Winter Semester, 2009
6 Jan.--7 Apr., 2009
Meeting days and times:
Tuesdays: 2:45pm—5:30pm
Campus: SGW, Room

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ANTH 303 Indigenous Cultures Today

Identities, HISTORIES, and Resurgence

“The journey that we are on is a living commitment to make changes in our lives and to transform society. By recreating our minds and bodies and lives, regenerating our cultures, and surging against the forces that keep us bound to our colonial past, we are recovering what it is to be indigenous. This path we are on is a warrior’s path, a kind of Wasáse—a ceremony of purification, unity, strength, and commitment to action. Onkwehonwe have always fought for survival against the Settlers’ drive to annihilate our existence. Our fight is a struggle to defend the lands, the communities, and the languages that are our heritage and our future. The Settler society is continuing to try to erase us from the landscapes they have invaded and now claim as their own. Our survival demands that we act on the love we have for this land and our people. This is our answer to Empire. Our power is a courageous love. Our fight starts now.”
Gerald Taiaiake Alfred

A. Introducing the Theme of this Course

This course seeks to grapple with a number of “mainstream” narratives that claim to depict the contemporary situation of indigenous peoples. For at least the past two centuries Western scholars and others have predicted the demise of indigenous cultures and identities. We have all encountered the often repeated exclamation that indigenous societies are living in danger of extinction, given that they are rooted in socio-cultural and ecological landscapes that have undergone radical transformations while the power of transnational corporations and states only seems to increase as modernization makes greater inroads. Indigenous societies are thus often written about in non-indigenous media in pathological terms, peoples headed towards self-destruction, plagued by alcoholism, domestic abuse, and disease. Cultural change is also often equated with loss when speaking of indigenous cultures and identities. The question of who can now proclaim to be a “real Indian” is increasingly becoming voiced and debated, quickly becoming one of the front lines in the struggle to recover indigenous identities.

An emphasis on “loss” seems to disqualify indigenous peoples from the future, while denying them agency in the present. Today’s challenges are many of the same that indigenous peoples have had to confront for the past five centuries, and rather than crumbling in the face of world capitalism, indigenous cultures today are still many, varied, and in various cases showing new signs of revitalization. These observations are not meant to deny or evade the many tremendous, sometimes genocidal, forces that have been at work against various indigenous societies, as it is a recognition that indigenous peoples and cultures remain to struggle against those challenges, and reproduce themselves in the very act of confronting those challenges. This is what a contemporary study of indigenous cultures ought to be about.

Indigenous cultures today are active in trying to create their own futures and appropriating global resources for their own culturally specific purposes. Indigenous cultures are actively engaged in multiple projects of preservation, renewal, and self-transformation, whilst facing an array of new difficulties, both within and from the wider societies in which they are located.

Indigenous cultures today have been engaged in new resurgence movements since at least the 1960s, seeking to protect and reaffirm their cultures and communities, while often confronting nation-states, corporations, or hostile members of the wider societies they inhabit, not to mention dealing with political cleavages internal to indigenous communities. Indigenous peoples are also increasingly coming to organize themselves on a transnational basis of considerable scope, via such organs as the United Nations, through their own regional and hemispheric confederations, and via indigenous media.

This course will invite students to critically address the following questions:

1) How are indigenous peoples and their traditions treated in contemporary anthropology?
2) How is indigeneity currently being defined and articulated? By whom? Why?
3) What are the challenges that confront indigenous peoples in representing and organizing themselves?

As the reader will detect from these questions and the title of the course, this course is framed within the present tense.

Given the potentially vast and unwieldy nature of the course, reading materials, lectures, films and case studies will focus primarily on Canada, the United States, Latin America, the Caribbean, Australia and New Zealand. Asia and Africa were mostly excluded largely due to the brevity of this course, and the fact that they exceed the scope of the instructor's expertise.

The ultimate thematic focus is resurgence. This is not a general survey course describing indigenous cultures everywhere. To aid us, we have a reader containing many prominent articles and chapters by some of the leading scholars, activists and advocates in the field. Students will find a considerable array of concepts, debates and other stimulating information to engage with.

B. Course Questions

There are many—very many—possible angles of entry for a course titled “Indigenous Cultures Today.” However, as the course title suggests, we are speaking in fact of indigenous cultures, acknowledging that they exist, and we are speaking about them today, which means this is not another exercise in digging for fossils (what the course director uncharitably calls “bone stroking” and “pottery fondling”) or memorizing reports written by colonial governors as if they were uncontestable truths. Given these parameters, this course utilizes three basic concepts: identity, tradition, and resurgence.

In progressing through this course, here are some key questions to ask ourselves. Students should be able to competently address these questions as a result of taking this course. The first three are repeated from above.

  1. How are indigenous peoples and their traditions treated in contemporary anthropology?

  2. How is indigeneity currently being defined and articulated? By whom? Why?

  3. What are the challenges that confront indigenous peoples in representing and organizing themselves?

  4. Are genocide and extinction the same?

  5. How do we evaluate the “disappearing Indians” paradigm?

  6. What are the differences between survival and revival? Is either concept useful?

  7. How is “assimilation” internally flawed even while it has been attempted as a practice?

  8. When and why is defining indigenous identity “important”? Are there dominant and resistant definitions? What is the role of self-identification?

  9. How is indigeneity reproduced in the present?

  10. Is tradition static or dynamic? Does tradition have to be static to be “real”?

  11. What are the challenges posed by resurgent indigeneity to the modern nation-state?

  12. How do we conceive of “resurgence”? Where do we look to find examples of resurgence?

  13. Some indigenous self-representations can be “essentialist.” So what?

C. Course Goals and Intended Outcomes

The study of contemporary indigeneity remains vital and relevant to understanding modern settler states such as Canada and Australia, as well as states with indigenous majorities such as Bolivia and Guatemala. It is hoped that students will leave this course with a new and deeper appreciation of the continued presence and the politics of protest and dissent that are being brought to the fore by many indigenous communities and movements across North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, and the Caribbean.

Students intending to pursue further studies in anthropology, either at the undergraduate or graduate level, will find many of the issues, questions and theories presented in this course to be a very valuable basis on which to build. Students aiming at careers in the media, government, development or education should emerge with greater respect if not sympathy for contemporary indigenous peoples and their struggles.

D. Expectations and Responsibilities

As a student in this course, you are responsible for taking notes in this course: the course director does not distribute lecture notes, nor will he schedule special one-on-one sessions to tutor students who missed class. If you miss class, your only option is to get the notes from a colleague. Ultimate responsibility for acquiring course content rests with the student. Lecture outlines will, however, be available on the course website.

Regular attendance will clearly boost your chances for a successful outcome in this course, and knowing that students understand this means that the instructor will not need to take attendance. Given the large number of students enrolled in this course, there is little chance of achieving widely inclusive discussion, and there is no formal participation grade. Nonetheless, it has been widely observed that students who invest a lot in class discussion get more out of their course and perform much better overall.

As a student, you are also responsible for doing all assigned readings. Readings must always be completed in time for each new week. You are invited to make a contribution to class discussions, and to raise questions about anything that you find was not clearly explained, or is problematic in some other way.

As the course director, it is my responsibility to present lectures that help to clarify, explain and further deepen reading materials. It is also my responsibility to coordinate discussion sessions that serve to review key themes and questions presented by the readings, explain their relevance, and stimulate your engagement with the course material. I am also available for private advising during office hours.

As the course director, it is also my responsibility to fairly, critically, and dispassionately evaluate your degree of engagement, understanding and application of all course materials. It is my job to ensure that a record is made of the extent of your success in getting as much out of this course as possible.

F. Organization of the Course

Usually, lectures will take place during the first half of class. Sometimes, however, lectures may extend beyond that. The role of the lectures is supplementary to the readings. There is very limited class time and thus vital course content is to be found in the readings. Having said that, in many if not most cases it will be very difficult to gain a solid understanding of the readings without the lectures. The lectures attempt to fill in, extend, clarify and explain the readings, and in some cases provide additional material which is not covered in the readings.

Discussion sessions, focused on the readings (and in some cases films), are a vital component of this course. In these sessions students will be asked to review, summarize and explain key themes of each assigned reading, as well as raise questions about aspects they did not fully understand, or points they felt were neglected. We should always feel free to openly debate the many contentious issues that will be presented. Students are asked to actively take the initiative and reflect on what they are reading and hearing, and to voice their opinions.

However, students should feel encouraged to always read in addition to whatever is assigned in the course, and the outcomes of additional, independent work tend to be strikingly positive where student success is concerned.