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Indigenous Anthropologyfree

Indigenous Anthropologyfree

  • Bernard PerleyBernard PerleyUniversity of British Columbia


Indigenous anthropology is an emergent praxis of Indigenous knowledge production that can be vaguely translated and tentatively identified as approximating anthropological enquiry in the Western sense of the social science. The decolonizing practices by Indigenous scholars have outlined contours of critical Indigenous praxis that seek to liberate Indigenous communities from colonial and settler hegemonies of knowledge production, dissemination of knowledges, and the ongoing constraints colonial systems of systemic racism have imposed on Indigenous peoples as a global phenomenon. The growing call for a world anthropology inadvertently imposes an uncritical ventriloquism on Indigenous peoples who are attempting to contribute to the discipline of anthropology from the situated perspectives of diverse Indigenous communities.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) provided a catalyzing moment for a global Indigeneity that brings the diverse experiences together for mutual consultation and strategic planning. Indigeneity as a global phenomenon also creates the potential for the discipline of anthropology to shed its colonial roots and consider the prospects for a vibrant anthropology that truly reflects a shared human experience and does not privilege one knowledge over another.


  • International and Indigenous Anthropology


Indigenous anthropology is an emergent constellation of subjectivities and research protocols coalescing under a rubric that may be described as “anthropological” within broadly applied Western academic fields of social scientific enquiry. Despite this single-sentence definition Indigenous anthropology as an encyclopedia entry must be understood as a provisional placeholder for an emergent field of anthropological engagement. This article is not a “state of the field” summary, nor is it intended to define the field. Rather, it is a provocation to withhold conceptual certainty and its concomitant “will to understand” in order to promote a project based on anticipatory intersubjective relations in the service of emergent critical Indigenous praxis. This project is already constrained by the use of colonial languages to convey Indigenous experience. Ideally, a truly Indigenous anthropology would not privileges colonial languages in its articulation. To mitigate this linguistic and ideological constraint, this article approaches representing an epistemic practice by tracing the contours of experiential fields of enquiry that entangle uncomfortably under the rubric Indigenous anthropology. The first contours requiring critical explication are the complexities inherent in the semantic qualities of the two descriptors “Indigenous” and “anthropology.”

Contextualizing Indigeneity

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) purposely did not provide a definition of who qualifies as Indigenous. In decades of conversations leading to the adoption of the Declaration, there have been working definitions that outlined distinct circumstances and relationships with states that informed the codification of Indigenous rights. The Asia Pacific Forum and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights (APF and OHCHR 2013, 6) stated:

Indigenous peoples have argued against the adoption of a formal definition at the international level, stressing the need for flexibility and for respecting the desire and the right of each indigenous people to define themselves. Reflecting this position, the former Chairperson of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations, Erica Daes, noted that “indigenous peoples have suffered from definitions imposed on them by others.”25

As a consequence, no formal definition has been adopted in international law. A strict definition is seen as unnecessary and undesirable.

25 Note by the Chairperson-Rapporteur on criteria which might be applied when considering the concept of Indigenous peoples (E/CN.4/Sub.2/AC.4/1995/3/), p. 4.

Echoing the UNDRIP and APF and OHCHR (2013) this article deliberately avoids the colonial impulse to impose a definition onto Indigenous populations.

“Indigenous” and its derivatives are the most recent evocations of a subjective experience of many populations who have suffered from colonial occupation of Indigenous lands. The term reflects Indigeneity as a global phenomenon whereby it encompasses “three inter-related epistemic–ontological modes of the phenomenon”: (a) indigeneity as a social condition; (b) indigenous imaginary as an emergent consciousness; and (c) indigenization as a set of social processes.1 Understanding indigeneity as a social condition is to acknowledge the critical roles that globalization and international law play in the exercise of embodiments of Indigenous identity (Anaya 1996; Graham and Penny 2014; Hall and Fenelon 2009; Maybury-Lewis 1997; Niezen 2003; Stewart-Harawira 2005). Directly linked to the social condition, indigenous imaginary is the circulation, interpretation, and the local-to-global intensification of identity formation. The exchange of experience across state boundaries, across oceans, and across continents reinforces an emergent consciousness that is then exercised according to local needs and imaginaries (de la Cadena and Starn 2007; Maaka and Anderson 2006; Maaka and Fleras 2005). The social condition and the emergent consciousness are contingent upon processes of indigenization as transformations that supersede state boundaries which in turn contribute to shared conceptual negotiations of indigeneity (Denzin et al. 2008; Hodgson 2011; Minde 2008; Smith 1999; Waziyatawin and Yellow Bird 2012; Wilson and Yellow Bird 2005). These three epistemic–ontological modes of global indigeneity involve material and ideational cartographies of erasures, inscriptions, and reinscriptions” (Perley n.d.). Indigenous anthropology must reflect the myriad experiences across global domains.

Contextualizing Anthropology

Anthropology has a turbulent and uneven history among practitioners of the social science discipline. The conjunction of Indigenous with anthropology highlights the tension between a descriptor (Indigenous) that reflects the dynamic social imaginaries of an ongoing unequal relations between colonizers and colonized and the stability of the disciplinary marker (anthropology) that obscures the underlying tensions and contestations that emerge from the settler–colonial field of study and the purported objects of that study.

In its contemporary forms, anthropology serves as a general category of social science research principles, practices, and histories that derive from Immanuel Kant’s enlightenment project of sapere aude (dare to know). Immanuel Kant’s motto for the age, “have the courage to use your own understanding,” would establish the ground for a disciplinary stance to understand the world in which we live. His program for “knowledge of the world” is founded on “a systemic doctrine containing our knowledge of man (anthropology)” (Kant 1978, 3) in which “it incorporates knowledge of Man as a citizen of the world” (Kant 1978, 4). This knowledge entails interactions “with one’s fellowmen at home” and travel as a “means of enlarging the scope of anthropology” (Kant 1978, 4). Kant’s popular lectures (attended by the general public) led him to collect those lectures and publish them under the title Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View in 1798. Kant (1978, 6) succinctly states:

A pragmatic anthropology which has been systematically devised and which can be understood by the general reading public (because of reference to examples which can be checked by every reader), has the advantage that the completeness of headings, under which observed human characteristics of practical consequence have been subsumed, offers many occasions and challenges to the reading public to study each particular characteristic to classify it accordingly. Any study of a certain characteristic will attract attention of specialists in the same area and, because of the unity of the design, they will be integrated into a comprehensive whole. Thus the development of a science which beneficial to the human community will be furthered.

Kant’s description of a comparative approach to understand human characteristics within a “unity of design” (Kant 1978, 6) has resonated through the centuries. An equally significant resonance is the pragmatic aspect of a “science which is beneficial to the human community” (Kant 1978, 6). Kant’s anthropology is not a program of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Rather, Kant (1978, 251) articulates his species-wide project as advancing a cosmopolitan vision based on moral good:

Thus we tend to present the human species not as evil, but as a species of rational beings, striving among obstacles to advance constantly from the evil to the good. In this respect our intention in general is good, but achievement is difficult because we cannot expect to reach our goal by the free consent of individuals, but only through progressive organization of the citizens of the earth within and toward the species as a system which is united by cosmopolitan bonds.

Though it is over two hundred years since Kant shared his moral-minded pragmatic anthropology with receptive general audiences, the impulse to use comparative ethnology for moral good has a long history in regard to the Indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere.

Bartolomé de las Casas writes in the prologue to his A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, a manuscript submitted to King Philip of Spain, “For, granted the innate and natural virtue of the ruler, it follows that the simple knowledge that something is wrong in his kingdom is quite sufficient to ensure that he will see that it is corrected, for he will not tolerate any such evil for a moment longer than it takes him to right it” (las Casas 1992, 5). Here, las Casas is using his moral authority as clergy of the Catholic Church to invoke the moral mandate of the crown to correct wrongful acts exercised within his kingdom. Las Casas then states his “more than fifty years of experience” (las Casas 1992, 5) witnessing the atrocities the king’s subjects have inflicted on the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. Anthony Pagden (1982, 122) describes las Casas’ writings, and his Apologética historia in particular, as “an expansive piece of comparative ethnology, the first, so far as I am aware, to be written in a European language.” In his analysis of the Apologética historia Pagden (1982, 120) suggests that “the tone, the method and the very length . . . make it clear that the work was intended for a larger audience.” His description also suggests las Casas’ anticipation of Kant’s program of pragmatic anthropology: “all the races of the world are men . . . and the definition of all men, and of each of them, is only one and that is reason” (las Casas quoted in Pagden 1982, 140). Las Casas’ efforts to protect Indigenous populations from Spanish atrocities was anchored in the knowledge of his times which were Aristotelian-derived arguments relegating Indigenous populations to be “culturally inferior to the Spaniards and that required ‘tuition’; that their ‘unnatural’ crimes deprived them of their rights of dominium; and that the bulls of donation are a valid charter for the Spanish conquests” (Pagden 1982, 119). Las Casas was observing the codification of Columbus’s original denial of all forms of sovereignty for the Indigenous peoples through the formal decrees and doctrines from the Church and the Spanish Crown. The perceived subservient state of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas conformed to the prevailing categories of the time whereby “the Greeks and the Romans called everyone who spoke neither Greek not Latin barbarians; and now all the Christians call all non-Christians barbarians” (Pagden 1982, 125). Las Casas took those categories and applied them to the Spaniards in America. He argued that the New World Spaniard is a barbarian because he is “cruel, inhuman, wild and merciless man acting against human reason” (cited in Pagden 1982, 126). As Pagden (1982, 145) argues, “The Apologética historia, in particular, owes both its novel form—not to be repeated until the early eighteenth century—and its principal hypothesis to the fact that it was the first large-scale attempt to apply the categories of sixteenth century Aristotelian anthropology to a substantial body of empirical data.”

The practice of “othering,” or dividing anthropology’s subject populations into us and them distinctions, has been critiqued in recent decades (Fabian 1983, 2007), but the impulse to unify continues to draw on millennia-long conversations such as in Plato’s Stateman where the young Socrates is in dialogue with a Stranger who cautions, “The error was just as if some one wanted to divide the human race, were to divide them after the fashion which prevails in this part of the world; here they cut off Hellenes as one species, and all the other species of mankind, which are innumerable, and have no ties or common language, they include under the single name of ‘barbarians,’ and because they have one name they are supposed to be one species also” (Plato 1983, 260). Whereas, Aristotle argues that natural slaves benefit from subjugation because, “We see then that there is foundation for this difference of opinion, and that all are not either slaves by nature or freemen by nature, and also there is some cases a marked distinction between the two classes, rendering it expedient and right for the ones to be slaves and the others to be masters; the ones practicing obedience, the others exercising the authority and lordship which nature intended them to have. The abuse of this authority is injurious to both; for the interests of part and whole, of body and soul, are the same frame. Hence, where the relation of master and slave between them is natural they are friends and have a common interest, but where it rests merely on law and force the reverse is true” (Aristotle 1978, 186) (see Plato’s Statesman and Aristotle’s Politics). The current ontological turn in anthropology seeks to decenter the “West” to allow voices from the “rest” to be heard. This latest moral-minded pragmatic anthropology is reflected in the call for a “world anthropology” expressed as a plural conceptualization (Ribeiro and Escobar 2006). One such world of anthropology the editors urge us to consider is the Indigenous world. Marisol de la Cadena (2006, 218) proposes a “relational epistemology” that “assumes the historical contingency of universal categories and uses them in dialogical process with local translation between the two, thus rendering local knowledge visible.” De la Cadena (2006, 221) asserts the importance of decentering the hegemonic practice of Western anthropology to create a “citizenship of plural ontologies and the forms of knowledge.” De la Cadena (2006, 221) concludes, “as a Western social science enabled by non-Western locations, anthropology is in a position to contribute to the visibility of other forms of knowledge. In order to do that, an awareness of anthropological knowledge as a dialogic process of translation—between the local and the universal, between histories and History, between the singular and the general—is in order.” These are laudable goals for imagining an anthropology that seeks to encompass diverse worlds of experience, yet the sentiment is still couched in binaries that go back to the Socratic dialogues (Plato’s Statesman) and Aristotelian philosophy (Aristotle’s Politics). World anthropology, as articulated by Ribeiro and Escobar (2006), is unfortunately not an Indigenous anthropology.

Decolonizing Anthropology, Indigenizing Anthropology

The prospect of “anthropology as an agent of transformation” was proffered in 1991 with the publication of Faye Harrison’s edited volume entitled Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Forward toward an Anthropology for Liberation. Harrison (2010) called for a transformation of anthropology wherein the discipline will champion the liberation of Third World peoples from the hegemonies of First World oppressors. Faye Harrison (2010, 1) askes in her introduction, “Can an authentic anthropology emerge from the critical intellectual traditions and counter-hegemonic struggles of Third World peoples?” The stated goal is to “encourage more anthropologists to accept the challenge of working to free the study of humankind from the prevailing forces of global inequity and dehumanization and to locate it firmly in the complex struggle for genuine transformation” (Harrison 2010, 10). Who are Third World peoples? Edmond Gordon (2010, 150) writes that included in their liberation movement are

the underdeveloped nations of the world and the people who inhabit them. I include in this definition the “minority” populations of the United States and other capitalist Western nations. These peoples of color and their communities are internal colonies. They have a relationship which is very similar to that of underdeveloped peripheral nations with the developed metropolitan nations of the West. The terms West and Western are used to designate the developed capitalist nations of North America and Europe and their dominant majority populations.

The former president of the Association of Black Anthropologists between 2008 and 2010, Kimberly Eison Simmons (2010, viii) writes, “as we look to the future, we build on this seminal work, working with scholars and activists in Africa and the African diaspora, to promote equality and to move forward on a collective agenda.” The call for a transformative anthropology through decolonizing strategies are improvements to a field of enquiry that previously tried to “reinvent” (Hymes 1969) itself and/or engage in “experimental moments” (Marcus and Fischer 1986). The decolonization stance as a Third World perspective and directive for liberatory action cuts across domains such as critique (Memmi 1967, 2006), pedagogies (Freire 1970, 1998), and cognition (Wa Thiong’o 1986). Lost in these calls for transformation was the continuous work of Fourth World peoples generally (Deloria 1988; Manuel and Posluns 2019). How do decolonizing practices address Fourth World needs?

The potential for anthropological practices to respond to Indigenous needs and interests will require transformational adjustments that empower Indigenous communities. An additive process that includes Indigenous researchers is insufficient. The stance and the action must embrace the prospects of transformation. The growing number of Indigenous scholars and the activism of Indigenous communities requires strategies to “Indigenize the academy” (Mihesuah and Wilson 2004). That will require Indigenous scholars “to carve a space where Indigenous values and knowledges are respected; to create an environment that supports research and methodologies useful to Indigenous nation building; to support one another as institutional foundations are shaken; and to compel institutional responsiveness to Indigenous issues, concerns, and communities” (Mihesuah and Wilson 2004, 2). A key aspect of Indigenizing the academy is its mandate of inclusivity. Devon Abbott Mihesuah (2004, xi) states:

This is not an “us” versus “them” book of diatribes. Many non-Indigenous readers know that as editor of the American Indian Quarterly, I have asked them to review manuscripts. They also know that I have never written or verbalized that “only Indians can write about Indians,” or that “only Indian voices should be used.” I have always taught and written that a balanced, inclusive methodology is ideal, that is, both Indigenous voices and archival sources are invaluable when writing on any topic.

Mihesuah’s balanced inclusivity is a workable coordination of epistemic and methodological model for Indigenizing anthropology.

The experiences of Indigenous peoples who become scholars and anthropologists are not a uniform collective of experiential worlds. The contours of those fields of experience will illuminate similarities and alignments as well as obscure common anxieties imposed by structural and ideological apparatuses within the academy and related institutions. These varieties of experience mandate that Indigenous anthropology must also be inclusive of varieties of Indigenous experience. Inclusivity is empowerment, and empowerment can be emancipatory.

The emancipatory potential for Indigenous anthropology is expressed as follows:

As academics committed to our nations, we must resist institutional cooptation and continue to challenge the dominant conventions of our disciplines, and at the same time we must use whatever authority, benefits, and power that derive from our positions to further promote the causes of our peoples. Our research skills, methodological training, and access to audience and resources can become instruments of power for our nations, if we choose to wield them in that way. However, we must simultaneously work to ensure that we don’t in the process become colonizing agents for colonizing institutions. This requires a reordering of the colonial power structure and an Indigenizing of the academy.

(Mihesuah and Wilson2004, 14)

Is such reordering possible for anthropology?

Toward a Fourth World Anthropology

In his journal entry of October 13, Christopher Columbus wrote of the people he first encountered: “They were all of good stature, very handsome people, with hair which is not curly but thick and flowing like a horse’s mane” (Ife 1990, 31). Yet the day before, on October 12, he wrote: “They ought to make good slaves for they are of quick intelligence since I noticed that they are quick to repeat what is said to them, and I believe that they could very easily become Christians, for it seemed to me that they had no religion of their own. God willing, when I come to leave I will bring six of them to Your Highnesses so that they may learn to speak” (Ife 1990, 31). Columbus’s first impulse is to condemn the islanders to slavery and deny them their personal, religious, and linguistic sovereignty. Yet, on second observation, he acknowledges the islanders to be “gente muy fermosa [very handsome people]” (Ife 1990, 30–31), thereby recognizing similar human qualities.

Some Indigenous oral traditions echo a similar ambivalence toward the newcomers. One Lipan Apache account describes the first observation of the strangers arriving by boat:

The boat came to the shore. The Indians went back to the big camp. All the Indians came over and watched. People were coming out. They looked at those people coming out. They saw that the people had blue eyes and were white. . . . They held a council that night. They were undecided whether they should let them live or kill them.

One leader said, “Well, they have a shape just like ours. The difference is that they have light skin and hair.”

Another said, “Let’s not kill them. They may be a help to us some day. Let’s let them go and see what they’ll do.”

(Nabakov1991, 24–25)

The participation of Indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere in activities broadly conceptualized as ethnographic is over 500 years old. First contact exchanges, encounters, and avoidances rippled across geographic domains as well as ideational domains. Records of how those encounters transformed both Indigenous communities and explorer, colonial, and settler communities can be read through textual representations, archaeological evidence, and oral histories. At first, during the “discovery” period, the observations of explorers, colonizers, and settlers presented Indigenous peoples as objects of observation and subjects of speculation. Columbus’ diary entry on October 12, 1492, was the first assault on Indigenous sovereignty that continues to undermine Indigenous communities today. The observations and ruminations of European thinkers, such as Montaigne2 and Shakespeare, continued to establish the foundations of colonial acts of direct violence expressed as extermination, removal, and assimilation as well as slow violence (Nixon 2011) of structural oppression, systemic racism, and political hegemony. Popular expressions of colonial imaginaries contributed to the mythologizing of the First Peoples of the Americas. Shakespeare’s The Tempest is an intriguing reflection of an internal debate on the “nature” of the people of the New World. Are they savages (noble or ignoble) or are they citizens of nations? Shakespeare decided they were savages by introducing the bestial and disfigured character of Caliban (Greenblatt 1990, 1997).

The centuries-long development of a Fourth World “ethicopolitical” practice (Coulthard 2019, ix) is entangled with ongoing colonial occupation of Indigenous lands. First encounter accounts reveal the stances of observers and the representations of the observed be they Indigenous peoples, explorers, conquistadors, or settlers.

Just as las Casas was a proto-ethnographer, there were Indigenous peoples who anticipated proto-Indigenous anthropology as autoethnography. The accounts of Indigenous authors were eye-witness accounts of radical transformations in Indigenous worlds. Many are heart-wrenching accounts such as William Apess’s A Son of the Forest (1997); Charles Eastman’s The Soul of an Indian (1911), Pauline Johnson’s Moccasin Maker (1998) describes nineteenth-century Indigenous caught in the tension between tradition and assimilatory forces, Arthur C. Parker’s publications on Seneca histories and myths. Storytellers (see Nabakov 1991 for broad representation of Indigenous voices) provided accounts of radical transformations in Indigenous worlds. Many of these Indigenous authors were also leaders in coordinating their political activism on behalf of their communities across many social, cultural, and political domains. Meanwhile, there were many Indigenous peoples working with anthropologists and other scholars to record Native American cultural practices and collecting material cultural items during the period of salvage anthropology.

The Bureau of American Ethnology (1879) and American anthropology was in its initial development as a unified field of enquiry (Thomas 2000). Those early years created new “encounters” with Indigenous communities while archaeological surveys and ethnological research were taking place. As pioneer Franz Boas was organizing schools of anthropology and placing his students in key positions, he continued to work with Indigenous community members on documentation projects. One such project was the 1927–1931 collection and documentation of Lakota texts by Ella Deloria. Boas mentored Ella Deloria in the editing of the texts for “style and readability” (DeMallie 2006, v.) as Deloria transcribed Lakota stories from community members. The resultant publication Lakota Texts in 1932 is “the single most important publication on the oral literature of the Sioux” (DeMallie 2006, v). Deloria received “intensive training in phonetic transcription” from Boas “in preparation for linguistic recording of texts and analysis of the grammar” (DeMallie 2006, xi). DeMallie (2006, xiii) points out the core contribution of Deloria’s work, “These are not tales retold for western audiences; they follow structures and devices of Lakota storytelling conventions. In the mythic narrative tradition, Deloria notes, listeners understood the cultural references without explanation.” Deloria’s study of Lakota texts were only part of her ethnographic interests in “kinship, family, and the maintenance of social order; and religion, particularly expressed in ceremony” (DeMallie 2006, vii). DeMallie (2006: xi) notes that her “insider” status as a native engaged in ethnographic research in a community of relatives was a “mixed blessing.” Deloria was a researcher embedded in a particular moment in American anthropology, but her experience would be echoed by native anthropologists to follow.

Of Edward Dozier, Paul V. Kroskrity (2000, 330) writes:

In 1949, when Edward P. Dozier ascended the then narrow path up to First Mesa of the Hopi Reservation in northeastern Arizona, he began a remarkable but unappreciated episode in the history of anthropological confrontations with various forms of identity. Dozier, a Tewa Indian from Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico, was one of the earliest “native” anthropologists. He studied the Arizona Tewa descendants of transplanted Southern Tewas who had abandoned colonial New Mexico in the wake of the Second Pueblo Revolt of 1696.

Kroskrity (2000, 15) approaches Dozier’s work through the lens of language ideologies whereby Dozier’s training created “confusion” and misrecognition” of “Arizona Tewa pattern of multiethnic and multilingual adaptation to the Hopi majority on both First Mesa and the Hopi Reservation more generally.” As Kroskrity (2000: 357) notes, Dozier incorporated his training too well and was “deafened” by “his uncritical use of then current ideologies of language and culture context.” The danger for a native anthropologist lies in “uncritically attending to ‘professional’ anthropological linguistic ideologies that desensitized him to multilingualism and language use and insisted on an ‘acculturation’ theory perspective in which assimilation was an implicitly assumed ideal” (Kroskrity 2000, 357). In short, a native can go anthropologist!

The danger of going anthropologist is ever present but it need not be assured (Perley 2013). Beatrice Medicine (2001, 7) was inspired by the example of her aunt, Ella Deloria, as she learned about the work her aunt was doing: “Aunt Ella’s participation in a world far removed from Standing Rock Reservation where she lectured ‘about Lakota’ presented a model I found attractive.” She explains how difficult it was for her to identify as an anthropologist to fellow Lakota, especially after the publication of Vine Deloria Jr.’s Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (1973); “Recently, many students—particularly Native Americans—have been dazzled by Vine Deloria, Jr.s’ scathing attack on ‘anthros’ as we are called by most Native Americans” (Medicine 2001, 3). Despite the criticism she also identified why anthropology was an affiliation she could manage: “I know I went into anthropology to try and make living more fulfilling for Indians” as well as to make “anthropological application meaningful to Indians and others” (Medicine 2001, 14). Her essay “Learning to Be an Anthropologist and Remaining Native” was originally published in 1978 is significant for the time it was published as well as the venue, Applied Anthropology in America: Past Contributions and Future Directions (Eddy and Partridge 1978). Medicine (2001, 14) acknowledges the difficult position a native anthropologist must negotiate: “To an anthropologist from the Native enclave, kin affiliation is often within both spheres of social structure, necessitating a constant reassessment of power and emotional alliances.” In the same essay, Medicine (2001, 5) writes about an emerging alignment of a nascent Indigenous anthropology:

The late Edward Dozier, a Pueblo anthropologist, once commented that many Native Americans “went into anthropology as a means of helping their people” (summer 1948). This suggests strong interest in the application of anthropological knowledge and is tied to the Native idea of education, no matter in what field, as a means of alleviating problems and providing self-help among Native groups.

Deloria, Dozier, and Medicine are just three of many Indigenous people who found themselves navigating the tensions between the Western epistemic project of “knowledge of the world” and their own Indigenous experiences of the world. The roles of informant, participant, and native anthropologist were blurred in actual practice, but most of their contributions were rendered invisible by the professionalization project of the emerging field of North American anthropology. Meanwhile, by the time Medicine’s essay was published in 1978 the broad outlines of what was developing as Indigenous anthropology started to take shape. Key outlines include what will later be echoed as “research with, by, and for Indigenous peoples,” structures of power and emotional alliances, and knowledge applicable to empowering self-determination for Indigenous communities.

How would an Indigenous anthropology look? Perhaps archaeology can provide clues. Choctaw archaeologist Joe Watkins (2000) outlines his hope for a colonial epistemic practice to be more responsive to American Indian values. Written at the end of the 20th century, Watkins attempts to reconcile scientific practice with Indigenous values. He writes:

The hope for an indigenous archaeology rests on groups who know how to use the system to get the results they want as well as on those who will push to modify that system to better fit the beliefs of indigenous people. By determining the path of the programs that study the early populations of their area, indigenous populations can influence not only the outcomes of those programs but also the extent and quality of knowledge obtained. Through their influence, the discipline can rise beyond the image it currently carries as an esoteric discipline producing data of benefit to no one other than archaeologists.

(Watkins2000, 177)

Watkins outlined an ambitious program, with the knowledge that a great deal is at stake not only for the discipline but also for Indigenous peoples. His concluding comment echoes Kant’s project but from across the ocean:

That is what archaeology needs more than ever, a spirit of humanity, a driving desire to find out about the personality of the past. That is what indigenous archaeology can bring to the discipline. A viewpoint that refuses to be “objective” and embraces the emotional, one that pursues not “truth” but understanding, and one that includes all facets of what it is to be human on the brink of an exciting adventure. (Watkins 2000, 180–181)

Watkins’ exciting adventure would prompt him to appraise the development of archaeology seven years later with a personal statement of dispassionate representation: “In this chapter I have worked as much to present my professional perspectives on repatriation as a mechanism for opening archaeology as I have worked to keep my personal perspectives out of it” (Watkins 2007, 176). He tepidly concludes, “I have no doubt that as archaeology more fully understands Indigenous perspectives, and as Indigenous people more fully understand archaeological ones, repatriation (as an action and a concept) will continue to exert a profound influence on the direction and form that archaeology will take” (Watkins 2007, 176–177). His strategy to keep his personal perspectives out of the conversation, and to be dispassionate in his representation, runs counter to his earlier admonition that Indigenous archaeology would transform a colonial scientific imperialist project into one that “embraces the emotional” for the pursuit of “understanding” (Watkins 2007, 163) A chapter by Dorothy Lippert (2007) in the same volume takes a different approach. She writes of the tension of her Indigenous background and her chosen field of research:

As archaeologists, we are intellectually drawn to the scientific, scholarly study of the ancient past of the Americas. But as Native Americans, we are drawn to the ancient people because they are our ancestors. They have waited thousands of years to tell their stories.

(Lippert 2007, 154)

Lippert alerts the reader that her relationship to the ancestors is scientific as well as emotional. She describes the value of this affective stance toward the discipline:

The Native perspective on the remains of our ancestors as something more than cold white bones forces us to conduct our research in a different way. The development of Indigenous archaeology as a canon has provided a safe haven for our scholarship, and those of us who claim Indigenous identity are buoyed by the support of the non-Indigenous archaeologists who paved the way for this movement.

(Lippert 2007, 158).

This is an important acknowledgement of prior conversations and advocacy from non-Indigenous archaeologists who transformed archaeology toward a humanistic science (Lippert 2007, 160).

The example of how an Indigenous archaeology provides a way forward for an Indigenous anthropology is summed up by Sonya Atalay (2012, 40): “By engaging critically with what it means to decolonize research and to indigenize the academy, these scholars lay out a framework for Native American and Indigenous Studies: Research must be done with, by, and for Indigenous communities.” Atalay explains:

Indigenous methodology is . . . research by and for indigenous peoples using techniques and methods drawn from the traditions of those peoples. This set of approaches simply rejects research on indigenous communities that uses exclusively positivistic, reductionist, and objectivist rationales as irrelevant at best, colonialist most of the time, and demonstrably pernicious as a matter of course. Rather than nonindigenous peoples framing indigenous worldview from a distance, IM (Indigenous methodology) situates and is reflected on by research/researchers at the location most relevant to that being gazed on, the indigenous experience.

(Atalay 2012, 40, quoting Evans et al. 2009, 894)

It is clear from the Indigenous archaeology perspective that the field continues to evolve with conversations among Indigenous archaeologists, Indigenous communities, and non-Indigenous professionals and communities as well. The dictum “research with, by, and for Indigenous communities” is tantalizing as an ethicopolitical practice for what can become an Indigenous anthropology. Yet one constraint that the preceding discussion has had to work within is using a colonial language to articulate Indigenous worldviews. Can an Indigenous anthropology “liberate” itself from this colonial constraint?

This article is not intended to be a snapshot of a particular practice that falls under the rubric “anthropology.” It is an invitation to open the discipline by setting aside the easy formula of adding another adjective of marginality to a colonial hegemonic noun; indigenous + anthropology = more of the same. Instead, it is necessary to consider transforming Kant’s program of “knowledge of the world” from the perspective of the West and find a new epistemic stance and praxis. As George Manuel and Michael Posluns (2019, 261) remind us:

The Fourth World is far more of a Long March than an Eternal Resting Place. My faith is that we, and our children’s children, are willing and able to take up that burden of our history and set out on our journey. . . . The Fourth World is no less open to others than it is to us. We must each march to our own drums. We must each travel in our own way. . . . We cannot become equal members in your society. We can become a member of a new society in which everyone chooses to share. But that cannot happen until you begin to reconsider and reformulate your understanding, and your view of the world, as we have begun to reformulate ours.

In the anticipated “new society” how would Indigenous anthropology sound? In Maliseet, an Eastern Algonquian language of the Wabanaki people, it would sound like skicinowok elawsohltitit (the way Indigenous peoples live). If the epistemic focus is expanded to include all peoples, then it would become pəmawsowok elawsohltitit (the way all people live). If the process is described as an emergent constellation of subjectivities and praxis, then it would become ntəkəkimsin pəmawsowakən elawsohltitit. A Fourth World anthropology as a critical Indigenous praxis voiced in and on their terms is highly anticipated.

Further Reading

  • Allen, Stephen, and Alexandra Xanthaki. 2011. Reflections on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Oxford: Hart Publishing.
  • Byrd, Jodi A. 2011. The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Ciccariello-Maher, George. 2017. Decolonizing Dialectics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • Fricker, Miranda. 2007. Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Greymorning, Neyooxet, ed. 2019. Being Indigenous: Perspectives on Activism, Culture, Language and Identity. New York: Routledge.
  • Mignolo, Walter D., and Catherine E. Walsh. 2018. On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.


  • Anaya, S. James. 1996. Indigenous Peoples in International Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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  • Aristotle. 1978. Politics. In The Works of Aristotle, Vol. 1, 179–356. Minneapolis, MN: The Franklin Library, Franklin Center.
  • Atalay, Sonya. 2012. Community-Based Archaeology: Research with, by, and for Indigenous and Local Communities. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Coulthard, Glen. 2019. “Introduction: A Fourth World Resurgent.” In The Fourth World: An Indian Reality. Edited by George Manuel and Michael Posluns, ix–xxxiv. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • de la Cadena, Marisol. 2006. “The Production of Other Knowledges and Its Tensions.” In World Anthropologies: Disciplinary Transformations within Systems of Power. Edited by Gustavo Lins Ribeiro and Arturo Escobar, 201–224. Oxford: Berg.
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  • 1. Critical analysis of a global Indigenous movement is based on Manfred B. Steger’s definition of globalization (Steger 2017).

  • 2. See Montaigne (2014a) for his mediation on cultural relativism and New World utopias. See also Montaigne (2014b) for meditation on items of personal conveyance, princely authority, and an account of the fall of Cuzco and “Mexico” and a savagery of the Spaniards .