The number of natural disasters that have occurred since Haiti’s devastating earthquake on January 12, 2010 is bewildering. Victims of such tragedies face difficult decisions in the aftermath, while those who assist mediate the complex realities of displacement and need with humanitarianism. As a Native Americanist scholar, I understand how the roots of historical trauma, or the “cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma” (Brave Heart 2000: 245), affect Indian health. This deeper awareness transformed my understandings of human compassion and drew me to Haitians who’ve long suffered in their own ways from the effects of colonialism. I knew no one in Haiti and had never visited Haiti, but as a cultural anthropologist and a humanist, I recognized the need to act after the earthquake struck. This action resulted in organizing a city-wide relief event where I experienced first-hand the moral aesthetics of anthropological engagement outside Indian country.
Launching an Idea
The evening the earthquake hit my first inclination was to get anthropology students to collect rice and beans—two important Haitian staples—and bottled water, since potable water is less accessible to Haitians. Coincidentally, these items were also affordable to students with limited incomes. The morning after, I naively left a voicemail message at the local American Red Cross chapter asking about their Haiti relief effort, but what they heard in that message was that I wanted to organize a relief event. Unbeknownst to me, they alerted the news media who called two hours later wanting to learn more about the event; and by lunch a television reporter was interviewing me at my office.
The event took nine days to plan and I worked collaboratively with colleagues, administration, and student organizations as well as the American Red Cross and Second Harvest Food Bank. This all-day event was located at the university’s baseball stadium parking lot in which a drive-thru was created to ease donation drop-off. The American Red Cross’s mobile disaster relief team participated and collected monetary and blood donations, while a crew from the Second Harvest Food Bank collected and palleted donations. Radio personalities and television news teams broadcasted live, and area restaurants donated food and beverages to volunteer workers. In all, we collected 35,000 pounds of food and water equivalent to 17 tons. The food bank eventually trucked one-third of the donations to Miami, Florida, and from there, the State Department flew the shipment to Haiti. Remaining donations were picked up by the Feed the Children organization, flown gratis by FedEx to Haiti, and then trucked to a refugee camp housing 15,000 Haitians.
During organizing, my assumptions about providing assistance in the most culturally appropriate ways were much to the chagrin of disaster relief experts. Anthropologist Robbie Ethridge (2006) organized a relief effort in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina and she too learned first-hand how anthropologists often base their work on poorly examined assumptions about beneficiaries and local conditions after disaster strikes. Although the director at Second Harvest Food Bank advised me that financial donations were most beneficial, he supported the event recognizing there was no looking back since the media got a hold of this idea. He also graciously organized a logistical team for transporting donations to Haiti. It was easy to get caught up in the shifting humanitarian compass experienced in the community at the time, but in reality I knew the earthquake only exacerbated Haitian food insecurities. Research shows how long-term food aid undermines local and regional economies, and consequently American aid has “generated and maintained dependency” in Haiti (Jackson 2005). Although I was never on the ground in Haiti, like Ethridge (2006) was in Mississippi, we both questioned and reevaluated our respective motives and assumptions about helping victims similarly.
In retrospect, I see how my role as an anthropologist validated my efforts to others. My credentials opened doors to the American Red Cross, the Second Harvest Food Bank, and the media. The media has long portrayed Haitians as a desperate people and this “dehumanization narrative” (Ulysse 2010: 37) only continued after the earthquake making it seem as if Haitians were in need of individuals like myself. Locally, by launching a relief event, it was understood as a natural fit for someone like me who already works with oppressed communities. Furthermore, in the public’s eye, they saw me doing anthropology while organizing the event. It didn’t matter, and perhaps they were unaware, that anthropologists are guided by hypotheses and conduct fieldwork to support or refute hypotheses; regardless, I was seen as an anthropologist doing her thing. Consequently, I began to see my role more broadly in the community.
My anthropological approach has taken on different meanings since the earthquake. I have become more reflexive in my work and have realized purist objectivity is unobtainable and infeasible. While anthropology is premised upon objectivity, I fail to see how this lends to a fuller
ethnographic story. As anthropologists we are all part of a larger narrative, in fact I believe our abilities to narrate chapters of the human story is what sets our field apart from other sciences. This is engaged learning at its finest. Our work is morally grounded in “the recognition of the worth of others” (Carrithers 2005: 437), and by working with Native American communities, I understand even more so the importance of respectful relationship-building. This collaborative production of knowledge depends upon the creation of “morally charged relationships” rooted in trust and respect (ibid); by moral I mean living, working and adhering to the values within a cultural group, mine and otherwise. As such, I now view my responsibilities as an anthropologist in far greater terms and find myself engaging in more emotionally intelligent discussions than previously. In looking back, a human collective experience was shared by those who worked and patronized the Haiti relief event, which made it even clearer to me and those I worked with the importance of community and global solidarity in extraordinarily difficult times.
Johnston (2010) contends anthropologists have a social responsibility to the communities they work in, “To work in the public interest is an honor, a duty” (S235). While my role as an educator aided in soliciting assistance, my role as an engaged anthropologist working in the public realm provided me the necessary insight to work successfully with and for diverse populations. I pondered why I reacted and how I acted so quickly after the earthquake struck; I had never organized anything like this before. Where did my actions stem from? Was I motivated by human compassion or by professional inclinations, or perhaps by both or something else? Then I recalled why I was drawn to the field of anthropology—it fulfills my sense of human interest and compassion.
I have never considered myself an applied, public or action anthropologist per se because I think it’s essential for all anthropologists to engage beyond professional rigor, academic or otherwise. Without such engagement, our specialized knowledge is only meaningful within a profession that values, above all else, the whole of humanity. Public engagement ensures anthropological and human advancement, and anthropologists have a social responsibility to the communities they work with as well as a social responsibility to the public domain. My work is grounded in moral obligation and while I agree with Johnston that working in the public interest is a privilege, I disagree that it’s “an intensely problematic burden that demands explicit attention to the social terms and potential ramifications of engagement” (2010: S235). For me, working with multiple audiences and in different ways is not a burden, but a commitment that bridges my compassion for people and my passion for the field of anthropology.
Melissa Rinehart is a cultural anthropologist specializing in Native American Studies. She has interests in ethnohistory, the Indian removal and boarding school eras, Native American identity and representation, traditional medicine focusing on healing touch therapies, and anthropological praxis. Currently she teaches at Miami University in Middletown, Ohio.