Wolcott's Critique of Native Ethnography

Very little active coaching, but still. . . . Harry Wolcott (2008:163-169) offers two incisive critiques of the Nahnu native ethnography project: (1) that I had more influence on Jesus Salinas’s writing of the Nahnu ethnography than I imagined in 1989, and (2) that the Nahnu ethnography is not really an ethnography because JesUs Salinas is not really an ethnographer.

Wolcott is right about the first point. As he points out, early on in the Nahnu ethnography project, I presented Salinas with a Spanish-language version of the Outline of Cultural Materials, the detailed codebook developed by George Peter Murdock to categorize ethnographic materials on cultures of the world (Murdock 1971). This reflected my own training and was hardly a totally hands-off approach to the content of Jesus’s work.

In fact, my influence extended far beyond just advocating that Salinas pay attention to the categories of the OCM. By the time we completed the translation of the Nahnu native ethnography in 1988, Jesus and I had known one another for 26 years. I had asked him countless questions about Nahnu culture before we ever got started on the project and countless more as we sat, elbow to elbow, translating the ethnography from Nahnu into English (we worked through Spanish as an intermediary language). I forced him to think out loud about things that he might otherwise never have contemplated consciously. In the end, the content of the Nahnu native ethnography was the result of constant negotiation, constant interaction between Jesus Salinas and me.

On the other hand, Jesus was not chained to the OCM and he went far beyond simply addressing my questions. He wrote about things that I could not have asked about, simply because of my ignorance of Nahnu culture. I made plain that I was interested in the uses of plants, but he wrote about plants that I didn’t know existed.

I asked him to begin the Nahnu ethnography with a chapter on the setting and explained that this was about the geography, the climate, the flora and fauna, and so on. Again, this was straight out of my own training, and Jesus followed my instructions, but the result was nothing like anything I would have written, because it was nothing I could have written. As the ethnography begins, Jesus walks the reader through the Mezquital Valley, naming the mountains and describing the villages in great detail: which villages produce lime for tortillas, which produce charcoal, and so on. He asked me if he could include information on the weather and the seasons and the winds and what effect they all had on people, plants, and animals. I could not even have formulated the questions in Nahnu to retrieve that kind of information.

Others may choose to pursue the method of native ethnography differently, but I would do it the same way again. I would provide a framework and a long list of topics (the OCM, for example). I wouldn’t tell the native ethnographer what content to provide, but, as I did with Jesus, I would ask plenty of questions, based on my own knowledge of the local culture—and on the holes I recognize in that knowledge. I believe strongly that we need more, much more, of this kind of work in anthropology.

Wolcott’s second critique—that the Nahnu ethnography is not really an ethnography because Jesus Salinas is not really an ethnographer—raises a really interesting question: Who gets to be called an ethnographer? One school of thought is captured in Paul Bohan- nan’s aphorism that ‘‘without an ethnographer there is no ethnography” (1995:157). Wolcott quotes this maxim to lead off his penetrating discussion of insider and outsider ethnography (Wolcott 2008:137). In this perspective, Jesus Salinas’s work is ‘‘the stuff out of which ethnography is made,’’ but it is ‘‘not quite ‘ethnographic enough’ ’’ (2008:168). Just as it is the rare ethnographer who can master the details of a culture the way Salinas masters his, says Wolcott, ‘‘it would be an even rarer ‘native’ who would have an intuitive grasp of ethnography’’ (2008:168).

In my view, this makes far too much of interpretation and not nearly enough of description. Here is Salinas, the ethnographer, presenting a description of one insect— illustrating what Wolcott (2008:168) identifies, correctly, as crushing detail:

1163. The nigua. These are the same size and have the same characteristics as squirrel and cat fleas. The nigua also jumps and turns up everywhere. One can see them in the feet of pigs. The feet are cut open by the fleas which deposit their eggs between the toes. The eggs are in a large, white ball in the pig’s flesh. 1164. This is cured by putting on criolina so that the foot of the animal suppurates and the flea egg-balls runn out. This flea also affects people’s feet; they go between the toes. At first, they just itch; though one knows it itches, one may think it’s just any old flea. 1165. But after three days, the itching gets worse, and it begins to suppurate and it grows worse and worse. When it gets like this it is opened up with a needle and a ball comes out, filled with eggs. 1166.

A hole remains where the ball is taken out, as if a piece of flesh were removed. One must burn the ball so that the fleas won’t be born. It is said that if it is thrown on the ground, the heat from the earth will hatch the eggs. 1167. So that they won’t hatch, the balls are removed from people’s feet and thrown into the fire to burn up. If one allows the swelling on the feet to burst by itself, then it hurts even more. 1167. Niguas lay their eggs in the webbing between the toes. Of course, this happens to people who don’t wear huaraches; niguas are an affliction of those who go barefoot. Sometimes it causes just itching and other times it itches and hurts. (Bernard and Salinas 1989:209)

And here is Salinas, the storyteller, talking about religion and playing, what Wolcott says is ‘‘the docent, giving us a carefully arranged tour’’ (2008:169):

1136. Right next to San Clemente is another small village called El Nogal. This community belongs to Orizabita and only has 17 full citizens. All together, among the men, women, and children, there are 55 people there. There is no church of either of the two religions. The people of San Clemente tried to impose Protestantism on the people of El Nogal, but the people of El Nogal did not like that religion. Because of that, and because of other things that they did to them, the people of El Nogal abandoned Protestantism, became even stronger believers in Catholicism, and opted to follow their pueblo, which is Orizabita. [Bernard and Salinas 1989:533]

There were, to be sure, complaints over the years that Boas’s work was nothing more than a mountain of raw facts. Leslie White complained that Boas’s Kwakiutl texts were not intelligible because they were without commentary (White 1963:55), and George Peter Murdock mocked Boas’s ‘‘five-foot shelf’’ of monographs about the Kwakiutl as contributing little to understanding the social structure of the Kwakiutl (Murdock 1949:xiv, n. 5).

From my perspective, ethnography has not outlived the positivist, descriptive function it had for Boas and his students, and the goal of native ethnography is the same today as it was in Boas’s time: Get it down and get it right, in the natives’ own languages. ‘‘Getting it right’’ is a goal, not a given, so we keep trying to improve the method. One thing we can do is to provide training (even more than I offered Jesus Salinas) in what scholars of culture are interested in knowing. Another is to provide extensive commentary and explanations of the native-language materials (as I did in the Nahnu native ethnography [Bernard and Salinas Pedraza 1989]).

More important than commentary or explanation, however, is the ineluctable presence of those 232,000 words of Nahnu that Salinas produced about Nahnu culture. Many of the languages in which Boas’s students collected ethnographic texts are no longer spoken, or will soon die out. The texts collected by the Boasians for 50 years, though, are a pre?cious resource for all scholars interested in the diversity of human culture. Debates about -isms—structuralism, materialism, postmodernism—come and go, but texts are forever (box 18.1).

BOX 18.1


Salinas's native ethnography is one person's report of selected aspects of Nahnu culture. What if other Nahnu don't agree with Salinas on key issues? What if other Nahnu think that Salinas focused too much on the flora and fauna of the Mezquital Valley and ignored other elements of the culture? Well, all ethnographies are written by someone. Why shouldn't other Nahnu disagree with Salinas about his take on key issues? ''Why not,'' Jesus once asked me, ''invite a group of Nahnu to read the Nahnu version of the ethnography and offer new interpretations?'' I can hardly wait.

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