- Women Ethnographers and Native Women Storytellers: Relational Science, Ethnographic Collaboration, and Tribal Community by Susan Berry Brill de Ramírez
This interesting book focuses on the collaborative work between two sets of women: Native American storytellers and the ethnographers/editors with whom they worked in order to record their and their families’ life experiences. Author Susan Berry Brill de Ramírez, a specialist in Native American literature, has published a previous volume on Navajo (now known as Diné) life-history narratives. This book expands her purview, considering autobiographical or biographical collaborations between folklorist Franc Johnson Newcomb and Ahson Tsosie or “Grandma Klah” (Diné); anthropologist Ruth M. Underhill and Maria Chona (Papago, now Tohono O’odham); anthropologist Nancy Oestreich Lurie and the pseudonymous Mountain Wolf Woman (Winnebago, now Ho-Chunk); [End Page 541] and anthropologist Julie Cruikshank and three Native women from the Yukon. The book ends with a consideration of a collaborative life history by a Diné weaver, Tiana Bighorse, and a non-Native editor, artist, and author, Noël Bennett.
These case studies (which span most of the twentieth century) move from a woman’s story (Grandma Klah’s) embedded in the biography of her son, to a woman’s story (Chona’s) intertwined with the narrative of a non-Native ethnographer, to a woman’s story (Mountain Wolf Woman’s) offered as a companion to that of her brother Sam Blowsnake (the subject of Crashing Thunder: The Autobiography of an American Indian , a pioneering life history collected and edited by anthropologist Paul Radin), to three Yukon Native women’s stories, to a warrior’s story (Gus Bighorse’s) presented through the collaboration of his daughter with a non-Native editor. With respect to the attribution of authorship, the trajectory goes from non-indigenous authorship (Underhill, Newcomb) or editorship (Lurie) in the earlier works to indigenous authorship (Tiana Bighorse, edited by Bennett) or joint authorship (Cruikshank, “in collaboration with Angela Sidney, Kitty Smith, and Annie Ned”) (p. 10). In other words, Brill de Ramírez offers an account of increasing authorial control and recognition for indigenous women storytellers. Two different periods in the history of ethnography are presented here: the emergence and early development of modernist ethnographic representation in the 1920s through the 1960s (represented by Underhill, Lurie, and Newcomb) and the postcolonial and postmodern forms of representation from the 1980s on (represented by Cruikshank and Tiana Bighorse), which followed in the wake of critiques of modernist ethnographic representation.
Scholars in the fields of literary studies, indigenous studies, anthropology, and ethnohistory share an interest in the process of ethnographic collaboration, which is increasingly recognized as an ethically and epistemologically sound methodology for research and representation. At the same time, authors such as Ruth Behar, Lila Abu-Lughod, and Greg Sarris have revived and transformed the genre of the “life history” or “life story,” once considered hopelessly outmoded and problematic due to ethnographic appropriation and Eurocentric editing and psychologizing. In this context, Women Ethnographers and Native Women Storytellers: Relational Science, Ethnographic Collaboration, and Tribal Community offers new insights into the various shapes and dynamics of collaborative, experience-centered scholarship. The volume may have particular value for studies of women’s literature not only because the authors and subjects (except for Gus Bighorse) are women but also because Brill de Ramírez frames her subject as “women’s relational ethnographic practice” (p. 173). Claiming that many women ethnographers had “greater propensities toward relational communication modes even within their scientific fieldwork,” Brill de [End Page 542] Ramírez argues that more intersubjective approaches to ethnography lead to more accurate and reliable ethnographic texts (p. 1). This claim—a central argument of the book—is not really substantiated through comparison to life histories produced by male ethnographers and would benefit from being discussed more explicitly in relationship to feminist theories about relationality, intersubjectivity, and situated knowledges. However, Brill de Ramírez offers intriguing close readings of the narratives she considers, readings that highlight the ways...