A Step toward Decolonizing the Discipline

The Ancestors Project offers a model for how section leaders can do the much-needed work of challenging sexism and white supremacy in anthropology.

All eyes were glued to the speaker at the podium. Sitting and standing as closely as we would on a rush hour bus, amidst an attentive silence that wasn’t sleepy, but electric, we listened. Taking turns at the podium weren’t celebrities or heads of state, but anthropologists who were doing things differently.

Capturing our attention was The Ancestors Project, which is an effort to acknowledge those intellectual ancestors whose contributions to anthropological theory have been silenced or overlooked due to their gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, or the intersection of those aspects of their identity. Sponsored by the Anthropology & Environment Society, it unfolded over three sessions at the 2019 AAA/CASCA Annual Meeting held in the unceded territory of the Coast Salish peoples, including the territories of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. Each speaker, an accomplished scholar who is also a woman or person of color or both, discussed one such ancestor’s impact on theorizing environmental issues. The papers’ scholarly contributions were valuable in and of themselves. But, what made these presentations so engaging was the deep care that went into the work. Sophisticated and heartfelt, these presentations were exemplary of what anthropology can do at its best.

“The Ancestors Project is an opportunity to think about who has contributed to the field of environmental anthropology who hasn’t necessarily had the recognition they should have had”

In the first session, Nikhil Anand spoke about Amita Baviskar, Chandra Bhimull discussed Suzanne Césaire, Juno Salazar Parreñas considered Barbara Harrison, Bridget Guarasci shared insights from Muzaffar al-Nawwab, and Laura Ogden explored Anne Chapman’s rage. In the second session, Amelia Moore revisited the Bahamas with June Jordan, Kiran Asher worked with Gayatri Spivak, Jessica Cattelino discussed Zora Neal Hurston, Shiho Satsuka considered Kinji Imanishi, and Paige West talked about Paula Brown Glick and Mrs. N. Runi. Discussants Vanessa Agard-Jones and Natalie Bump Vena delivered superb remarks.

The Ancestors Project offers a model for how section leaders can do the much-needed work of challenging sexism and white supremacy in anthropology. It builds on the efforts of Paige West and Laura Ogden who, as section presidents, made this task a formal part of the section’s work at our AAA Annual Meeting. For instance, in 2017, they held a Roundtable to discuss citational politics in environmental anthropology, where graduate students voiced a need for published resources that could justify diversity in their exam lists. Then, in 2018, Bridget Guarasci, Amelia Moore, and Sarah Vaughn published “Citation Matters,” an open-access, crowd-sourced syllabus, which they discussed on Anthropod and that inspired their article in preparation for the 2021 Annual Review of Anthropology. The initiative coincides with important work being done elsewhere, such as the Cite Black Women Movement founded by anthropologist Christen Smith and discussed at an Executive Session at the 2019 Annual Meeting.

After the Annual Meeting, I spoke with session organizers Amelia Moore (AM), Sarah Vaughn (SV), and Bridget Guarasci (BG). Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

JP: What is the Ancestors Project?

AM: The Ancestors Project is an opportunity to think about who has contributed to the field of environmental anthropology who hasn’t necessarily had the recognition they should have had, whether it was their race, gender, or nationality that people underappreciated, in what is a very American canon and white male canon. We also realized that there are so many scholars outside of environmental anthropology or outside of anthropology totally, and I think we need to honor them for their massive contributions to our thinking. There’s just so much wonderful work out there that’s more available than ever.

BG: The Ancestors Project is a specific aspect of the greater effort that we’re making to think about the canon in environmental anthropology and include the voices of those who have often not been included. It is also an effort to think with historical depth; to ask who had not been visible to all of us in the past. It began when Sarah, Amelia, and I started a reading group. We noticed the amazing groundswell of scholars who were often not considered the canon. It felt like a moment. There was something we were witnessing that needed to be called out for what it was.

SV: It’s also a question of fieldwork and where it leads you. It’s precisely because we find ourselves in sites that don’t feel like what we were reading. At least for me, it pushed me to ask, what are the things I can read that make the things I see in my field site more relevant?

JP: What came out of the sessions in Vancouver?

BG: What really moved me was how willing and how much people put themselves on the line for these papers. The papers were just so beyond what a traditional Annual Meeting paper was. Because they were really doing important work, and also doing that work by taking great personal risk and seizing a moment of courage.

SV: There was such a presence in the audience. People were really engaged. It just reminds us how important it is that we think about this problem and we engage people across different spaces and mediums. That’s just a nod to hoping that such conversations can keep going. Outside of just the art of the essay.

AM: The typical AAA format can be incredibly dry. You’re straining with all your energy to just pay attention after the fourth talk in a session. I found these sessions to be really alive. You know, if you ask someone to talk about what is meaningful to them, you get a different kind of talk.

“What would be wonderful to see is other people’s iterations of this movement.”

JP: What reactions have you received, both to this step and others in the broader initiative such as the “Citation Matters” syllabus?

BG: Most of what we’ve been hearing is positive. People contact us to suggest other people who can help us in this project. You know, I was somewhat surprised that we didn’t get much pushback. It seems there was an opening and we stepped into it.

AM: Pushback might still come in the future as there’s more for people to comment on, especially if people can comment anonymously. It’s also the kind of topic that people don’t feel comfortable criticizing, and yet they might be critical. Because of course our field is very good at critique. I’m open to hearing that critique if it comes. If people feel like things are missing from the conversation, then I hope that they feel they can join the conversation and add those things. We’re really trying to not make it an exclusive enterprise or even really to be authors of it. In large part, we just want to bring people into the conversation that normally are not involved. And, I’m constantly reminded that this conversation has been going on for quite some time. It’s not new. What I think we are hopefully helping to do is make it more mainstream.

SV: Yeah. I would add that it’s not just the problem of particular scholars to take up this issue of thinking about what the canon is and what it can become, but everyone’s.

AM: Right. This isn’t just a project about environmental anthropology. I would hope that we can have a broader conversation about anthropology itself as a discipline, and how people are thinking about environmental issues as opposed to trying to keep carving off a particular space, as though you can do that with clear meaning or impact.

JP: How can colleagues at different stages of their careers do this work?

SV: The easiest answer would be, if you’re teaching in any capacity, make reference to the living document that is the syllabus. If you’re a student, engage it yourself.

AM: l also think you can do what Bridget, Sarah, and I did. We just kind of knew each other and formed a little reading group. Anybody can do that. It just takes a little intention. And some thought. It’s so hard to carve out time for reading everything that’s out there. If you need motivation, get a group together and do it. I like the idea of using the syllabus and conversation to create communities that don’t necessarily already exist, but that really should.

BG: Absolutely. This is our iteration. What would be wonderful to see is other people’s iterations of this movement. That it gets taken up and used in whatever way is useful for people. That’s what we hope for. People taking it up and making it their own and moving it forward.

Jessica Pouchet is assistant professor of environmental studies and sciences at Bucknell University.

If you have news or an idea to share, please contact Jessica Pouchet, section news contributing editor for the Anthropology and Environment Society column, at [email protected].

Cite as: Pouchet, Jessica. 2020. “A Step toward Decolonizing the Discipline.” Anthropology News website, March 5, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1366

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