live my historical traumas,
re-justify my traditional knowledge,
re-legitimate my Indigenous existence,
repeat, repeat, repeat.
until I am bled out, emotionally dry.
I collapse.

Success is a sprint around a track.
I am on the ground at the starting line.
I cannot get up; I can’t run.
My head is cracked
on the starting block.

I give blood to white people.
They run.
I am anemic.
I never cross the finish line.
I am a failure of color.

My failure is added to the Other
failures of color
at the starting line.
Trampled on and left behind
by white success.

I did a thing and people liked it.

I was asked by a friend working at my university’s Center for Diversity and Inclusion to deliver a talk for the school’s annual event. I (wisely) settled on performing a slam poetry piece about Native Identity and inclusion in academia (and the world), enabling me to mask my usual nerves with the dramatic flair that this kind of a performance allows.

Not gonna lie, I was incredibly anxious about it for the weeks leading up to the event, and yet failed to write anything terribly coherent until the night before, which was ultimately only accomplished with the saintly patience and supportive feedback of a very close friend, who is also an Indigenous academic. Pressure=creativity!

After my performance, I had someone come up to me and tell me that they would love a copy of my poem, so, in the interest of not killing a million trees, I decided to finally publish a post to this blog. Though I really think that the printed word doesn’t do the piece justice, I am not enough of a narcissist to post a link to a video or anything, so here are the words I read in front of way too many people.

(Edit 3.17.16: People have been asking me where to find the video of my performance, and I discovered that it was removed from the original link I shared elsewhere. I managed to re-discover it, this time cut down to just my performance. I have embedded it here for simplicity’s sake, but you can also view it here, and click around to see the other great talks and performances from that day.)

My poem is titled, “I thought you were all extinct?”

About me.
Dear Ms. Martin,
The post you reported was found
to have violated Facebook Community Standards
against hate speech. Although,
it is worth noting that
we have historically pandered
to your oppressors.
It doesn’t matter someone called your family
“red-skinned bastards,
those fucking pussies should have tried harder.”
We only carry out those policies
regarding diversity,
which can be executed with incredible ease.
So please,
the next time that you feel the need,
to contact us,
remember that our policies
do not protect those who are Indigenous.

Make me.
the voice of my people!
Because I am eloquent and elegant-
ly light-skinned
unlike my ancestors of origin,
let us ignore the elephant
in the room.
All Native people are the same to you:
and unsurprisingly,
you surmise
that my words comprise
the collective opinion of the colonized
Peoples of this land.

Identify me.
Though I’m Tututni,
I can’t help but notice that you put me
in the box marked “Latina.”
No, then again,
that fair skin
and a weird tattoo on your chin?
You’re just an edgy white girl,
Oh, Native American? I guess that might be true.
So you
box me up and
tie a ribbon around who I am,
an exotic gift from far off lands
that you’re bringing home for your cousin.
The one who is “really into Native spirituality.”
Unfamiliar with the reality:
Our ceremonies were illegal once.

Quantify me.
Insist that you need to know
my blood quantum to decide
if I’m a “real Indian.”
Do you realize that you’ve implied
simply surviving
attempted genocide
isn’t good enough?
And while my family tree,
the pedigree you demand from me
as proof of my Indigeneity,
says I’m Maconoton and Sixes,
the lack of pigmentation in my skin apparently affixes
me to your “white but not quite right,”
conglomerations of vaguely ethnic girls you know.
I am watered down.
Diet Indian: all the majesty without the tragedy.

Remove me.
Remove me from my lands
sell them to mining corporations
whose potential for profit takes precedence
over sacred sites of Native nations.
Take presidents’ promises and executive orders
and argue about the threat to our borders
by illegal immigrants,
all while maintaining stories of white innocence,
of freedom from persecution
embedded in the constitution,
claiming they did not do
the very same in 1492.
Demand that I cry you a river
and then teach you to cross it.
Make me your guide so you can manifest your destiny
and afterwards,
strike the best of me
from your history textbooks.

Steal from me.
Wear feather headdresses to Coachella,
and plastic turquoise around your neck.
Sport bastardized basketry patterns
plastered on crop tops and G-strings.
Adorn yourself in stolen things.
And it breaks my heart to even think
about all the scared symbols inked
into non-Native skin.
Symbols which were ours
to begin with.
Dreamcatchers stamped
on lower backs,
Eagle feathers hastily slapped
onto white arms that can’t carry their meaning.
But all I hear is “It’s so pretty.”
Wear your hair in braids
and walk tall in
the moccasins you bought at Nordstrom.
Play Indian,
knowing that in the end
you can take it all off.

Sexualize me.
Decontextualize me
and my identity.
Mix and match me
like a Barbie doll.
Wampum from the coast and feathers from the plains,
what’s the matter, aren’t you all
the same?
Play Indian Princess on Halloween.
“We don’t do it to be Mean
Girls. I’m just dressing up for fun.”
But did you know that one
in three Native women will be victim
to her own John Smith?
(Whose true story you’re not familiar with.)
Looking for his Pocahottie
or Dream Catcher Cutie
or Indian Temptress.
Showing some skin
as a Sexy Medicine Woman,
performing her magic
clad in polyester and plastic.
A different kind of push-up needed.
So white men have no hesitation
in assaulting Native women on reservations.
These men can walk, law unheeded,
with the knowledge that
the Violence Against Women Act
does not, in fact,
apply to Indian Country.

Use me.
Use me as a sounding board
to validate your own identity,
the one you made up because you Wannabe
Invented stories
to cover for your inglori-
ous inadequacies.
“Oh, you’re Indian!?
Certify my legacy,
because that’s all you are to me:
An opportunity
to obtain authenticity.
Will you absorb my stories
and my fear
that I’m not special or unique?
Because my great-great-grandmother,
the way she speaks–
We’re one third Kiowa Royalty through
my second cousin’s boyfriend’s uncle-once-removed.
And while we’re on the topic, too,
do you know my Native friend?
She’s from Utah
and I’m pretty sure she’s never been
to Oregon.
But all Indians know each other.
Isn’t that true?”

Study me.
Enter the academy.
When we see you,
we don’t see
The Battle at Wounded Knee
or Leonard Peltier.
We don’t see mothers clutching
their babies in fear,
frozen in the snow
a mere century ago,
as your people are in history.
We see the need for you to engage
in proven methodologies.
There is no time for exploring Native epistemologies,
this is physical anthropology,
and no matter the degree
of your eventual apogee,
we won’t be delivering an apology
for the field’s contributions to racist ontogeny,
suffered by your ancestors, you, or your future progeny.
Our discipline
stands on the shoulders of those not saved by penicillin.
And while you study in McMillan,
you will not be sheltered from Facebook villains,
“Do you need another blanket?”

Acknowledge me.
One day when
I get my PhD,
it will be statistically significant.
P will equal less than .05.
Because P really is
something like
for Native students
who survive
graduate school.
This means that
in a sea
of 300 people,
who all had earned PhDs,
and there might be one who was Indigenous.
Our exclusion is statistically significant.

Challenge me.
The Eurocentric academic:
You do not challenge my research,
instead stating,
as if invalidating my findings,
“You don’t look like a Native American.”
Dare me to continue to exist in front of you.
Maybe if you argue hard enough,
I’ll stop being a Siletz woman.
The lines might fall right off my chin,
As if they really were forgotten Halloween makeup.
Do not say sorry.
Tell me that I cannot exist.
At least not looking like I do,
a reflection of racist mascots,
or the somber pictures in history books.
It’s true, no I do not look
like the kneeling girl on your box of butter.

Laugh at me.
Ask me about my Indian name,
and laugh openly in my face.
Laugh at my father’s name too.
And make me feel like I must laugh as well,
or else be
the “Savage Indian Woman,”
angry at a white man who could ruin
her career.
Laugh at me and make it known
to the other scientists at the table,
that I am laughable.
Why am I even here?

Break me.
Say these things and rip my heart
Giggle to yourself
when I try
to glue it back together
with blood and pitch from cedar trees.

Exclude me.

Tell me I can’t sit with you, even though I only wore my hair in a ponytail once this week
and I remembered that on Wednesdays that we wear pink,
but I’m beginning to realize you don’t really think
that my traditional tattoo is so fetch.
Rather, my beliefs are wretch-
ed and my practices make me a heathen.
Though my spirituality once was the reason
for my death and imprisonment,
today it’s alternative religion, new age treatment.
This angers me.
And yet you cannot see,
my resentment is not without cause.
Ceremonial rites of passage
were put on pause
to appease the white gods
who claimed
that our survival rested in English classes
and the denial of our “Indian names.”
Kill the Indian, Save the Man.
Move through the system, anthropologically,
no longer a barbaric savage but now a savage mind
who speaks in the kind
of language you can understand: Western Science.
Reliance on my people to help you biologically develop your theories of human evolutionary history.
But exclusion from research processes and potential cures
for the Historical Traumas that ail us.
Because, to be sure,
Native people are still trapped in the past.
Deny that what you mistake for discovery
is a recovery of Indigenous knowledge.

Include me.
Include me so you can check the box that says “Diversity,”
but remind me that the only reason
I made it to the University
is not because I’m worthy or intelligent or deserving,
but because your group gets twice as much funding if you have a Native Girl.

Make me.
Identify me.
Quantify me.
Remove me.
Steal from me.
Sexualize me.
Use me.
Study me.
Acknowledge me.
Challenge me.

Laugh at me.

Break me.

Exclude me.

Include me?

Erase me.
With your words.

Remember me.
You don’t even stop to think
what it truly means to say,
I thought you were all extinct?”