Everything I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Anthropology Class

‘Tis the season for academic rites of passage and for many of us to say goodbye to the students who have been our intellectual companions for the past four years. Here are some of the (mostly) lighthearted thoughts I shared with my graduating anthropology majors and minors at our department reception this week. *Please note that this was an outline and I elaborated each point with ad-libbed examples from the classes we had shared and with local community examples that would make no sense to outsiders. Also, please see my post below, entitled, “Cindy’s Top Ten Things Anthropologists Should Not Do When They Are Drunk,” if you are seeking more practical advice.

It is a very emotional thing for me to stand up here and think about this group of seniors leaving. So many of you have meant so much to me over the last years. It’s hard to imagine that I will not continue to see your faces in the hallway, in my office, and smiling at me in class.

So, I thought I’d take this opportunity to offer you five examples of what I’ve learned form anthropology that I apply in my daily life.

First: generalized reciprocity rules. As in, it kicks butt. The most successful, longest running, least conflict-ridden societies we know of in human history operated on the principles of reciprocity. Use this insight to form networks, to create bonds, to build community and accomplish goals. Now, keep in mind that the trick to successful reciprocity is in choosing your partners wisely. If you live your life like this, it will come back to you. It’s anthropological karma.

Next, when the emic and etic interpretations of something do not align, there are important things to be learned. I do believe that an appreciation of the fact that emic and etic perspectives can at times be contradictory and yet both true in important ways is a fundamental characteristic of thoughtful, complex anthropology. I also believe this disconnect is always a sign to dig deeper. An example might be when you read something in the paper that seems at odds with your experience of the world. I can’t tell you which of the two is going to be “more right,” “more often,” only that you should pay attention when they don’t match.

Third, cultural relativism does not mean the abdication of opinion. Oh, they will try to convince you that it does. Those people out there who invented the term “political correctness,” will try to tell you that it means “anything goes;” that if you accept cultural relativism you have to accept wife beating, widow burning, and pedophilia as interesting cultural practices that are not the same as your own. It does not; they are wrong. They are twisting the concept for their own purposes – don’t let them. Cultural relativism is about context, insight, and suspension of judgment until a deeper understanding is achieved.

Symbolic capital or cultural capital is key. Every culture and sub-culture out there has its own rules and rewards. Ask yourself, what do these people value? Do I share these values? It is not a level playing field out there. You have an advantage: an advantage in terms of your bachelor’s degree, which is prestigious cultural capital in mainstream American culture. And, of course, most importantly in your outstanding choice of anthropology as the cornerstone of that education! What will you do with that advantage?

And finally, of course, the most famous anthropological insight of all: bone sticks to your tongue. Actually, I’m still not sure what to make of this last one. Like so many things in life, I just know it’s true. Perhaps someday one of you will come to understand its significance and return to explain it – and then the teacher will become the student.

Margaret Mead once said that American culture unfairly and arbitrarily teaches its members that fun is for childhood, work is for middle age, and regret for our twilight years. Of herself, she commented, “My great secret is that I was wise enough to never grow up, while fooling most people into believing I had.” So, go, have fun, work hard, accept regret when it comes, and then get back to the business of having fun and working hard.

I love you all! Congratulations!

Originally Posted June, 2008 at Ethnography.com

Kennewick Man Sighted Buying Groceries in Virginia

groceries.jpgby Cynthia van Gilder

Most everyone in the anthropological community is familiar with the controversial human skeletal find known as Kennewick Man. Discovered in 1996 by some hikers on the Columbia River, Washington, Kennewick Man was initially identified as a 19th century Euro-American settler, but closer inspection revealed a projectile point embedded in his pelvis that was common about 9,000 years ago, a date that radiocarbon dating later confirmed. In short, Kennewick Man sparked an epic controversy around two primary topics: 1) who should have legal stewardship of the remains; and 2) what was “Kenne’s” race.

Those interested in reviewing the sensational circumstances surrounding Kenne’s eventual disposition (these included the mysterious dumping of many tons of rock on the original location of the find by the Army Corps of Engineers, and a multi-year law suit in which scientists won the right to study the skeleton), will find many sources on- and off-line.

kennewick.jpgEqually intense was the controversy surrounding the investigating archaeologist’s characterization of the skeleton’s features as “caucasoid” – a word that the media immediately equated with caucasian – rather than a set of metric traits characterizing a variety of world populations including the indigenous Ainu of Japan. A reconstruction of Kenne’s face was widely circulated in which he bore a striking resemblance to Jean-Luc Picard, Captain of the Starship Enterprise on Star Trek: The Next Generation, a character played by British actor Patrick Stewart.

The publication of this image in association with the very early date of 9000 BC, led to rampant speculation in the public media: had Europeans been the earliest settlers of the North American continent? And so, in the blink of an eye, the 19th century fantasy of a lost race of White Americans was revived, although nobody can say the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints looked surprised.

This was the Kennewick Controversy that I was teaching in Spring of 2006 to my class on Native American cultures when in April a shocking event occurred: Time magazine published an opulent cover portrait of Kenne in which he looked decidedly mongoloid, his features invoking those of modern Arctic peoples. How could this be, the class demanded to know? We scoured the magazine article for clues. Who had authorized this new reconstruction? The students demanded answers.

There was no mention of the cover image in the article. There was no acknowledgment of how very much this representation diverged from previously published images. Encouraged by the students, and now personally quite intrigued, I wrote to the scientists quoted in the article asking if they had authorized Kenne’s new face. I received no response. I wrote to Time asking where they had gotten the cover image and they referred me to the tiny artist’s credit on the inside of the cover: Kam Mak.

Two days and many Google inquiries later, I had discovered that Kam Mak had a part time academic appointment at an arts college in New York City and had left my home phone number with the department assistant, saying I was an anthropologist eager to discuss his recent cover art for Time. When I came home from teaching the next day, there was a message on my answering machine, “Hello, this is Kam Mak. I am delighted in your interest. Please phone me at my home in Virginia.”

Kam Mak, I discovered, is a charming and thoughtful man with a gift for painting vibrant images that touch the soul. Born in Hong Kong, but raised primarily in New York, he has illustrated the covers of many young adult novels and has written and illustrated a beautiful children’s book about his childhood in Chinatown. We had much to talk about immediately, as he was working on a project depicting food in Chinese markets and I had just finished teaching a class on food and ethnicity that had included a week stay in Honolulu to explore ethnic cuisine there.

I turned the conversation to Kenne, however, and learned the following: 1) Time had not requested a particular image; 2) they had contacted him based on his having done a portrait for them several years earlier with which they were pleased; 3) they had sent him a handful of articles about the skeleton, so he did know something about the controversies. So, how, I pressed, had he decided on Kenne’s features? Mr. Mak’s response was unexpected and yet made a delightful sense: he had used his own face!

Yes, and Mr. Mak was kind enough to send me a digital photo of himself and there it was – the high cheekbones, the set of his jaw and lips, even the thoughtful expression in the eyes – our new Kennewick Man was Kam Mak – “with a little Eskimo thrown in” – as he described it to me.

The students were initially horrified, after all I had spent the semester talking about how significant images of Native Americans were to their public perception – from the cigar Indians to contemporary sports mascots. I talked them down, however, and soon they saw the humor in the situation and appreciated the humanity of Kam Mak’s vision of Kenne not as a symbol or stereotype, but a real man, like himself.

My choice for best book on Kennewick Man and why he caused such a fuss: Thomas, David Hurst. Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity New York: Basic Books, 2000. ISBN 0-465-09224-1

Originally published here at e.com in August 2007.

Patience 101: Just Wait Until You Hear This

CNN has reported that Trina Thompson, age 27, is suing her alma mater, Monroe College (New York), for not being sufficiently helpful in supporting her efforts to find a job since her graduation this past April.  Headlines describing the suit sum it up as follows: “Alumna Sues College Because She Can’t Find a Job.”

Recently, for personal reasons, I have become very interested in what social sciences might have to say about the personal quality we call patience.  A perfectly good definition of patience might be, “an ability or willingness to suppress restlessness or annoyance when confronted with delay,” but what does that really mean in cultural terms?1

Ms Thompson completed her degree in April, and felt that four months should have been plenty of time for a gal with an information technology major, as well as a “2.7 grade-point average and a solid attendance record” to find a job.  Apparently, patience was not her minor.

As I searched (lightly) for some cross-cultural insights to patience, I found that while anthropologists had approached the topic in their usual eclectic manner, another social science , economics, happens to be quite curious about the ins and out of this virtue.  It turns out, not entirely surprisingly, that the costs and benefits of short term versus long term investments, and the psychology & culture of risk management (or lack of management) are of much interest to economists.

And when you cross anthropology and economics…. well, consider this:  Dr. Victoria Reyes-Garcia, of the Autonomous University of Barcelona and her colleagues hypothesized that one of the features of complex, contemporary Western-style culture is that increased patience is rewarded economically, or as The Economist (2/7/07) reported it, they “guessed that as the [the subjects] became more enmeshed in modern society, the more patient of them would do better than the less.”

They began by setting up a situation that mandated this reward structure, i.e., Reyes-Garcia offered various Amerindian villagers a small reward of food/money if they took it immediately, a bigger one if they were willing to wait a week or so, and a REALLY big pay-off if the subject was willing to wait several months.  In this initial experiment, the researchers found that there was a correlation between the length of time people were willing to wait for a reward and the amount of education they had had (no comment on methodology).  Those who had attended the missionary-run elementary school were significantly more likely to opt for the delayed gratification option that offered the ultimately greater pay-off.

Five years later, Dr. Reyes-Garcia and her colleagues returned to interview the participants regarding their current financial situations.  They found that “those who had shown most patience in the original experiment had also seen their incomes increase more than those of their less patient counterparts.”  The more educated, and therefore more patient (Were they patient before they met the missionaries? Did they learn deferred gratification in school? Are people who are really into waiting for heaven more patient, more Western, more educated?  The mind boggles with questions…), had seen their incomes rise on average 1% more than those who had taken the  bird in the hand instead of the two in the bush.  As the authors point out, if that growth could be sustained, over a lifetime, those people  just might become a bit wealthier than their neighbors.

Education itself, of course, is a form of delayed gratification.  It’s a beautiful day out, but I go to geometry class instead of the beach in the hopes that it will pay off for me in the long term.  To return to Ms Thompson’s situation mentioned above, perhaps she is guilty of learning the lesson of education = patience = pay-off too well.  She is demanding that the system ante up.  As she explained in her justification for suing, “It doesn’t make any sense: They went to school for four years, and then they come out working at McDonald’s and Payless. That’s not what they planned.”

Maybe she should try going to grad school…


1 – www.dictionary.com

If a tree falls in the forest and no one posts it on Youtube, does the tree actually have a healthier sense of self?

As many of you know from earlier posts,  I am the mother of a 15 year old.  Although I have certainly been aware of the need for constant email, phone, and camera usage everywhere she and her friends congregate, it came to me this spring that although she embraces this practice enthusiastically, it seems to place an unnatural burden on her I am only too glad I did not have in my teenage years.

Teens today are confronted relentlessly with their own image. Digital photos are taken with cameras and phones and all manner of appliances (I’m 40 – for all I know, toasters take photos now) at all kinds of social events, big and small.  I have photos of myself in highschool, but they are generally from birthdays, performances, holidays, or other special moments.  Of course, I am delighted to have these photos, but think for a second of the many, many, many days, and countless other moments of my life that were not photographed.  That may seem a shame to some, but lately, to me it seems a blessing.

I have photos of my 8th grade graduation, dressed in my white Laura Ashley dress with blue accents, my shiney braces, and very carefully feathered 80’s hair.  I do not, however, have photos of the day I showed up for softball tryouts in my gym clothes when somehow all of the other girls had gotten the memo to keep their street clothes on.  I do not have photos of the day we took a fieldtip to the Franklin Institute and I had a stuffy nose and a cough and snuffled and dripped all the way to Philadelphia and back.  Similarly, my high school performance in West Side Story was amply documented, but not the countless post-rehearsal binges of cheesey fries at the local diner, or the many afternoons spent lazing around my friends’ backyards with frisbees, and books, and bad hair.

Now, even the simplest get together at a friend’s house after school gets documented, and then those photos get scrutinized.  And that scrutiny leads to self-judgment, and the self-judgment is rarely kind.  As anyone who shops in a grocery store with tabloids arranged at the check-out counter is well aware, even those widely regarded as the most beautiful people in the world can take a terrible, unflattering photo.  Nobody can easily withstand that kind of constant visual scrutiny, least of all the self-esteem of an American teenage girl.

Certainly, I spent hours in the bathroom getting my hair ready for school (i.e.,  gigantic bangs), applying the perfect eye makeup (i.e., bright purple), and adjusting and readjusting my clothes to optimal fabulousness (i.e., belting voluminous shirts over fluffy short skirts), but I also had downtime.  It’s not that I wasn’t part of a culture that valued appearances and designer labels, and fabulous hair, but it also gave me well-earned time off.  When I went to my best friend’s house for a sleepover, I didn’t worry about how I looked, or think about having my photo taken.  I certainly didn’t worry about that photo being shown to my peers, let alone the world via internet.

Now I watch my daughter scrutinize the photos taken while meeting friends for pizza, agonize over an inadvertant shot taken at a weird angle, or burst into tears over a pic from a pool party where she is a distant shape bending over in the background.  “Are you sure that’s even you?” I try to ask helpfully, only to be shot an unforgiving look.  “Why don’t you just delete it?” is guaranteed to get a glare.  Seriously, though, I try to be understanding, supply a different perspective, and sometimes I simply ban the phone, camera, and toaster (better safe than sorry) from usage.

I am not the first to comment on the relentlessly visual nature of today’s youth and pop culture, but it is worth remembering that multiple anthropologists have documented the introduction of photographic images into indigenous cultures.  While the notion of camera as “soul catcher” has become part of the popular conception of non-industrialized peoples, what I find even more fascinating is that when shown pictures of themselves many members of non-photo saturated cultures don’t recognize themselves.  This is not because they have never seen a mirror; in fact sometimes they don’t recognize friends and relatives in portrait-style still-photos either.  The fact is that what makes a person recognizable to those not fully indoctrinated in visual culture is a whole set of sights, smells, sounds, movements, and personal energy.  What does this tell us about identity, humanity, and perhaps an awareness of ourselves and the people around us, that we might be in danger of losing?

I am also concerned about the gradual erosion of “backstage” spaces, and with them the downtime they represent.  If cameras go everywhere, are we ever off stage?  Today’s memorial of Michael Jackson reminds us what toll constant surveillance takes on child stars.  We generally assume that it is the price to be paid for the money and power and fun of fame.  Are we willingly going to subject ourselves to such surveillance without even the promise of a big payday?  On the Polynesian atoll of Nanumea, the cookhouses served as a kind of “free space” for gossiping, joking, and generally escaping the expectations of formality and hierarchy that dominated other aspects of daily life.  If those cookhouses are replaced with indoor kitchens equipped with photographic toasters, who knows what will happen.

Married with Chintzes

On Tuesday, May 26th, the California Supreme Court upheld Proposition 8, a voter initiative that declared that marriage could only exist between a man and a woman.  Subsequent media reports were quick to point out that unions between same-sex couples would still be recognized, and that essentially this ruling “merely” stripped gay spouses of the word marriage.

However, since from June 2008 until November 2008 same-sex marriages were legal in the state of California, the approximately 18,000 gay and lesbian couples who got married during that window of time are still married.  From now on, however, all new same-sex marriages will be legally classified as civil unions.

So here we are with an oddly tiered classification system of unions, some are in, others out…a numerical majority having limited the civil rights of a minority through alteration of the State constitution.  Surely if ever a situation called for escapism, this is one…

*Sigh*  It’s true, you can rent L-Word DVD’s, rewatch the five seasons of Queer as Folk, maybe even catch a rerun of Will & Grace on Lifetime… but for my money, if you would truly like to linger in a world where same-sex marriages are normalized as happy, healthy (and property-based) direct your dial to HGTV.

In my humble opinion, Home and Garden Television has done more to quietly advocate for the main-streaming of same-sex couples than any other channel or media campaign in recent history.  On any given night of the week, one can turn to HGTV and see happy couples of every color and creed, tall and short, old and young, skinny and fat, gay and straight, oo’ing and ah’ing over kitchen remodels (“Look, honey – it’s granite!”), extra-large closets (“I can fit all my shoes!”), and finished basements (“It’s perfect for the kids!”).

Mary and Sue are looking to relocate from the city to find a yard for their dogs…  Bob and Larry need an extra bedroom for Larry’s new in-home business…  Seung-Li and Juan are expecting their second child and want to find a place closer to her mother…

In the world of HGTV, we display our shared humanity in the universal smile that can only mean “the reveal” has been a success, and we are all equalized by our love for a move-in-ready split-level, with room for a workshop in the garage.


For one of my personal favorites, check out the husband of one of my highschool friends appearing regularly on HGTV’s super cool Bought & Sold


The A-hole: A True Human Universal?

As a member of the Society for Hawaiian Archaeology, I recently became aware of a new development in a controversy currently underway on the island of Kaua’i regarding the disturbance of some Native Hawaiian burials for the construction of a private residence.  The practice of archaeology has been particularly contentious in the islands since the convergence of three historical events: 1) massive development and construction, particularly associated with the tourist industry; 2) the passage of federal and state antiquities protection laws mandating the involvement of archaeologists in cultural resource management; 3) the revitalization of Native Hawaiian culture, and its members’ mobilization in protection of their homeland and heritage.  Arguably these three, often divergent, interest groups came of age in the 1960’s and have been locked in a dance of conflicting and converging interests ever since. (*1)

One of the developments of this structure of the conjuncture (a la Marshall Sahlins) was the establishment of Island Burial Councils that are empowered by State law to determine the final disposition of any human remains that are discovered.  In the case mentioned above, a group of Native Hawaiians, known as Kanaka Maoli Scholars, have protested the handling of the review and recommendations of the Kaua’i – Ni’ihau Burial Council with regards to a property located at Naue (http://mailevine.wordpress.com/2008/09/15/open-letter-by-kanaka-maoli-scholars-against-desecration/).  Kanaka Maoli Scholars argue that the State Historic Preservation Division approved a Burial Treatment Plan against the clear objections of the Burial Council, thus allowing building permits to be issued illegally, and concrete foundations to be poured on known gravesites.  Meanwhile, the homeowner has filed a civil suit against members of the Native Hawaiian community alleging trespassing and harassment, among other things.

Whatever breaches of process may or may not have occurred in the course of managing this particular site (and since I currently live on the Mainland, I have no inside information from either side of this mess), I can tell you that most of the archaeologists that I know who work in Hawai’i consider it a tremendous privilege to be included in any aspect of stewardship of this amazing cultural legacy, and many experience daily life like an E.R. doctor: in a never-ending state of triage racing to save patients from the disease “development-fever.”  All the while under-staffed, with too few resources, and constantly challenged by the politicization of the process.  There is no universal archaeological site healthcare in the United States, and all too often the decisions regarding which patients to save and rehabilitate, and which to simply “patch-up” and send on their way, are made by the interests of capital.  Bound by our own Hippocratic oath, most archaeologists would truly love to save and cherish every patient, seeing each and every one of them thrive. (*2)

Well, gentle reader, as many of you know, much of modernist anthropology has been preoccupied with the search for human universals.  In my opinion these efforts usually end in one of two ways, either the “universal” reached turns out to be amazingly narrow in scope, or mind-bogglingly broad in scope.  There does seem to be one that keeps cropping up, however, and that is illustrated by the latest opinion expressed in the Naue controversy.  As part of their campaign to draw public attention to what they feel is the unfettered desecration of their ancestors’ burials, Kanaka Maoli Scholars sent copies of their recent protest letter (see link above) to a variety of constituents, including high ranking executives at the company owned by the homeowner.  One of these employees, in an inadvertent case of “I’m rubber, you’re glue, when you act like an asshole, it looks bad for you,” has provided more evidence for one of the most convincing universals ever promulgated… the “assholes, every community has at least one, and s/he will usually self-identify within the first 24 hours of contact” universal.

This guy responded to the letter of concern sent to him by the Kanaka Maoli Scholars with a single line.  He asks, “So how do you know the people buried out there weren’t assholes??”  Wow – a whole new principle to guide historic preservation (and with any luck, human resource decisions at his firm).  Maybe the asshole is a kind of human universal – after all, we all have them, but it takes a special Homo sapiens to talk out of his.


(1) To read a series of powerful essays relevant to Native Hawaiian sovereignty, colonialism, and academia, read Haunani-Kay Trask’s, From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawai’i (1999).

(*2) There is no question, as with medical doctors, there are some archaeologists who are in the business for what profit there is to be had, and others who are simply not as competent as one might wish.

Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus – but don’t hold your breath for a meritocracy, honey.

I had an experience recently that started me nostalgically reflecting on my undergraduate days and the path that has since led me to become my current jaded, cynical self.  I’ve wanted to be an archaeology professor since I was 12.  A life of teaching in the academy, mentoring students, undertaking research, reading and learning, designing curricula; even serving on committees seemed exciting and fulfilling.  Don’t get me wrong, I know I romanticized the life: I always pictured myself living in a modest, yet adorable, Victorian house, but never lingered on the idea of a salary so low I could not make mortgage payments.  I imagined my worldly and engaged children, reveling in our summers spent together at fieldschools, yet I did not anticipate surly teenagers who don’t like dirt and whose care takes me from writing up research.  The list of these delightful juxtapositions goes on, of course (tres amusant, n’est-ce pas?), and I’m sure you could make your own: helping students find their academic voice sounds important, grading 500,000 crappy papers feels thankless; forging academic policy sounds invigorating, spending hours in committees whose decisions are then over-ruled by administrators, now that’s soul crushing…

Nonetheless, I loved the academy, and fundamentally this was because it was the closest thing to a true meritocracy I had ever experienced.  My love was pure.  My faith was bottomless.  And I honestly believed that if I worked hard, did the most work and the best work, was creative, easy-going, funny, dedicated, etc., etc., I would be rewarded commensurately… In retrospect, it’s touching, really, how fervently I believed this with my whole being.

I still remember the day I had the rug pulled out from under me, and, yes, I fully know that you may laugh when you read about it.  It’s simple really.  When I was in my sophomore year of college, my undergraduate advisor began to plan to go to into the field to do some preliminary research.  It was a small school, with a small cohort of archaeology students.  Please excuse my tooting my own horn – but I was the best by several measures.  I had been doing archaeology since I was a young teen; I had the highest GPA; I had taken the senior year archaeological theory class in the spring semester of my freshman year and gotten an A.  I had even trained for three months in the field in the very river valley the advisor was fixing to research (unlike any of my peers).

So, when it happened that one day sitting in my professor’s office he mentioned that he was finalizing his plans for the trip and some other student was being invited to join him – I was shocked, truly shocked.  He saw the look on my face and I remember him being surprised at my surprise, and then bemused.  He carefully explained to me that the student he was planning on taking with him was male.  They would save money being able to share a room, the student would be able to carry lots of equipment, and (once more for emphasis) I didn’t really think he could take a 20 year old woman alone to the field with him, did I?

I was the best…wasn’t I?   It has absolutely nothing to do with merit, he assured me.  Nothing to do with merit?!!!! Was I hearing this correctly????

That’s right, it had never, ever, EVER occurred to me that my sex (or my gender) might be a factor in his decision.  The realization of what I was hearing slowly sank in – I was being passed over for the chance to do original field research because I was a girl.  None of the other things I had done (or not done, frankly) mattered in the final assessment.

Okay, okay,  I understand that in the grand scheme of life this was a minor incident (and in the end the trip was cancelled and nobody went),  but it was a watershed for me.  My faith in the meritocracy of academic life had been rattled. Over the years my faith and I would sustain MUCH harsher blows: insults to my integrity; academic betrayal; as well as, personal harassment, intimidation, and assault.  Each event made me recall  this first incident.  My advisor had been the greatest archaeologist and most impressive intellectual I had ever known.  He was my mentor and I trusted him completely.  In retrospect, of course, I’m far more sympathetic to his situation than I was back then.

Why is this on my mind?  Well, recently I was passed over for participation in a project in favor of an older male (here it was symbolic capital being sought) and I felt that old familiar feeling again – a mixture of anger, frustration, heartache, and resignation (read = bitter).  Maybe I wasn’t so unambiguously the best in this particular situation, but I was an excellent choice for many reasons, and once again it was a decision made by a person I trusted completely.

I have been discriminated against for reasons other than my gender (although that one is surprisingly consistent), and in settings other than the academy, of course.  And this is definitely no story of horrific treatment compared to apartheid, slavery, ethnic cleansing, hate crimes, etc., etc., but as I have learned over the years, these incidents need to be spoken of and spoken to.  So many of us spend our lives accepting them as part of the cost of doing business with a uterus.  We excuse, ignore, rationalize, and blame ourselves.  For years I tried to make sense of my incident in a way that preserved my idealization of the academy as a meritocracy – I must have misunderstood what my professor said; I must not have been the best; there must have been more to the story.

I don’t really have a witty conclusion for this.  It is what it is.  When I taught a seminar on topics in gender and science, I had fellow female faculty members come and talk to the class about their lives and careers, and my story was hardly unique.  (Let’s just say, physics grad school can be a real bitch for the ladies, folks!)  We all agreed it feels good to share, however, and if you, the reader, have never had a moment like this in your life – it bears consideration.

The Top Three Things I Have Not Been Blogging About

3. The New Lead Singer of the Band Journey

I intended to call this one “World Systems Cinderella,” and in it I would have recounted the story of how Arnel Pineda, onetime street performer in the Philippines, was chosen to be the new lead singer for the rock band Journey.  He was discovered, they say, on Youtube, performing with his ’80s cover band and rocking out like nobody’s business.  Does this story represent a triumphant democratization of fame?  The truly talented will rise to the top and be plucked from obscurity and swept to their global destiny?  I really don’t know!  Some friends and I traveled to see the band on their recent tour, and it really was a great show.  It was different from any amphitheater rock show I have ever been to: for example, middle-aged Filipino women were disproportionately represented in the audience – hooting and hollering for Arnel, carrying posters, dancing with glee, and singing along with every word.  It was a super-fun evening and Arnel was brilliant.  His voice was truly soaring, very Steve Perry, but with its own crystal-clear tone.  During the ballads, his face contorted in soulful ecstasy; during the anthems, he was exuberant and powerfully leaped around the stage.  He was engaging and charming – a golden, glowing presence in front of the other members of the band – who appeared to be a posse of waxy, static, (LATE) middle-aged white dudes twice his size.  They looked pleased and proud, and dare I say, a little bemused.  (Or was I projecting?)  Arnel’s fans were fervent.  An audience member was heard agreeing with her friend that Arnel was so cute, she “just wanted to tuck him into [her] eco-bag” and take him home with her (this is San Francisco, after all, we fantasize about bringing home our eye-candy in appropriate packaging).  In an instance of cultural confusion, the phrase, “We love lumpia!”** flashed across the big screen during the break (audience members can text their comments to see them on the giant display).  Asked a Euro-American friend, “Who’s lumpia?” Giggle, giggle.  Oh, globalization!  Oh, technology!  On your benign days you do create some humorous juxtapositions…

**Lumpia are a delicious Filipino food that resemble an eggroll.

2. Same – Sex Marriage Rights and California’s Proposition 8

This summer I actually wrote a blog entry about marriage.  Thanks to the Supreme Court of California, I had just had the pleasure of performing a legal marriage for two wonderful women friends.  It inspired me to want to go public with my own blueprint for a better system, one in which there is no such thing as civil marriage.  We just let it be a completely religious/spiritual union, and instead allow all adult Americans to chose one person to be a legal partner.  These legal partners would have financial, insurance, medical rights together, but could be any relationship – your grandmother, your brother, your adult child, your college roommate, or your sweetie.  You’d file papers and have a variety of legal rights vis-a-vis each other, rights that have traditionally been reserved for husband and wife.  We should all get to have a life partner, regardless of whether we feel like having sex with him/her.  Now don’t jump down my throat – I haven’t ironed out all of the details, and in the end, that’s why I never posted the blog I was working on.  I just think that with paternity (and maternity, if necessary) being determined through scientific means, legally responsible parenting would be pretty much the same without civil marriage, as would divorce settlements – palimony, etc. have made the marriage papers irrelevant.  Declare your commitment to God, or whomever you please, leave the state out of it. Until that day, marriage is a critical right, however.  Tomorrow, Californians will go to the polls and among the many propositions they will vote on is Proposition 8, designed to overturn the same-sex marriage rights upheld as constitutional by the state supreme court.  I will vote no and then come home and bite my fingernails down to the nub as I watch the election returns.  Please, oh please, let all of those hours and sections of Anthro 1 taught all over the state pay off!!  If Proposition 8 is defeated, I will give contemporary anthropology some of the credit, and if it passes and same-sex marriage rights are revoked, I will vow to redouble my efforts to teach for the appreciation of human difference.  There have been some powerful ads on both sides of the Prop. 8 debate, and I would tell you about them – but remember, the gimmick for this list is that it is the things that I have not been blogging about…

1. Any and All Things Sarah Palin

Talk about a made for blogging babe.  On the one hand, commentary on her political presence could have been a full-time job, and then some. On the other hand, Tina Fey so nailed her that most of the rest of us felt safe in taking the last few months off.  Honest to god, it was like Tina stepped up to the plate and called out to the rest of us, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this one,” and hit it out of the park.  I have chosen to address only one of the many things I have not been blogging about when it comes to Ms Palin – the inane idea that women don’t like her because she does not toe the feminist line – that is, *cough*, that somehow she is a maverick feminist, *double cough*.  Such a maverick, a reverse double maverick a-la McCain on SNL, that she is just plain not a feminist, you might say.  OR you might even say that nobody cares whether she calls herself a feminist or not, or whether other feminists call her a feminist or not…because I simply do not share MANY of her opinions and values. Good lord, people, male/female, black/white, short/tall, don’t like her because she is a completely unqualified vice presidential candidate.  She has dubious ideas about dinosaurs, sex-education, funding for sexual assault victims, and foreign policy, to say the least.  Apparently there were some folks in the Republican party that thought that the fact that we both have wombs and know how to use them would create an instant bond.  I do like her hair.  I think she has worn some very nice suits.  Her glasses are cute, and they really suit her face.  I’d vote for her to get her own reality show – Alaska is a very popular venue for such things, there is plenty of family drama to capture, and interesting careers.  Maybe one of the younger Palins can sing?

And just like that I would have so much more to not blog about.

Wake Up and Smell the (Fair-trade) Coffee

While I find your particular conflation of “liberal,” “Marxist,” and “academic anthropologist” delightfully mid-century, (although probably going to garner you a D on the final exam), Mark, I have let it slide long enough. I’ve got news for you, in the United States, you ARE a left-leaning anthropologist, and there’s little you can do about it. Why? Because the way that the political lines are drawn in this country and the terms “left” and “right” are defined, you fall squarely to the left and so does nearly every anthropologist in the country. (Oh, drat! Shouldn’t there be some discipline that studies the way that people get categorized into groups against their will? Someone should totally get on that! Any takers? Mark?)

In this country, if you accept the idea that traditionally described racial categories are a social construction and not a biological reality, you’re a liberal. If your eyes roll when you hear that medical insurance covers Viagra because it treats a medical condition, while birth control pills should be purchased with the patient’s own dime because they represent a life-style choice, you’re a lefty. And apparently, if you believe that there are historical structures related to the nature of our economic system that work not only to create socioeconomic classes but preserve them intact for generations, you’re a Marxist.

Are we the most left-leaning discipline in the academy? Does it matter?! We are one of the only (if not the only) disciplines that rests on assumptions about humankind that are classified as liberal in this country (you know, like evolution and human rights). If you accept the central tenet of American anthropology, cultural relativism, not only are you a liberal in this country, you are likely a bleeding heart liberal. The very nature of the enterprise of contemporary anthropology — to understand human diversity, to place value on difference, to eschew meta-narratives, to challenge the status quo and the naturalization of cultural traditions, etc. — are hallmarks of what people in this country call liberal.

I’ve been an anthropologist for a little over 20 years now, and learned my trade in your bastions of “liberalism,” and have never met anyone who fits your stereotype of the academic anthropologist — especially the part where you seem to keep confusing communism and Marxism. Don’t even get me started with the way you throw post-modernism around. (Maybe someone should have paid a little more attention in the classroom if he was planning on using these words later on.) And if we have reached the point where “caring about the oppressed” makes either a discipline or a person fundamentally flawed, well then, we liberals have alot more educating to do, don’t we?

So, Mark, I think it IS true that you, along with virtually all of your anthropological kin are left-leaning when you stand on the American political landscape. You are correct, however, about one major factor that makes it difficult to classify you as a liberal by American standards (and no, I am not talking about the Pentagon funding): you are incredibly comfortable with the inflammatory, over-generalizing, “truthiness” that characterizes the rhetoric of the most vocal members of the American right.

The devil is in the details, they say, and lord knows, neither one of you would be caught talking to that commie bastard. Accuracy – be damned.

Indiana Jones and the Myth of the Moundbuilders (Big Time Spoiler Alert)

The hat. The whip. That crooked, knowing smile. For Indy fans, any excuse to be in the big-screen presence of their idol is a cause for celebration. Yes, as an archaeologist who was a teenager in the late 80’s, of course I have a soft spot for Henry Jones, Jr., but for the record, I have never, ever been tempted to purchase a fedora, and it takes more than the mere mention of the word “archaeology” to sell me on a movie.

In Lucas & Spielberg’s latest collaboration there were plenty of small pleasures for the archaeologically inclined. For example, there is a hilarious scene where Indy crashes through the university library on a motorcycle, and then a student, without so much as blinking at his unusual entry, approaches him to ask a question, the reply to which is the advice to read V. Gordon Childe. (If that’s not hilarious to you, skip ahead to the next paragraph). We also see Dr. Jones in the classroom lecturing on the famous European site Skara Brae. And, of course, there are the usual sets with funky, cool ruins – I particularly admired the locking/unlocking mechanism on one of the temple doors.

My crowd (two other anthropology professors, myself and a bunch of archaeology students) laughed even harder at the references to life in the academy. See the example above, and feel a professor’s incredulity at how certain students will plague you with questions in any setting – the grocery store, the ladies room, a funeral… Additionally, after a particularly intense action scene, Indy’s young sidekick says to him, “I thought you were a teacher!” This time the reply is, “I am (hesitation), part-time.” This was greeted with howls of amusement in our part of the theater. We gasped in horror, however, when the Dean comes to tell Indy that he has been let go (over a Cold War controversy) and agitated whispers ran up and down the rows: “Omigod! Doesn’t he have tenure?! WTF!”

Another area of satisfaction for long-term followers of the franchise will be the relationship between Indiana and his long-lost love Marion Ravenwood. Kudos to Lucas-Speilberg for bringing back this character and letting her be impetuous, charming, assertive, and competent, all while looking her age. She gets to be a mom too, shouting advice to her son about his fencing technique as he battles a Soviet agent in a ridiculously “unlikely setting.” When asked if he hasn’t had plenty of women since they had parted (Indy chickened out a week before their wedding), Indy replies, “Yeah, and they all had the same problem, none of them were you.” Awwwww. Yay! He realizes that her smart-ass, take-no-prisoners, give-as-good-as-you-get attitude is exactly what he wants in his life and it is impossible not to feel a great sense of righteous balance restored to the universe when they marry at the end.

Now, one eyebrow went up the first time that the words Mesoamerica and then “in Peru” came in quick succession. It came back down a hair when Indy speaks to a local near Nazca and tells his sidekick that the language is “Quechua – a pre-Inkan language.” This trust was ultimately betrayed when the movie’s writers, however, bought into one of the oldest and most offensive of the myths colonizers told about the cultures of the New World: their accomplishments came from being taught by more advanced outsiders. Sigh. So painful. So racist. So unnecessary. That’s right, this movie (complete with a nod to Roswell) explicitly suggests that the peoples of the Americas were taught the skills of agriculture and irrigation by aliens.

This patently offensive idea undermines the accomplishments of New World civilizations and, frankly, is disturbingly hard to kill. Over the last 500 years Europeans and Americans have sought nearly any explanation for the complexity of native cultures in the Americas. Possible influences have been sought in a lost tribe from Israel, European wanderers, and even Atlantis. In the twentieth century extremely popular versions of this vein of thinking have included the idea that the Olmec civilization developed under the influence of priest-kings who came from ancient Egypt, and of course, Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, in which ancient cultures around the world are given inspiration and innovation by aliens.

One of the pieces of evidence that is most commonly cited in this less than rigorous scholarship is the presence of pyramids all over the world. If a pyramid is broadly defined as a building that is wider at the bottom and tapers to the top, it is hardly a mystery as to why this structure would be common. Any small child with a block set will tell you that it is very difficult to make the top wider than the bottom. Ditto for sandcastles. More compelling than my ad hoc engineering arguments, however, is the steady accretion of knowledge from around the world of local, indigenous culture histories. Thousands of archaeologists, working on thousands of sites, analyzing millions of artifacts have allowed us to see that pyramid building in Egypt, for example, is a process, developed out of long-standing traditions related to tombs. In Mesopotamia, pyramids are temples, with their own long trajectory of development that can be traced in the archaeological record.

In the New World, there is clear evidence in Mesoamerica and South America (which is where Peru is by the way, Indy) of the indigenous development of pyramid building traditions. Similarly, in North America, the largest, pyramid-shaped earthen structures of the Mississippian period do not appear suddenly, with no precedent, rather they are part of a long tradition of earth mound building that stretches over thousands of years into the Archaic period in eastern North America. There is absolutely no reason to revert to theories of alien intervention unless you are predisposed to think of Native Americans as dull, lazy, conservative people who lack the initiative, creativity, cleverness, and cultural complexity to be responsible for the archaeological remains we can empirically document in their homelands.

It is precisely these narratives of inherent inferiority that fueled (and later justified) colonial seizures of land, genocide, and the continued oppression of native peoples in the Americas. As long as there are lingering doubts in the public’s mind as to the worth of these first peoples and their cultures, the magnitude of the destruction wrought by Europeans on these continents is downplayed and eased in the dominant culture’s consciousness. Shame on you, Lucas & Spielberg, for fanning those flames! Would it have been so hard for the crystal skulls in the Indiana story to be an indigenous technology? The Soviets could still have been looking for them because of their legendary power. There still could have been an awesome climax in which the temple of the lost city was destroyed because the final skull had been returned.

Ironically, the few times that we hear Indy lecturing or talking to students he seems to be discussing diffusionism. At one point he even tells the students that they will be discussing migration versus exodus next. Maybe this was the archaeological consultant on the movie’s way of crying for help…


To read more about these issues in North America try The Mound Builders, by Robert Silverberg, 1986. Or even Cynthia L. Van Gilder and Douglas K. Charles, 2003. “Archaeology as Cultural Encounter: The Legacy of Hopewell,” in Method, Theory, and Practice in Contemporary Archaeology.