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  • Ironies of Collaborative Research in the Northern Arapaho Nation
  • Jeffrey D. Anderson (bio)

Irony is so embedded in—but not equitable with—context, scene, drama, motives, paradox, mendacity, idealism, disillusion, and social ambiguity that it is surely the most powerful and pervasive of all the tropes. It positively enjoins an approach that is not only synthetic, pluralistic, and eclectic, but also specifically pragmatic in emphasis.

—Paul Friedrich (1991: 31)

During my extended fieldwork (1988–94) in the Northern Arapaho nation on the Wind River Reservation of Wyoming, I participated in or observed many and diverse collaborative research projects as well as many other kinds of collaboration related to addressing various issues in the community. Collaboration was explicitly or implicitly a pervasive aim of many projects and initiatives in the community from the late 1980s on, both on the reservation and among government agencies, organizations, researchers, consultants, or even tourists arriving from outside. Everybody seemed to be talking about or striving for “collaboration” of various sorts by various names—or not really named as such at all. Each collaboration was in turn connected to other collaborations, not confined to “my” collaborations as a researcher. As I moved from one space to another and as time elapsed, I experienced the many kinds of irony that invariably unfold in these webs of collaborations. Shifting frames of reference engendered slippages, incongruities, and asymmetries of meaning and value that became sharply discernable [End Page 142] ironies experienced by some or all involved (Friedrich 2001; Fernandez and Huber 2001).

The term collaboration can have various meanings and be subject to much equivocation (see Fernandez) as metaphors in our discipline compete to frame the context, as Lassiter (2005: 92) and others have pointed out (Marcus and Fischer 1986). Irony, though, may be the dominant trope in defining and understanding collaboration. While metaphor can function to bring clarity to abstract knowledge by making it concrete, irony allows the contradictions to be seen in sharp realistic relief. Irony also turns our attention to a frame of collaboration that is much broader than can be contained in any metaphors we ascribe to “ethnography” or the fieldwork encounter. The Western fixation on metaphor as the dominant trope tends to place the knower in the center of all knowing. Collaborative research in my experience was part a larger collaboration that did not just center on “me” as an anthropologist, the texts I produced, or dialogues alone. All collaborative research I experienced at Wind River involved competing definitions of and aims for collaboration that generated remarkable incongruities, at times erupting into conflict or withdrawal from the project and, at other times, contributing to the flow of the lived social world.

Regardless of whatever is in the dialogue in the present or the resulting text, there are myriad contradictions swirling about in the larger sociocultural context. At most, a text or dialogue can handle one or two. Entire dissertations and monographs in the anthropology of Native America—as well as many critical works in Native American studies, perhaps, if they are deeply engaged and collaborative—can cover one or two of those contradictions, and few of them have ever really done anything to address those contradictions in concrete social reality. To be realistic, there is no way that the most concerted efforts in my research or ruthless critiques in my or others’ texts are going to make these deep, vast, and overdetermined contradictions go away. If anything, ironically, our efforts at compensation often simply deny their existence.

More important, they predate by centuries the realizations of contradictions and irony in “our time” of modern or postmodern anthropological awareness. Colonized peoples have been aware of the contradictions and framed them as ironies perhaps since the first moments of contact, though few early anthropologists or historians ever really asked people about the ironies stemming from colonialism that have [End Page 143] been part of subtle behind the scenes culture for centuries. At most, we treat them in the ironically weak and loaded phrase from Scott as “weapons of the weak,” thus diluting their full power and context (Fernandez and Huber 2001: 17). In short, native peoples have been acutely aware of the contradictions of Euro-American...


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