Meet Our 2015 Wadsworth International Fellows: Elif Irem Az

The Wadsworth International Fellowship provides the opportunity for students in countries where anthropological education is underrepresented to receive world-class training at a university abroad. In the second of a series of posts introducing this year’s new cohort of fellows (here’s the first), we meet Elif Irem Az of Turkey, whose work concerns militarism, gender and violence and will be studying for a doctorate at Columbia University.

During my undergraduate studies in Political Science and International Relations at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, my compulsory courses largely focused on quantitative research methods and grand theoretical narratives, which usually disregard the experience and subjectivity of both the subjects of the study and the researcher. As a result of my disappointment towards the mainstream research practice within political science as well as of my active involvement with the feminist movement(s) in Turkey, in the later stages of my undergraduate education, I gravitated towards sociocultural anthropology, a discipline which takes into account the significance of self-reflexivity and textuality.

I enrolled in the Master of Arts program in Cultural Studies at Sabancı University in the fall of 2012 with a full scholarship and teaching assistantship, and received my master’s degree in September 2014. Owing to my experience at Sabancı University, teaching is of great value to my academic life.

My master’s thesis entitled Military Masculinities in the Making: Professional Military Education in Contemporary Turkey was on military masculinities and professional military education in contemporary Turkey, and I have ongoing interests in militaries, militarism, gender and violence.

The connections between the body/self and labor in Turkey are central to my current research interests. In my doctoral work, I plan to focus on the intersections of the ongoing rural transformation in Aegean Turkey, national and international agricultural regulations of the neoliberal era, public discourses and policies on coal mining, and mineworkers’ understandings of the body as the self and as labor, and of life and death. Finally, I hope the interplay between fieldwork, ethnographic writing and fiction to be a fundamental concern of my research and writing.

White Activists in Indigenous Australia: Discussion on Anti-Racism, Solidarity and Humanism

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Robert Samet and “Engaging Journalism”

Robert Samet is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Union College. In 2008 while a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University, he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Writing Crime: Journalism, Insecurity, and Narratives of Violence in Caracas, Venezuela,’ supervised by Dr. Sylvia Junko Yanagisako. In 2013, he received the Engaged Anthropology Grant.

One year ago Venezuela was at a crossroads. The death of President Hugo Chávez altered the country’s political landscape and there were questions about what the future held. Today it is in crisis. Soaring inflation, plummeting oil prices, and scarcity of goods have helped fuel frustration and political unrest. No one feels the current predicament more than Venezuelan journalists. My dissertation research (2007-2009) examined the press and the politics of urban violence in Venezuela’s capital city, Caracas. It used crime reporting as a window onto the dynamics of political engagement among journalists, editors, and media owners. I applied for the Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology Grant to conduct a series of follow-up workshops during the summer of 2014 about the promises and perils of engaged journalism in these times of political uncertainty.

As I prepared for the workshops, it became apparent that the environment for journalism in Caracas had changed dramatically since my last visit in 2013. Political polarization is nothing new in Venezuela; however, there was a heightened sense of professional precariousness among journalists working in both the public and the private sectors. There were good reasons for this. Over the past two years, government proxies bought out many prominent opposition news outlets. This accompanied a wave of firings and retirements, which have shaken the profession. When I began research on journalism in Caracas in 2006, it was arguably the most robust, open, diverse, and politically dynamic media environment in the world. Although reports that “press freedom” is dead in Venezuela are premature, there is no doubt that the space for journalistic engagement has constricted considerably. This should be cause for concern not just for the opposition but for the government as well. Auto-critique was essential to the success of the Bolivarian Revolution, and its gradual disappearance is foreboding.

What kinds of journalistic engagement are possible under the current conditions? Workshop participants discussed a number of different definitions and strategies for engagement, which I highlight here.


I. Definitions of Engagement

Over the course of the workshops, journalists offered three different definitions of engagement: engagement as confrontation, engagement as collaboration, and engagement as solidarity. By far the most common definition was engagement as confrontation. Journalists saw themselves as advocates for ordinary citizens against the wrongdoings of powerful persons and institutions. In this capacity, it was essential for journalists to engage publicly with the problems facing the country. However, this particular mode of engagement was becoming increasingly fraught. Consequently, journalists had begun thinking about engagement as collaboration with audiences and their peers.  This took the shape of online forums and reciprocal strategies with other journalists. Finally, some workshop participants argued that professional solidarity was a third way to think about engagement. Journalist unions were crucial to the continued protection of the profession and could offer a mode of engagement that sought to preserve the integrity of their work.


II. Outlets for Engagement

1)     Denunciation: In the past, the practice of denunciation was the principal means by which Venezuelan journalists attempted to exercise influence over the political arena. Among crime journalists, denunciations took the form of victims’ testimonies against police corruption, gang violence, and government neglect. It was widely agreed that editors, pressured from above, had begun cracking down on this practice. Although journalists believed that denunciation remained one of their most powerful tools for political engagement, they agreed that it had become necessary to reserve it for only the most extraordinary cases. Whereas before it was common to publish denunciations that were not backed by strong investigation, such testimonies now demanded hard factual evidence. Some even said that this was an improvement over past practices in which the press used victims to launch ad hominem attacks. 

2)     Online engagement: Although Venezuelan journalists have been using social media for as long as their peers in North America (especially Twitter and Facebook), the current situation has amplified the importance of online communities as sites of journalistic engagement. Workshop participants identified three main developments. The first was the rise of peer-to-peer engagements with readers. More than ever, journalists found themselves responding directly to comments and queries from audiences. The second was the incorporation of citizen journalism into the practice of professional reporting. Reporters said that readers and viewers were important sources of information with whom they increasingly collaborated. Third and finally, there was a boom in for-profit online news outlets. Journalists had some hope that these new outlets might at least temporarily make up for some of the license that they had lost in other spheres.

3)     Professional Organization: Within the newsrooms, unions and professional associations were a critical tool of empowerment. In particular, the workers’ unions played a strong role in protecting journalists and fostering professional solidarity. Although reporters were openly divided on the prospects for activism on the part of these unions, it was clear that they were an important locus for journalistic engagement.

4)     Collaboration: Finally, a group of crime reporters argued that collaboration between reporters was also a form of engagement that was too often overlooked or demeaned as “pack journalism.” Among crime reporters, journalists from competing news outlets worked together to cover stories and often shared information. Responding to my own writings on this subject, they pointed out that working in teams allowed them to be more thorough in their investigations, to engage more thoroughly with the victims of crime, and to cover a much larger swath of material than would otherwise be possible.


In addition to debates about journalistic engagement, the workshops also provided an opportunity for the participants to offer comments and critique on the research that I conducted with the help of the Wenner-Gren Foundation (2008-2009). Two of my current chapters were translated and circulated in advance. They provided a platform for a grounded conversation about what has changed and what remains the same in the field. The Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology Grant afforded the rare opportunity for research participants to offer feedback on the framing and execution of the book manuscript in progress.


Engaged Anthropology Grant: Socializando “Guerrilla Marketing” in Colombia


Alex Fattal is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard University. In 2009, while a Ph.D. student at Harvard, he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Guerrilla Marketing: Information Warfare and the Demobilization of FARC Rebels,’ supervised by Dr. Kimberly Susan Theidon. Last year, he received the Engaged Anthropology Grant, enabling him to return to his fieldsite in Bogota and share his research with the community that hosted him. 

Over the course of late July and early August 2014, I traveled to four cities in Colombia to share the findings from my dissertation research, Guerrilla Marketing: Information War and the Demobilization of FARC Rebels with Colombian scholars and policy-makers. That research was funded in part by the Wenner-Gren Foundation’s Dissertation Fieldwork Grant.

I presented my conclusions in a political context in which peace negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have reached an advanced stage. Provisional agreements have been signed for three of the five agenda items. This made my research into the individual demobilization of FARC combatants all the more germane to my audience. I shared my work at four different universities: La Universidad de Antioquia in Medellín, ICESI Universidad in Cali, la Universidad del Norte in Barranquilla, and the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. The audiences were very engaged in my presentations, often asking lively questions about Colombia’s much-anticipated “post-conflict” future.

Much of the discussion that my presentations generated spun around the implications of my research for the current peace process in Colombia, and how representational practices are playing a crucial role in the political struggle to support or undermine the peace process. Although it is an ongoing story, one of the primary conclusions from the discussion was that the Santos Administration needs to do a better job of communicating the progress that is being made in the negotiations, rather than assuming a reactive posture to those who have cast aspersions on the process and doomed it to failure.

I also extended my engagement with Colombian audiences, as planned, with a few regional and national media outlets. In addition to the presentations I gave interviews to campus media groups, and local and national media outlets such as El Universal and Semana. I only hope that I was as articulate as I implored the government to be. I advocated for a radical reorientation of the current model of demobilization in anticipation of the collective demobilization to come. (I have crystallized my policy recommendations in a paper I put together with Colombian colleagues here).

My thesis research also included a documentary film project that is in the middle of production. I shared a very rough cut of that visual ethnography in each of the four cities. The film, Dreams from the Concrete Mountain, enters into the psychological worlds of former combatants who have been both perpetrators and victims of the country’s ongoing civil war. The film project centers on a series of interviews with former insurgents inside of a truck that I have transformed into a camera obscura. That space becomes an intimate place for recounting life trajectories entangled with the social problems that are the root causes of the conflict, and the armed confrontations that are its most visible symptoms. Audiences were intrigued by the filming technique and impressed the direct style of narration, stories they might have heard before but through the words and framings of experts and others who speak as surrogates for ex-combatants. The dialogue that emerged around the film gave me a series of ideas as I continue to shoot and edit this project, and injected me with enthusiasm that the project is fulfilling its main goals: to humanize and complicate the figure of the former guerrilla fighter.

I am extraordinarily grateful to the Wenner-Gren Foundation for enabling me to share (or socializer, one of my favorite Spanish words) with Colombian scholars, students, and policy makers. I would like to acknowledge the help and support of my hosts at the Universidad de Antioquia, Universidad ICESI, Universidad del Norte, and Universidad de los Andes, more specifically the colleagues that helped make it happen: Jonathan Echeverri (Antioquia), Inge Valencia (ICESI), Diana Rico (Norte), and Pablo Jaramillo and Monica Espinosa (Andes).

Engaged Anthropology Grant: ‘Medicine, Morality and the Market: A Workshop’

Denielle Elliott is a member of the Health & Society faculty in the Department of Social Science at York University. In 2008, while at the University of British Columbia, she received a Post-Ph.D. Research Grant to  aidresearch on ‘Safari Research and Field Science: The Spatial Politics of HIV Vaccine Clinical Trials in Kenya’. In 2013, she received the Engaged Anthropology Grant to follow up her research by returning to her fieldsite and conducting a multidisciplinary two-day workshop in Kisumu, Kenya to discuss the ways in which medicine, morality and market values are entwined.

This collaborative workshop between Maseno University’s Department of Anthropology and myself aimed to offer an opportunity for local Kenyan scholars to discuss the ways in which medical research is conducted in East Africa. The Kisumu region in the province of Nyanza in Kenya was called a “laboratory” by Dutch NGO Wemos, reflecting the amount of medical research being conducted in the area by foreign organizations like Liverpool University, the Wellcome Trust, the CDC, the US Army’s Walter Reed Project, among others. This massive assemblage of research in the area has multiple, sometimes contradictory, effects on local communities and organizations providing care and health services to Kenyans.

Our collaborative workshop offered a space for creative, productive, and engaging conversations about medicine, the global flow of capital, and local unintended effects of medicine and the market on values, culture, and morality. More importantly, participants in the workshop felt comfortable talking openly and critically about both the positive and negative consequences of medical research in western Kenya.

The workshop was held at Maseno University’s City Campus, in Kisumu, Nyanza, Kenya December 9   and 10 2014. We had papers delivered by 12 participants (faculty and graduate students from East Africa), 35 people in attendance, and the keynote was given by Professor Omar Egesah from Moi University in Eldoret.

Dr. Omar Egesah’s keynote discussed the politics of global aid and humanitarianism, and highlighted  local tensions in the ways in which aid and global health research are rolled out in East Africa. They keynote offered many questions for debate and discussion during the questions period. The themes he raised – inequities, ethics, and local governing structures – were revisited throughout the workshop in both discussions and the papers being delivered. In many ways, the workshop worked towards decolonizing medical research in Kenya by shifting the power relations in who gets to define local health and research priorities.

Introducing SAPIENS: A New Voice for Anthropology

Leslie Aiello, Wenner-Gren Foundation

Anthropology has a long tradition of public engagement. From Franz Boas’ battles over concepts of race, to Margaret Mead’s revelations about sexuality, to Ruth Benedict’s illuminations of national character, anthropologists have sought to use their insights to shape public conversations.

Yet, in the last generation, anthropologists have increasingly struggled to find ways to connect with the public at large. Although there have been important efforts by a range of scholars in recent years, as a field we have fallen far short of our potential. Anthropological research has arguably never been more relevant to the world we live in. War, climate change, health, economic disparity, forensics, identity, race, digital media, consumption, language loss, our origins as a species—these are just some of the themes that anthropologists tackle every day. The public, however, doesn’t learn about these issues from the scholars who study them most closely. Instead, the gap between anthropology and the public has been selectively filled by the popular media.

A number of factors have led to anthropologists’ limited engagement with the public. Too often, public engagement unfolds through single efforts by scholars working in isolation—an op-ed here, a TED talk there. There has been a noticeable lack of resources committed to public dialogue about anthropology, and this work has not always been valued by the discipline’s institutions. Anthropology, on the whole, has not gracefully entered the 21st century media landscape.

We hope this is about to change.

In January 2016, the Wenner-Gren Foundation will launch SAPIENS, an editorially independent online publication dedicated to popularizing anthropological research to a broad, public audience. The publication’s goals are to serve as an authoritative source of information about anthropological research, make anthropology more accessible to the general public, and demonstrate anthropology’s relevance to everyday life. Through news coverage, features, commentaries, reviews, and more, SAPIENS provides a public platform for anthropological research as well as for anthropological insights into current events.

The Wenner-Gren Foundation has undertaken this effort to celebrate its 75th year of supporting anthropology worldwide. Substantial resources have been invested in the publication, which will become a key part of the foundation’s ongoing investment in the field. Just as the foundation’s Current Anthropology has become a premier journal for academic dialogue, we hope that SAPIENS will become the nexus for anthropology in the public sphere.

SAPIENS will publish content that provides smart and surprising insights into human culture, language, biology, and history. We’ll skip the dry and stuffy for witty and fun, fresh and incisive, authentic and down-to-earth. Our aim is to deepen our readers’ understanding of the human experience through exciting, novel, thought-provoking, and unconventional ideas that are grounded in anthropological research, theories, and thinking.

Will you join us?

We need your help in spreading the word of the site’s launch to your colleagues, friends, and family. We also hope you will consider writing for us. We want to ensure the site reflects the ideas, views, and work of the entire field—we need your voice to be heard.

Please visit us at:

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Strengthening female political leadership and orphan interventions through community-based research

Break time with queen mothers of Manya Krobo Traditional Area during the Community Engagement Workshop (June 2013)

Bright Drah is an independent scholar based in Alberta, Canada. In 2008, while a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Crisis Fostering in an Age of HIV/AIDS: Experiences of Queen Mothers of Manya Krobo, Ghana,’ supervised by Dr. Daniel W. Sellen. In 2013, he received the Engaged Anthropology Grant

The Community Engagement Project (the Project) is in follow up to my 2008-2010 Dissertation Fieldwork on orphan foster care by queen mothers (traditional female leaders) in the Manya Krobo Traditional Area (MKTA) of Ghana. After disseminating the preliminary findings of the fieldwork in 2009, ‘orphan stakeholders’ (queen mothers, government officials, NGO executives, community leaders, health, education and social workers and journalists) requested that actions be taken to address the challenges identified by the study, especially to empower queen mothers and improve the wellbeing of orphans. They suggested that the empowerment process be facilitated by a “neutral person”, other than queen mothers or chiefs.

Queen mothers’ are responsible for the wellbeing of their citizens, including orphans. Their work is conducted through the 371-member pseudo-formal Manya Krobo Queen Mothers Association (MKQMA). Unfortunately, the members do not make the decisions that govern the MKQMA; they cannot independently elect their leaders and the leaders are not directly accountable to the members. Rather, the paramount chief (Konor) and leader of the traditional authority has the final authority in appointing leaders.

Consequently, queen mothers are unable to challenge their leaders on issues such as abuse of power. In essence, they are frustrated by this sense of powerlessness. They assert that the  governance structure is “unfair”, however, any attempt to change the status quo is misconstrued as disobedience to the traditional authority. The situation is exacerbated by mutual distrust and infighting among the members and apathy towards the MKQMA. A strong MKQMA is critical because it enhances the position of queen mothers as leaders and advocates. It is also a channel for soliciting and distributing kin- and non-kin support to queen mothers and orphans.

In May-June 2013, I facilitated four workshops in MKTA to help empower the MKQMA. The objectives of the workshops were to increase dialogue between chiefs and queen mothers, promote queen mothers’ participation in MKQMA and increase the MKQMA engagement with the citizens.

Increased dialogue within the traditional authority, and increased community participation in local politics, could enhance political leadership and create opportunities to improve wellbeing.

Forty representatives from organizations that participated in the fieldwork attended the workshops. Of these representatives, 25 were from MQKMA and 15 represented government and non- government/community-based organizations. Chiefs were informed, but not invited to the workshops because queen mothers felt the chiefs may intimidate them and takeover the process. The Konor gave his approval for the workshop and agreed to implement the workshop recommendations.

I divided the participants into four groups. Using the processes of brainstorming, free-listing, consensus building and priority setting, each group identified and prioritized the leadership challenges facing the MKQMA and recommended remedial actions. The results from each group were presented to the other groups for further discussion and re-prioritization. The fourth workshop focused on helping participants to learn about the use of projective techniques to discuss sensitive topics with children.

The participants identified challenges relating to governance, membership, leader-member relationships and MKQMA-community collaborations. They recommended that the MKQMA must focus on enhancing its leadership and promoting the wellbeing of queen mothers, including re-establishing their welfare scheme. They contended that achieving these goals will enable queen mothers to address the needs of orphans. They recognized the importance of the traditional political authority and recommended that they develop innovative ways to continually engage chiefs and build stronger partnerships. They, however, recommended the separation of the governance of MKQMA (a ‘formal’ organization) from the governance of queen mother (a traditional political institution). Separating the two institutions would mean that the MKQMA will no longer be under the direct control of chiefs. This will allow queen mothers to make their own decisions. Specifically, they will determine the criteria for leadership and membership and establish the responsibilities and benefits of membership.

Participants also recommended that MKQMA be governed by a written constitution and decisions be based on consensus. They also stressed the importance of two-way accountability, where members treat leaders with respect and support them to implement programs, and the leaders are directly accountable to the members. They listed the qualities of a good leader as transparent, respectful, humble and tolerant. They preferred leadership that is committed to improving the wellbeing of queen mothers, values the freedom of expression, sets high moral standards and actively engages queen mothers and stakeholders.

Overall, the Project provided a ‘non-customary’ approach to empowering female leaders and engaging with their citizens to consultatively develop strategies to empower queen mothers. It enabled queen mothers, who belonged to different factions and have not worked together in a long time, to brainstorm and reach consensus on how to provide efficient and effective leadership to their communities.

The participants were very satisfied with the workshop; they will participate again in similar workshops and will apply the workshop approach to their work. The queen mothers said they have been encouraged by the workshop and that encouragement will help to build their self-efficacy, self-image and self-awareness. They stated that the lessons learned from the workshop and the implementation of the recommendations will help them to transform the MKQMA from a male-controlled group to an association owned and managed by queen mothers for the benefits of their citizens.

The inclusion of stakeholders other than queen mothers is significant. It allowed the queen mothers to focus on the issues affecting MKTA instead of their personal interests. It also created opportunities for partnerships between MKQMA and other groups to share expertise and best practices to improve wellbeing in MKTA. This was demonstrated when social workers and community leaders volunteered to help queen mothers write the MKQMA constitution and establish a welfare scheme.

Meet Our 2015 Wadsworth International Fellows: Abebe Mengistu

The Wadsworth International Fellowship provides the opportunity for students in countries where anthropological education is underrepresented to receive world-class training at a university abroad. In the first of a series of posts introducing this year’s new cohort of fellows, we meet Abebe Mengistu of Ethiopia, who will be studying paleoanthropology at the University of Florida.

My interest in archaeology developed while obtaining my B.A. degree in History at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, followed by my employment opportunity to work as cultural expert in the World Heritage Sites of Lalibela northwestern part of Ethiopia. During the time I was working Lalibela, I had the opportunity to obtain archaeological excavation and surveying experience with various researchers. This archaeological field work opportunities in Lalibela laid the foundation for my interest in studying archaeology, an interest that lead me to pursue M.A. degree in archaeology from Addis Ababa University in 2011. After my M.A. degree, I had the opportunity to work as an archaeologist for the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage (ARCCH) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for 2 years which has opened me more opportunity to involve in more archaeological research projects and to decide my future research interest and specialization. Due to this, in September 2013 and I went to Portugal and joined Polytechnic Institute of Tomar to Study another M.A. degree to benefit from a specialization in quaternary and prehistoric archaeology.

For my PhD research, I am interested to conduct archaeological research on understanding lithic technology that can make important contributions for understanding the dynamics of prehistoric societies. Particularly, I am interested on Late Pleistocene period, which is a very crucial period to understand modern humans behavioral pattern and their paleoenvironmental adaptation which uncovered on limited geographical regions where the prehistoric human population took refuge and later radiated elsewhere.  The project I am currently developing in Ethiopia focuses on understanding cultural changes of hunter-gatherers of the Late Pleistocene through close examination of land-use and mobility patterns, subsistence strategies, symbolic and social behaviors and technological innovations.

NYAS @ WGF, September 28: “We are Not Red Indians” (We Might all Be Red Indians)

The NYAS Anthropology Section lecture series returns to Wenner-Gren for another great season of speakers! We kick off the 2015-2016 slate with Columbia’s Audra Simpson on Monday, September 28. 

Three Pueblo Indian women displaying their ollas for sale at the railroad tracks, New Mexico, ca.1900.

“We are Not Red Indians” (We Might all Be Red Indians): Anticolonial Sovereignty Across the Borders of Time, Place and Sentiment

Audra Simpson

Department of Anthropology

Columbia University

In a 2004 interview Yasser Arafat, in a state of near confinement and exhaustion, reflected upon his incapacity to move without the immediate threat of assassination, about the Palestinian right of return, about American elections, and his achievements. Among these achievements was the fact that “the Palestine case was the biggest problem in the world” and that Israel had “failed to wipe us out.” As a final mark of that success, he added the declarative and comparative and final point of distinction, “we are not red Indians.” This paper uses this point of comparison of a departure point to reflect upon the deep specificity and global illegibility of Indigenous struggle and life in the face of death and dispossession in North America. In order to do so I will choose a series of historical assemblages — of sociality, treaty-making, militarized pushbacks upon encroachment, spatial confinement (“reservationization”), and pushback for land, for life and for dignity within occupation to amend Arafat’s statement and reimagine “success.”  I argue that these assemblages are themselves a structure of political life that stand alongside and push against a “logic of elimination” – a logic that authorizes the removal, the attacking and “assimilating” of indigenous peoples for land. I consider these tangled processes in order to re-narrate the seemingly negligible political and corporeal life of Indigenous sovereignty within dispossession and settler occupation. This is an occupation that naturalizes itself through law and narrates itself as new, as beneficent and democratic atop the lands and lives of Indigenous peoples who persist, with sovereignties intact, in spite of this grinding historical and political process of settler colonialism. In order to put this point of comparison, and sentiment of Arafat’s achievement in relief the paper examines how is it that the very techniques of force, of pushback, of sociality and outright resistance receive the writ of dismissal within a global and comparative frame of resistance and (political life). At the end of the paper it is asked how these processes may be re-narrated and comprehended in a global, comparative frame of not only analysis, but struggles for justice.

As always, this event will take place at the Wenner-Gren Foundation Building, 470 Park Avenue South, 8th Floor, New York (at 32nd Street). A dinner and wine reception (free to students) will precede the talk at 6pm, with the lecture beginning promptly at 7pm.

Engaging the Kiowa Community: A Collaborative Approach to Sharing Research on Historical Consciousness and Intellectual Property Rights


Betty Washburn and her son Kendall Washburn, descendants of Set-tainte (White Bear), renewed their ancestor’s Red Tipi in the 1990s. Since then, the Chief Satanta White Bear Descendants have put up the tipi at a number of events, including the American Indian Exhibition and the Medicine Lodge Peace Treaty Reenactment. The tipi serves as a mobile monument to Set-tainte.

Michael Jordan is Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Texas Tech University. In 2008, while a doctoral candidate at the University of Oklahoma, he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Descendants’ Organizations and Cultural Heritage in Kiowa Society,’ supervised by Dr. Daniel Charles Swan. In 2013, he received the Engaged Anthropology Grant to return to his fieldsite and share his research with the community that hosted him. 

In 2013, I received a Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology Grant to conduct outreach and engagement activities with members of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma.  The project built upon research that I conducted with Kiowa descendants’ organizations in 2008 and 2009. As outlined in my dissertation, “Reclaiming the Past: Descendants’ Organizations, Historical Consciousness, and Intellectual Property in Kiowa Society,” these grassroots organizations are primarily concerned with celebrating the memory of their nineteenth century ancestors and preserving and perpetuating Kiowa cultural practices that they deem “endangered.”  The project consisted of two distinct components, each designed to increase awareness and stimulate debate regarding topics that are of concern to Kiowa descendants’ organizations and which have emerged as central to my own research.

The first component focused on the development of a collaborative exhibition at the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma’s Museum in Carnegie, Oklahoma.  Interpretive material was developed in consultation with members of Kiowa descendants’ organizations and members of the Kiowa Cultural Preservation Authority, which operates the museum.  I worked particularly closely with Amie Tah-Bone, Director of the Kiowa Museum, and Phil R. Dupoint, Kiowa Tribal Historian.  The resulting exhibit, Reclaiming the Past, drew heavily upon interviews that I conducted during my dissertation fieldwork.

Kendall Washburn at the 2009 Satanta Days event in Satanta, Kansas. Kendall received the name Set-tainte (White Bear) from his grandfather, Clarence Sankadota, who had also carried the name. Clarence was the great grandson of the original Set-tainte, who died in 1878. Set-tainte’s oldest son, Grey Goose, was Clarence’s grandfather. Kiowa naming practices was one of the themes addressed in the exhibit at the Kiowa Museum.

The exhibit consisted of seven text panels.  An introductory panel discussed my dissertation research and introduced the themes that would be developed in the exhibit.  A second panel addressed the topic of historical memory, focusing on the way in which members of the Kiowa community commemorate and celebrate figures and events from the late nineteenth century.  Descendants’ organizations and their efforts to preserve Kiowa cultural practices and the Kiowa language were highlighted in the third panel.  The next three panels focused on martial exploits, Kiowa naming practices, and painted tipis.  War deeds, names, and tipi designs are all considered forms of intellectual property in Kiowa society.  The panels documented how descendants’ mobilize their ancestors’ intellectual property in contemporary contexts.  The final panel discussed my dissertation research and the current exhibit as the latest chapter in a long history of cooperation between members of the Kiowa tribe and anthropologists.  Admittedly, it would be possible to develop an exhibit on any one of these topics and it is my hope that future exhibits at the Kiowa Museum will explore these themes in even greater detail.

The exhibit opening was held at the Kiowa Museum on Saturday, September 28, 2014 and was attended by over sixty community members.  Kiowa elder Raymond Tongkeamha, a member of the Chief Satanta White Bear Descendants, opened the event with a prayer.  Following this, I presented a talk, discussing the history of my involvement with the Kiowa community, my dissertation research, and my findings.  A reception held to celebrate the opening of the exhibit offered an opportunity to answer community members’ questions about my research and to distribute copies of my dissertation to interested community members.

Dr. Michael Paul Jordan and Bambi Ware Allen (Comanche, Kiowa), Curator of the Southern Plains Indian Museum. In August 2014, the Southern Plains Indian Museum in Anadarko, Oklahoma hosted Dr. Jordan’s presentation “Reclaiming the Past: Art and Historical Memory in Contemporary Kiowa Society.”

In addition to developing the museum exhibit, I presented a series of public lectures exploring aspects of my dissertation research.  Early on, I decided to focus on the nexus of historical memory, materiality, and intellectual property rights.  The talks examined how the descendants of nineteenth century Kiowa warriors honor their memory by creating works of art that incorporate their ancestors’ tipi designs and depictions of their martial achievements.  I argued that through their artistry, descendants sought to assert their ties to prominent historical figures and to foster a vision of the past that highlights their ancestors’ contributions to the physical and cultural survival of the Kiowa people.

While one of the lectures was held in conjunction with the opening of the exhibit at the Kiowa Museum, the three remaining lectures targeted members of the Kiowa community who live outside the immediate vicinity of Carnegie, Oklahoma.  I selected Anadarko, Norman, and Tulsa as venues for these lectures because each boasts a significant Kiowa population.  The lectures were hosted by the Department of the Interior’s Southern Plains Indian Museum, the University of Oklahoma’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, and the Philbrook Museum of Art.  In addition, the lecture in Norman was co-hosted by the Jacobson House Native Art Center.  The lectures provided me with opportunities to share the results of my research with members of the Kiowa community who might not have an opportunity to view the museum exhibit.

While the focus of the Engaged Anthropology project was on disseminating the results of my dissertation research, it also paved the way for future collaborative endeavors.  During the exhibit planning stages, I worked closely with members of the Kiowa Cultural Preservation Authority and the staff of the Kiowa Museum.  As the project came to a close, we sought to harness the energy and momentum that we had developed.  Ultimately, we decided to apply for a Smithsonian Institution Recovering Voices Community Research Grant.  Furthermore, the museum exhibit and lectures heightened Kiowa community members’ interest in their nineteenth century ancestors and their intellectual property.  The renewed interest in these topics is likely to translate into future research opportunities.

The success of my dissertation research hinged on the support of members of the Kiowa community and I will forever be indebted to the Kiowa people who shared their knowledge and insights with me and who made a place for me in their lives.  I am likewise indebted to the Wenner-Gren Foundation, which along with the National Science Foundation and the Whatcom Museum Society, funded my dissertation fieldwork and then made it possible for me to return to the Kiowa community to share the results of my research.