I attended a teach-in last evening co-organized by members of the UC Berkeley American Indian Graduate Student Association (AIGSA) and faculty from the Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies Department (TDPS) regarding the play, Ishi: The Last Yahi produced by TDPS. Here is a link to an apology written by TDSP Chair, Peter Glazer, and published inThe Daily Californian. The play, which closed this past weekend, raised the ire of Native American students at Cal and California tribal community members alike. I was unable to attend the play and so I will refrain from making my own analysis here of the play and scenes that apparently portrayed in a highly fictionalized account Ishi and his sister as incestuous, Ishi as a rapist, and the killing of a resulting baby. The scenes particularly offended many in the UC Berkeley Native American community. Ishi is the name given by UC Berkeley anthropologist Alfred Kroeber to the man (“ishi” meant “man” in his indigenous language) who emerged from the wilderness near Oroville, California in 1911. Ishi was the last survivor of his particular group, although cultural relatives survived then and today.
In response, three Berkeley graduate students and AIGSA members, Tria Andrews (ethnic studies), Kayla Carpenter (linguistics), and Peter Nelson (anthropology) wrote an op-ed, “American Indian graduate student association calls for art with ethics,” also published in The Daily Cal. The students analyze key problems with the play. Nelson is a student in my graduate seminar, Indigenous, feminist, and postcolonial approaches to science, technology, and environment, and a promising young Native American archaeologist who does such work precisely to help his California tribal community participate more fully and critically in repatriation and cultural resource management. During the teach-in he called attention to a persistent problem in both scholarly and popular representations of Native Americans: the stories told by whites about Native Americans are really usually about white people themselves, their own angst, and their own histories and identities. But why must native peoples, our bodies and histories, repeatedly serve as the raw materials upon which Euro-Americans explore their own identities and past, especially in ways that seem to forget that we are still here? Who presumes the authority to tell which stories, how, and to which ends?
Unlike social and natural scientists, actors, directors, and scriptwriters can produce knowledge (fiction too is knowledge) without adhering to the kind of informed consent and increasingly collaboration with the human subjects caught up in their productions. I am not calling for artists to be held to the same human subjects protocols as we in the “hard” and “soft” sciences are held. Rather, I reiterate the question posed by Berkeley graduate student Tria Andrews at the end of the teach-in last evening: “Do we produce art just for the sake of art? Or do we want to become better human beings? What kind of human do you want to be?” Her questions, to my ear, asked for more self-reflexivity and accountability by artists and writers to those whom they make the objects of their knowledge production. Andrews’ questions challenge us profoundly. With artistic (and academic) freedom, she and other graduate students noted, comes responsibility.
In a similar analytical vein, I just published with my colleague, Jenny Reardon (sociology and biomolecular science and engineering, UC Santa Cruz) an article in Current Anthropology, “Your DNA is Our History.” Genomics, Anthropology, and the Construction of Whiteness as Property. Our article takes on some of the same issues that Peter Nelson calls attention to, but as they pervade the fields of biological anthropology and human population genetics. Reardon and I and the scholars on whom we draw answer that question of why not only Native American lands and valuable resources, but also bodies, histories, and cultures are continuously appropriated by whites in their research, always a kind of storytelling. While whiteness and blackness have been defined in the U.S. American racial imagination as mutually exclusive, American Indians were racialized differently in relation to whiteness. Native Americans have been seen as culturally ancestral to whites, and during an earlier racial science regime as farther along on that road to civilization than Africans were seen to be. Our biological and cultural patrimony were then seen as the rightful inheritance of whites and a white nation that sought to use them on the road to greater development. The 19th century doctrine of Manifest Destiny–that moral imperative for the U.S. to develop–has appropriation in common with the 21st-century scientific imperative to produce knowledge “for the good of all.” But as both genetic science and this recent incarnation of the Ishi story show, such knowledge serves the needs and desires of some in our society more than others, and too often at the expense of those others.
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