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  • 8. Anthropology, Theory, and Research in Iroquois Studies, 1980–1990Reflections from a Disability Studies Perspective
  • Gail Landsman (bio)

Having played a primary role in producing and disseminating representations of North American Indians, the discipline of anthropology also became a major contributor to the critical analysis of those very representations (Strong 2004:341). Indeed, in their assessment of relations between anthropologists and Indians 20 years after Vine Deloria's famous critique in Custer Died for Your Sins (1969), Thomas Biolsi and Larry Zimmerman note that a fundamental change in the field has been an increasing awareness of the social process of producing knowledges about Indians in America. "Most 'informants' and 'anthros,' " they tell us, "no longer believe that what passes for scholarly knowledge is ever universal, value-neutral, or unconnected to professional, class, and other interests (although there are always 'holdouts')" (1977:7). I suggest that Iroquois studies represented a group of such holdouts. In this paper I ask: In what ways, for what reasons, and with what effects were Iroquoianists "holdouts"?

As a point of departure for my analysis, I offer the following story from my graduate-school experience. It was October 1979. The annual Conference on Iroquois Research, usually a separate and "by invitation only" event, was being held in Albany that year in conjunction with the Society for Ethnohistory; the meeting was advertised in the Anthropology Newsletter, and I jumped at the chance to attend. With my dissertation proposal having been recently approved by my doctoral committee, I was preparing to go to the field. Driven by a theoretical focus on the process of mobilization in social movements, I had decided to study the conflict between a group of Mohawk Indians who had taken over land in the northern part of New York State, calling it Ganienkeh and claiming it as sovereign territory, and the local white communities that had organized to resist Ganienkeh in its two locations—its original encampment within the Adirondack Park and its current site near Altona, New York. [End Page 242]

Many years earlier I had begun my undergraduate studies at Cornell University in an era of political turmoil and on the heels of Deloria's biting, though humorous, critique of my soon to be chosen discipline: "Into each life, it is said, some rain must fall. Some people have bad horoscopes, others take tips on the stock market. McNamara created the tfx and the Edsel. Churches possess the real world. But Indians have been cursed above all other people in history. Indians have anthropologists" (Deloria 1969:78). By the time I was preparing for fieldwork, I therefore had no illusions of being particularly welcomed into life at Ganienkeh; I knew my presence there, as among the groups opposing Ganienkeh, would be a privilege that could be revoked at any time. And I believed that it was only right that it should be so. My understanding of academic life, however, was remarkably less sophisticated and much more romantic; I had naively expected to be accepted, if not welcomed, into the established community of scholars studying the Iroquois, one of the most documented of all Native American peoples.

I appeared at the Conference on Iroquois Research hoping for some expert advice and guidance, and I nervously and humbly introduced myself and my proposal to individuals I had come to recognize as the leading scholars in the field of Iroquois studies. However, there was to be found among them no enthusiasm for my planned research. One comment, made by a renowned anthropologist who, I believe, intended to be offering constructive advice, particularly stuck in my mind. Referring to the Mohawks who had come from Kahnawake and Akwesasne and who now occupied the territory they called Ganienkeh, the scholar straight-forwardly asked me: "Why do you want to study them? They're a pathological group. Why don't you study real Indians?" The comment was followed by specific suggestions for more appropriate subject matter.

I use this Iroquoianist's comment to frame the remainder of this paper. The term pathological group, saturated in what disability-studies scholars refer to as the medical model, encapsulates a number of assumptions I wish to interrogate. These assumptions bear...


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