Anthropological Work with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians
Sitting on the front porch with one of the most valuable of collaborators at my field site, I am able to watch the world go by. Elizabeth lives across the street from the police department of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Poarch, Alabama, and it seems like the entire population of the reservation comes by at least a few times a day—on their way to town or on their way home from working at the tribal center. Lower Alabama, or LA as some locals refer to it, may not seem the place to find a vibrant Native American community. Yet, there it is. This community at Poarch is the focus of my anthropological fieldwork examining Native American identity in the Southeastern United States. It is also the place that I call home.. The Poarch Band of Creek Indians is a small community about 50 miles north of Mobile, Alabama, and it is the only federally recognized tribe in Alabama, though there are numerous state recognized tribes. Since federal recognition in 1984, there are now thriving tribal businesses (including a casino, numerous hotels, and a truck stop) that allow for senior citizen housing, a new assisted living facility, and a health clinic.
In the summer, when fresh produce is bountiful, people in this area shell peas, shuck corn, and pick up pecans to put away in the deep freezers that almost everyone has. One day, as Elizabeth and I sat there talking, visiting, shelling peas, and watching the rest of the reservation ride by, she got a call. “Renee’s ready for us to come over now.” We get into my car, and drive over to the house of one of the oldest tribal members. When we arrive at Renee’s house, Elizabeth says “Hey how’ya doin’? You remember my granddaughter, Kelly. She wants to ask you some questions. Let’s tell her about all the fun we used to have!” So it begins—interviewing, recording, and participating with my most important informant and collaborator—my granny.
While this is technically my interview, my granny does much of the work. Not only has she created easier access to this space by making sure the people that I interview are at ease with me, she helps with the interview process itself. I have a list of questions, but soon after the interview begins, I stop trying to interrupt to ask the things that I have deemed important. Instead, I become a complete observer—watching and recording two seniors (as we refer to our elders in Poarch) reminisce about “the olden days” and decide what they want to tell me. “Renee, tell her about how we used to come together to make chicken dinners so [the tribal chief during the 1950s and 1960s, Calvin McGhee] could go to Washington and try to get us organized.” She tells the story, with my granny chiming in to give more details.
Not only was this interview professionally valuable for me to obtain crucial research, methodologically it was interesting to engage in this kind of collaboration. It allowed me to capture details of events that took place through eyewitnesses as they helped each other fill in the gaps of a 45-year-old story. In this situation, I was collaborating with people even by altering the usual semi-structured interview method that most anthropologists use in the field. I altered it to systemically include my grandmother in helping me in my interview.
Following the critiques of anthropology that Deloria (Custer Died for Your Sins 1969) and Smith (Decolonizing Methodologies 1999), as an anthropologist studying a Native American community, I have worked very hard to assure that the research that I conduct on the Poarch Band reservation includes the community in a true collaboration and partnership. Given the critique of anthropology in Native communities as well as the power imbalance that has historically existed between those writing and those written about (Limon 1991), in my research with the Poarch Band, I sought to create a true partnership and collaboration with the community. In order to do this, I followed the suggestions that Smith (1999) makes in Decolonizing Methodologies: I consulted with tribal elders and tribal employees to determine what it was that they wanted me to study. I wanted to investigate what they deemed important.
This collaboration was made easier, but at times harder, given that I am also an enrolled member of the Poarch Band, grew up in the community and continue to have familial connections there. Research was harder, in some ways, because while there conducting fieldwork, there were events and happenings in the community that were ethnographically rich and begging for anthropological inquiry. Being from the community, however, meant that I was always sensitive (and perhaps even overly sensitive or too sensitive) to whether or not it was appropriate for me to do observations or write field notes on the topic, and became an ethnographic refusal on my part to write about it (Simpson “On Ethnographic Refusal: Indigeneity, ‘Voice’ and Colonial Citizenship” 2007). Numerous times I would tell a story to a fellow anthropologist who would say “That sounds like it would be great for the diss!” But, I had to balance my desire to become a unique voice in the scholarly community with my fear of potentially embarrassing or negatively portraying the tribal community. Not that I think that other anthropologists are not thinking about that, because all of my friends and colleagues certainly do consider these outcomes of their research. Unlike other anthropologists, I seemingly have more risk because, if, like Nancy Scheper-Hughes discusses in “The Ire in Ireland” (2000), the community deemed what I wrote about them as hurtful or found it to be unfair, it would affect more than my professional life. A negative reception could affect my personal position within the tribe, long-held relationships, and have similar repercussions for my family members. Having to face that disappointment every time I went home (as often as I can) would be unbearable.
Thinking about how collaboration works within my fieldwork, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the bountiful support I received from the native community. Before beginning work with my community, I worried about what an anthropologist entering a Native community could expect. Sure, I was raised in and around Poarch, but I had been gone for a while “gettin’ educated” as my grandfather used to say. I came home for summers and holidays, but I had not lived in the community for quite a few years. Would people be okay with me coming in to do research? While participating in life at Poarch (by taking Creek basket classes, going to Mvskoke language classes, participating in stomp dances), I met people previously unknown to me. The people I met, both older and younger, were accepting and welcoming. Was it because I was from the community and had familial ties? That was probably part of it. Another consideration is that I was asking to tell stories about the community, and most of the people I met were happy to help. Finally, it also probably helped that everyone in Poarch were familiar with anthropologists, thanks to the research that the late J. Anthony Paredes periodically conducted in the 1960s and 1970s. His fieldwork with Poarch Creek people helped produced the document that was sent to DC and allowed the Poarch Creeks to receive federal recognition. In November, Poarch will recognize Pardes with a memorial service in honor of his passing, marking the first time that he has missed the annual Thanksgiving powwow.
The connections I made during my fieldwork have continued to help me even after I “left” the field. Academically, they help me by reading and making comments on chapters, and stopping me at the powwow or other tribal events to let me know that they found my dissertation online and read the whole thing. Through it all, I have felt supported by my family and by my tribe. I seek to practice transparent fieldwork, to balance the historically asymmetrical power dynamics of academic research in Native communities, and to offer what I gather back to the tribe by depositing everything in the tribal archives. I will continue researching and collaborating with the Poarch Creeks. As I do, I will strive to be creative in the ways that I work with the people, my family and the community where I grew up, so that true collaborations and partnerships exist.
Kelly Fayard is an enrolled member of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. She received her PhD in anthropology from the University of Michigan in 2012 and a graduate certificate in Museum Studies. She is currently an assistant professor at Bowdoin College in the department of sociology and anthropology.