The Activist Trajectory and Collaborative Context: Indigenous Peoples in Virginia and the Formation of an Anthropological Tradition
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The Activist Trajectory and Collaborative Context
Indigenous Peoples in Virginia and the Formation of an Anthropological Tradition

“In the phrase ‘activist anthropology,’” writes Charles Hale, “activist is an adjective. To me, the word conveys an intention to modify anthropology, to transform the conventional practice in methodological terms” (2007: 105). Indeed, Hale’s name seems to have become synonymous with a growing current of scholars who view activism as a suppressed but newly unearthed vital organ of the discipline (e.g., Hale 2006; Hale and Calhoun 2008). In as much as the dialectical tension between notions of “pure” versus “applied” research remain vibrant, anthropological activism seems now to comprise one of the vital wings, along with public anthropology (e.g., Borofsky) and collaborative ethnography/anthropology (e.g., Lassiter 2005), in the campaign to challenge and redefine the epistemological mission of the discipline (e.g., Brown and Halley 2002; Speed 2006; Simonelli 2007).

In this essay I endeavor to scrutinize the “novelty” of a distinctly activist-oriented anthropology through an examination of the historical activities of anthropologists working with indigenous peoples in the state of Virginia. The case study begins and is primarily concerned with the early activities of Bureau of American Ethnology anthropologists such as James Mooney, who launched his professional career in post-bellum Virginia. Mooney and subsequent ethnologists working in the region found their research being cultivated in a climate of skewed race relations and concomitant political economic arrangements, [End Page 115] thereby inviting a tradition of advocacy among anthropologists working to advance the rights of indigenous peoples in the state. This context, I argue, was significant in provoking shifts from evolutionary models of ethnological inquiry to more complex understandings of community existence among indigenous groups.

The case study, however, serves as a prelude to my own collaborative work with Virginia Indians for over a decade. Whenever I speak on the subject of collaborative anthropology (most often to first-year graduate students in my departmental orientation seminar), the two most common questions I receive are: (1) how does collaborative research differ from participatory research, and (2) how does one initiate collaborative research? While I attempt to address both questions here, the more important one for the purposes of this article is the latter. Indeed, the idea that an anthropologist or other professional research can “initiate” collaborative projects with any given community is complicated and problematic inasmuch as it automatically implies a degree of authority over all other participants in the research process. What I describe here is a context in which my participation in research endeavors with Virginia Indians was almost predetermined by a legacy of Social Darwinism that circumscribed the lives of indigenous peoples in Virginia for generations, which in turn profoundly and inexorably impacted the manner in which they interacted with outside researchers into the present. While I make no claim to providing a definitive model for the pursuit of collaborative relationships between anthropologist and research community, I do provide a clear example of circumstances that may dictate such a relationship. In my case, historical forces and resultant community experiences tempered my fervor for scholar-activism and cultivated a realization that humility was a precondition for working with Virginia Indians. The ensuing relationships and results were often unexpected.

Historical Context and the Moral Mandate of Anthropology

In an article commemorating the centennial of the American Anthropological Association, Frederick Gleach (2002: 499) offered a compelling examination of how Virginia Indians “were, and were seen, as relevant in the developing proto-profession of anthropology over a century ago.” In fact, that historical legacy can be extended back to a period [End Page 116] of over two centuries. Thomas Jefferson not only conducted what was likely the first “scientific” examination of an Indian burial mound (thereby establishing himself as a foundational figure in the emergent field of archaeology), but he was also the founder of the American Philosophical Society, where he produced a thorough blueprint for documenting American antiquities, which was nothing less than an outline for the ethnology of American Indians. However, Jefferson’s investigations also fueled Social Darwinist policies and attitudes toward indigenous peoples by incubating the “mound builder myth”— suggesting that culturally inferior...