Archive for Interview

Interview: Michael Polson

Michael Polson is a Visiting Professor of Anthropology at American University. In 2010, while a doctoral candidate at the City University of New York Graduate Center, he was awarded the Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to study the elaboration and negotiation of social relations and practices in the emerging medical and underground marijuana markets of northern California. We spoke to Polson to learn more about his fieldwork experience.


What’s your background in anthropology? How did you become interested in marijuana as a project? 

Prior to graduate school I had two formative experiences that drew me toward anthropology. One was conducting a project as an undergraduate on underground networks of men who have sex with men in Kathmandu at a time when many people I spoke to believed these men didn’t exist. This showed me the importance of inquiring into people’s lives as they are lived, not as we think they live—particularly for people in illicit realms. The other was being a political organizer and co-educator, which taught me to listen to and value the experience of people as they grapple with the world and the expertise they accumulate on their own condition. While other disciplines might view people as a result of knowledge, anthropology views people’s complex, everyday lives as the source of knowledge. This ethical and political stance was attractive to me. I have been very lucky to become an anthropologist as a graduate student and teacher at City University of New York, a school with a rich political history, and, now, at American University in a fantastic department oriented toward public anthropology.

The project on marijuana started as a project on low wage, informal, and illegal work in a gay resort town. Every time I went back, though, my notes were filled up with people involved with marijuana—growing, trimming, transporting, storing, selling, and so on. And things were changing so rapidly in California. Understanding what happened with marijuana provided an important window onto the conditions of poor and working people but also onto much more—medicine, politics, livelihood, social networks, lifestyle, crime. As a student of social change, what really grabbed me was the rapidity that the social field around marijuana was shifting. Other than gay marriage, it’s hard to think of another realm of US society that has shifted as rapidly and totally as marijuana in the last decade. I wanted to know why. Why do some political and social changes take hold and ostensibly succeed? Why now, marijuana? I am thankful for Wenner-Gren support to answer these questions.


What sort of sites did your research take you to? What were some of the day-to-day challenges of negotiating the field, and how did you adapt?

I volunteered at a medical dispensary, lived with the coordinator of a patients rights group, stayed at underground farms, observed at a quality assurance laboratory, took a two month class on entering the marijuana business, and attended trade shows, land use hearings, tribal meetings, business conferences, activist gatherings, among other activities. For any door that opened, I walked through if I could. The strategy of “Yes. When and where?” Researching on both sides of the law, though, was a tough balance. I remember being at a courthouse doing archival research on land use patterns when I ran into an informant who was out on bail after a devastating drug bust. As I tried to explain my presence in a building that adjoined the county jail, I could see in his face that our trust was gone—I was now a cop to him. Another time, on a ride-along with a deputy, I remember keeping mum as we did a parole check next door to a house I knew was chock full of marijuana. Perhaps the deputy did, too—such is the work of policing in marijuana country. The crossing between legal and illegal realms contributed to a constant anxiety about confidentiality. I had done everything to protect my data I could imagine but it seemed as if there was a daily beat of new revelations about government spying during my fieldwork. Even if my data was officially protected (I got a Certificate of Confidentiality from the National Institutes of Health), I didn’t want to create a traceable web to be followed by another branch of government. It did not help that during my fieldwork the federal government initiated a multi-year offensive against the medical marijuana industry that instilled a lot of fear and anxiety—not just over governmental action but action by the media. I knew several people from both illegalized and medical worlds that got ensnared in that offensive. I was lucky to have built trusting ties in the years before because there was a shortage of trust after the government began its crackdown. The showed me firsthand how prohibition—and the fear of punishment—really shuts down informational circuits and stymies open intellectual exploration.


Your project is somewhat unusual for anthropological fieldwork in that it brought you consistently to the border of legality and illegality. How did this dynamic affect your work, and the ways in which your collaborators interacted with you?

I’ve mentioned some of the more anxious effects this had on my relations but, on the other hand, the border between the legal and illegal is not as stark as many believe. For instance, while one might imagine finding informants might be difficult, particularly in the illegalized economy, all I had to do was to scratch the surface in most places. This might be particular to marijuana—the stakes are not always as high as other illegal activities and it has become a deeply embedded part of the Northern California region. But to actually grasp the pervasiveness of marijuana I had to let go of some basic presumptions about the nature of law—namely that it is the core element of social order and that it applies universally and evenly across space. Perhaps I had that presumption having grown up inside the DC Beltway, where laws are made and then applied to the nation. But there are so many spaces and dimensions of reality where the law never reaches—realms that are hard to see without paying careful attention. Carolyn Nordstrom does a great job in her work of illustrating how illegality and crime shadows legal society in significant and often unrecognized ways. Once I started to see these dimensions, I started to challenge other basic assumptions, particularly about how we produce knowledge of the world—belief in statistics and figures, descriptions of how systems and institutions work, the reliability of cursory data from informants, what the map reveals, and so on. Hanging over all of these things is a shadow, imposed by the law, of what is able to be revealed and what is hidden, what is punishable and what is licit. Without seeing what lies in the shadow of legality we only get part of the story.

The reason these shadows hold sway, of course, is because there are real stakes involved in living against the law. This constantly affected my work. Anthropologists ask questions. When answers threaten a person’s livelihood and freedom, asking becomes fraught. That is how and why I developed a deep respect for the people who answered me. Many of them were compelled (politically, ethically, morally) and sometimes relieved to answer questions—they each had a stake in providing answers. Especially at that moment in time when what had lain in the shadows was coming to light, in the words of one activist I spoke with. That was an exciting thing to share with people. Prohibition imposes silences and breaking that silence was a powerful moment for many.


You connect marijuana legalization/medicalization to a much older anthropological discourse revolving around crime and illness. Could you briefly sketch the literature that influenced your thinking?

Thinking of Malinowski, Evans-Pritchard, Bohannon, Turner, Douglas, Lindenbaum, anthropologists have developed symmetrical theories about crime and illness—namely that they threaten social pollution and their ritual resolution is critical for the maintenance of social equilibrium. Merrill Singer, Ida Susser, Patty Kelly, Phillippe Bourgois and many others have argued criminalization and medicalization, as two modes of stigmatizing certain bodies and establishing social control, often work in tandem. Even within medicalization itself, work by Vincanne Adams, Jongyoung Kim, Cori Hayden, and Mary Cameron has shown how plant-based and alternative medicines can be a source of pollution for (supposedly) pure, scientific biomedicine. But, within and beyond this literature, anthropologists are careful to note the types of agency that medicalized and criminalized people hold. This is especially the case with marijuana prohibition and medicalization. My work focuses on the kinds of socio-political subjectivities people developed amidst processes of criminalization and medicalization. It’s these subjectivities and the political economies they are acting on and within that are guiding the development of and struggle over marijuana’s future.


Finally, what does ethnography potentially bring to an examination of drug policy? What “blind spots” do you think your research has identified? 

Ethnography is indispensable in understanding people and knowledges in illicit realms. You will not get the same information in the historical record, the laboratory, the questionnaire, economic indices, law enforcement statistics, or the map. These knowledge forms are so heavily mediated by the state—particularly in the case of prohibited substances—that it is necessary to go to illegalized people themselves. For instance, with marijuana, one cannot do research on the plant without getting permission and samples from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. As the name suggests (and as NIDA officials have said), the agency is not concerned with the medical attributes or social value of the plant but with its negative, harmful effects. This limits what we can ask and know. As anthropologists, we know that psychoactive plants have been associated with social liminality and anxiety but this relationship doesn’t have to be punitive or stigmatizing. Rather than seeing marijuana as a vice or a source of harm and moral corrosion, recent research has been finding pretty stunning medical applications for marijuana and thrown serious doubt on its status as a harmful substance. In fact, the complexity and efficacy of marijuana as a whole-plant medicine poses a challenge to pharmaceutical models of medicine and points to a different paradigm for relations between humans and plants. We can’t explore these things under prohibition. Prohibition is the “blind spot”—the blinding spot, the blinders—of drug policy.

That said, let me point to two other blind spots. First, to craft future policy we need to know what came before. Otherwise we have no idea what kinds of social systems and processes new policy interrupts. Under prohibition, for instance, marijuana commerce became incredibly important to deindustrialized regions. Changing its legal status will have a significant impact. My work is a kind of neo-salvage anthropology of the illegal realms that are now threatened with extinction. Before this history is memorialized for a post-legalization public, it is imperative to raise up the voices of the many criminalized people that existed under prohibition.

Second, I am concerned about what I call marijuana exceptionalism—the belief that marijuana, the good drug, was wrongly prohibited and should be extracted from the War on Drugs, which should otherwise remain untouched. Making marijuana exceptional severs marijuana’s reform from broader discussions about the deep problems with the War on Drugs and our criminal justice system. Regardless of what we think about any particular drug, the political debate should not be over what drug is moral or immoral or has good or bad effects. It should be over what kinds of social policies are least harmful and most beneficial, broadly defined. The War on Drugs, no matter what its target, is a socially destructive policy. Marijuana reform is a very important opportunity for ending the government’s broader war on its own people, not to mention peoples around the world.

Interview: Dr. Denise Blum

Dr. Denise Blum is Associate Professor in the Department of Education at Oklahoma State University. An educational anthropologist who has been conducting research in the Republic of Cuba since 1995, Dr. Blum received a Wenner-Gren Conference & Workshop Grant to organize ‘Rethinking Public Anthropology through Epistemic Politics and Practice’ at the Hotel Habana Riviera in Havana, Cuba, in collaboration with Rodrigo Espina Prieto and Rosalin Bayona Mojena of the Juan Marinello Cuban Institute of Cultural Research. We spoke to Dr. Blum to learn more about this unprecedented collaborative project.


Could you talk a little about how this project first got underway? What goals were you hoping to accomplish?

In November 2014 I was on sabbatical in Cuba, doing follow up research about my initial research with 9th graders in 1999 now as 30 year olds to see how their lives had played out. Did they fulfill their aspirations of their high school years? What correspondence did their schooling have with their current employment and quality of life?

I was invited by the Juan Marinello Cuban Institute of Cultural Research in Havana to collaborate and receive mentorship on my current project during my sabbatical.

During this time I initiated a conversation with my mentor, the Associate Director of the Institute, about the possibility of applying for a Wenner-Gren grant to bring an anthropology workshop to Havana.

It must be understood that, first of all, no one in Cuba has a Ph.D. in Anthropology, unless they were able to leave the country to obtain it. The discipline of anthropology was eliminated from The University of Havana at the beginning of the Revolution and did not rear its head again until the mid 2000s.  A course in anthropology may serve those in the natural sciences now, who pursue a career in archeology, forensics or health care.  A master’s degree in anthropology was recently created in 2008 and so far two selected cohorts have been able to pursue it——again for the same types of careers aforementioned. Therefore, the career as an anthropologist still does not exist in Cuba.

With this problematic and the desire to collaborate with the United States on this grant, we thought it to be most practical to focus the workshop on applied and activist anthropology. Regardless of recent changes, the Cuban government and society feel strongly about goals of social justice. Anthropological fieldwork, in general, does not always serve this purpose. Therefore, this way we could assure to serve Cuban interests the most, considering differing ideologies and politics, and bring focus to the workshop.

To be efficient with our time together, I advocated for the invited participants to be all Spanish-speaking.


How many of the non-Cuban participants had prior experience with the country? 

Surprisingly, out of the 13 participants, only 5 participants had visited the country previously.


What were some of the challenges of hosting a workshop in Havana? 

I assumed that all of the Latin American participants would not have any challenges while in Cuba. One really difficult situation is money.  A participant from Brazil called me at 11pm at the hotel and told me that the airport “Cadeca,” or money exchange, would not change her reales and asked me that if she got a taxi to the hotel ($20 USD equivalent) would I be able to pay for it. I agreed and fortunately all of us had enough extra money to pool our funds during the entire time to cover her expenses because nowhere in Havana (banks included) would they change her reales nor could she withdraw money on her bank or credit card.

For others, they brought some cash, thinking they could put many of their expenses on credit card. Very few places take a credit card: typically only hotels and very expensive stores. So people did ask to borrow money from me, and I was glad that I had extra cash. In addition, everything is much more expensive than you can imagine; oftentimes you would pay more than in the United States for the same item.  For example, at a restaurant, it might be difficult to pay less than $10 USD for a sandwich and drink. You have to really know Cuba to find the restaurants in Cuban pesos; then your meal might cost the equivalent of $5 USD.

For clarification, there are two currencies in use in Cuba: CUCs and the Cuban peso. The CUC, or convertible peso, has been in use since 1994, when it was treated as equivalent to the U.S. dollar. Officially exchangeable only within the country, its value is $1USD and is the more dominant of the two, especially for tourists.  The Cuban peso is valued at 22 Cuban pesos to the US dollar and is typically used by Cubans to obtain the limited goods that the Cuban government offers at the bodega, where the ration booklet is in effect, but staples are limited. Most Cubans earn salaries in Cuban pesos (average Cuban salary varies between $20-$30 a month), as they work for the state. They must convert these pesos to CUCs to buy almost everything they need, which are at prices equivalent to stores in the US, take for example, toothpaste, toothbrush, deodorant, etc.

Definitely the most difficult situation for me was the money. I have been traveling to and doing research in Cuba for 20 years and am very resourceful and well networked, but I had never done a workshop before and this brought a couple of major challenges.

First, I was dealing with the logistics with a Cuban scholar who did not have a phone, not to mention internet for Skype. She typically used a pay phone on the street when making phone calls to anyone in Havana or she called from the phone at the research institute. However, neither place is equipped (because others need to use the phone too) to deal with lengthy phone calls (more than 5-10 minutes). This entire workshop was planned via email without ever talking to my contacts in Cuba—-hundreds (if not thousands) of emails Cuba-US. So many details and frequently there were misunderstandings. In addition, I had to communicate with the other 12 participants (3 from the US and 9 from Latin America), organize passport information and information for a Cuban visas, write letters of invitation in Spanish and English, translate wiring forms that were written in English to Spanish so that the Spanish-speaking folks could fill them out and my university could disburse traveling funds to them (there were also mixups with the money not arriving at the proper bank). None of the aforementioned went smoothly. In fact, the scanned passport pages would not pass through email. The Cuba side did not have access to Dropbox, so I had to find someone traveling to Cuba to take all of this paperwork on a flashdrive to the Institute.  There were glitches at every turn, costing more time and energy on my part.  Creating the program was a collaboration that went through many renditions until the day before the workshop. Some of the initial participants dropped out at the last minute. I invited new ones and the process of getting them into the workshop was repeated with these new participants.

In addition, a Dropbox was created so US and Latin American scholars could deposit select research articles, which could be uploaded to flashdrives to share with the Cubans in the workshops. Folders (with paper, program, and pen) were created at my university for the workshop. We had, with 6 Cuban panelists, a total of 22 presenters for the workshop and 38 Cuban scholars attending in the audience.  Everything for the workshop was created with 60 people, presenters and audience, in mind.

The major challenge for me was that I had reservations at the Hotel Riviera via email based on prices I saw on their website at $35 USD per night. When I arrived in Havana 4 days before the workshop began, the hotel told  me that that website operated under a different entity than the hotel and that they could not offer me that price. I contacted the website and they did not have those rooms available any longer.  The hotel was quoting me $144 per night for a double and $125 for a single. The rooms were not paid for —–only reserved—-and I had 12 people arriving in 48 hours to Havana.  Needless to say, I did not have the cash to pay for this. The Latin Americans would not be able to afford the rooms at this price, and all of the other hotels, which were only slightly lower in price, were booked.  We looked for peoples’ homes to place the participants—–nothing available. Finally, I decided to pay for the rooms through the agency. They accepted my credit card because it went through a bank in Amsterdam. I asked all of the Latin American participants to pay me $35 per night (for 3 nights) and the 3 US participants to pay me the full amount.  I never revealed this story to the Latin American participants; I absorbed the cost and was a nervous wreck in the process and broke out in hives that didn’t disappear until the workshop was over.

Other than the various situations with the money, it was one of the greatest accomplishments of my life, partly because it brought so much meaning to all involved, an eye opener every day. My mentor, renowned cultural anthropologist, Doug Foley, had always wanted to conduct research in Cuba and for various factors in his life, stayed in Texas and accomplished his well-known ethnography on the raza in South Texas instead. He has spent years living vicariously through my research and this was a thrilling experience for him.  When I was able to finally take him to a school compound on our own, where I had connections to the teachers there, we were able to visit several classrooms and hear from students. This was an unplanned visit. What he witnessed and his reaction was so moving to me; it was additional confirmation to me that I had had the best mentor possible in my career as an anthropologist. He said, “This is very emotional. It has touched my heart.”  We all strive to be understood. I’m sometimes seen as fanatical about Cuba’s education system, and finally, the person who had been reading my work all of these years understood me and knew why Cuba’s education system is truly revolutionary. This marked an important moment for me.


It was very important for your workshop that you publish on a Cuban press. Could you talk a little about the Cuban publishing process?

Oh my gosh.  Well, since I did the bulk of the legwork on the workshop, the Cubans at the research institute will review the manuscripts. The Juan Marinello Research Institute has its own publication press.  In Cuba, typically you have to pay to fund your book and most Cubans find funding from external sources. We were quoted that $3000 will fund 1000 copies of the book (approximately 250 pages) containing chapters from those participants who presented research and ideas on activist and applied anthropology at the workshop. This will be published in Spanish and be able to have a further reach to Cubans, rather than being published outside of the island. Our manuscripts are due by March 4th and the hope is that the book will be published by September 2016.


What was it like working with Cuban anthropologists? Was there anything particular that caught you by surprise? 

That there are no Cuban anthropologists, except Jesus Guanche, who was able to obtain his Ph.D. outside of Cuba.


Finally, what did you take from this remarkable (indeed, groundbreaking) experience? Does the group have any plans on working together again in the future?

The Cubans commented on how rich in information the group was and how cohesive we were as a group—-that there a strong, warm personal connection and solidarity—- where few people knew more than one other person besides myself.  Everyone was very very appreciative of this opportunity. Everyone learned something new and has maintained contact.

Charlie Hale, UT Austin senior anthropologist, has talked about having a follow up conference in Austin that might focus on the role of emotion in activist work.

I am bringing 3 Cubans to a conference in Austin in about a month.


Interview: Michael Galaty


Alepotrypa Cave

Michael Galaty is Professor and Department Head of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures (AMEC) and Interim Director of the Cobb Institute of Archaeology at Mississippi State University. In 2013 he and Dr. Anastasia Papathanasiou of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture received an International Collaborative Research Grant to aid ‘The Diros Project: Greek-American Collaborative Archaeological Research & Training At Neolithic Alepotrypa Cave’ 


Tell us a little bit about the project that received Wenner-Gren funding.

For several years, my Greek and American colleagues and I have been working in and around a very large cave located in the Mani, Greece, called Alepotrypa (Fox Hole).  It is one of the largest caves in Greece and housed a Neolithic village, mortuary, and ritual complex prior to its collapse around 3100 BC.  We’ve surveyed the cave’s catchment zone, which encompasses the Bay of Diros, and conducted excavations at a large open-air site called Ksagounaki, located outside of and above the cave, and built with very large “megalithic” stones.  Like many Neolithic villages, the occupants of Ksagounaki buried their dead “intramurally,” i.e. in the village and under house floors.  In 2014, Wenner-Gren helped support additional survey work, including geophysical surveys, in Diros and excavation at Ksagounaki.  Alepotrypa and Ksagounaki are extremely important settlements, since they span various periods of the Neolithic, including the Final Neolithic, or Copper Age, which is very rare in Greece. It was during the Neolithic Age that farming arrived in Greece (circa 6000 BC), allowing increased sedentism and the appearance of village life, laying the groundwork for the later Greek Bronze Age, during which the first states in Europe formed, the so-called Mycenaean states.  In 2014, we also excavated a Mycenaean “ossuary” at Ksagounaki, an unexpected, unique feature, filled with human bone and various grave goods, including a bronze dagger, ivory hair pin, fine pottery, and exotic stone beads.  Because Alepotrypa and Ksagounaki were large, important places, still visible on the landscape 2000 years after their abandonment, we hypothesize that some kind of “cultural memory” drew the Mycenaeans back to Diros, to rebury important dead.


What importance did this project hold for anthropological education in Greece?

Thanks to the generosity of Wenner-Gren, in 2014 we were joined in the field by Prof. Georgia Phillipakis, from the University of Athens, and four of her students. Greek archaeology is a stand-alone discipline, strongly influenced by history, less so by anthropology and anthropological thinking.  The four University of Athens students who worked with us were given a “crash course” in anthropological archaeology. They worked both in the field and in the lab, with Greek and American faculty and graduate students, all of whom practice an anthropologically-informed brand of archaeology.  Students were given practical training in new survey and excavation methods, including geophysics, excavation, and artifact conservation and analysis.  Several times a week, in the cool of the evening, professors and graduate students would lecture on some aspect of their work with The Diros Project, highlighting both what they were doing and its anthropological significance.  These lectures built theoretical foundations for the methodological training gained by students during the long, hot southern Greek days.  Of her experience, Greek student Effrosyni Roditi wrote: “I would like to thank you all for the opportunity you gave me to participate in this project . I learned so many things in just a few weeks, I met wonderful people and I had a great time. Since this was my first excavation , I would like to say that this project  has  increased my desire to work as an archeologist. It was a unique and memorable experience.”  Our training program for Greek students would not have been possible without the help of the Wenner-Gren Foundation.


What were some challenges that arose during the course of the research, and how did you adapt?

Greece is currently suffering economically.  As a result, the government has slashed funds for archaeology and laid many archaeologists off.  This has made doing archaeology in Greece that much more difficult.  Costs are very high.  We American archaeologists continue to marvel at the tenacity and determination of our Greek colleagues, who are  committed to protecting and studying their cultural heritage, despite the tough times.  The economic and political troubles in Greece have slowed the permitting processes, making planning difficult.  In 2014, we arrived in Greece to begin work and were informed that our permit had been delayed.  Despite the stress this caused, our Greek colleagues sprang into action and our permit was delivered in a matter of days.  Learning to work under conditions of uncertainty took some adapting, but we pulled together as a project, got our permit, and had an incredible research season.


The “embracing” remains have generated quite a bit of press in the non-scholarly world. What are your thoughts on how the popular media has portrayed your findings and their possible implications?

the infamous "spooning" remains, Ksagounaki

In 2014 we uncovered at Ksagounaki the remains of a couple, a man and woman in their late 20s (based on DNA analysis), who were buried together, embracing.  While prehistoric double and multiple burials are not uncommon in Greece and worldwide, a 5800-year-old “spooning” burial is unique. We do not yet know how they died and exactly why they were buried together, but there must be some kind of personal story, a relationship, that prompted their shared internment.  This story captured the imagination of the popular press and for a few short days in February (the Greek government announced the find on Valentine’s Day), the Diros couple held the web public’s attention. Our opinion is that if archaeologists (and, more generally, anthropologists) are to make a difference in the world, we must do a much better job of accessing social media and shaping the public’s understanding of the human past.  If we do not do so, we cede that territory to those who would distort the past and use it, sometimes with malicious intent.  Finds like that of the Diros couple help us connect with a global public eager to know more about our shared humanity, which is ground in a shared archaeological past.


What are some next steps? What are you working on now?

In 2015 we will spend a month in Athens studying the artifacts collected over the course of five years by The Diros Project and excavated at Ksagounaki.  In the future we hope to continue excavation at Ksagounaki and to extend our survey work outside the immediate hinterland of Alepotrypa.  We assume that those who lived at Ksagounaki used a much wider territory, including the mountains.  Those buried in the cave may have come from distant communities.  And we have no idea where the Mycenaeans who built the Ksagounaki ossuary circa 1200 BC lived.  These questions can be best addressed through expanded regional survey work.

Interivew: Andrew Curley and The Changing Nature of Navajo Tribal Sovereignty in an Era of Climate Change

Monument Valley, near Curley's fieldsite in Arizona, USA.

Andrew Curley is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Development Sociology at Cornell University. In 2012 he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘The Changing Nature of Navajo Tribal Sovereignty in an Era of Climate Change,’ supervised by Dr. Wendy Wolford.


Briefly summarize the project that received Wenner-Gren funding.

The project I received funding for examined the attitudes of Navajo coal workers, environmentalists, and government officials about the future of the Navajo coal economy in this era of climate change. I entered the field site knowing that environmental regulation linked to process of climate change were on everyone’s minds, whether you supported coal or not. It was an inquiry to see what these attitudes suggest about the legacy and continued importance of the Navajo coal economy for the tribe and its people.


What initially drew you to this idea?

I initially became interested in the issue of coal in the Navajo Nation when I worked for a year as a research assistant at the Diné Policy Institute at Diné College in Tsaile, AZ. I had returned from a project I did in undergrad looking at fair trade labeling initiatives in Tanzania and Ghana and developed an appreciation at that time for how a single, exportable commodity like coffee, cocoa, or as I discovered in the case of the Navajo Nation–coal–could deeply embed itself into the politics and political system of a place. As I did work at a “policy” organization, which in actual fact was more of a hybrid between policy work, original research, and application of traditional concepts, I gained an appreciation for how prevalent coal was in the Navajo Nation. It was not that I wasn’t aware of the Navajo coal economy before this point. I was used to seeing draglines, hauling trucks, and most distinctly the monstrous power lines that crisscross across the reservation. It wasn’t a new fact so much as I gained a new appreciation for it when I stopped to consider the social movements who worked in many different ways to oppose coal development or propose alternative development projects in the place of coal. I think when I collaborated with my colleagues at the time on a report for the Speaker of the Navajo Nation Council about government reform, I tried to incorporate as much as I could the perspectives of members of environmental organizations who felt that the decisions of the Navajo tribal government didn’t reflect their thinking, their interest, or what they thought was the larger interest of the Navajo Nation.

Chapter House Meeting in Piñon, AZ

It was a first crude attempt to think about what some might call civil society within tribal politics. I liked Michael Feher’s term “nongovernmental politics” at the time to describe people and groups who want to affect politics but “not govern,” or not seek formal political office. Thinking through the way members of Navajo environmental groups thought about development and politics revealed a lot about tribal governance in a larger sense. It wasn’t only me but anthropologist Dana Powell who was thinking through these questions at the time. This was late 2007, early 2008 when we worked together on a project to highlight some of these voices. We had similar but different projects at the time and we found there was room for collaboration. I left the Diné Policy Institute and went to graduate school in a sociology program to figure out a way to explain the persistence of the Navajo coal economy that I felt was not well understood or described at the time. I didn’t know what was missing but I felt that dialectical accounts of pro-coal development or anti-coal development missed some larger, structural condition. Again, reflecting on the research in fair trade, the particular commodity like “coffee” and the particular “crisis,” such as the “coffee crisis,” tells us very little about the people and places we often gloss over in description. This is the advantage of ethnography, the kind of research Wenner-Gren funds, it gets to the relational meaning of people, places and their politics (both formal and informal). I don’t think I could get the kind of perspective on coal I did without an embedded approach.


What preconceptions did you bring about coal to the field, and how did your work alter those views?

A preconception I had going in was that coal workers and large energy interests had the same agenda. It was kind of a silly assumption in retrospect. Anyone who thought about class conflict would have thought differently. But I don’t think there has been enough attention on questions of class and class stratification in reservation communities and this is in part a consequence of thinking of Native people as a homogenous group. In fact all political actors involved in questions of coal and development in the Navajo Nation will at one point or another try to speak on behalf of all Navajos, especially when talking about traditional understandings of things. But as I’ve learned through my research and the research of others, “tradition” is not simply contextual it is also actively political. It responds to the political questions at the time.

Another preconception I had was the idea of the environment and how Navajo people thought about the land and their resources. It’s not to say that I was totally mistaken on this. But I didn’t know to the extent that understanding of the land, water, even coal is fixed to anthropocentric ideas of survival and livelihood. This is probably true of coal workers and environmentalists, but especially for Navajo people the issues of nature and the environment and how to best appreciate these are linked to appeal to long-term survival. This is not always the case and in some instances a new ethic related to appreciating human impact on other species and larger environmental process, like the cycles of the planet impacted by climate change, has emerged.

U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) at a meeting with the Navajo Nation and Hopi governments in Tuba City to persuade both tribes to settle their water claims with Arizona.

Perhaps the largest surprise was the overwhelming question of water. In fact I approached the topic of coal and development largely unaware about how water looms large over it. But as I dug into the history and witnessed the popular rejection of a proposed water settlement between the Navajo Nation and the State of Arizona I realized that water is directly tied to coal. This also is not new. And in the case of the former Black Mesa Mine we know that the use of pristine aquifer water for over thirty years to slurry coal was a major motivation for many to challenge the industry. But this is not the water that looms large over coal, it’s the water of the Colorado River that does. So to put it more accurately, water doesn’t serve coal, coal serves water.  I went to the field with a limited scope of the meanings of coal and development in the Navajo Nation. But digging into the history and immediate politics of the question, the need to power water from the Colorado River to central Arizona bore the most impact on the region and on the Navajo Nation. A professor in my department Phil McMichael coined a phrase “incorporated comparison” to think about how the development of one place impacts another. In this case, paraphrasing him and others who have used this method, you can’t understand the Navajo Nation today and its reliance on coal as a large source of jobs and revenue without knowing the history of the Central Arizona Project and efforts to bring water to Phoenix. They are integrally linked. I only realized this during my research.


Could you explain the Navajo concept of t’áá hwó ají t’éego and its relevance to coal? How did you first encounter it in the field?

There’s a lot to say about the meaning of t’áá hwó ají t’éego and although I’m Navajo, because I don’t speak the language fluently, I’ve had to rely on the way others have described its meaning to get a sense of what it means and importantly how it’s used to mean what it means.  In fact in this sense I think not speaking Navajo fluently was an advantage because it has forced me to stop and ask many different people coming from different backgrounds their understanding of the phrase in order to put it into use in my analysis. If I were a fluent speaker I might just give you my meaning of it and not represent its variegated meaning, which I am trying to do in the process of writing my dissertation right now actually. In short, it means, “Do it yourself,” or you are responsible for accomplishing what you want and or need to get done. It’s a historical concept with contemporary meaning. I argue that it’s rooted in subsistence logic, when Navajo people lived under harsher conditions and had to provide for family and ourselves with the resources around us. It’s important to remember that the climate and landscape for the reservation varies from place to place, so Navajo people had to be resourceful and adaptive. We also developed much of this resourcefulness while surrounded by enemies, from Spanish colonialists to today’s border town communities like Farmington and Flagstaff. The concept is rooted in this history of self-sufficiency and survival and continues to carry these meanings. It’s just understood to work in different circumstances today. For many Navajo coal workers, survival and self-sufficiency is working on a dragline, or driving a truck used for hauling, or working as an electrician at the mine. We might disagree with the work for environmental reasons, but we have to respect the work as meaningful for those who participate in it. They see it as providing for the family, paying for their children’s education, or helping out relatives who don’t have work in live under hardship.

coal worker rally outside of the Navajo Nation Council chambers.

I encountered the phrase interviewing a coal worker who used it to describe his motivation for work. It wasn’t something scripted and fed to me, it came out almost accidentally as he pleaded for me to understand why this work was important for him and others at the mine. He only used the phrase once and it was used in service to a longer, more detailed explanation as to why coal work was important to him. It was almost like happenstance, he just blurted out “like our grand parents told us, t’áá hwó ají t’éego or you have to do it yourself,” paraphrasing here, but this is the gist of what he said.


What were some challenges or difficulties that arose during the course of fieldwork? How did you adapt?

I think the greatest challenge was getting anyone to trust me. It was a politically sensitive project. I have family who participate in politics and take certain stances on issues. At times I agree with them. I think some didn’t know if I would disagree with them on how they thought about the issue, or if I would use the material in a way to discredit their work. I could understand their concern even if it frustrated me at times. There are people who write about this same topic and who clearly take a position that supports one group’s arguments over the other’s. I don’t want to insinuate that research should be apolitical or anything like that. But it did cause me difficulty throughout the project. Especially when I moved to Kayenta, Arizona—perhaps the Navajo community most in support of continued coalmining in the reservation. There I was outsider. I didn’t have family or really know anyone from there. When I asked questions publicly like, “should the Navajo Nation extend the lease of the Navajo Generating Station,” the main power plant that purchased Navajo coal and was negotiating a lease extension with that Navajo Nation at the time, some interpreted this question as threatening. I had one coal worker refuse to fill out the survey. But he told me he was a member of the union and took a copy of my survey with him that he said he would show to company officials. Another informant told me that a non-Native reporter from the State of Washington visited the town the year before I arrived, did they same kind of interviewing, but wrote a largely critical piece on the Navajo coal economy that he interpreted as a betrayal of sorts. Now, how do you manage a situation like that?

protestors at McCain's meeting with Navajo and Hopi authorities.

You ask people to spare their time and let you know how they think about issues related to coalmining, a politically divisive issue. But you are expected to write something positive or lose their trust. I told them what my study was about and tried to say that it wasn’t a simply pro-coal or anti-coal report. It was to understand the complexity of the question and the issue. On the other hand, I don’t think members of the Navajo environmental community trusted my research completely because I based a substantial amount of it talking to coal workers. To put it simply, each side’s face scowled when I told them I was interviewing people on the other side of the issue. Now, someone who has a lot of experience in journalism in the area told me, in the context of newswriting, that angering opposite sides of an issue for different reasons doesn’t mean that you got the right story. I think there is some truth to this for sure. On the other hand I think it’s inevitable that people won’t like a story that doesn’t conform to frameworks they have long established and put into practice. So if my point is to move out of these frameworks, I think it’s hard not to write anything that wouldn’t be satisfying for the informants. This is probably the single longest shadow that hangs over anthropology, writing about people in a way that they don’t agree with. At first it was done brazenly, but now much more sensitively and subtlety, but maybe it’s still not right. Perhaps the concerns my informants had about my project were concerns that can be directed at most ethnographers (or journalists for that matter).

I tried to overcome it through honesty and openness. This is what “science” requires: transparency, logic and rigor to methods, but probably most importantly honesty and openness to new approaches and understandings of the situation. I had to get permission from community members who participated in the local chapter house to do my research. I had to tell them what my project was about. I had to tell my informants how they controlled the data they were about to provide.  As I listen to the audio recordings now I can hear how people wanted me to skip over it and just get into asking them questions. But it’s important to let them know the difference between a research project like the one I conducted and other kinds of interview they might give. We will see how well I did when I finish the dissertation. I plan to go back to Arizona and present my findings to members of the community. I am sure at that time people will both agree with me on some points but also disagree with me on others. I am looking forward to getting this feedback.


What’s next for this project? How could you see it expanding or continuing?

I would like to further develop this concept and relate it to some economic anthropology and economic surveys done in the region. That would be the immediate follow up to the project. It would be cool if I could do something with Navajo students in the region. I would like to help develop research in these communities. Obviously I think I would work in the Navajo Nation, but it might be illustrative of these issues to do similar projects in other reservations. The tension between minerals, development, the environment, and livelihood exists in many different tribal reservations. It speaks to the particular legal predicament tribes face within ongoing settler-colonialism that is largely indifferent to indigenous concerns. To build capacity we need to know and solve our own problems. We also need to renew internal intellectual interest in these issues. I think the tribal colleges are a good starting point. Regional universities could do more to connect Native students with research in their communities. I have to first finish this analysis and figure out what might be the best follow up steps to it.

Interview: Michael Chazan on “The Harvard Kalahari Project”

Dr. Michael Chazan is professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto and director of its Archaeology Center. Dr. Chazan’s history with the Foundation goes back to 2007, when he received a Post-Ph.D. Research Grant to aid research at Wonderwerk Cave in Northern Cape Province, South Africa, which helped establish it as one of the most important archaeological sites in Southern Africa. In 2011, he and colleague Dr. Susan Pfeiffer co-organized the 2012 Meeting of the Society of Africanist Archaeologists (SAfA) at UToronto with Wenner-Gren support. During the meeting, Chazan and Pfeiffer took the opportunity to organize a retrospective of the Harvard Kalahari project, commemorating its wide influence on the field, and saving for posterity the reflections of the scholars involved.


What is/was the Harvard Kalahari Project and why was it important in the development of archaeology and anthropology in Africa?

From 1963 to 1976 a team of researchers led by Richard Lee and the late Irv Devore studied the Ju/’hoansi of the Kalahari. Their collective work gave rise to insights about diverse topics from child care to nutrition.  For archaeologists this project, including the archaeological and ethnoarchaeological research by Allison Brooks and John Yellin, has been a critical resource for understanding hunter-gatherer societies.

What are the main legacies of the Harvard Kalahari Project? How does it relate to the Kalahari Peoples Fund, which is one of the oldest anthropological advocacy groups in North America?

There is of course a tremendous scientific legacy that stretches across the social sciences.  There is also the literary legacy left by Margerie Schostack’s book, “Nisa: the Life and Words of a !Kung Woman, and the many other books and articles written by the members of the project.  What is clear in the film is that the research team collectively saw the need for social advocacy, leading to the establishment of the Kalahari Peoples Fund – still very active today.  This linkage between a strong program of empirical research and social advocacy is the hallmark of this group’s work. I think quite an interesting model for anthropology as a discipline.

Why was it important to hold a retrospective of the project 2012, who participated, and what were the outcomes of the meeting?

Susan Pfeiffer and I felt that the meeting of the Society of Africanist Archaeologists in Toronto would be a great opportunity to bring together members of the Harvard Kalahari Project to talk about their experience.  Brooks and Yellen are active members, while Richard Lee and Nancy Howell are emeritus U of Toronto faculty. We thought that this would be a natural venue for a reunion. Once we suggested it, momentum arose within the group. All we had to do was secure a venue and arrange for the taping. Part of the motivation for me was the sense that there have been high profile negative stories emerging about anthropological fieldwork, so we can benefit from a reminder of how collaborative research teams can make a fundamental, positive contribution.  We also felt that the so-called Kalahari Debate that had swirled through the 90′s had simmered down to an extent where it would be possible to get a more balanced perspective on the experiences  of the members of the Kalahari Project.
What can we learn from the Harvard Kalahari Project as anthropology and archaeology move into the second decade of the 21st Century?

I think we learn quite a bit from the Harvard Kalahari Project and the initiatives it started.  The project shows the rich potential of collaboration. What we see in the film is how human this collaboration is.  For me, the film is quite inspiring.  We see a group of senior scholars who have been profoundly shaped by the experience they had doing fieldwork. At the same time, we see their deep conviction that research matters– that there is an empirical reality and that gaining new scientific insight is in and of itself important.  Their experience reminds us of the vastness of human experience and the vital contribution that anthropology can make.

Interview: Christine Schreyer and the Linguistics of Kryptonian

Christine Schreyer is assistant professor of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, where she teaches courses in linguistic anthropology. Recently, Schreyer was given the unusual opportunity to contribute to the creation of the Kryptonian language for Warner Bros.’ highly anticipated Superman film, Man of Steel (2013). With such a fascinating story to tell, we interviewed Schreyer to learn more about how she approached creating an alien tongue for the iconic character and her experience working as an anthropologist in the world of big-budget entertainment.

Could we begin by learning a little about your scholarly background and interests, in particular your interest in constructed languages?

My doctoral research examined the relationship between land, language and identity amongst two Canadian indigenous communities, the Taku River Tlingit First Nation, located in northern British Columbia, and the Loon River Cree First Nation, located in northern Alberta (Schreyer 2011a). I continue to work with the Taku River Tlingit First Nation and we are currently working developing an interactive and participatory mapping tool that can also assist community members in re-learning their Tlingit language, particularly place names and names of resources from the land. I have also worked with Kala speakers in Papua New Guinea, where I assisted the Kala Language Committee to develop an alphabet for their language in order that it could be taught in schools, and generally strengthened within their communities.

My interest in constructed languages, however, developed out of my teaching experiences rather than my past research experiences. The textbook I use in my Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology class, The Anthropology of Language (Ottenheimer 2013), has as one of its assignment suggestions a language creation assignment. I have used a modified version of this assignment with my first year students since the fall of 2008 to great success (see Schreyer et al 2013 for a discussion of my students’ and my own reflections on this assignment). It was during the end of the fall of 2009 semester that I noticed news stories about the numerous individuals learning Na’vi, from the movie Avatar. As I like to incorporate news items that relate to my courses into class discussions, I showed this to my students and wondered at that time how so many people were learning Na’vi and why.

The following summer, I went to Papua New Guinea to conduct my research with Kala speakers for the first time and learned Tok Pisin, the national lingua franca. Learning a pidgin language was fascinating and in the fall of 2010, I taught a course that focused on “new” languages for the first time – Pidgins, Creoles and Created Languages. It was during this class that my students and I further explored who Na’vi speakers were, which led to my article “Media, Information, Technology, and Language Planning: What can endangered language communities learn from created language communities?” (2011b). In this article, I examined how created language communities, such as Klingon and Na’vi, had used media and IT to help develop their communities and raise the prestige of their languages. I discuss how minority language communities could also use some of the same techniques to raise their number of speakers, but also discuss why media and IT are not always relevant or useful to minority communities.

After this article, I developed a survey of Na’vi speakers, which I ran online during the summer of 2011. The survey was designed to determine who the Na’vi speakers were (age, gender, nationality, education levels etc.), but also how they were learning Na’vi, why they were learning Na’vi, and how they thought Na’vi would develop over time. The Na’vi community was truly wonderful and welcoming and I was overwhelmed with the number of responses I received (297 in total), as well as the support I had from Na’vi speakers who helped translate my survey into 7 other languages (Russian, Ukrainian, German, Italian, French, Hungarian, Na’vi) in order to reach the maximum number of people. The results of this survey have further confirmed for me that it might be possible for speakers of endangered languages to model some of the learning strategies of speakers of created languages in order to develop more speakers (see my website for details on the results of this survey).

There have been many famous constructed languages in the history of fantasy and science fiction, from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elven to Star Trek’s Klingon and, more recently, Na’vi. As far as you know, how has language theory, anthropology, work by anthropologists, etc., influenced the creation of these past languages?

I should add a comment here on terminology; I switch between using constructed languages and created languages, as a stylistic choice. However, conlang, a new addition to the Oxford English dictionary, is generally the most popular term, especially amongst those who develop languages (the conlangers, themselves).

To my knowledge, I am one of the only conlangers, who is also a professional anthropologist, and I am unsure the extent to which anthropology as a discipline has impacted the work of other conlangers. For instance, Marc Okrand, the inventor of Klingon, and Paul Frommer, the inventor of Na’vi, are both retired linguistics professors. While David Peterson, who has invented numerous popular languages for television and movies, including Dothraki and Valyrian for Game of Thrones, has a Master’s degree in Linguistics. While these individuals have worked on more recent media-driven languages, Tolkien was also trained in linguistics rather than anthropology.

However, Peterson, in a recent blog post to celebrate the inclusion of the word conlang into the Oxford dictionary, has written about the “historical method” of language creation that, he states, “Tolkien pioneered” (2014), and which he uses himself. Peterson continues that, “With the historical method, an ancestor language called a proto-language is created, and the desired language is evolved from it, via simulated linguistic evolution”. Discussions of proto-languages, as well as linguistic evolution, are concepts found within the domain of linguistic anthropology. For instance, these are both topics in my Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology class, and the language creation assignment I give my students, includes a section on language change. After first beginning their languages, including the Phonology, Morphology, and Syntax, as well as Non-Verbal communication, the students are then asked to create slang and also borrow a word from another newly created language (i.e. language evolution). In sum, it’s my belief that anthropology does have theories and ideas to offer language construction, such as the way that cultural concepts (such as gender, race, age, kinship etc.) are socially constructed and aided by language choices. I would also love to know if there are other anthropologists out there who have developed languages and what their experiences have been as opposed to those who have backgrounds in linguistics.


What was your familiarity with the Superman character before MAN OF STEEL reached out to you?

I would say that my knowledge of the Superman character prior to my work on Man of Steel was on par with many others who grew up with the Christopher Reeves movies. I knew the basics of the stories, but was by no means a super-fan of Superman.


What were the “aesthetic considerations” you wanted to bring to bear on constructing the Kryptonian language?

To be clear, I worked in association with a graphic designer named Kristen Franson while developing the Kryptonian language for Man of Steel, so the written aesthetics were developed for the most part by her to match the other aspects of design (see Wallace 2013 for more details on Kryptonian design).

My contribution to the writing was to suggest that a syllabic writing system could be used, similar to Cree syllabics, where one symbol represents a consonant/vowel pairing and the rotation of the symbol indicates what the vowel is. As well, since the reboot of the story already had the iconic “S” on Superman’s costume meaning “hope”, a second version of a writing system was also already in place when I was asked to participate. My suggestion was that these symbols for houses could be an older logographic form of writing, where one symbol represents an entire idea or word, while the syllabic system could be a newly evolved form of Kryptonian writing.

In terms of phonological “aesthetics”, I was somewhat limited to the material that was already available in the Superman canon. My initial task was to look at the names of people and places from Krypton that were found in the comics and movies and determine what all of the previously sounds used were since these sounds would need to be found within this new Kryptonian language as well. I also knew that some of the actors might potentially end up speaking the language and, as a result, I added only one sound (the voiced glottal fricative) that does not exist in the English language in order to slightly increase the “alien-like” feel of the language.


What was the input and feedback like from the non-anthropologists in the production?

I was given much leeway to decide how I wanted the language to be developed and the person who gave me the most feedback was Kristen, the graphic designer, as we were the ones who ended up knowing the most about how the language worked since we were using it frequently. However, Alex McDowell, Production Designer, and Helen Jarvis, Art Director, were also extremely supportive of the work that Kristen and I were doing, which was nice since it led to more opportunities for the language to be used throughout the film’s production.


As an anthropologist, what struck you about working in “the field” of a big-budget and highly anticipated film such as this?

I think my experience traveling to new places and meeting new people as a part of my anthropological fieldwork helped immensely in acclimatizing to the set and the “world” of Krypton, which was being designed around me. In particular, when I was on set, as a newbie to the film industry, I had to be guided through the studios. To some extent, this reminded me of my beginning trips to new field sites where individuals take it upon themselves to show you the ropes and how life proceeds. People don’t tell you the explicit rules, but you follow along, participate and observe, and learn for yourself.

As well, my work on Man of Steel, was embedded in secrecy. Early on I signed nondisclosure agreements, which stated that I could not reveal what I saw and heard during my work. I learned about the plot of the movie on my first day on set, but could not tell anyone about it. I also heard a lot of information about how production was unfolding while walking through the sets and around the studios with my guides. But again, it was a case of listening to learn but not to use. I have often had similar experiences in the field, where people talk about things in front of you, which help situate you in the field, but which are so deeply personal that they are not ever written down or shared. The secrets we as anthropologists keep are an interesting part of our discipline, although not something we are explicitly taught in fieldwork courses.


How was your work, and your profession as a linguistic anthropologist, understood by those you worked with? Were there any misconceptions?

Interestingly, I was very rarely labeled as an “anthropologist” when I was on the set or when I was being introduced to someone, but was instead “the linguist” who was developing Kryptonian. However, as many anthropologists who work on issues of language and culture will tell you, I’m often labeled as a “linguist” rather than as an anthropologist. Duranti’s (2009) introduction to his reader on Linguistic Anthropology does an excellent job describing the challenges with labeling the field of linguistic anthropology. Labeling the people who work in this field is equally as challenging! Again, one person, who fully understood my background as an anthropologist, was Alex McDowell. As a uniquely talented world-builder, Alex has explored anthropology himself through his work and I appreciated the conversations we had on anthropological topics.


What did you take from the experience? Did this project influence the way you think about your scholarly work, or your work with “real” languages?

Since my work on this project, I’ve been fascinated with the ideas of world building and the on-line worlds that people build and participate in. This has led me to re-look at my research with Na’vi speakers through the lens of digital ethnography. I’ve also had fans of Superman contact me requesting more information about how to learn the language I developed. As of now, Warner Bros., the official owners of this work, have not yet developed a learning guide for Kryptonian. Despite this, people are interested in learning the language, making me wonder, what can we do to make those interested in learning minority languages “fans” of their languages again? What can “fandoms” teach us about the enthusiasm required to help reverse language shift?

Last, through developing a language myself, I came to re-appreciate the lessons I try to teach my students in their language creation assignment. In that assignment, I want them to realize without my explicitly saying it that they need to think about who the speakers of their languages are, where they live, what they do (or in other words, to think about their culture) before they can get very far in the language creation process. In my work, I wasn’t developing a new world but attempting to make sure a world that exists so vividly in the minds of its fans, as well as in the minds of the movie production team, was fairly and accurately represented. I took their ideas of what Krypton was like, such as the history and values of Kryptonian people, and incorporated these into the language in various ways. As the Man of Steel universe expands, with new movies, I wonder how the world of Krypton might be further developed as well.



Duranti, Alessandro (2009). Linguistic Anthropology: History, Ideas, and Issues. In Linguistic

Anthropology: A Reader, 2nd edition. A. Duranti, ed. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Ottenheimer, Harriet J. (2013). The Anthropology of Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology. Toronto: Thomson-Wadsworth. 3rd Edition.

Peterson, David. (2014). How I created the languages of Dothraki and Valyrian for Game of Thrones. Oxford University Press Blog.

Schreyer, Christine (2011a). Re-Building Language Habitats: Connecting Language Planning and Land Planning for Sustainable Futures. Language Documentation and Description, Volume 9: 35-57

Schreyer, Christine (2011b).  Media, Information Technology and Language Planning: What can endangered language communities learn from created language communities? Current Issues in Language Planning 12(3): 403-425.

Schreyer, Christine, Clarke Ballantine, Vanessa Bella, Joanne Gabias, Brittany Ganzini, Robyn Giffen, Pamela Higgins, Justin Kroeker, David Lacho, Stacy Madill, Louisa McGlinchey, Sasha McLachlan, Shelley Nguy, Tara Wolkolsky, and Vanessa Zubot (2013). The Culture of Con-langing: What Can We Learn About Culture from Created Languages? Fiat Lingua. FL-000017-00, Fiat Lingua, <>. Web. 01 August 2013.

Wallace, Daniel (2013). Man of Steel: Inside the Legendary World of Superman. Insight Editions: San Rafael, California.

Interview: Felix Riede

A dramatic reconstruction of some of the activities that went on at or near Krogsbølle 14,300 years ago, by the artist Sune Elskær. © Danish Heritage Agency/Kulturstyrelsen.

Felix Riede (@ARCHAEOfelix on Twitter) is faculty member of the Department of Culture and Society at the University of Aarhus, Denmark, and the editor-in-chief of the Danish Journal of Archaeology. Interested in questions of environment, climate and cultural change, Dr. Riede received a Post-Ph.D. Research Grant from the Foundation in 2012 to aid research on ‘Excavation of a Campsite from the Hamburgian Culture Near Krogsbølle, Eastern Denmark’. We reached out to Riede to learn more about this early European hunter-gatherer site and what it can teach us about folkways long vanished from the historical record.


Could you begin by telling us a bit about the project that received WGF funding?

I was so fortunate as to receive a Post-Ph.D. Research Grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for a project with the rather unglamorous title Excavation of a campsite from the Hamburgian culture near Krogsbølle, eastern Denmark. Behind this prosaic title hides a very exciting project, however. The iconic so-called Hamburgian culture of northern Europe is associated with the first movement of hunter-gatherer people into the newly deglaciated, desolate and deserted landscapes of northern Europe some time after 12,500 years BCE. How did people cope with moving in regions where the details of the resource distribution were unknown and where the nearest relatives were far away? Foragers are known ethnographically to rely on a range of coping strategies including mobility, storage, economic intensification or diversification as well as social networking to handle such challenges. But questions remain about how exactly these prehistoric pioneers did so. The ethnographic record furnishes an important interpretative frame of reference, but given that we have next to no ethnographic accounts of true pioneer foragers, only the archaeological record can really reveal significant insights about past pioneering behaviors. A final twist to this project rests in the observation that the archaeological culture that follows the Hamburgian in northern Europe has a striking different material culture. It is possible to hypothesize that the Hamburgian disappeared abruptly possibly due to some form of demographic collapse. What is unclear, however, is whether climatic warming or cooling trends played a role in this collapse, and what role fluctuations in the primary resource base of the Hamburgian culture – reindeer – had.


The nearest road to the site was funnily enough named ‘Sletten’, Danish for ‘The Steppe’, which nicely alludes to what the environment was like at the site some 14,300 years ago.

What makes this site unique/interesting?

Sites of the Hamburgian culture are exceedingly rare, especially at the very northern edge of its range. In Denmark, for instance, there really are only four such locales as well as a few and largely uncertain surface finds, and this alone makes Krogsbølle, located on the northern outskirts of the town of Nakskov, interesting and important. In addition, the last time a locale from the Hamburgian culture has been investigated in Denmark was in the 1980s! The site we are now excavating has actually been known for a couple years, but lack of funding has prevented local museum authorities from excavating there. In the meantime, ploughing has continued to damage the site; excavating this important site and recovering the artifact material was one key priority of the project. It is also worth mentioning that preliminary investigations had indicated the possibility of two finds-bearing layers where the lower of the two may preserve intact spatial patterns that reflect activities carried out at the site or even traces of shelters. The preservation of such ‘latent’ patterning is extremely rare in this time period.


What were some of the challenges that presented themselves during the course of this work, and how did you adapt to them?

The main challenge we encountered was that the local soil turned out to be considerably harder than we anticipated. This made it impossible to dig manually through the topsoil and very hard to even carefully excavate the layers beneath. After a few days of trying, we finally decided to switch to a coarser machine-aided approach to strip key areas of topsoil, all in square meters, all of which was dry-screened through 3mm mesh. This was quite laborious and meant that we could excavate rather fewer squares than we had hoped. We did, however, firmly re-locate some of the excavation areas from earlier investigations conducted by the local museum, to retrieve a range of fantastic lithic artefacts, to document the site stratigraphy, and to take samples for dating it.

Of course we also faced the usual trials and tribulations of fieldwork with scorching heat and torrential summer rain. Especially our final day in the field – as always the busiest of all – was cut short by a massive thunderstorm rolling over us. Going around an open field clearly elevated above the general landscape carrying a long rod – to take final levels throughout the excavation field – suddenly seemed like a very bad idea indeed!


Two (broken) examples of late Hamburgian (Havelte phase) points from Krosgbølle. They both clearly fall within the range defined as Havelte points, but are at the same time quite different in their design. This difference is not at all random. In fact, points practically identical to both of these variants can be found at other sites. Do they indicate strict rather then general contemporaneity?

So far, what has surprised you the most about the site?

Working with the material from Krogsbølle two main surprises popped up. One relates to the artifacts we recovered. When I took a closer look at them and compared them to material from other sites of this culture, I was struck by an interesting duality of diversity and similarity. Let me explain what I mean: Hamburgian artifacts are really well-made, reflecting highly skilled flint-knappers as well as rather strict conventions about exactly how things should look like. In the periods just after the Hamburgian, we can similarly recognize clear conventions about size and shape of, for instance, projectile points. In the Hamburgian we can single out several projectile point variants, so overall the armatures show a fair bit of diversity. Yet, within these variants, the ways in which these are made are exceedingly similar. They are to all intents and purposes identical – and this has implications both for the organization of craft production, but also for the time scales involved. I am currently considering the possibility that all the Danish sites from this period, for instance, represent no more than one human generation and perhaps much less, as little as a few seasons of occupation. Breaking up an archaeological culture whose overall chronological span is often listed as 500-700 years to the actions and movements of individuals is radical and challenging.

The second surprise came when we conducted some coring in areas around the nearby lake. The wet and waterlogged deposits of such ancient lakes often preserve organic remains either of purely natural or even of human or cultural origin. Natural materials can give important clues about local environments and local environmental changes, whilst finds of organic material such as animal bones or even bone, antler or wooden tools are very rare indeed. Previous investigations by the local museum concluded that no remains of the ancient lake and hence no organic material were preserved there, but we found quite the opposite. Whilst we did not, so to say, hit jack-pot – we did not find any organic materials directly related to the settlement we are excavating – we did find the almost completely preserved skeleton of a seagull. We had this seagull dated by our colleagues of the radiocarbon laboratory at Aarhus University and analyzed for the maternally inherited mtDNA by colleagues at the Centre for GeoGenetics at Copenhagen University. It turns out that the gull is at least as old as the human occupation at Krogsbølle and this makes it not only the by far most complete ancient gull from northern Europe, but also by far the oldest – by several millennia! The genetic investigation has not yet been able to pinpoint the species; it could be one of three: Larus argentatus (the European herring gull), Larus fuscus (the lesser black-backed gull) or Larus glaucoides (the Iceland gull). This work is on-going and we know that some aspects of the gull genome can discriminate between the species. DNA preservation is excellent in our specimen, so I am confident that we can determine its species in due time. At any rate, it will, together with our other investigations of the ample pollen and other plant remains in the ancient lake layers, provide important information about the environment when these pioneering hunter-gatherers rested here.

The recovered bones of our gull, genus Larus, arranged in approximate anatomical order.

How has the Danish Heritage Agency reacted to your findings?

As the project progressed the Danish Heritage Agency heard of them and contacted us with an eye towards including the site in one of their dissemination projects. With funding by the A.P. Møller Foundation, the Danish Heritage Agency has embarked upon an ambitious project that takes the museum out into the landscape. The project includes landscaping and restoring selected sites and monuments, and erecting information displays in Danish, German and English. You can read more about this great project here. The local authorities vent along with the proposal and earlier this year we unveiled the information displays as well as a micro-exhibition in the local tourist information center. For the information display they also had an artist make the following ‘dramatic reconstruction’ of the kind of behaviors that may have taken place around the site. Despite its lack of standing architecture and thus its seeming anonymity, Krogsbølle is a great site for this project because it tells such an exciting story and because it is located at a busy cycle path used by both locals as well as tourists day in day out. Unfortunately, the area where the site is located is also, by Danish standards, quite deprived and suffers from steady emigration. We hope that showing how it once was one of the most attractive places to stay, local folks in particular can positively use this bit of cultural heritage.


What’s next for this research? How much work still needs to be done? How could this project or its findings expand in the future?

We have finished excavation for now, but know perfectly well that more material is to be found – both on the dry land as well as in what remains of the ancient lake. We are also still in full swing with the analysis of the stone tools, especially comparing them to another recently excavating Hamburgian site in northern Germany and a rather sensational site from Scotland, far away from the ‘territory’ of the Hamburgian as traditionally conceived. We are also still waiting for the final absolute dates for our stratigraphy (using optically stimulated luminescence – a method to date sand grains) and of the environmental analysis. In the meantime, we are working on a couple of preliminary reports and I am busy presenting our preliminary results at scientific meetings, conferences and, well, on the internet. Luckily, our efforts to attract follow-up funding from some smaller private foundations here in Denmark have been successful, so in principle we could also return to the field in the years to come. The latest chapter that has already begun is that the local authorities are considering building a rainwater basin a few hundred meters from our site, right where the southern edge of the ancient lake was located. If this plan is realized, we will stand by and look for fossils as well as artifacts.

Away from the field, our analysis of the morphology, technology and diversity of the stone tools and their culture-historical context may well radically change our perception of this culture, potentially with important implications for both our general understanding of culture change in the deep past as well as for general models of pioneer colonisations.

Interview: Nomi Stone

Wound Kit, War Simulation.

Nomi Stone is a published poet and doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology at Columbia University. In 2011, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Human Technologies in the Iraq War’. Recently, we spoke to Stone to learn more about her fieldwork in the US-built “Middle Eastern” mock villages used for combat training, and the complex lives of the people used to anthropologically construct “the adversary” in the 21st-century American warscape.


Let’s begin with a brief summary of your WGF-supported project.

As an entry point, I offer a scene from the field: a young American Major asks “Ahmed” to remove his shirt and applies a mock wound to the Iraqi role-player’s back and ribs. The insects simmer around the pots of fake blood, and a wasp nearly nicks Ahmed’s new welt. “Rowena”, a local woman who is assisting with the make-up, belly-laughs: “The bees like blood. Beaucoup blood, baby!” In forests, fields, and deserts across America, in what has been called a “hidden archipelago of mini-cities”[1] American soldiers arrive to train their bodies and imaginations for war, before deployment. To habituate the American soldier, Middle Eastern role-players, many of them recent refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan, are salaried for their labors and repetitively act-out the contingencies of war. To this end, role-players embody a spectrum of cultural roles and modes: the Mayor; the Villager; the Interpreter; the Local Proxy Soldier; the Mourning Mother. They are called upon to simulate bargaining, fighting, and even dying, like the adversary.

In a new contribution to contemporary scholarship on war, my project explores the ethical, epistemological, and affective ramifications of collaboration and mediation in theaters of the 2003 Iraq War.  I focus on individuals I call “human technologies”:  local wartime proxies, mediators, host nation interlocutors, translators, and pre-deployment role-players employed by the US military as embodied repositories of Middle East knowledge. Drawing on 26 months of fieldwork, my cross-regional, multi-site research spans the extended Iraq warscape, from mock Middle Eastern villages above described; to the Iraqi refugee neighborhoods of Amman, Jordan; and crisscrossing through elite political and military institutions of Washington DC and its satellites.  Focusing in particular on the 2003 Iraq War context, I examine the US military employment of human techne, like Ahmed, within a 21st century posthuman technoscape, and the ramifications of the outsourcing of particular labors to these wartime intermediaries.

Like in the case with my previous research, I am writing a collection of poetry in tandem with pursuing ethnography.  As I write my dissertation, I am writing poems on the lifeworlds of the Middle Eastern role-players who inhabit the simulacra.  From the outset, I have invoked the anthropologist self and the poet self in tandem to read these haunted spaces. I draw upon the lens of the anthropologist to think about, for example, how “authenticity” is referenced by the military through the construction of the sets.  Which gestures – a prayer rug; Arabic graffiti; the call to prayer; and in some simulations, even odors designed to mimic mass graves – generate a sensory apparatus for both the training soldiers and the Middle Eastern role-players inside?  Meanwhile, it is my poet-side who inflects these spaces with the affect, emotion, and sensation that a cursory observer perhaps would not glean. In this recent interview, I further discuss the crucial link for me between ethnography and poetry.  Also, there are several poems at the end of the interview from my new manuscript on the simulations.

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Interview: Kristen Pearlstein and “An Analysis of Immigrant and Euro-American Skeletal Health in 19th Century New York City”

Kristen with skeletal collection at the Museum Support Center, Smithsonian Institution

Kristen Pearlstein is a doctoral student at American University. In 2012, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘An Analysis of Immigrant and Euro-American Skeletal Health in 19th Century New York City,’ supervised by Dr. Rachel J. Watkins. We asked Kristen to answer a few question about her grant research working with the George S. Huntington Anatomical Skeletal Collection and exploring New York City’s lost social history through the marks it left on human remains.

Let’s begin with a bit of background. Could you briefly summarize the project you undertook with your Dissertation Fieldwork Grant?

My project compares the skeletal health of European immigrants to Euro-Americans from the late 19th and early 20th centuries in order to understand the biological impact of socio-economic inequality and poverty in New York City during this time period.  I evaluated the human remains of individuals who were unclaimed when they died and used as dissection cadavers for medical teaching purposes.  The subjects most likely to be unclaimed were individuals who could not afford the cost of a burial, and were generally from a very impoverished segment of the population.

Skeletal health indicators from three ethnic groups – Irish, German, and Italian – were compared to health indicators from indigent U.S.-born individuals in order to determine how perceived social and economic disparities within and between immigrant and U.S.-born groups differentially impacted their skeletal health.  Historical narratives show that different nationality groups had diverse experiences with discrimination and marginalization after migrating to this country.  One hypothesis is that groups which experienced more prejudice had a lower health status.  The Irish, for example, were maligned more than the Germans, and were more often relegated to occupations of manual labor.  Therefore, I expected to observe more indicators of adverse health events in the Irish skeletal remains than in the German or U.S.-born groups.  This physical evidence provides the basic data for my dissertation: the broken bones, herniated vertebral discs, tuberculous lesions, rampant systemic infections, severe arthritis, etc.  I am finding that the U.S.-born group has a similar health profile to the Irish, so an interesting aspect of this study will be discerning why those similarities exist and where there are subtle differences between those two groups.


How did you originally become interested in this particular research question?

My sub-field interest is paleopathology, so my research was going to involve some aspect of human health and history.  I was familiar with this particular anatomical skeletal collection from a long term rehousing project, but I did not envision the focus of this study until I took a history course on health and migration and spent time reviewing how 19th century immigrants were perceived in regards to social status and public health, with more prejudice directed toward some immigrant groups than others.  I became interested in evaluating how these diverse experiences were expressed not just in the historical records, but in the actual skeletal remains.  As I began my search for other studies of skeletal collections from that time period, I realized that hardly any literature expressly discussed immigrants.  So I am excited that my research can contribute to this ongoing conversation about inequality and health and the experiences of different groups.


Abnormal bone formation of the anterior spine due to tuberculosis

How did cultural anthropology and race theory influence your work with the physical anthropological archives?

Previous studies on anatomical and historical collections have utilized a biocultural framework to situate physical evidence within the context of the cultural environment.  This project builds on existing scholarship by combining the historical narrative of social and racial/ethnic bias with the physical documentation of skeletal health.  My research engages in the debate on the relationship between health and social status by examining the interactions between dominant and marginalized groups, and how these interactions are connected to health inequalities.  Much of the skeletal research undertaken in biocultural health studies focuses on ethnically generalized groups, and historical studies in the United States have been carried out on African-American population samples and Euro-American population samples.  These studies highlight the importance of the environmental and historical context for understanding patterns of morbidity and mortality in skeletal populations.

However, the implicit generalization of Black or White blurs additional aspects of marginalization or resistance that may contribute to health disparities within and between groups.  Studies addressing the skeletal health of Whites in a historical context have not considered the stigmatization of many immigrants as ethnic ‘others’ and therefore failed to critically examine all aspects of social marginalization as it relates to health and stress.  Additionally, successful studies have challenged certain assumptions we carry in regards to health and status by showing there is not always a direct correlation between skeletal health and social marginalization. So this study will seek to demonstrate how expected health outcomes in marginalized population groups are impacted by various aspects of resistance, social support, and localized stressors.


New York City, c. 1840.

What picture of 19th century NYC emerged along the course of your research?

The City of New York had a complicated relationship with its immigrants.  On the one hand, the city was totally unprepared for several million new occupants and could not provide adequate housing, sanitation, transportation, job security, or medical care.  On the other hand, New York quickly became the center of American trade and industry.  The immigrant and U.S.-born individuals who were migrating to New York were literally building the city from the ground up, and were producing more goods and services than just about anywhere else in the world.  However, these individuals were expendable.  There was very little incentive for factories or manufacturers to pay heed to occupational hazards and health consequences.  If workers fell ill, they were replaced.  For some occupations, unemployment was a common occurrence for several months out of the year, every year.  Housing often meant small, cold apartments with no windows.  Tuberculosis was still the leading cause of death, particularly among the poor.  So the image I have of 19th century New York City is a very large number of people just trying to survive.  But I may be biased.  I spend most of my time reading about impoverished immigrants, so I cannot speak to how the upper classes were living.


Bilateral osteoarthritis of the knee

What’s one thing about NYC that you think New Yorkers would be surprised to learn?

I think it would surprise many New Yorkers to learn that various ethnic groups tried to use race and ethnicity against each other to gain control of certain industries.  For example, the Irish tried to take control of the docks by claiming the Germans were not white enough to work there.  Both the Irish and Germans were quick to racialize the Italians as ‘other.’  We tend to idealize New York as one big ‘melting pot’ in which everyone who worked hard was quickly assimilated into the American culture.  We often forget there were periods when Eastern European Jews and Italians and Irish were heavily discriminated against based on their ethnicities.

Another interesting fact about New York is that the poor were assigned the same punishment as murderers and traitors after death.  Cadavers were, and are, a necessary part of medical education.  As the number of medical institutions in New York grew, so did the demand for anatomical remains.  Since body donations were not common, early physicians relied on illegal grave robbing and the legally obtained bodies of executed criminals to supply their anatomy classes.  In the mid-19th century, the Act to Promote Medical Science expanded the legal acquisition of bodies to include unclaimed individuals from hospitals, almshouses, and other public institutions who would otherwise have been buried in a potter’s field.  This meant that anyone who lacked the money for a formal burial could be used as a dissection cadaver.  Essentially, the Act targeted and exploited the poor of New York, most of whom were immigrants with no political power to object, and many of whom had a very real fear of the dissection table for social and religious reasons.


What’s next for this project? Do you envision it expanding in any way?

There is more that I would love to do at the individual level with biohistorical data associated with each set of remains.  I think the overall picture would be so much richer if we could find these individuals within hospital records and have a better understanding of when they were treated, what they were treated for, and how they were treated, both medically and socially.  I want to know where they lived, and for the ones without recorded occupations, I want to know what they did.  How big were their families?  Did they board alone?  It might be impossible to dig up this sort of information, but I would love to try.  In terms of the skeletal remains, there is definitely more that I plan on doing.  I particularly want to look at bone lesions in relation to activity.  These remains exhibit a higher rate of periostitis than has been reported in other anatomical collections, and often the location of the periostitis is along an insertion site, such as where the fascia attaches between the tibia and fibula.  It seems to me that inflammation in that area is more indicative of muscle activity than infection.  But why is that reaction more pronounced in this particular selection of skeletons?  What does it mean?  I think future research for this project will delve more into fatigue, muscle overuse, and skeletal stress.



Interview: Susie Hatmaker and ‘Flooded in Sludge, Fueling the Nation’


The "scrubber" - the newest smokestack technology for capturing particulate matter from the smoke emissions. The captured matter goes into a new solid waste holding pond. Image courtesy grantee, 2013

Susie Hatmaker is a doctoral candidate in American Studies at the University of Minnesota. In 2012, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Flooded in Sludge, Fueling the Nation: Generating Power, Waste, and Change in East Tennessee,’ supervised by Dr. Hoon Song. We reached out to Susie to learn more about her project examining how the 2008 Kingston ash spill, and other changes in Appalachia’s physical environment, are connected to an expose ideas of progress and technical development.  


Let’s begin with a bit of background. Could you briefly summarize the project you undertook with your Dissertation Fieldwork Grant?

My project is a genealogy of the largest coal ash flood in US history that traces the intersecting forces that brought it into existence. And, it is a material analysis of the psychological and social processes that render this matter and this event largely invisible.

This grant supported an ethnography of the East Tennessee landscape where the flood took place. I inquired into how the landscape changed over time to accommodate this large body of coal ash waste. I traced various forces that connected in the accumulation of the ash, from ideas about the region’s people, to desires for national power and development. I combined an ethnography of the landscape with archival work at the National Archives and Smithsonian, where I looked into records of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA, a government agency that operates as a corporation, and whose Kingston power plant spilled the waste) and the Rural Electrification Administration, which together ushered in major changes in the relationship among landscape, infrastructure, the nation, and rural everyday life during the 20th century.


What happened in Kingston in 2008?

On December 22, 2008, over 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash waste flooded out of an unlined, earthen holding pond at a TVA power plant and spilled into the adjacent river. I was drawn to this event because it took place in my hometown. I saw Kingston on the news from my new home across the country, and couldn’t easily critique or place what I was witnessing. It shifted my consciousness. It was not related to the topics I intended to study in grad school, but once the flood happened (during the first year of my graduate program) I couldn’t stop thinking about the region, its history, and wanting to know more about how the coal ash came to exist in the holding pond.


How do you connect Science and Technology Studies (STS) and actor-network theory to 20th-century rural Appalachia?

The Kingston plant. Image courtesy Tennessee Valley Authority

This has been the largest challenge in defining this project – that I do not set aside a seemingly “cultural studies” set of concerns about the region’s history (the construction of Appalachia) in favor of my concern with the ash as a physical byproduct and material with its own story. I realized during research that certain ideas about “Appalachia” are essential to both the ways this landscape was developed in the name of modernization, and to the process of rendering this event insignificant, practically invisible. It’s not one of the “major” environmental disasters that we all know by a shorthand name. I hold that there is a key link between culturally salient ideas about “Appalachia” as a relic of the past, something “behind” modern time, and the ways the East Tennessee landscape in its contemporary manifestations is invisible. This is a place of scientific and technological complexity, home to the nation’s largest science and energy labs and a community that formed through the buildup of American modernity, most notably when Oak Ridge (which neighbors Kingston) was built as a Manhattan project site – the place where uranium was enriched for the first atomic bomb.

It is difficult to see a place as critical to American modernity, futurity, and development when it is continually positioned as a place of “backwardness,” and “the past within the present.” While Appalachia is a place where hikers and nature lovers seek rustic authenticity and American heritage, Oak Ridge is today a toxic Superfund cleanup site and the river that links it to Kingston is lined with the radioactive waste.

I use an STS/ANT approach to discuss how cultural narratives of Appalachia shaped the possibilities that planners and the national government could reasonably imagine for this terrain. That is to say, I look at how certain ideas combined with the presence of materials (such as coal, timber, and the many rivers and streams) to physically put materials, people, and terrain into motion.

I consider the invention of Appalachia (to borrow a phrasing from anthropologist Allen Batteau) not as simply a discursive construction, but as a socio-material process that emerged from a combination of human desires and physical realities. I view this as a trajectory in the network of forces that allows for the buildup of the coal ash. In each chapter of the manuscript, I describe physical conditions of everyday life, feelings, and ideas that put this matter into motion. The ash, in my writing, is both real and metaphorical – it is the main character in a story I am writing about the visible and invisible forces that give it life as a residue of the desire for power.


While working in the archive, you discovered a sizable collection of “propaganda films” created by the TVA. What was the content of these films? What sort of imagery did they deal in?

photo of an Appalachian family from the TVA archives. 1933

TVA was a major undertaking of the New Deal, and hinged on the creation of a new publicly funded government agency that basically took control over the entire Tennessee River and surrounding valley lands, built over 20 dams in a couple of decades, and later built coal-fired and nuclear power plants. This entailed massive displacements of communities, the creation of a system of huge new lakes, and federal regulation and policing of lakes, rivers, streams, and waterfront properties – all by this new agency, its managers, and its own police force. TVA also spearheaded the spread of electrification in its early days.

To convince the national population of the merits of this unprecedented level of federal control over life and land, there was a major corresponding propaganda campaign. What I found after watching dozens of these films is that they essentially created an origin myth to justify the necessity of intervention. The films repeatedly portray the local population pre-TVA as blighted, backward, and in need of assistance. They do not show things like Friday night dances, where people played live music, shared pies, and had fun. They didn’t show the kinds of active learning that took place on the farms and in schools, or the community as an organized entity that shared resources. The focus of the films was on lack of surplus capital (poverty), dirtiness, lack of “proper” clothing and shoes, etc. These films generally only portrayed the most desperate faces of rural, Depression-era poverty. In the collections of TVA’s in-house photographer, I was able to see a much broader picture of the pre-TVA landscape, including larger farmhouses, buildings, and local technologies that illustrate a more dynamic and economically varied region than the propaganda films allow.

The propaganda narrative focused solely on promoting the notion that this large-scale government intervention was necessary to bring the region into modernity and to spread light and power to the poor. Dam building is shown as a heroic act in the films, and workers appear like soldiers fighting a domestic war. Explosions of earth are heralded with triumphant music to signal a new era for this region. Once the dams are erected, scenes show peaceful panoramas of the newly created lakes and ordered recreation, indicating the ideal configuration of people, infrastructure, and environment.


You admit to encountering an overwhelming amount of information during your work in the archive and in the field. How do you decide “which stories to tell”?

landscape view from across the ash holding cells with the smokestacks from the plant in the background.

I faced this most glaringly in the TVA archives. To give an example, TVA has several branches – power, agriculture, biology, geology, and many more. In the files of the power manager alone there are over 900 boxes. Similarly in fieldwork, I have notes on more interesting and compelling moments than I will be able to share. But while I may not get to directly cite all of these stories, reading them, and being immersed in them in the archive and in the field, all heightened my sensibilities about what to say and what is appropriate and accurate.

Recently, when writing a chapter based on my tour inside the Kingston Steam Plant, I found myself writing at length about a painting I saw there, which was noted by my tour guide as his “favorite part” of the plant. I could not stop writing about it, and this essentially became the focus of the chapter. I did not anticipate seeing this painting, nor did I plan to address it in my chapter outline, but in the process of writing, this is the story that worked. I found that through this singular, simple observation and encounter, that I could bring many ideas to life. As I work through the material and outline the writing, I find that it is mostly intuition and instinct that guides me toward figuring out what works, what to include, and what to exclude. It is very important to me that each story in each chapter serves the thesis of the project, and that the stories allow me to highlight the themes that run through the entire work. I have to consistently work to find the balance between rich, deep storytelling and showing a breadth of research. But a compelling story is more interesting to me, even if it is highly singular, than a compilation of copious amount of data and citation. This is especially true if I know that a particular story stands as a great example of a broader theme that recurs in this landscape and runs through the rest of the larger work.


What’s next for this project?

Right now I am working to finish writing this as my dissertation. I have an essay (“On Mattering”) out for review with a journal that I am excited about, and will share with the Wenner-Gren Foundation once it is published. After I graduate in May, I plan to focus on finding a publisher for the work and releasing it as a book.


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