Am I guilty? Does it help that I feel guilty?

In some of my posts and the report I have mentioned something I call “anthropological guilt”.

I use that term to describe how I as a Western anthropologist often feel guilty because of specific or even possible wrongdoings of “my ancestors” (earlier anthropologists, explorers or simply “white people”). In small portions I think it is good, as it makes you careful and sensitive to possible tensions. Yet with too much of it there is little communication and limited possibility of reaching new understandings.

A little too much of anthropological guilt did for example manifest itself when I wanted to talk with Alaska Natives about the Smithsonian Artic Study Center and its projects. I wanted to ask about how they value the possibility of seeing their ancestors’ artefacts online compared to seeing them in person. And I wanted to talk about repatriation. Yet I was too afraid to be accused with questions of how these objects had ended up in the Smithsonian and why some might never be repatriated. So I didn’t dear to ask and this limited the outcome of my project.

And this happened despite the fact that in a talk in Anchorage at the beginning of my fieldwork the Native Alaska anthropologist and museum director Sven Haakonson argued that whites and Natives should dare to talk openly about difficult parts of the past -instead of politely avoiding the topic. That this is the only way to put insecurity behind us and create really trusting relationships.

My earlier experience from doing fieldwork among very outgoing and direct people on Rapa Nui had taught me that they could find it pleasing to see humble anthropologists, but in most cases people will not really be accused for wrongdoings of their predecessors. In certain situations such accusations could be used politically, but were not meant to be something personal. Yet this didn’t help me much.

Having a timid personality has probably not helped either, but is this feeling of ancestral guilt something most anthropologists (or other researchers) feel limited by?

And if it is more limiting than useful, how to overcome it?



About olaugirene

antropolog med forunderlig kjærlighet for museumsstøv
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