Do I Read Anthropological Works? Not So Much.

By | February 9, 2011

For years I would gobble up anything that was filmed or written about hunter-gatherers: historical accounts, travelogues, archaeological and anthropological research, biographies, and even some fiction (Clan of the Cave Bear, yes; Mutant Message Down Under, no—blatantly farcical).

Being academically trained, I put a lot of stock in scholarly works. That is until I started to study Native language and spend time with Native people. There’s a saying: To know a culture, you need to know the language. I’d like to expand on that: To understand hunter-gatherer culture in general, you need to study a variety of hunter-gatherer languages. In doing so, along with listening to the stories of elders, I came to realize that cultural biases were littered throughout most of the academic writings I was reading. What I came to understand as mating rituals were labeled kidnappings, and direction of travel was given as right-or-left—egocentric perspective—rather than by the cardinal directions or landscape—the greater perspective Native people typically use.

When it comes to knowing another culture through the written word, I clearly recommend quality over quantity. The references I now consult nine out of ten times are written by or transcribed from the recordings of people who are products of the culture. They carry cultural perspective and the clan memories of countless generations. The most accessible materials come from those who grew up traditionally and later in life were exposed to a culture possessing the written word or recording technology.

Materials written by individuals raised in cultures in transition can’t help but contain the imprint of the new culture. Sorting indigenous from new is not impossible, but it is problematic. I would recommend sticking with material from unassimilated sources until you gain an intrinsic feel for hunter-gatherer lifeway and are able to easily separate the nut meats from the shells.

1 Comment

Thomas on February 26, 2011 at 8:53 pm.

The more I get to know myself and immerse myself in a natural way of life, the more I do realize how biased most anthropological accounts are. I can suddenly understand things more from the inside out than if I just had an intellectual connection to the subject. Oftentimes the people who do write the accounts seem to record what they see with their cultural lens, which might be very different from the perspective of the people who actually live it.

That being said, I unfortunately know few books that are written by Natives who live(d) in both worlds (there aren´t many to begin with)…could you suggest a few titles, Tamarack, that match that criteria?


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