In this post, OHMA student Dina M. Asfaha (2016) discusses how we can make meaning of and interrogate anthropology using oral history. This article is the final in a three-part series exploring Dr. Leslie Robertson’s recent OHMA Workshop Series lecture, “Devalued Subjectivities: Disciplines, Voices and Publics.”
What does it mean to “locate yourself [within the] frames of colonialism”? As someone working within an academic institution and discipline that has traditionally silenced the voices of the Kwakwaka’wakw people, this question was continuously present in Dr. Leslie Robertson’s recent lecture in the OHMA Workshop Series lecture.
Prof. Robertson of the University of British Columbia opened her talk with some information about herself and the disciplinary connection she saw between her own background in anthropology and oral history. Critical of anthropology as a discipline that was “obsessed with cultural authenticity in the service of colonization,” Robertson broke down the pros and cons of scholarly research and writing.
She noted, “There are as many ways to narrate this story as there are people who participated in our collaboration… And even then, there are even more voices from others who are implicated in the history that we revisit.”
In this regard, Dr. Robertson not only referred to the failure of anthropology to ensure that these voices are heard in the world of academia, she also highlighted the usefulness of oral history in rewriting the histories of people whose voices have traditionally been omitted.
In order to fully understand Dr. Robertson’s questions and claims, we need to return to the history of the making of a discipline—in this case, anthropology. It is no secret that anthropology, like many disciplines, is rooted in a racist, othering view of people of color from lower socio-economic backgrounds as less savvy and intellectual. Robertson wants us to consider that this tradition colors the very foundation of anthropology as a way to study people and urges us to then reconsider our role as “researcher.”
Anthropology is concerned with understanding what makes a people who they are: their rituals, as well as daily practices. One way to bridge oral history and anthropology would be to ask ourselves: “What stories do people tell themselves to make sense of their realities?” And, in the context of Professor Robertson’s lecture, “How did the clan narrativize their history—and how does that differ from the way anthropologist Franz Boas wrote the clan into history?”
Throughout her lecture, Dr. Robertson describes what she calls “colonial violence.” This is can be manifested as complicity in allowing the story of the Kwakwaka’wakw ‘na’mi’ma (clan) to continue to be overshadowed by legendary anthropologist Franz Boas’ dominant narrative about who this clan is and what their culture dictates.
But what does it look like to go against the grain of a discipline, especially to contradict one of the founding fathers of anthropology? Robertson’s collaboration with the clan in penning Standing Up with Ga’axsta’las: Jane Constance Cook and the Politics of Memory, Church and Custom is an example. Invited by the community, she uses oral history to, as she says, “Help write a story… on this family’s vision that was long imagined.”
In this way, Robertson urges her audience to reconsider the role of academia as an institution: how do academic disciplines dis/empower the people we study to write their “long imagined” histories? This is the very historical remnant of intellectual colonial violence Robertson wishes to point out and actively challenge.
But she also poses one possible solution—the use of oral history, or collaboration, to rewrite a people using a lens through which they can see and imagine themselves. Oral history (done well) centers the voice of the people who are the subject of the story, and this is its greatest power. If used honestly, it has the potential to engage the oppressive ways of the academy, and authorize both researcher and people being studied as equal.
Robertson’s talk was an invitation to reconsider how anthropology often re-inscribes certain perspectives or approaches that depicts social groups through the eyes of the colonizer, and she shows this by examining how and whom we write for and about. She was successful in addressing this issue, but most importantly her practices as researcher and writer encourage us to self-assess our own intentions as aspiring researchers and writers.
This mindful way of thinking about studying one another is one thing that could help decolonize the academy as we know it.
To learn more about Dr. Robertson’s collaborative work, check out her book co-authored with the Kwagu'l Gixsam Clan: Standing Up with Ga’axsta’las: Jane Constance Cook and the Politics of Memory, Church and Custom.
Dina’s work, on historical memories of the Eritrean war of independence, is also concerned with the intersections between anthropological and oral historical methods. Similar to Dr. Robertson, Dina hopes to marry the two disciplines in her own deconstruction of the intertwined nature of Eritrean political history and culture.