Prior to reading First in their Field: Women and Australian Anthropology (edited by Julie Marcus) I had almost no understanding of what anthropology actually was. I understood that it was a study of people, but since there was also sociology, which I took to be the understanding of people in modern society, so therefore anthropology was the study of people now gone.
And then I read First in their Field, and learnt about Australian women breaking major ground (mostly unrecognised) in anthropology, creating fieldwork and what anthropology, at least at the turn of the 1900s was. I was disgusted to find out what anthropology actually was and the harm that it has caused.
This was brought back to my mind when I started reading Feminism FOR REAL: Deconstructing the academic industrial complex of feminism (edited by Jessica Yee). The second essay by Krysta Williams and Erin Konsmo has the following (pg 26 – 27):
First off, as has been well stated by many Indigenous Feminist before us, the idea of gender equality did not come from the suffragettes or other so-called “foremothers” of feminist theory. It should also be recognized that although we are still struggling for this thing called “gender equality”, it is not actually a framed issue within the feminist realm, but a continuation of the larger tackling of colonialism. So this idea in mainstream feminism that women of colour all of a sudden realized “we are women”, and magically joined the feminist fight actually re-colonizes people for who gender equality and other “feminist” notions is a remembered history and current reality since before Columbus. THe mainstream feminist movement is supposed to have started in the early 1900s with women fighting for the right to vote. However, these white women deliberately excluded the struggles of working class women of colour and participated in the policy of forced sterilization for Aboriginal women and women with disabilities. Furthermore, the idea that we all need to subscribe to the same theoretical understandings of history is marginalizing. We all have our own truths and histories to live.
and (pg 28)
All that the mainstream feminist movement is trying to claim today is merely a reflection of what an Indigenous person (including women, men, Two-Spirit, trans or different gender identifying people) sees when they look in the mirror. There is this feeling amongst “innovative thinkers” that we need to reach forward to build and/or discover a “new society” that includes gender equality. But we know that for us, as a community, this simply means a return to our Indigenous ways of life, a decolonization of our communities which will bring back gender equality. This is something that we have been fighting for and resisting since contact. However, being pushed forward by progressives while trying to hold onto and remember the past, honour our Elders and teachings – which being present – is a painful experience!
When reading First in their Field, the essayists wrote about the early female anthropologists living with various Indigenous tribes in remote Australia (well most of Australia at that time was remote). The essayists discussed how those female anthrpologists, with the exception of Daisy Bates who pretended to be a male spirit, accessed the spiritual realm of Indigenous women, learning about their ceremonies, their laws and how they fit into tribal society.
Prior to these female anthropologists living with the Indigenous inhabitants of Australia, white male anthropologists had determined that much like many white women at the time, Indigenous women occupied the domestic sphere, had no spiritual life and were much less than men, as they had been unable to access (and were not overly interested in) Indigenous women’s experience. The cut and paste of white society’s gender roles onto the gender roles of Indigenous Australians has no doubt caused the same level of harm as recounted by Williams and Konsmo.
The study of other societies as something less than white, European culture, as something you’d study as if looking at a collection of spores in a petri dish, thinking that you can study another society or culture without bringing in your own biases, issues and prejudices is just laughable and really wrong. There is no objectivity when studying another group of people, and no way to study another group of people without your presence making an impact on them (unless of course that society/culture doesn’t exist any more and you’re studying it from afar (such as Incan civilisations pre-Spanish invasion)).
The arrogance of my “ancestors” and the damage that they have caused Indigenous Australians makes me deeply ashamed and sorry that so much damage was done.
(Update: now with References)
One bit I left out of my blog post last night, or perhaps didn’t explain in the way I intended, is the direct harm that anthropology caused to Australia’s Indigenous inhabitants. Anthropologists were seen to be experts on Indigenous people and therefore were asked to provide advice to Governments and to fill roles such as “Protectors of Aboriginies” (First in their Field). If they did not come up with the idea of forcible removal of children from Indigenous communities, they certainly supported it. In Isobel White’s essay on Daisy Bates she states (pg 63 – 64):
By today’s standards many of Daisy Bate’s suggestions for the welfare of Aborigines seem impossible, absurd and an infringement of human rights. She believed that the Aborigines were on their way to extinction and her idea applied only to the declining number of those of full descent. She cared not at all what happened to the part-descent population, whose very existence she deplored. Consequently her suggestion for the full-descent population was to segregate them from all but minimum contact with Europeans so that there should be no more mixed unions. … Since she regarded them as incapable of governing themselves, they should be governed by a High Commissioner who, she insisted, must be a British, Anglican gentleman.
To no anthropologist would endorse a policy of taking children from their mothers and sending them to institutions where ‘civilised’ values and habits would be taught. But this was the policy in both Western Australia and South Australia where Mrs Bates was Honorary Protector of Aboriginies successively. The duties of these posts included reporting to the local police the birth or existence of so-called ‘half-caste’ children so that they might be seized, by force if necessary, and sent to an appropriate institution. Presumable Daisy Bates accepted this part of her duties and there is evidence that in at least one case she acted on it.
Feminism FOR REAL: Deconstructing the academic industrial complex of feminism, edited by Jessica Yee, 2001, DLR International Printing, Canada
First in the Field: Women and Australian Anthropology, edited by Julie Marcus, 1993, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Australia