Getting ready to head to EPIC 2007

EPIC 2007 webpageIts that time of the year, and I am writing as a way to procrastinate finishing my PowerPoint for EPIC 2007, a conference being held in Keystone Colorado for people doing ethnography in industry contexts. I am on a panel called Engaged Clients: Stories of Collaboration on Thursday afternoon.
I’ll post pictures as I get the chance!

A Great Day for the Anthropologically Minded

When understanding culture is your abiding interest and passion, everyday is a good day to be an anthropologist, however yesterday supplied us with some particularly exciting media happenings.

First of all, news broke that during his appearance at Columbia University, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad had let it be known that there are no gay people in Iran. This is an exciting development for anthropologists wishing to study one of those ever elusive “purely heterosexual” societies. Now, if anyone knows where we can find a matriarchy (or maybe the missing link?) I’ll be ready to retire. This news also prompted giggling around the country as various sassy pundits (including on the local San Francisco dance music radio station – FM 92.7) suggested helpfully some version of the idea “Well, maybe they just keep their gays in public restrooms — you know, like the Republican Party does over here.”

Last night viewers were treated to an indigenous awareness one-two punch on Comedy Central.  First up was Bolivia’s President Evo Morales on The Daily Show. He spoke (through translation) about how his election proves that people of diverse backgrounds (he is of indigenous Native South American descent, specifically Aymara) can become leaders in today’s world. Stewart replied in a stage whisper that it was not so much so here in the U.S..  Regarding our election process: “it’s rigged” he confided to Evo’s amusement.

Those with the stamina to stay awake were able to watch Stephen Colbert interview K. David Harrison, the author of When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge. Ever the perfect ethnocentric foil (really, he puts the Cultural Evolutionists of the 19th century to shame with his flawless application of the concept at every turn), Colbert prefaced his introduction of the guest by proclaiming the good news to English speakers all over the world: “We’re winning!”

If you like your culture commentary with an American media infusion and a dash of ironic truthiness, then yesterday was surely a great day to be anthropologically minded.

An Ethnography of the African Art Trade

Wooden vigango statuesMonica Udvardy from the University of Kentucky is involved with the repatriation of stolen vigango statues from US museums, to their owners in Kenya. Vigango are funerary statues which are typically removed (with or without the permission of the owners) from hillsides in Kenya, into a thriving local art market, and on to North American museums. Her story involves field ethnography, teaching, activism, and the ethics of both anthropology and business. More importantly, it raises questions about how established antiquities laws are used to protect the often poor farmers who create and erect the statues in the first place. Udvardy as an ethnographer who began her involvement with the Mijikenda in the 1980s, and actually photographed statues which were later stolen. Two of these statues turned up in US museum collections in the 1990s.

Wooden vigango statues are typically three to five feet high, and are created by the Mijikenda people of Kenya as memorials to their ancestors. They were created both traditionally, and as Udvardy’s research describes, in modern times. In other words, they are living and breathing expressions of Mijikenda culture.

By the 1980s, a market for the statues was developed in the West. In response to financial incentives, statues began to show up in Mombassa markets, and from there entered the western art/antiquities world. How they got from the homesteads of their creators, and into the market was a matter for dispute until Udvardy documented that the two statues “donated” to American museums in the 1990s, were originally stolen from particular homesteads in Kenya in the mid-1980s.

There probably thousands of vigango statues which arrived in the west since the 1980s. The emergence of this market also correlated with an epidemic of vigango thefts from the typically poor villages where the statues were originally erected. By the 1990s, the statues were considered art, and marketed as such in the California art gallery of Ernie Wolfe and others.

There are a number of excellent resources available on the web about the trade in vigango statues, including a 2003 article by Udvardy and her colleagues in the American Anthropologist “Cultural Property as Global Commodities -The Case of Mijikenda Memorial Statues” at . More recently there have been major stories on NPR, the Christian Science Monitor, and other media outlets about how two American museums have dealt with the need to return looted statues, consistent with the requirements of international and national antiquities laws.

Providing a context of sorts are the protestations of the most important vigango dealer, Ernie Wolfe, from Los Angeles. Wolfe was interviewed in 2006 by Marvin Anderson, a reporter from the Black College Wire. Wolfe uses a mix of economic and anthropological language to justify the vigango trade. Irrespective of Udvardy’s evidence of routine theft from rural homesteads, Wolfe claims that the statues were abandoned as part of the slash and burn agricultural cycle. Therefore he reasoned, the statues had no economic value to the owners, and could be brought into the international art market. To complete his justification for the trade, he points out that with the introduction of modern medicine, the statues had lost their utility for healing.

However, Wolfe’s type of reasoning reflects an overly simple understanding of property rights rooted in utility and the marketplace. Both traditional and modern law recognize that some things are sacred, and therefore cannot and should not be traded. For example, headstones from Arlington National Cemetery are off-limits from the marketplace. And as the Getty Museum in Los Angeles recently discovered, so are some ancient statues recovered in Italy. The victims in Kenya of such theft are of course are much less powerless than the Italian government. But under Kenyan and American law, vigango statues stolen from Mijikenda homesteads have similar legal protection. shows up in interesting places

The post about the Human Terrain System showed up in this thread on the Small Wars Journal. So here is what is interesting to me. On their search box, look up anthropology or anthropologists (make sure you click the button to just search the journal and not the web) and you will see a lively discussion about the role of anthropologists in war and the abuses in the past. This is not anthropologists talking about it, but military and military interested folks talk about OUR contribution (or lack thereof) in that field. When people talk about you, it means you matter. Thats good.

Antiquities, the Black Market, and Economists

A frieze from the Elgin MarblesSo, anyone else see this on Slate?

A quote:

“This trade is almost inevitable. In a poor country, such as Mali or Cambodia, foreigners are likely to be willing to pay more for artifacts than the locals would. The logic of the market would pull the choicest objects into foreign collections and foreign museums. Many see this as undesirable, and so most countries maintain some form of ban on trading antiquities.

But such bans have some unpleasant side effects. They replace the logic of the market with the logic of the black market, which means that smugglers would try to conceal the locations of new archaeological sites, to erase or forge the historical record surrounding objects, and to excavate and ship objects without the care that could be lavished on an operation that was legal. Beyond these purely archaeological considerations, illegal objects are less likely to end up in the top museums and may be relegated to purely private collections, which is in itself a shame. It’s enough to make an archaeologist weep—and an economist, too.

Michael Kremer, a Harvard economics professor with a track record of inventive ideas, and Tom Wilkening, a graduate student at MIT, published a possible solution earlier this year. Instead of flatly banning the export of antiquities, why not ban their sale but allow them to be rented?”


Anyone else wonder where the quotes from archaeologists are?

I got fifty bucks that says my day started differently than yours did…

It started pretty simple. I was driving to Palo Alto to work with another agency on a project, and when got off hwy 84 on to El Camino Real things got… odd.

I don’t why she was nude. I don’t know why she seemed to be running errands on El Camino Real at 9:15am. I most certainly do not know why she was compelled to combine nude with running errands, but apparently that seemed to be the rule of the day. She wasn’t running, was not waving her arms to call attention to herself. Just sauntering down the sidewalk past the shops headed someplace.

But it left me perplexed on several counts. Of course, that larger question “WHY?” does not escape me, but there are more subtle ones.
1) When I say nude, I mean nude… no glasses, no sneakers, socks, flip-flops, nothing. Just strolling barefoot down the sidewalk like it was a local nude beach. I don’t know where you live, but where I live, the sidewalks are certainly not barefoot friendly. Wasn’t she worried about things like broken glass and stuff? Her tetanus shots must have been fully up to date.
2) Was it some form of protest? PETA gone (even more) insane? To discourage the use of fur, forgo clothes entirely because its really all just a slippery slope?
3) If she was running errands… where was she keeping her ATM card, much less cash. She was on foot and didn’t seem to have keys or cash, so a cab or bus seemed to be out of the question.
4) No keys… maybe she was locked out. You know, slipped out to get the morning paper and the door locked behind her. But, it seemed a long walk just to get to the locksmith.

It was, odd…..

Anthropologists and the Military’s Human Terrain System

hts.jpgThe U.S. Army is moving forward with a program called the Human Terrain System. This program attaches anthropologists to operational units in Iraq to both learn about and help the military navigate the complex cultural issues they are encountering.

One anthropologist that is a member of the HTS project is Marcus Griffin, on a year long leave from his job teaching anthropology at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. Marcus has been blogging about his experience working with the army. It’s rare that anthropologists get this kind of insider look at what it’s like to work directly with the military. Surprise! Despite what all your teachers have told you, working with the military is NOT evil….


I am a bit speechless, but maybe I can express it in blogging (now that I have this outlet).

So the current issue of Anthropology News has an article about biological anthropologists being upset with the Leakey Foundation for having journalist Nicholas Wade as one of their speakers (get the scoop here: Nicholas Wade Speaks to Leakey Audience: Productive Dialogue or Dangerous Advocacy?

That is not what I’m upset about. I agree, biological determinism should be questioned, critiqued, put into context, as necessary. What I’m upset about is this bit, from our AAA president, who states that (here I’m quoting from the aforelinked article):

‘biology is, in many ways, “separated out from the corpus of anthropology.”

Goodman recognizes that this practice, in part, has created an environment in which Nicholas Wade declares that many social scientists feel they needn’t bother at all with evolution or genetics. “They are ignoring the theory that explains all of biology,” says Wade, “of which humans are definitely a part.”

Because anthropologists of various subfields may too often see the foundations of human behavior and diversity through the limited lens of their own discipline, Goodman thinks “we really need a new science in which we look at how all of those things are interrelated…a science of development, a science of intersecting processes.”’

End quote. Read that carefully, boys and girls. The president of AAA (a biological anthropologist in his own right) seems to be suggesting that we need a new approach, a holistic approach, even, to the human condition.

Forgive me, I thought that was Anthropology.

Welcome New Blogger, Donna Lanclos

We are just chock full of new bloggers this week. The latest addition to the ranks is Donna Lanclos. Donna currently lives in North Carolina. While she is a cultural anthropologist and folklorist by graduate training, she claims to be part archaeologist by marriage. She is the author of the book At Play in Belfast: Children’s Folklore and Identities in Northern Ireland (2003 Rutgers University Press).

Check out her first post The Sentimental Anthropologist.

Welcome, Donna!