While the notion of collaboration between researcher and research community has been implicit in anthropology since its inception, the past decade has marked a transformative watershed in how the concept is perceived and applied. The publication of Lassiter’s Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography (2005) was the benchmark of a new dialogue concerning the politics of representation and the nexus of activism, community agendas and the (co) production of knowledge through anthropological endeavors. From this perspective, collaboration is an ideal for optimum inclusion of constituents in research communities from beginning to end in relationships that sometimes diminish the importance of the anthropologist.

Nine month old pine. Photo courtesy wikicommons

Nine month old pine. Photo courtesy wikicommons

I have fortunately been a minor part of this dialogue for the past 13 years. The emergence of the collaboration current, most notably articulated through Collaborative Anthropologies, paralleled my work in establishing an American Indian and Indigenous Studies program at Virginia Tech. In retrospect, this undertaking has embodied all that is tenuous, unpredictable and exciting about collaboration in the fullest use of the term.

While I had worked with the Monacan Nation for some years before, I had only been at Virginia Tech for a few months as an Appalachian Studies instructor when the Monacan tribal council set the gears in motion. In June 1999, the council sent a letter to the Virginia Tech administration and several state policymakers urging the university, as Virginia’s premier land grant institution, to establish a program that both embraced American Indians as partners and advanced a historical and contemporary knowledge of indigenous peoples. University officials were selectively enthusiastic about the prospect, but approved its development with one major caveat—no new resources, human or otherwise.

As an instructor in the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies and the only faculty member besides Cherokee political science professor Jeff Corntassel who had worked extensively with indigenous communities, the program fell in my lap. My task was to coordinate a faculty team in identifying existing courses and drafting proposals while coordinating with Monacan Nation representatives. The Monacan leadership, however, was quick to point out that the other tribes in the state should be involved. Although the now-defunct Virginia Council on Indians sponsored an annual intertribal meeting that offered one venue for soliciting greater involvement from other tribes, it soon became clear that we need to foster the dialogue under more focused circumstances.

It is important to understand the turbulent colonial circumstances that have framed relationships between Virginia’s indigenous peoples and state institutions, especially in education. None of Virginia’s tribes are federally-recognized, although there are 11 state-recognized groups. Thus, Virginia tribes have not enjoyed political protections that often exempt federally-recognized groups from state and local interventions. As racial tension escalated with the turn of the 20th century, eugenic policies contextualized the legal status of Indians. The 1924 Virginia Race Integrity Act stated that the state would acknowledge only two races thereafter—“white” and “colored,” and effectively outlawed the classification of anyone as “Indian.” State Registrar Walter Plecker—obsessed with the idea of preserving Anglo-Saxon racial purity—was convinced that all Indians were “mixed-race degenerates,” who might in some cases manage to infiltrate the white race and gain access to the privileges thereof.

Plecker’s enforcement of the Race Integrity Act essentially prevented Indians from attending public schools. A few attended federal boarding schools through anthropologist Frank Speck’s intervention, but most were fortunate to receive up to a sixth grade education at best through local mission schools. Indians were not allowed into public schools until 1963, creating a formidable barrier to higher education, and a concomitant mistrust of state institutions. This legacy of mistrust and alienation very much framed the atmosphere in which we sought to engage Virginia Indians, despite the improvement of political economic conditions for indigenous peoples since that time.

In April 2001, we invited representatives from each of the state’s tribes to attend the first Virginia Indian Nations Summit on Higher Education (VINSHE) to secure broader partnerships and gain impetus from indigenous communities in Virginia. My university colleagues and I made a potentially critical error in drafting a top-heavy format for this gathering. We opened with a full morning of presentations from various university offices and departments showcasing majors, services and research, and shifted toward a focus group format, led by faculty, in the first afternoon session. Fortunately, some of the tribal representatives were willing to point out the contradictions between seeking collegial ties with their communities on the one hand, and restricting the dialogue with a prearranged agenda on the other

When I discuss collaboration in graduate seminars, students often ask me to differentiate between that concept and the practices of participatory research. They also ask how one initiates or develops a collaborative project. VINSHE and its manifestations illustrated to me that in the first instance, collaboration in the strictest sense must entail an effort to dismantle uneven power relations between scholar/researcher and community collaborators, who we purport to embrace as co-intellectuals. In the second instance, the VINSHE project illustrated almost immediately—and continues to illustrate—that collaborative projects emerge in most unpredictable ways and can often have unforeseen results in which the power dynamic is formidably reversed.

After the morning sessions, when guest speakers had departed, a brief period of silence was punctuated by a booming, “What the hell was that?” George Whitewolf, of the Monacan Nation, expressed the mutual sentiments of all of our guests. What ensued was a lively dialogue about the legacy of state institutions selectively alienating and controlling the lives of Indians, and how what we had to offer at Virginia Tech might be antithetical to community goals inasmuch as higher education might cloak an assimilationist agenda that would channel youth away from community responsibilities. While we did break into randomly selected groups, we asked tribal representatives to set the agenda and lead discussions therein.

While some university officials privately expressed concern that this might degenerate into organized rant sessions, quite to the contrary, the dialogue bore fruit. By the day’s end tribal representatives had set definite goals that were designed first to give university representatives the opportunity to gain the trust of the state’s Indian nations, and to set a simple agenda for programmatic growth in which tribes had a vested interest. The first order was to establish a tribal advisory board, consisting of representatives attending the first VINSHE and appointed by respective tribes in subsequent years. It was our obligation to supply this board with regular reports on curriculum development, outreach and engagement programs, and to invite active participation at every feasible level. Such participation has been mixed, with some tribes being more active than others, and with the distance of our campus from most tribes rendering regular physical engagement difficult.

The second order was to establish explicit channels for engaging Virginia Indian youth about how to build a secure environment for them at our university. This has been the most difficult task, and space does not allow a detailed discussion as it is largely the responsibility of student affairs. However, I have consistently facilitated dialogues to encourage tribal elders to intervene and instill in youth a sense of community responsibility if they pursue higher education. The longest standing initiative springing from this dialogue has been the Virginia Indian Pre-college Outreach Initiative (VIPCOI), which interfaces with tribal youth, their families and elders, through day camps at tribal centers and campus visitations.

VINSHE has, in fact, been our most crucial tool for growing academic programs, encouraging substantive engagement with tribal communities, and providing students with a sense of community on campus. We encourage students of all Indian nations to be active participants in this gathering, which has had the effect of keeping dialogues fresh. This involvement also helps us to hone our program in a manner that is relevant to current general education goals, including efforts to interface with STEM disciplines and collaborative research/pedagogical projects addressing issues where indigenous knowledge is most pertinent (eg, sustainability, climate change). Since 2004, the University of Virginia (UVA) has become a partner in VINSHE. While UVA has not yet established an Indigenous Studies program, it has committed to more rigorous efforts at recruitment and retention, and the VINSHE alliance has fostered cross-institutional student alliances.

One of the prevailing topics at VINSHE has been the politics of representation and indigenous control of history and images. On one level, Virginia Indians have contributed modules to curricula. The board occasionally reviews research that directly impacts Virginia tribes, although it has no substantive regulatory authority. Remarkably, the tribal advisory board started working autonomously as early as 2005 to influence how the state education system incorporates or ignores Virginia Indian history and culture. Karenne Wood, the Monacan council member who has worked closely with Virginia Tech, organized a series of symposia on Virginia Indian history and culture for school teachers, which was largely staffed by tribal representatives. This helped launch a successful campaign to reform Virginia’s Standards of Learning curricula to include substantive material on Virginia Indians during all periods of history, and in multiple disciplines. This was of great political importance, as the 20th century eugenics policy had succeeded in virtually erasing Indians from the public consciousness. During this period, Karenne Wood (now a PhD candidate in anthropology at UVA) became director of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities Virginia Indian Heritage Program, which uses our advisory board as its own. This program has launched some remarkable efforts to reformstatic, dioramic public representations of Virginia Indians, including a traveling interactive museum exhibit, a comprehensive travel guide to the best interceptive sites in the state, and a nascent digital archive showcasing indigenous life into the present.

The fact that my role has been less pronounced in some of the manifestations of VINSHE is, in my mind, affirmation of the ideal of collaborative anthropology. In that respect, those of us engaged in that dialogue should reconsider our genealogical forerunners in action anthropology, where one of the paramount goals is to promote community sustainability and work ourselves out of a job.

Samuel R Cook is associate professor and director of American Indian Studies at Virginia Tech. Much of his research has focused on the political economy of indigenous communities in the southern United States and Appalachia. His current research involves regional efforts to revitalize indigenous natural resource management and permaculture techniques.


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