Activist Realignments in the History of Anthropology: The Association of Senior Anthropologists’Panels at “Raising our Voices”

Grant Arndt

When the Covid-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, an online event titled “Raising our Voices” was offered as a substitute.

I had organized a history of anthropology-themed panel for the cancelled meeting, but along with my fellow panelists, elected to put it on hold as we all prepared for the transition of service and teaching to online platforms. I was therefore delighted when the Association of Senior Anthropologists announced that they had organized two panels for “Raising our Voices.” It was clear from the panel abstracts that the ASA sought to bring an historical dimension to the activist theme implied by the title of the new event, emphasizing the continuity of activism throughout the history of the discipline.

One of the panels, “Representing the History of American Anthropology,” mounted a defense of the founding generations of American anthropologists, seeking to recover their overlooked or misunderstood activist contributions. The second, “Voices of Experience,” documented the social justice commitments of some of today’s senior anthropologists. I took both panels’ approach to activism as a response to historical accounts of “the enduring ways in which the ‘objects’ of ethnographic inquiry have long been engaging, salvaging, adopting, and enchanting anthropology on their own terms” (to quote Nick Barron’s report from the AAA last year, “Who’s Zooming Who?”). As such, I’ve come to understand them as part of a positive movement toward a better understanding of anthropology’s ongoing history of activist engagements, one that transcends the entrenched polemics of critique and defense in which anthropology’s historical self-consciousness sometimes seems trapped.

“Representing the History of American Anthropology” included papers by four scholars known for their work on the topic. Herb Lewis, a key figure in the defense of anthropology in general and Franz Boas in particular for over two decades, focused on debunking the idea that past anthropologists trapped their interlocutors in the “savage slot” and that they contributed to Indigenous erasure by practicing “salvage anthropology.” Lewis argued that both charges misrepresent the motivations and the impact of anthropological work. Alice Beck Kehoe sketched out the historical entanglement of Americanist research and American Federal Indian policy and drew attention to the activist work of James Mooney and Frank Speck. She also argued for the value of salvage anthropology to contemporary Native communities. Jack Glazier drew from his revelatory recent book on Paul Radin’s work at Fisk University in 1920s, where Radin collected autobiographical narratives from elderly survivors of slavery. [1] Here Glazier emphasized how the project turned Radin’s distinctive interest in autobiographical narratives toward efforts to overturn white-supremacist narratives still foundational to American historical scholarship at the time. Perhaps the most provocative paper on the panel was given by Regna Darnell who issued a call for “an anthropologically-based historicism celebrating the multiple potentialities” of the current moment, one open to a variety of historical and contemporary purposes. Presented as a critique of the “closed” vision of the history of anthropology that she sees as having been championed by George Stocking, Darnell’s paper provided a framework for imagining the papers of her fellow panelists less as defenses of anthropological ancestors than as invitations to contemporary anthropologists to think about their own activist commitments as part of a long (if intermittent and sometimes marginal) anthropological tradition.

The other panel, “Voices of Experience,” developed this sense of the historical continuity of activist projects in anthropology by shifting from the heroic age of Americanist anthropology to recent decades. Rather than being based on traditional historical research, it presented what organizer Jim Weil has called the “living-history of the discipline.” [2] Each of the four participants discussed the various expressions of social justice activism evident in their careers. They emphasized that their social justice work had shown the value of anthropological methodologies and principles, in particular the basic idea that “people have their ways of thinking, different mental models” and that “we need to hear them even if we disagree with them” (Schensul). More specifically, Carol Mukhopadhyay told of her work on the American Anthropological Association’s traveling exhibition “Race: The Power of an Illusion.” Kathleen Fine-Dare spoke of moving outside of her research specialty to become her university’s Tribal Liaison for NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act). Ralph Bolton discussed his work on HIV awareness education in Europe and his ongoing work on health, education and economic developments in the Peruvian Altiplano. And Jean Schensul described her work outside of the academy using community-based intervention methods to address HIV prevention and other health-related projects.

For me, the most striking aspect of the panel came when the panelists were asked how they would respond to “younger anthropologists” who argue that activism was easier in the past than it is now. They explained that the point of presenting their own experiences was not to challenge younger activists, because “every generation has its activists, and people build on past experience and past knowledge [but have to] own it now” (Mukhopadhyay). They noted that older activists may have learned lessons still applicable now, and made mistakes that could be made again. As one of the organizers summarized their message at the end, “we may be wasting time if we try to reinvent the wheel, but we may need to realign the wheels” (Weil). Ralph Bolton then extemporized a properly activist end to the session filled with a wealth of experience-based observations: “while things change, there is one thing that really remains the same and that is [that] all of us…simply have to take action for some social justice issue and find a way in which [we] can make a difference…”

It was in reflecting on the panels that I began to imagine a productive dialogue between them and the panel organized by Nick Barron and Hilary Leathem at last year’s AAA, which I took then as a provocative yet constructive account of the limits of anthropology from the perspective of Indigenous activism and activists. Alas, while the provocations of the panel last year could be followed up with post-panel discussions, the online platform for “Raising our Voices” abruptly ejected us from the virtual room at the scheduled end of each panel. We will thus need to find other online forums, and hopefully, one day soon, in-person venues to continue substantive debates over how best to deal with the entanglements created by activism as historians and as anthropologists.

[1] Jack Glazier, Anthropology and Radical Humanism: Native and African American Narratives and the Myth of Race, (Michigan State University Press, 2020).

[2] Jim Weil, “Discretionary Ethnography: Eliding the Personal and the Political in Two Latin American Research Settings,” Journal of Anthropological Research (Spring 2020), 8.

Grant Arndt – gparndt@iastate.edu – Associate Professor of Anthropology and American Indian Studies, Department of World Languages and Cultures, Iowa State University