You don’t know us. You will never know us.
This was said to me during a focus group about the traditional language of the Piikani or Blackfeet tribe. I was conducting sociolinguistic research for a dissertation and finding it increasingly difficult to justify to my participants why I was doing the research.
Anthropology. The study of culture. Years ago, as an innate observer and perpetual newcomer, I felt drawn to this field. It all seemed so great from far away, with a blurry lens. Travel. Exotic culture. Living among the natives. Field journals. Little known languages. Ancient traditions. I thought I would be a natural. That is, until I found myself actually living among the natives. My discomfort at being the outsider with the microscope only magnified the observer’s paradox I was supposedly overcoming. I never became adept at throwing the spotlight on others so well that they didn’t notice me hovering beneath it, taking notes. And the longer I stayed and stalled and actually lived and worked among the Blackfeet (or at least drifted on and off their reservation) the more apparent it became: what I was doing was wrong.
Culture cannot be quantified. It cannot be objectively researched, dissected, analyzed and wrapped up into a tidy package for all to digest. It should not be archived. It should not be mechanically probed. It cannot be discovered by science. Culture is itself intangible. Its tangible presence exists only in symbols and symbolic rituals and in poor descriptive sketches. Culture can be given but not taken. It can be passed down and shared and realized. It can be observed and honored but should not be mimicked and appropriated.
Now, the strangest thing to me is that it took me so long to come to this conclusion. A social scientist? Using the scientific method to understand culture and tradition? Why didn’t these phrases sound more ridiculous to me before?
Observations from a biased perspective: that is the best that I can offer to the field. And really, from an ethnographic stance, that is all any anthropologist can really offer or perhaps, if they are superhuman, they can give observations from an unbiased perspective. But is that ever truly possible? Decades ago, the idea of native anthropology was scoffed at. To be an anthropologist you had to be an outsider. This was agreed upon by everyone important. It was the quality of being an outsider, being new to the traditions and culture of a people that gave you insight as to what was really happening. The inner workings of a living system could have new light thrown on them by a fresh perspective and everything sacred was made mundane. An anthropologist had arrived on the scene and everything could be labeled and categorized. And if you were good, it was neat and clean and fit into an accepted model or a current theory. If you were really good, you laid out a new model to fit the pieces perfectly into and penned a new theory to match (or vice versa).
I knew all along that I wasn’t a scientist. I can hardly follow a cake recipe, let alone the tedious instructions of an IRB board. I can jump through hoops in the short term but I need to know that there is a prize at the end or hope that it's something worthwhile that I am fighting for. I’m not good at painstaking experiments, routine, schedule or consistency. All of these facts should have been red flags years ago. Yes, I am curious by nature and yes, I am project oriented but I need to know that there is higher purpose. A worthy end goal. And here I am, halfway through my seemingly never ending project and daily more unconvinced. If my goal is to scientifically analyze the daily usage of the Piikani traditional language, to ask 3200 questions to 100 different people and then run stats on the results in 30 different ways, what good will that ultimately do for anyone? Will I discover a new corelation? Will I illuminate a hitherto unknown secret that will save the language from extinction? Will I help anyone but myself, as I progress towards a fancy title?
I am fairly convinced that I can tell you all I can about the language right now, only if I were to finish this project the academic way it will take hundreds of pages longer. The truth is – the language is used in various ways in daily life. It’s not used by many people and those that use it don’t speak it to everyone. It’s not vital to survival. There are few fluent speakers. It is following the predictable path of a dying language, nearly exterminated by colonists. It is one of the many results of the genocide of this tribe. If my goal is to tell that sad story, I don’t want to do it anymore. Now that I know the story, even though I don’t know all of it, I’m done. I don’t feel the need to continue delving and poking and then writing that story up for disinterested linguists and academics to read, so that they can criticize my methodology or findings when they know the people I’m writing about even less than I do.
So I quit. I don’t want to shed light on the culture and traditions of the Blackfeet. It’s not my culture so I don’t have the right to expose it. And I feel much better saying that than trying to rationalize what I’m doing any longer.
There are a few loopholes to my self-argument. After all, I’m not supposed to be a cultural anthropologist. Technically, I’m a linguistic anthropologist doing a study on a moribund language. If I were a true linguist (which I’m not, I’m a terrible linguist) there a many arguments for saving dying languages. To which I must say a) I’m a terrible linguist, what good will I actually do? And b) it’s not my language. The only way a language will live is if the people who speak it continue to speak it. And for that to happen, the Piikani need to want to save the language themselves. What can I, as an outsider, add to that argument?
I still don’t have a good answer to that man in the focus group. I probably don’t know them, the Blackfeet. The longer I stay, the more I realize that I am only scratching the surface of their old, old culture in it’s regurgitated modern form. And I’m exhausted from trying to take in a whole foreign culture that is itself tired of being scrutinized by the colonizers and therefore, slightly hostile. I’d rather get to know them one by one. Then I can take them or leave them, be let in or out as they please, be welcomed, be teased or be left alone. In the end, I’d rather just live my life and let them take or leave me and not daily feel that my project depends on whether I’m inside or out.