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Repatriating Words: Local Knowledge in a Global Context

From: The American Indian Quarterly
Volume 26, Number 2, Spring 2002
pp. 286-307 | 10.1353/aiq.2003.0018

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The American Indian Quarterly 26.2 (2002) 286-307

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Repatriating Words
Local Knowledge in a Global Context

S. Michelle Rasmus

My name is Michelle, and I am an Anthropologist. It has taken a while for me to be able to say that without all the feelings of guilt and shame that often come with this particular academic orientation. Why the guilt and shame? It is because my involvement with Native peoples long preceded my involvement with anthropology, and I had seen and learned of the negative legacy that many anthropologists left in their wake. I came into anthropology with some early training in Lummi culture and community life. 1 I was aware of the cultural protocols that influenced what could be discussed, when, and with whom. I understood that these things applied not only when I was out on the reservation, but also when I was up at the university. What I did not understand was how other researchers, particularly anthropologists, could either not learn these valuable lessons or learn and then ignore them after they had left the community.

Devon Mihesuah urges that, "Researchers who are privy to intimate details of tribal life must use discretion when writing so they do not reveal information the tribe deems private or sacred." 2 This seems to be a fundamental and straightforward request, but it became clear to me that some researchers may not in fact know when they have been exposed to knowledge that, within a community context, is considered private in nature. The ideological gap between Native American peoples and researchers is not something that should be taken for granted. It exists now as it did a hundred years ago or more, even though today certain barriers such as language may not superficially inhibit communication. Research today suffers from the legacy of research conducted earlier in the past century, and the products of that research still exist in a form that bears testament to the hegemonic nature of its collection.

When I began reading works about the Lummi, what struck me was how distant all of the information seemed from the actual people I knew, worked with, and loved. Since relatively little has been written about the Lummi or Coast Salish peoples of the Northwest Pacific Coast, what came more to my attention [End Page 286] were the large collections of archival materials scattered around the northwest corner of Washington State. In these collections lived recordings of Lummi ancestors singing and telling stories. For three years I worked to requisition copies of these tapes from various archival institutions. It was through this repatriation process that I learned the protocols at Lummi that work to regulate and control who has knowledge, who has access to knowledge, and who has the responsibility of passing that knowledge on. I then turned my academic training on itself and used it to understand how researchers, at times, circumvent tribal systems of knowledge transmission simply by following the ethical standards accorded by their own particular social and academic realities. For example, it has become customary for a researcher to acknowledge restrictions and claims to ownership of certain types of knowledge within the Native community and then compromise these aspects of the narrative process by publishing sensitive or privately owned knowledge as an acknowledgement of professional academic standards. 3

This paper looks at the practice of knowledge transmission and acquisition within a Native community to illustrate how historical and ideological disparities between groups and individuals can affect the research relationship and necessarily influence the way in which the knowledge is accessed and controlled in different contexts today. This has led to such approximating solutions as the expansion of intellectual property rights to include cultural properties, but has not yet allowed for local peoples to truly have a say in how their information is accessed and used by others.

"That the Creator Gave to Our People":
Knowledge in a Modern Coast Salish Community

Before researchers can understand the process that guides knowledge transmission, it is important to understand what kind of knowledge is classified as private...