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Native Ethnography

This was the first of what would become a tradition called native ethnography. It was carried forward by several of Boas’s students, including Edward Sapir, whose first job after completing his Ph.D. under Boas’s direction was at the Canadian Geological Survey, in Ottawa. One of the ethnographers who worked under his direction there was Marius Barbeau. In 1914, Barbeau went to the Northwest Coast to work with the Tsimshian and hired William Beynon as his interpreter. Beynon was 26 at the time, and only recently arrived from Victoria, but he spoke fluent Tsimshian (his mother was Tsimshian and his father was Welsh) (M. Anderson and Halpin 2000:4).

Barbeau wrote to Sapir that his new informant could recite Tsimshian myths and write them down in English at the same time. Sapir advised Barbeau to teach Beynon to write Tsimshian, as Sapir had taught his own informant to write Nootka, so that Beynon could work even more independently. ‘‘There is,’’ said Sapir, ‘‘no absolute reason why every bit of material that one utilizes in his work should have been personally obtained’’ (Sapir’s letter to Barbeau, February 1, 1915; quoted in Anderson and Halpin 2000:5-6.) This was the start of Beynon’s career as a professional informant. By the time he died in 1958, Beynon had sent Barbeau 54 Canadian government-issued notebooks of 50 pages each, filled with Tsimshian texts and with observations of Tsimshian daily life and ceremonies (Anderson and Halpin 2000:7).

Beynon never published a monograph based on his ethnographic notebooks, but four of his notebooks, detailing the ceremonies in 1945 surrounding the raising of five totem poles, were rescued from the archives and published verbatim (Anderson and Halpin 2000).

Another of Boas’s students, Paul Radin, however, took the method of native ethnography further. Radin studied the language and culture of the Winnebago Indians and, following his mentor’s lead, trained Sam Blowsnake to write in Winnebago. Blowsnake started writing his autobiography. After one day, he came to Radin, worried about what white people might think when they read it (Blowsnake confesses in the narrative to murdering a Potowatami). Radin reassured him, and Blowsnake polished off the manuscript in 2 days. Relying on a bilingual Winnebago-English interpreter, Radin translated and published the manuscript in 1920 as Crashing Thunder: The Autobiography of a Winnebago Indian (Radin 1983 [1920]).

Radin’s insistence that he ‘‘in no way influenced [Crashing Thunder], either directly or indirectly in any way’’ seems disingenuous today. And including that part about murdering a Potawatami was poor professional judgment, by today’s standards. But Crashing Thunder is, in my view, a milestone in the history of anthropology. Since then, the method of native ethnography has been greatly extended.

Fadwa El Guindi, for example, worked in the 1960s and 1970s with Abel Hernandez Jimenez, on a native ethnography of the Zapotec people of Oaxaca. One of El Guindi’s colleagues, Harvey Rosenbaum, taught Hernandez linguistics while El Guindi taught him anthropology (El Guindi 2004:141). El Guindi used open-ended interviewing to get Hernandez to discuss four rituals: a baptism, a child’s funeral, a wedding, and an adult’s funeral. After each discussion (which covered things like the ordering of events in each ritual, who participates, and the meaning of ritual objects), Hernandez wrote up his description of one of the rituals, and El Guindi collected parallel data on her own to compare with those of her colleague (El Guindi and Hernandez Jimenez 1986:25).

El Guindi (2004:chap. 4) observes that some classic work in visual anthropology should also be counted as native ethnography. From 1963 to 1965, for example, Asen Balicki worked with Itimanguerk, a Netsilik Inuit hunter, producing a monumental film record of indigenous Netsilik culture: nearly 50 miles of film, including nine finished films totaling nearly 11 hours (Balicki 1989; El Guindi 2004:129-34). And in 1966, Sol Worth and John Adair gave 16-mm movie cameras to seven Navajo men and women to learn about Navajo life ‘‘through Navajo eyes’’—the title of the book describing this famous project (El Guindi 2004:140-46; Worth and Adair 1970, 1972).

Ignacio Bizarro Ujpan has been the long-term informant and friend of anthropologist James Sexton. Between 1972 and 1974, at Sexton’s urging, Bizarro wrote his autobiography in Spanish. He also began a diary in 1972, which he kept for 5 years. Sexton edited the diary, removing repetitious events and what he felt was trivial material detailing ‘‘the kinds of meals he [Bizarro] ate each day, the saying of his nightly prayers, his daily work routine, how well he slept, and common illnesses like colds and headaches’’ (Sexton 1981:4).

Sexton supplemented the diary with taped interviews. In his method, he inserts his questions in italics into Bizarro’s narrative, to show ‘‘what kind of information Ignacio volunteered and how much of it is material I solicited from my own perspective.” This partnership has gone on for decades (see Bizarro Ujpan [1981, 1985, 1992, 2001] and Sexton and Bizarro Ujpan 1999) and continues today (Further Reading: native ethnography).

 
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