From November 10 to 13, I attended the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), which was held in Seattle, Washington. The AAA is the largest anthropological association in the world. It is a scholarly and professional organization, and three-quarters of its members are academics—either professors or students.
The AAA, unlike the other major anthropological associations, covers all four fields of anthropology: cultural, linguistic, physical, and archaeological. One might, thus, expect sessions that combined these four fields, but the session titled “Seeking Continuity in a Dynamic Discipline: Scientific Anthropology’s Traditional Four Fields,” in which I presented with linguist Glynn Custred, archaeologist Timothy Ives, and cultural anthropologists Roland Alum and Christopher Hallpike, was the only four-field session in the entire conference. My own area of research is best described as physical anthropology: I study skeletal remains from archaeological sites.
I was looking forward to attending the conference, since this would have been the first large conference that I attended in person since the beginning of COVID. I also had the great pleasure of meeting Glynn Custred and Timothy Ives in person. Yet, unfortunately, the conference’s hybrid setup, which included virtual on-demand sessions, live-streaming sessions, and live sessions, seemed to have thinned out the crowds, and none of the sessions were particularly well attended. Sunday’s sessions, which are always emptier than usual, were downright destitute.
Me and retired professor of linguistic anthropology Glynn Custred.
I made a special effort to attend sessions each day, looking specifically for sessions that dealt with human remains. However, if I had thought that there may be some interesting physical or archaeological sessions to attend, I was quickly disabused of that notion.
There were many red flags indicating that this conference would have a greater emphasis on the political trends of anti-colonialism, indigenous knowledge, and atonement for past behavior. For instance, there were nearly eighty sessions that used the keyword “decolonization” and over seventy sessions that used the term “white supremacy” (none of these were ethnographic studies on actual white supremacist groups, such as the Aryan Brotherhood). Session titles included:
• “Pronouns, Bottoms, Cat-Ears And Cuerpes, Girl: For An Intersectional Trans Linguistic Anthropology”
• “Unsettling Whiteness: Race And Religion In The United States”
• “On Indigenous People’s Terms: Unsettling Landscapes Through Remapping Practices”
• “Unsettling Queer Anthropology: Critical Genealogies and Decolonizing Futures”
At registration, you could ask for a “comfort ribbon” to indicate whether you preferred 1) handshakes, 2) elbow bumps, or 3) six feet of distance between you and others. The list of “the AAA Principles of Professional Responsibility,” which was prominently posted at entrances, starts with the line: “Do No Harm.” There were also signs stating that attendees shouldn’t use “scented personal care products” to ensure that those with “chemical sensitivities” could attend the conference in comfort.
COVID precautions and comfort ribbons.
One particularly ironic talk was about online mothers’ groups whose members teach their children to have bodily autonomy to be able to say no to relatives’ physical affection (such as a grandmother’s hug or kiss). Her research basically involved joining an online group and teaching her own son that it is okay to say no to affection—this type of ‘anthropology of the self’ is a new and disappointing trend. (Most famously, it included a paper in which an anthropologist kept a masturbation diary about his self-pleasure while viewing Japanese anime-pornography. Another such example, in which an anthropologist wrote about her yoga exercises, was published in Anthropology News.) Yet, the anthropologist-mother was aghast when, after COVID-related isolation, her toddler did not seem to want affection from black people. She worried that her son was racist, but the leader of the online mother group she joined tried to reassure her that the child was just young and would grow out of it!
Many speakers began by describing themselves—ostensibly to make the sessions more accessible for the visually impaired—stating their hair color, their skin color, what they were wearing (some of whom got this wrong!), their height (some of whom exaggerated their height!), and, of course, their pronouns. For instance, in the session titled “Unsettling Whiteness: Race And Religion In The United States,” Nalika Gajaweera began by stating, “I’m a woman of South Asian descent. I have brown skin and black longish hair. I’m wearing a gray jacket [but she was actually wearing a yellow top], glasses and brown slacks. My pronouns are she/her.” Ironically, this was sometimes the most interesting thing these people had to say!
On Wednesday, I attended a session titled “Unsettling Legacies In And Of Biological Anthropology’s Landscape.” This session—which started with a “Land Back Acknowledgement” explaining the history of the land on which the conference was held and the supposed continued colonization of the land—contained the only interesting talk that I saw at the AAA conference. This talk was on the analysis of hair to reconstruct past lives, such as those of the Capa Cocha children who were sacrificed 500–700 years ago by the Inca in Peru. Benjamin Schaefer, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois Chicago and The Field Museum of Natural History, discussed how hair can reveal stress levels through an examination of its cortisol and other hormones. By looking at where on the shaft this change in hormone levels occurs, one can estimate how long before death the stress affected the deceased. His conclusion was that the Capa Cocha sacrifices were extremely stressful events, equivalent to a major stroke, which contradicts the narrative that these children were treated royally and went peacefully. He further assessed that the sacrifices occurred when the populations themselves were dealing with stresses, such as famines.
Yet, Schaefer’s “content warnings” distracted from the interesting science he presented. He had a yellow star on the corner of certain slides to indicate that the next slide would contain images of human remains (and, thus, that we could look away if these images were disturbing to us). Yet, often the images of human remains did not come right after a slide with a yellow star (which was a little disappointing, as I was looking forward to seeing the next mummy). Furthermore, he began the talk by discussing the movement to end hair discrimination, which was completely irrelevant to his topic. I’ve written about Harvard’s repatriation of hair and how this results in the loss of yet another way to understand the past. Schaefer’s work illustrates the importance of this type of data; I can imagine that it may also be useful in forensics.
Ryan Harrod, who was at the University of Alaska Anchorage and is now dean of academic affairs and chief academic officer at Garrett College, was once a favorite researcher of mine. His research on the bioarchaeology of violence, which examined the skeletal evidence of violence with a focus on Southwest Native American cultures, such as the Pueblo and Aztec Indians, was fascinating work that combined skeletal analyses with environmental effects to look at the bigger picture of pre-Colonial interpersonal aggression. Thus, his talk was perhaps the most disappointing of all. He did not show any photos and lamented that his photos of human remains showing evidence of violence had been published in a variety of books and articles. His “reflexive” talk was a mea culpa for the ‘past sins’ of conducting research of which Native Americans do not approve. Although his talk was meant to center on missing human remains from the early twentieth century that never made it to museums, his focus was really on apologizing for his past work on violence, status, and resilience—which he said were big-picture questions that enabled him to get publications and tenure.
Upon asking Native American tribal members, such as Zuni elders, what they want anthropologists to do, Harrod learned that the Native Americans are interested in learning about “each individual,” not just the interesting individuals. They are definitely not interested in learning about past acts of violence. The elders provide most of the information on the remains, since if there is no pathology, trauma, or other interesting variant, anthropologists are at a loss to say much about the remains beyond sex and age. Harrod noted that he will likely not be able to publish his new work, but as he said, “I feel less guilty!” This cowardly approach saps anthropology of the interesting stories that the past can tell us and replaces them with mundane tales from elders that have no bearing on past lives. One wonders why Harrod made this startling turn-around and whether his movement to a community college reflected his atonement.
In the session titled “(Dis)Placing The Dead, (Un)Earthing The Truth: The Politics Of Death, Graves And Grief,” Leslie Sabiston, a professor at McGill University, discussed missing indigenous Canadians from recent history to the present. Although his abstract noted that archaeological remains would also be covered, he really did not address this issue, besides pointing to the close location and layout of an archaeological site.
In his talk, Sabiston tried to connect the “255 surreptitious burials” associated with the residential Indian schools in Kamloops, British Columbia, with current deaths and missing indigenous young adults in Canada. Sabiston’s bias against residential schools was evident, especially in the question-and-answer period. He said, “the whole reason for residential schools is to destroy indigenous life.” Although there is no evidence of any suspicious graves associated with Kamloops residential school, Sabiston noted that the ground-penetrating radar (GPR), which he claims is now a sacred tool imbued with ancestral knowledge, has shown anthropologists where the graves are. Thus, the ancestors are guiding the GPR to find the graves and are using it to talk to the anthropologists!
Asking for evidence of bodies, according to Sabiston, plays to “right-wing pundits.” Never mind the fact that not a single individual has been excavated. There is also evidence that the ground disturbances are not grave-related. And, if there are bodies that were surreptitiously buried, then some of these burial sites would be considered crime scenes, since they didn’t happen all that long ago (perhaps as recently as the early 1980s). Murder cases going back decades are solved regularly, especially with advances in DNA technology. Yet, if one questions the validity of claims regarding clandestine graves, Sabiston’s response is that “skepticism is violence.”
In her talk on missing and deceased people in Mexico, Marina Alamo Bryan, a PhD student at Columbia University, gave some startling statistics: since 2006, 100,000 people have gone missing in Mexico. In 2014, 43 students were captured and murdered in Mexico through collusion between the police and the cartel. These tragic circumstances should be studied by both forensic anthropologists and cultural anthropologists, to dissect how such events can be prevented. Bryan’s talk, however, took an ‘artistic’ approach. Instead of examining the remains or sites through forensic methods, and instead of providing us with narratives from the grieving mothers, Bryan showed us three sonographs: one from a rooster’s crow at a mass grave site, one from the sound of protestors, and one of onions frying at the church where searchers gather. This is the new anthropology—an avoidance of meaningful images and hard questions—which leads to inane research devoid of meaning.
In the session titled “Co-Creating An Anti-Colonial Cultural Sector,” speakers discussed their efforts to “decolonize” museums through repatriation efforts in Hawaii, Colorado, and British Columbia. In each of these cases, the speakers accused the museums of causing emotional pain to indigenous people, continuing colonial activities, and serving as institutes of “white supremacy.” In the case of the Hawaiian tribes, Halena Kapuni-Reynolds, a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii, noted that decolonizing collections lays bare the “colonial harms.” One indigenous collaborator he quoted said that “work for the non-indigenous is to get up every day and contribute to healing our field,” and that the indigenous should be able to take multiple days off to cope with the trauma of working with these collections. The same collaborator noted that it is not enough to “comply with the law” regarding repatriation.
But it isn’t just the repatriation of artifacts and bones. Emily Leischner, PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia, talked of ceding audio recordings made by the Bella Coola (or Nuxalk) of British Columbia. Leischner, who described herself as a “white settler” from a “multigeneration of settlers [and] ancestor-farmers,” noted that captured audio (even when the indigenous sold these recordings) evinces an “extraction mindset” akin to mining resources from the land. In her work with the Nuxalk, Leischner decided not to record any of the interviews, so as not to continue the legacy of extraction. An audience member voiced the concern that when we lose the ability to collect data, we have gone too far, and that we are “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”
It’s interesting to note that speakers discussed the financial gains for the tribes and the high price of returning items. For instance, to bring one hat and one ‘talking stick’ to an indigenous community within driving distance of the museum costs around $10,000. Jennifer Kramer, a professor at the University of British Columbia, said that returning materials, such as coming-of-age garb, is essential because the indigenous tribes don’t know what the garb should look like, even though the materials have only been gone for less than eighty years in some cases. What happened to the rich oral traditions that helped the indigenous reconstruct the past better than anthropologists can?
In British Columbia, the indigenous community has control over funds, and it is the anthropologists who must ask for reimbursements. The money ends up in the indigenous communities, so it is no wonder that one indigenous collaborator noted that anthropologists can never finish the process of redressing the harms caused by the museums. Most disturbingly, Leischner acknowledged that the Nuxalk are “constantly reinterpreting” what is sacred, what is important, and, therefore, what will be taken out of museums and delivered to the tribes at exorbitant prices.
It seems as if anthropology lies in ruins. Much has gone into the demolition work, including talks about oneself, an avoidance of traditional scientific methods, a lack of imagery, a preoccupation with current political fads, and a self-hatred of the field’s history. Even the opening-night keynote speakers, Antone Minthorn and Colin Fogarty, are not anthropologists. Minthorn practically just read his resume, and Fogarty talked about art. One must ask: was Antone Minthorn’s only necessary qualification the fact that he is Native American?
Next year’s conference doesn’t promise much better. With the theme of “Transitions,” we can be sure that the transitions in question are those of transgender people rather than the cultural, evolutionary, temporal, or linguistic transitions of traditional anthropology.
Image: Adobe Stock