Whose Perspective Matters Most?

Carol A. Hand

It is my belief that we have an obligation to raise awareness about abuse and oppression and think critically about ways to both heal past harm and prevent future trauma. These days, when I reread interview transcripts and field notes that I recorded during my study of Indian child welfare in 2000-2002, I think about the essential responsibilities researchers carry. And I think of Foucault’s warning about the power wielded by those who judge and record their observations based on culture-bound standards of normalcy. Certainly the child welfare system provides an ideal venue for imposing colonial views and assimilating (normalizing) those who are different, something Canada has, at least partially, acknowledged in recent days.


Photo: Drawing by Carol A. Hand
(based on an adaptation of N. Andry (1749), Orthopaedrics or the art of preventing and correcting deformities of the body in children, cited in Foucault, 1979)

“The judges of normalcy are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the ‘social worker’-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subject to it his body, his gestures, his behavior, his aptitudes, his achievements. The carceral network, in its compact or disseminated forms, with its systems of insertion, distribution, surveillance, observation, has been the greatest support, in modern society, of the normalizing power.” (Foucault, 1979, p. 304)

After reading much of the diverse literature about Ojibwe culture and thinking about the consequences for Ojibwe people, I became increasingly concerned about the powerful legacy of past research. The narrative and literary works written by Ojibwe people don’t carry the same weight as “objective science” in university settings. Yet it’s crucial to ask if research can ever really be bias-free. Isn’t the preference for objectivity a myth if one really considers how all of us are socialized to accept our class, culture, religion, and gender roles as normal, right, the only way? The five major ethnographic researchers who studied Ojibwe people (Densmore, 1973, 1979: Hilger, 1992: Landes, 1969, 1997: Hallowell, 1967: and Barnouw, 1977) left confusing, decontextualized and ahistorical accounts seen through the lenses of their Euro-American cultures, socio-economic class, and prevailing anthropological assumptions at the time. Reading these works through an emic, or “insider” perspective, raises important questions. It reminds me of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s cautionary words about “the danger of a single story” (TED Global, July 2009)


The scientists who originally produced the Master works that set the framework for understanding the single story for “exotic” cultures primarily came from the discipline of anthropology. Anthropologists initially saw their work as a race against time to record the remembered indigenous cultures that would soon disappear as the more advanced and superior European culture replaced their simple or savage ways. Referred to as “salvage anthropology,” increasingly the purview of those who were specially trained, the legacy of the body of work they published continues to present cultures as static, frozen in the remote past. These simplistic and incomplete snapshots of complex and ever-evolving patterns of relationships among groups of people in response to changing times and contexts continues to blind us to the diversity, complexity and dynamic adaptive plasticity of people and cultures.

“From some indigenous perspectives the gathering of information by scientists was as random, ad hoc and damaging as that undertaken by amateurs. There was no difference, from these perspectives, between ‘real’ or scientific research and any other visits by inquisitive and acquisitive strangers…. The power of research was not in the visits made by researchers to our communities, nor in their fieldwork and the rude questions they often asked…. The greater danger … was in the creeping policies that intruded into every aspect of our lives, legitimated by research, informed more often by ideology…. It told us things already known, suggested things that would not work, and made careers for people who already had jobs.” (Smith, 2001, pp. 2-3, emphasis in original)


Photo: Actions speak louder than words ( Source )

My overall critique of this scientific description of Ojibwe people was described in an earlier work of mine (Hand, 2003, pp. pp. 44-45).


“Since the late 1960s, anthropological methods and ethnographic accounts have been criticized and contested by both outsiders to the discipline and by scholars within the discipline (Stocking, 1983; Clifford & Marcus, 1986; Trouillot, 1991; Vidich & Lyman, 1994). As the era of European colonial imperialism waned, anthropologists came under fire for their tacit complicity with colonial powers and the ethnocentricity embodied in their accounts of “other” peoples (Clifford, 1983; Abu-Lughod, 1991; Van Maanen, 1995). As elite members of ruling colonial powers, their accounts of subjugated peoples became the official record of other cultures. And because of the power tacitly embodied in this association with colonial hierarchies, anthropological scholars were able to publish their descriptions of other peoples, preserving their particular views as those most objective and authoritative (Fox, 1991; Trouillot, 1991; Van Maanen, 1995).

“Critics noted that the methods and descriptive standards of ethnographic work also resulted in a number of problems in terms of how other cultures were depicted. Typically, based on intensive work within one village or community and focusing almost exclusively on the activities and perspectives of men within the community, the written ethnographic accounts claimed to represent an entire ethnic or national population (Clifford, 1983; Abu-Lughod, 1991). By relying on generalizations across individuals, the works also conveyed the impression that “culture,” at least for “other” peoples, was an essentializing force that produced an unthinking homogeneity among all of the members of a group or nation (Clifford, 1983; Clifford & Marcus, 1986; Abu-Lughod, 1991). This “real culture” became frozen in time and place, in whatever ways the anthropologists chose to define time and place (Appandurai, 1991). Little, if any, attention was paid to the historical forces and cultural changes that were reflected in the conditions they observed during their short, time-bounded studies (Abu-Lughod, 1991; Clifford, 1992; Van Maanen, 1995). Added to this list of critiques is the concern that anthropological methods result in highly subjective, fictional accounts, rather than the generation of scientific knowledge (Clifford & Marcus, 1986; Sanjek, 1993; Denzin & Lincoln, 1994).

“In response to these external critiques and internal self-reflections, cultural anthropologists have been developing innovative approaches (Clifford & Marcus, 1986; Fox, 1991; Denzin & Lincoln, 1994; Van Maanen, 1995). Within this context of reexamination, alternative research methodologies (both quantitative and qualitative) have gained momentum, and a variety of experiments with textual representation have emerged (Brim & Spain, 1974; Johnson & Johnson, 1993; Denzin & Lincoln, 1994). Despite these innovations, the “‘master ethnographic texts” (Limón, 1991, p. 116) on Ojibwe culture represent the paradigms of earlier eras. As the authoritative descriptions of Ojibwe culture, the scholars, methods, and findings of these works deserve a more in-depth discussion. And, as Smith (2001) points out, research literature may be differently viewed by the Indigenous People it purports to describe. My interpretations and critiques of the research accounts of Ojibwe people, … filtered through a different cultural lens than the majority of previous commentators, may differ from those of earlier reviewers.” (Hand, 2003, pp. 44-45).



Photo: Salvage Anthropology – a Mixed Blessing – Preservation and Perpetuating Stereotypes ( Source )

After carefully studying these “master” ethnographic works carefully, I came to the following conclusions (Hand, 2003, pp. 55-56).


“Smith’s (2001) comment rings true. All of the researchers made a name for themselves and were employed or promoted at least partly as a result of their studies of Ojibwe culture. They have all left a legacy for Ojibwe people as well – in part positive, and perhaps to a larger degree, problematic. Although Hilger’s and Densmore’s works leave an account of past Ojibwe culture that is viewed as accurate and sympathetic, their publications reinforce the view held within and outside of Ojibwe communities to this day – that the only authentic Ojibwe culture is that which was practiced in the past. The work of Landes, Barnouw, and Hallowell also provides support for this view. In addition, Landes, Hallowell, and Barnouw present viewpoints that attribute the problems faced by Ojibwe people to individual pathologies, cultural deficits, or incomplete assimilation….

“Little read as these works may be, Smith (2001) rightly points out that scholarly views find their way into legislation, policies, public attitudes, and frequently into subsequent research. Expert interpretations give added weight to the societal viewpoints from which they emerged. These views of Ojibwe culture as a thing of the past continue to impact Ojibwe communities on many dimensions, internally and externally. Deficit-focused paradigms continue to affect how Ojibwe children and families are viewed in framing child welfare legislation and how they are treated by child welfare and judicial personnel.” (Hand, 2003, pp. 55-56)


I knew as a child that these attitudes had a profound effect on my mother’s internalized racism. To a large extent, she was afraid to disclose her Ojibwe heritage because of her internalized shame – she often felt that her ancestral heritage meant she was inferior to Euro-Americans. Although my study was conducted decades later and tribes were making concerted efforts to counter these attitudes and revitalize languages and cultures, the colonial human services and child welfare systems were firmly guided by Euro-American policies, institutions, and practice paradigms. Many tribal staff and Ojibwe community members didn’t question these systems, nor were they encouraged to think critically about the dissonance of the underlying dominant cultural values and assumptions of child removal in contrast to their own traditional extended family and community practices.

It was even less likely for county child welfare staff to think about the how these discordant values impacted tribal communities. I remember the first county child welfare meeting I attended as the tribal child welfare specialist for a university. As I walked into the conference room, I overheard a conversation. One county child welfare worker loudly commented to another.

“I’ve been doing this job for 25 years, and I have no idea if what I’ve been doing makes any difference.”

In the reading and research I did during my study, I discovered that it does make a profound difference, but perhaps not in the ways this worker intended. When many workers follow policies and unquestioningly implement child removal practice paradigms, the consequences are clear. One need only look at the outcomes for foster children, or listen to the stories of Ojibwe people who spent their childhoods in Indian boarding schools, foster care, or in adoptive homes to know the deep and often intergenerational wounds child removal has left for individuals, families, and tribal communities.


Photo: Public School Mascot – 1989

I still think exposing larger patterns of continuing colonial hegemony for careful scrutiny is a justification for observing and creating a written record of the lives of those who may not be aware of the unquestioned invasive colonial interventions and the significant intergenerational consequences. But it’s never enough to merely catalogue problems. The most difficult and important work is sharing those problems in ways that cuts through resistance from the status quo and highlights viable and culturally appropriate alternatives.

Works Cited:

Abu-Lughod, L. (1991). Writing against culture. In R.G. Fox (Ed.), Recapturing anthropology: working in the present (pp. 137-162). Sante Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Appandurai, A. (1991). Global ethnoscapes: notes and queries for a transnational anthropology. In R.G. Fox (Ed.), Recapturing anthropology: working in the present (pp. 191-210). Sante Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Barnouw, V. (1977). Wisconsin Chippewa myths & tales and their relation to Chippewa life. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Brim, J. A. & Spain, D. H. (1974). Research design in anthropology: Paradigms and pragmatics in the testing of hypotheses. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Clifford, J. (1983). On ethnographic authority. Representations, 1(2), 118-146.

Clifford, J. (1992). Traveling cultures. In. L. Grossberg, C. Nelson, & P. A. Treichler (Eds.), Cultural studies (pp. 96-116). New York: Routledge.

Clifford, J. & Marcus, G. M. (Eds.)(1986). Writing culture: The poetics and politics of ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Densmore, F. (1973). Chippewa music: Two volumes in one. Minneapolis: Ross & Haines, Ins. [original works published in 1910, 1913].

Densmore, F. (1979). Chippewa customs. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press. [original work published in 1929].

Denzin, N. K. & Lincoln, Y. S. (1994). Handbook of qualitative research. Thousands Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Foucault, M. (1979). Discipline & punish: The birth of the prison. (A. Sheridan, Trans.). New York: Vintage Books. [Original work published 1975].

Fox, R. G. (Ed.)(1991). Recapturing anthropology: working in the present. Sante Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Hallowell, A. I. (1967). Culture and experience. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. [original work published in 1955].

Hand, C. A. (2003). An Ojibwe perspective on the welfare of children: Rescuing children or homogenizing America? Doctoral dissertation. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Hilger, Sr. I. (1992). Chippewa childlife and its cultural background. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press. [original work published in 1951].

Johnson, A. & Johnson, O. R. (1993). Quality and quantity: On the measurement potential of ethnographic fieldnotes. In R. Sanjek (ed.), Fieldnotes: The making of anthropology (pp. 161-186). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Landes, R. (1969). Ojibwa sociology. New York: AMS Press, Inc. [original work published in 1939].

Landes, R. (1997). The Ojibwa Woman. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press. [original work published in 1938].

Levi, Sr. C. M. (1956). Chippewa Indians of yesterday and today. New York: Pageant Press, Inc.

Limón, J. E. (1991). Representation, ethnicity, and the precursory ethnography: notes of a Native anthropologist. In R. G. Fox. (Ed.), Recapturing anthropology: working in the present (pp. 115-136). Sante Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Sanjek, R. (1993). Fieldnotes: The makings of anthropology. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Smith, L. T. (2001). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. London: Zed Books Ltd/University of Otago Press.

Stocking, G. W., Jr. (Ed.)(1983). Observers observed: essays on ethnographic fieldwork. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Trouillot, M-R. (1991). Anthropology and the savage slot: the poetics and politics of otherness. In R. G. Fox (Ed.), Recapturing anthropology: working in the present (pp. 17-44). Sante Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Van Maanen, J. (Ed.)(1995). Representation in ethnography. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Vidich, A. J. & Lyman, S. M. (1994). Qualitative methods: Their history in sociology and anthropology. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (pp. 23-59). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

21 thoughts on “Whose Perspective Matters Most?

  1. Thank you for this. (This reply comes from one who at age 18 wanted to become an anthropologist mostly because I wanted to learn to shift perspectives and undo the deep conditioning. Then my first experience living among indigenous people made the notion of “studying” my friends abhorrent.)

    So much bias seems so deeply embedded in the consciousness of the general public. One point you mention above — in my experiences in Oaxaca, Mexico; Taos, New Mexico; the Colombian Amazon; and most recently Senegal, I’ve gotten into arguments with white folks who proclaim that the people of that place have a purely collective consciousness and are not individuals, are unable to think for themselves, but function only as parts of the machine. Certainly there are collective values that our more individualistic society has thrown overboard, but that’s not what’s being said — and by people who ignore the conformity required in Euro-American society. I don’t know how we get to the point of honoring cultural difference without concluding that the Other’s humanity is radically and essentially different.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It seems we do the same thing on an individual level. We attribute others’ behavior to innate traits, while we interpret our own actions according to the contextual influences that caused us to act in certain ways. It rarely occurs to people to ask about the beliefs and meanings other cultures assign to certain actions and behaviors. It’s just easier to assume there are characterological flaws or cultural deficiencies. This does make it challenging to figure out how to promote inter-cultural understanding and respect, especially in the context of colonialism and unexamined privilege.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Donna. I love Densmore, too. She and Hilger were the most respectful and thoughtful among the anthropologists who published their ethnographic studies. (I didn’t come across any ethnographic works written by Banks and would love to have a citation so I can check it out.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Dennis is a rare combination of dry wit and infectious humor.
        He is one of the most respected Native men in this country.
        I will never forget the first time I met him at an AIM meeting in LA many years ago.
        I used to carry his books/music and they were my fastest sellers.
        His dedicated followers are legendary, as is he~

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Truth, by necessity, must come before reconciliation. The commission’s report is an important step but the Harper government’s actions toward the First Nations and Keystone pipeline activists acting on behalf of indigenous peoples speaks louder than words. The sad part is that the mythology of the pilgrims and indians is still being taught in elementary schools in the United States of Assimilation.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Truth is so important, Jeff. I do wish students learned how to be inquisitive in school so they could engage the lifelong responsibility we all have to seek the truth for ourselves…


  3. In modern day society, the only perspective that matters is that promoted by the corporate elite and the mainstream media. Individuals who challenge that perspective are punished as harshly as if they had committed a major crime.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The first thought that came to mind when I read this is a saying credited to Emiliano Zapata – “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.” I think more and more of us give very little credence to what the elite have to say, and the more of us who share alternative narratives, as you always do, the more likely it is for others to challenge the dominant narratives.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I particularly liked the Foucault quote – I’d never seen it before but have felt it more and more – particularly in medicine. Actually, a couple of decades ago, I drafted a future fiction story in which the “bad people” were all of the “super” degrees who had wrecked havoc on the world. The antagonists were those returning to a more traditional, earth based life. And yes, it is interesting how the western scholars fail to understand that as long as people are living, they have a living culture. The problem is that the people in these living culture’s have had their minds, hearts, and souls so confused because so many are deeply tied to their traditions yet these societies try to force them to become “modern.” And so, we have all of those “social” problems you know too well.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for sharing such important insights about the role intellectuals (and those in professions like medicine) play in perpetuating the empty, soulless status quo. I’m grateful for writers and storytellers like you who keep traditions and hope alive 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Whose perspective, whose culture, whose very existence matters most indeed? These are thoughts which weigh heavily on my mind since moving to a country, a city that is very Euro-centric, despite being touted as multicultural. While cultures may evolve, it is very difficult to erase ingrained patterns of thinking, of perception, even in the minds of those who think themselves evolved and enlightened.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It is true that the blueprints that reproduce the dominant culture as part of socialization continue to affect how many see and make sense of the world, locking us into the same old patterns of domination, exclusion and oppression of anyone or anything that doesn’t fit neatly into what we (unconsciously) accept as right and normal. Sometimes I wish I could be more like the jester in the poem I recited in third grade (https://carolahand.wordpress.com/2014/01/03/the-fools-prayer).


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