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  • Switchbacks: Art, Ownership, and Nuxalk National Identity
  • Victoria Wyatt
Jennifer Kramer . Switchbacks: Art, Ownership, and Nuxalk National Identity, University of British Columbia Press. xiv, 152. $29.95

Between June 1995 and November 2001, Dr Kramer conducted sixteen months of fieldwork among the Nuxalk in Bella Coola, British Columbia. She explored the complicated facets of contemporary construction of identity among the Nuxalk, focusing on the roles that contemporary artworks – visual arts, songs, and dances – play in affirming identity.

Today, in many disciplines, authors urge us to embrace a view of the world that acknowledges interconnections and complexities. (An outspoken advocate for a new way of thinking is David Weinberger in Everything Is Miscellaneous.) Embracing complexities and relationships – an ecosystems perspective – seems especially important as we face interconnected global challenges. Strong writing will contribute to this goal by advancing awareness of four overlapping concepts: diversity, complexity, relationships, and process.

Kramer implicitly emphasizes the importance of these concepts. She points out that we should view artworks as processes rather than as static objects. Artworks assume layers of meaning over time, based on their relationships with the people – Native and non-Native – who have seen and used them. Kramer persuasively reminds us that cultures undergo processes. Essentialist concepts of culture do not reflect the reality of human experiences. Other writers have made the same point equally forcefully, and Kramer may somewhat overstate the extent to which the essentialist perspective remains a problem in contemporary literature. Nevertheless, the point about cultural change is extremely important, and eloquent demonstrations such as Kramer's deserve much credit.

Kramer acknowledges diversity among the Nuxalk, noting that there are many different opinions in the community and even sometimes in individuals. She notes that contemporary politics make it important for bands to establish an image of nationhood in non-Native contexts such as land settlement, self-government, and repatriation. She points out that artworks, as representations of culture, contribute to the image of nationhood, even though there may be different attitudes towards ownership of artwork within the village. [End Page 168]

Kramer provides a vivid discussion of some complexities involved in attempts to engage young people in cultural expression. Her experiences with these programs while volunteering at a school give insight into issues widely faced by peoples who have experienced extreme cultural oppression.

Kramer interprets her observations among the Nuxalk through the lens of anthropological theory. She quotes generously from a wide range of academic writers studying societies in many parts of the world, giving readers an important bibliography. Implicitly she suggests relationships between experiences of indigenous peoples in many parts of the world.

Some readers may find the balance in the text weighted too much towards general theory, at the expense of culturally specific information and interpretations. As a historian, I would have preferred more synthesis of specific cultural/historical circumstances with the general theory. We have different disciplinary perspectives, and I would be wrong to steer readers away because of my preferences. Kramer implicitly invites readers to form their own opinions about the appropriate balance between theory and specificity. For this reason and several others, Switchbacks will interest a wide range of readers, serving as an excellent textbook for upper-level and graduate anthropological courses.

One of the values of the text is Kramer's reflections about her role as an outsider doing fieldwork. Students embarking on fieldwork would benefit from reading her ideas. At times her interpretations cannot be persuasively supported by the short quotes provided, but this limitation is endemic to fieldwork: it is difficult, in a short text, to document all the experiences and conversations that lead one to form a conclusion. Kramer does need more specificity and documentation when making statements about other writers' intentions; for instance, readers familiar with The Legacy, by Peter Macnair, Alan Hoover, and Kevin Neary may rightly feel puzzled by her remarks.

In a relatively short text, Kramer accomplishes much of value. She demonstrates the importance of acknowledging complexities and process when examining human situations. Students and practitioners of anthropology can gain much by reading her text.

Victoria Wyatt
Department of History in Art, University of Victoria


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pp. 168-169
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