History, Ethnohistory and Oral History: The Ethnographer's Dilemma
Daniel L. Boxberger, Western Washington University
February 27, 2003
While conducting research for the National Park Service I became painfully aware of the limitations of the ethnographic data base. The type of site-specific information that is required for Park management is generally not available in the published and archival data. The changing nature of what constitutes "traditional cultural meaning and value," the changing perceptions of what constitutes proper ethnographic research and the changing context of the role of ethnography in the discipline of anthropology further exacerbate what I am calling the "ethnographer's dilemma." Clifford Geertz once said "ethnographies are made, not found," what he was referring to constitute a number of methodological problems encountered by the anthropologist when gathering and analyzing ethnographic data. Ethnography is what we do as anthropologists, but it is only the first step. Ethnography is the descriptive data used to answer research questions and to represent and transform theory. We cannot assume that ethnography is objective or static, to do so creates a false reality concerning the reliability and timeless nature of ethnography.
Drawing on two case studies, San Juan Island National Historical Park and North Cascades National Park, I argue that we must approach the ethnographic data of traditionally associated populations from the methodological perspective of "anthropological political economy," that is, of the construction, reconstruction and reception of ethnographic texts (Roseberry 1989). By analyzing the three main sources of the ethnographer's data base, ethnography, historical documents and oral history, I highlight important considerations that should be included in the research strategy.
There is a wealth of ethnographic and historic data for the North Cascades mountain range and San Juan Island archipelago. The ethnographic and historic data each consist of three main types. The early ethnography from the 1890s to 1950s primarily consists of descriptive data organized into broad cultural categories. The data collection of this era of American anthropology was driven by the need to gather information for museum interpretation and comparative studies. During the 1950s anthropologists were employed to gather ethnohistoric data to use as evidence for tribal claims brought before the Indian Claims Commission. These studies attempted to create tribal boundaries, evaluate areas of intensive use and document the loss of land and resource rights. The Indian Claims Commission studies relied on available ethnographic data supplemented with historical documents and limited fieldwork. More recently site-specific research has been undertaken by researchers working on behalf of public and private clients. This project-driven research is narrowly focused and is conducted for specific needs and is therefore limited in coverage. The historic data consists of reports of early explorers and traders that offers only passing glimpses into the lives of Native people. Subsequent historic data comes from Euro American settlers who make little notice of Native peoples. The third type of historic data is secondary works which rely on the previous two sources. Because of the specific purposes for which these documents were produced they are necessarily limited in use for research needed by the Park Service today. Consequently it is necessary that oral histories be collected to fill in the gaps in the data base.
When putting the ethnographic data base to work I rely on the practice of the new historicism (Vincent 1991). With any text—written or oral—I first ask the questions: Who created it? Why was it created? Who was the intended audience? What is it not telling me? Then I engage a set of practices outlined by Vincent (1991: 46-49). The first practice is skepticism which questions the traditional role of ethnography in anthropology. Second is contextualism, which looks at ethnography as a historical phenomenon that must be associated with social, political and material realities. Processualism, the third practice, looks at how specific ethnography is read at different times. Fourth, criticism recognizes that some works come to be regarded as classics, contrary evidence notwithstanding. Finally, engagement looks at our own personal agenda, recognizing that no one is impartial or apolitical.
From my perception ethnography is history and history comes in a variety of forms. We use ethnographies other anthropologists have written, we use archival data, we collect oral histories and all of these are woven together to tell a story about a people for a specific purpose. The purpose becomes a primary concern as it is the motivation for the production of ethnography. By continuously reminding ourselves of the methodological issues in ethnographic research we will produce results with more useful outcomes. Similarly, the works we produce today will be inadequate for future needs, emphasizing the point that ethnography is an on-going process.
The first practice is skepticism, questioning the traditional idea in anthropology that ethnography is a product, and the ethnographer a producer. William Roseberry argued that ethnographers might be looked at from the perspective of an anthropological political economy. We are producing commodities for a market, in this case, the National Park Service. The agency has certain expectations, the ethnographer has certain expectations and the people we work with have certain expectations. Skepticism brings to light several issues. First is writing against our predecessors. Anthropology is an institution that describes culture and as such our predecessors have set out certain ideas that we inherit and have to deal with on one level or another. Secondly we consider who owns the data? That has long been a question of applied anthropologists. When we produce information for a product, who does that information belong to? Do you own it, do people that you work with own it? Or does the park service own it? Of course, all of those are true. Third we must recognize that ethnography is not a static thing. It can be read different ways at different times. It is not a product that states the ultimate truth and is an endpoint, rather it is a process that is ongoing. Writing against our predecessors is something we had to deal with immediately in launching the work at both San Juan Island and North Cascades. This is just a clip from a study of North Cascades that was done for the Park Service about thirty-five years ago.
[The goal of this research is] to assemble from the ethnographic and ethnohistoric literature…data descriptive of the lifeways of these native groups in late protohistoric and early postcontact days, the "traditional" period as this term is employed in this study….
Since this work was conducted ethnographic research strategies have changed and National Park Service management needs have changed. Obviously for a study of traditionally associated peoples this approach would be inadequate. When I argue that we must write against our predecessors I am merely saying that is part of the process of doing ethnography, because ideas change, perceptions change and needs change.
The second is contextualism. This is one of the most important aspects of producing ethnography, that is, understanding the context in which we operate and in which the materials we produce are utilized. Ethnography is a historical phenomenon; it must be understood in the context of its social, political, and material realities. There are numerous examples of this, for example, the idea that we can produce full scale total ethnographies has long been abandoned. Ethnography is more focused, more specific in its attempt to serve present needs. The idea that ethnography is a product of its time is an important concept that we continue to think about as we do the research we do. We must become familiar with the intellectual landscape. What have previous ethnographers in our area of study contributed? In the Pacific Northwest there are some classic works that have come to be considered the ultimate statement of what the ethnography of the area is, even though cultures change, perceptions change, and research strategies change.
Ethnography, once it is produced, becomes frozen in time, and while culture is not a static thing the ethnographic account becomes static, and like a historical document, it becomes a slice of time. One of the issues that the new historicism has focused on is reconsidering the credibility of documents and questioning why they were produced, who produced them, what was the purpose of producing them. The same applies to ethnography, who produced it, what was their training, why did they produce it, what could be done, and who was the intended audience? We recognize that the way we write ethnography for the Park Service is very different then the way we write ethnography for other purposes.
The third point is processualism. All of these -isms of course relate to similar types of issues considering the various components of ethnography and recognizing the importance of the reader in the production, reception, and reproduction of ethnography. The way an ethnography produced in 1950 was read at the time is very different than the way we read it over 50 years later or the way it was read 25 years ago. The reader brings different perceptions, different concepts, different ideas, and different purposes. Much of the ethnographic data base concerning us here was produced in the time when ethnography was descriptive. Often any culture traits that were reasoned to be introduced from the outside were filtered out. The problem of historicizing Native cultures is one that ethnohistory has been debating in recent decades. This critical work has emphasized the importance of placing Native cultures within the context of the political and economic reality of which they are a part.
Criticism is fourth. While there is value to historicizing ethnography and looking at why we produce ethnography the way we do, inevitably it leads to working against works that have come to be classic statements. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, June Collins's work on the Upper Skagit, Wayne Suttles's work on the Lummi, Erna Gunther's work on the Klallam and William Elmendorf's work on the Twana are classic works in mid-twentieth century ethnography. These works have become classics because their ideas are valued. Their ideas are considered the truth. In the ethnographic community, ethnographies become the final statement. In trying to dispel notions, things like land use, resource use, a variety of other issues that we have to deal with today, it becomes contentious to present information in a way that is in conflict with classic sources of information. How do we dispel these notions that are presented as ethnographic "truths?"
For example, one of the issues I dealt with working in the North Cascades is the long-held ethnographic notion of fixed tribal territories and limited use of high mountain areas. Much of the ethnography conducted on behalf of the Indian Claims Commission in the 1950s and 1960s was focused on fixing tribal territories. Federal agencies view these adjudicated areas as aboriginal possession for such purposes as implementing the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. How do you deal with ethnography that disagrees? We must consider other sources of information, such as historic documentation that mentions the user groups, such as early explorers who employed Native American guides, and more recent ethnography collected for project-driven research.
Last, is engagement. This is the idea of reflecting on our own agendas, whatever they might be, as well as that of other interested parties. We recognizing that ethnography is a process with a purpose, that we all bring into it our own biases. The idea that ethnography is an objective science that we can do outside the realms of other influences has long been abandoned. Ethnography is inherently political. In the Northwest the treaty fishing rights controversies have directed much of the recent ethnographic research. Treaty fishing rights are limited to federally-recognized treaty tribes fishing in their "usual and accustomed areas." In conducting ethnographic research for the Park Service, however, we engage in research with other groups, including non-recognized tribes, non-treaty tribes and Canadian tribes. Often treaty tribes see research of this nature as a threat to their access to a limited resource base. The fear is that if other tribes exert rights to land and resources then it will diminish the access of the treaty tribes. Whether these fears are unfounded or not is not the issue. Clearly the research strategy is driven by the ethnographer's engagement with a variety of traditionally associated peoples.
The purpose of this presentation was to outline some of the methodological issues the researcher encounters when conducting ethnographic research on traditionally associated peoples. It was not meant as a criticism of previous ethnographic work or of Park Service activities. Rather it was meant to outline the concerns we carry into our research projects. By being aware of the limitations of the ethnographic data base and the implications of the research activity a more rounded picture of Park associated peoples will unfold.
Boxberger, Daniel L.
- 1993 An Archival and Oral History Inventory of Cultural Resources in the Klickitat and White Salmon Wild and Scenic River Areas. Hood River, OR: National Forest Service, Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
- 1994 San Juan Island National Historical Park: Cultural Affiliation Study. Seattle: National Park Service, Pacific Northwest Region.
- 1996 An Ethnographic Overview and Assessment of North Cascades National Park Service Complex. Seattle: National Park Service, Pacific Northwest Region.
- 1998 The Legal Context of Native American Land and Resource Use in Mount Rainier National Park. Seattle, WA: National Park Service, Columbia-Cascades Cluster.
- 2000 Cultural Affiliation Study of the Kennewick Human Remains: Review of Traditional Historical and Ethnographic Information. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service.
- 1998 Anthropologies and Histories: Essays in Culture, History, and Political Economy. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Smith, Allan H.
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- 1991 "Engaging Historicism." In Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present. Richard G. Fox, ed. Santa Fe NM: SAR Press.