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  • Toward a Native Anthropology:Hermeneutics, Hunting Stories, and Theorizing from Within
  • Darren J. Ranco (bio)

As a Native person doing anthropological research within and for American Indian nations, I am not able to sidestep the many theoretical and ethical concerns that non-Native researchers face in doing similar research. I have had to defend the potential biases of my research, whether it is applied or action oriented, whereas my non-Native colleagues do not. Indeed, if anthropology is, as Thomas Biolsi and Larry Zimmerman state, "a quintessentially Western project" that "Westerners ask about themselves and their encounter with peoples they have colonized and liquidated,"1 what use could I possibly find in the techniques offered by such a set of questions? In graduate school, I realized that my interests in anthropology differed from those of my peers who seemed intent on traveling the world and experiencing new things. I sought to capture anthropological "skills," understand my place in the world, and help my community communicate our struggles for survival. In what follows, I want to examine why and how Native and non-Native researchers choose the research questions they do, and how this relates to the colonial context in which they find themselves. To do this, I treat research itself, not just anthropology, as part of the historical and colonial context of contemporary indigenous people.2

A number of studies provide ethical guidelines for doing research for and within American Indian nations, and many of them provide good ideas for anyone contemplating a research agenda within Indian Country.3 What is lacking, I believe, is a deep theoretical rumination [End Page 61] on what indigenous researchers bring to these debates, and how they may shift the theories that underpin this research in the first place. As a Native anthropologist, I want to explore the nature of research, how it does and does not meet Native research interests, and propose some suggestions as to where we can go from here.

Thus, this essay is a confession—or you could call it an ethnography, although only a very partial one, of indigenous engagements with research. My struggles to understand matters that are close to home and to help my community regain control over our culture and resources brought me to anthropology, and this essay documents some of the problems I and others have encountered in trying to research and advocate for what is close to us. I see anthropology as a hunting story—a story about capturing something of the Other that the West desires and bringing it back for Western consumption. But what if the thing that we, as indigenous researchers, want to bring back is not Otherness but a set of tools to protect and enhance Native cultural and natural resources? Is this also a hunting story? Can anthropology, which privileges the Western outsider as a producer of knowledge, be useful to us?

Encounters with the Other: Hermeneutics and the Privileged Outsider

Most non-Indians I meet who do research in Indian Country are not anthropologists—a discipline, for many good reasons, that has lost favor in Indian communities.4 Many of them are teaching or getting PhDs in departments of sociology, religion, education, history, folklore, and English literature. When talking to them as a Native person, I usually find they started their research to understand and experience something "Other" than themselves and are thus reinscribing the same anthropological desire for the Other, although without the negative label that anthropology has in some Native communities. I contend that this search for the Other is at its base a colonial desire with which we, as Native and non-Native researchers, must contend.

From where does this analytical desire to examine the Other come? The form of anthropological knowledge of which I speak is the same as that proposed by hermeneutics, or the study of meaning. Traditional hermeneutic theory, much like classical anthropology, postulates a subject (the analyst) who aims to understand an object (a text, a social practice, the Indian himself) as it is in itself.5 This means that the subject must be as open-minded and unprejudiced as possible, approaching the object without preconceptions. By introducing "their texts" (those...


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