Dr. Dana Powell has spent the last twenty years working to transform anthropology from its original purpose, of primarily European scholars studying the Other, non-European cultural groups, toward building anthropology as a critical perspective and a toolkit of methods that help us tackle social problems. Rather than entering marginalized spaces and making decisions for informants, she agrees that anthropologists should share their unique skill set to assist in problem-solving projects that have already been identified at a grassroots or local level.
From her work with Diné (Navajo) energy activists to her field research assisting African-American environmental justice activists, Dr. Powell has collaborated with indigenous-led project leaders, offering her skills as an ethnographer to provide data and insight. A decolonized action anthropology has so much potential to become relevant in a new way, she argues, as anthropologists are deep listeners, contributing creative critical thinking to define and resolve social problems.
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For more information on Dr. Powell:
Dana E. Powell, PhD – Anthropology & Environment (danapowell.net)
Powell, D. E. (2018). Landscapes of Power: Politics of Energy in the Navajo Nation. Durham: Duke University Press.
Organizations mentioned in the episode:
- Indigenous Women’s Network archive: https://web.archive.org/web/20080221182402/http://indigenouswomen.org/
- Indigenous Environmental Network: https://www.ienearth.org/
- Honor the Earth: https://www.honorearth.org/
- Southwest Organizing Project: https://www.swop.net/
- CLEAR Lab: https://civiclaboratory.nl/
Indigenous academics mentioned:
- Teresa Montoya (Diné anthropologist): https://teresamontoya.squarespace.com/about
- Valerie Lambert (Choctaw anthropologist): https://anthropology.unc.edu/person/valerie-lambert/
- Courtney Lewis (Cherokee): https://drcourtneylewis.com/
- Max Liboiron (Métis/Michif): https://maxliboiron.com/current-projects-2/
- Powell, D. E. (2020). Comments on Anthropology OF Activism. In A. Willow & Y. Yotebeing (Eds.), Anthropology and Activism: New Contexts (pp. 79–82). London and New York: Routledge Press.
- Simpson, A. (2014). Mohawk interruptus: Political life across the borders of settler states.
- Liboiron, M. (2021). Pollution is Colonialism. Durham: Duke University Press.
- Press release from Navajo/Diné Nation about the future of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Amendments.
- Overviews of policy issues related to tribal resources and land: https://www.ncai.org/policy-issues
- Faye Harrison’s discussion of the decolonization of anthropology with anthropologists from the University of Colorado: https://savageminds.org/2016/05/03/decolonizing-anthropology-a-conversation-with-faye-v-harrison-part-ii/
- History on Uranium mining and Native communities (from a public health perspective): https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3222290/
Carie: Anthropology has a long history of activist engagement, and an equally long history of centering that activism on the Eurocentric interests of the academic community. Dr. Dana Powell, herself an anthropologist of European descent, has spent the last twenty years working alongside many others in and out of the field to decolonize anthropology, a complicated term that in part means addressing and shifting the balance of power in terms of who gets studied, what research questions are asked, which projects are funded, and what role research anthropologists take when addressing critical social issues.
Dr. Powell’s goal is to transform anthropology from its original purpose, of primarily European scholars studying the Other, non-European cultural groups, toward building anthropology as a critical perspective and suite of methods that help us tackle social problems. Rather than entering marginalized spaces and making decisions for informants, she suggests that anthropologists should share their unique skill set to assist in problem-solving projects that have already been identified at a grassroots or local level.
From her work with Dine energy activists to her field research assisting African-American environmental justice activists, Dr. Powell has collaborated with indigenous-led project leaders, offering her skills as an ethnographer to provide data and insight. A decolonized action anthropology has so much potential to become relevant in a new way, she argues, as anthropologists are deep listeners, contributing creative critical thinking to define and resolve social problems.
Carie: So welcome to the podcast. I am very excited to speak with you today, and I know you are talking from Taiwan, usually you are in the East Coast of the United States, but I would love to talk more about what you’re actually doing out there in Taiwan at some point soon. And I wanted to start out, you’ve had this really fascinating career where you’ve looked at activism and environmentalism. So just to start, help me parse through some of these terms that gets thrown around a lot about activist anthropology, collaborative anthropology, engaged anthropology. How do you see those terms and where your work fits in with them?
Dana: Well thanks Carie, so much, for having me on the podcast, it’s such a pleasure to be here and these are topics that are meaningful and important to me and complicated and things I’ve thought about a lot, and it’s just a real pleasure to get to think about these things with you because a lot of your work has certainly impacted and shaped the way I think about all of those ideas – engaged, activist, applied, ally anthropology. So, this conversation with you kind of reminds me of many of our conversations over the years, and your work and your research has had a big impact on how I think about all of these things. So thanks for that opportunity to talk to you.
Carie: That’s very kind. So yes, we did back in the day work with a social movements working group, where I feel like we were parsing out some of these ideas, way back when. So how would you define activist anthropology and some of these terms and do you feel that they’re particularly relevant to what you’re doing today?
Dana: You know, I do, although, you know, I wrote a really short piece on this that’s in just an introductory kind of chapter-vignette that’s in Anna Willow and Kelly Yoda-Bings’ series on activism and anthropology and in that piece, I talked about our background in the social movements working group but I also talked about this kind of tension in that term activist anthropologist or activist anthropology, and I think it’s a term I feel ambivalent about, though I use it. At this point in my career, I tend to use the idea of action research, a little bit more, and I can talk more about that. I think that’s primarily because at this point in my career, I find myself working with a lot of scholars and activist and practitioners who are not anthropologists. So I’d say 20 years ago or 15 years ago, in that social movements working group at UNC Chapel Hill, it was really important to me to define activist anthropology, and so I can talk a little bit about that, you know in a way that specific to the discipline. But now as my work kind of evolves and changes I’ve had these just incredible opportunities in the last couple of years to start working with scientists and working with people in other disciplines. I’ve been thinking more in terms of action research, so I think for listeners and also for myself, that’s another dimension of this, is to what extent do we really want to frame a certain modality of engagement in terms of the discipline, right– activist anthropology – and then where is it meaningful to transcend or abandon that disciplinary framing and think of it more broadly, like action research or participatory action research, which invokes another whole set of methods and a whole kind of lineage. But for me it’s really the way I came into anthropology is what shaped this for me. My undergraduate experience was at a small liberal arts Quaker-based institution and my education there was really oriented around theories of nonviolent direct action, feminist theory, liberation theology, so I had this very impactful undergraduate experience where theory, thought, intellectual work was always already kind of tied up to ideas about practice, and about social change. And I had the great fortune to study with people like Joseph Groves and Mel Kaiser, Beth Kaiser, John and Carol Stone-Burner at Guilford College who were all really moving the needle on the way we thought about doing scholarship in relation to engaging with the world so that was very impactful for me, so I think as a young person kind of having my first experience in higher education, I wasn’t that bound up in these kind of polemics or identity politics around, well are you an activist, or are you an academic, those kinds of questions or those sorts of dualisms didn’t really make a lot of sense to me because I had these really excellent models of mentors and teachers who had combined that work in their careers and were really challenging the idea that critical theory had a lot of work to do in the world beyond being engaged in active social struggles. So, for example, I got arrested while I was at Guilford as part of this big student movement. This would have been, I’ll be dating myself here, but maybe around like I don’t know 1993, 94 something like that. But there was a massive movement related to the poor people’s movement in Greensboro, North Carolina that was supporting workers at the Kmart stores and the poor people’s organization and a number of black churches in Greensboro reached out to allied faculty at some of the area institutions, and I was working closely with Joe Groves at that time who had been deeply involved with civil rights work in Greensboro, which has a deep history in Greensboro, as many of you probably know, and our entire course was an upper level seminar in nonviolence theory and practice where we deeply engaged with Gandhi’s writing and deeply engaged with Malcolm X’s writing and Martin Luther King’s writing, a number of others. We actually found ourselves meeting with local community leaders who were supporting the boycott of Kmart stores and becoming really engaged in that and ended up in some of those actions and ended up arrested and there was other experiences like that. I tell that story to say that I think my whole notion of activist anthropology was really shaped by my experience at Guilford, even though I wasn’t studying anthropology at the time. I had a minor in anthropology, but I was not deeply attached to that discipline, so after Guilford I spent eight years doing activist oriented work based in Atlanta, Georgia, and that started with feminist philanthropy, social change oriented philanthropy, and I worked with the Atlanta Women’s Foundation for several years and started to really see how activist grant making and activist philanthropy had pretty transformative potential in the lives of women and girls, and we had a particular focus on domestic violence and anti-violence work there. After that, I shifted over and started doing another form of activist philanthropy work, working with a duo, a musician duo that older listeners on this podcast might have heard of, a musical duo called the Indigo Girls who are known for their deep commitments to social-
Carie: Instant street cred. Instant street cred Dana.
Dana: Well for a certain generation perhaps.
Carie: For all of us middle aged women, yes.
Dana: That was a really transformative experience for me, you know, I won’t go into too much detail about how all that came to pass, but basically it was my immersion in these national networks of feminist philanthropy that led me to be introduced to them and they were hiring someone to manage and research their political projects. And so at that time, and actually since then, I mean, they’ve been very supportive for over 20 years of indigenous environmental justice movements, and LGBTQ projects, so I worked pretty intensely with a lot of national NGOs in both of those areas of change, and over the course of that work just came to see that what I had thought was America was not exactly – that there was another way to think about my own place as a white person, as a settler, as a southerner and even as a feminist. I came into this work really through feminist theory and non-violent direct action theory but I had not thought deeply enough, until my work with Indigo Girls, about really how to be a good ally, or how my own relationship to land, growing up in an urban inner city environment, and yet my parents grew up on small subsistence farms in rural eastern North Carolina. I’d not really thought deeply about land relations. And so, starting to work through Indigo Girls with national organizations like the Indigenous Women’s Network, the Indigenous Environmental Network and Honor the Earth, I was a liaison with all of those national indigenous environmental organizations, I was researching issues, I was writing briefs, I was writing memos, I was working at the national level with a number of really dynamic leaders who were redefining environmentalism and they were doing that kind of in the vein or in the flow of this movement, the environmental justice movement, which had, you know, emerged, lo and behold, in North Carolina, the state that I ultimately call home, and had really proliferated through indigenous communities, through the Southwest organizing project, and through a number of other groups. So that is a long way to say that by the time I met you, Carie, in 2003, and started a PhD program in anthropology, I had almost a decade behind me, of trying to think about how we activate positive social and environmental change, so I brought that into anthropology. Activist anthropology made sense to me because it resonated with the kind of social change, feminist, and indigenous oriented work I’ve been doing. So I wore the identity of anthropologist, I think, with some skepticism and some uncertainty.
Carie: Was that the academic side of it, like thinking of yourself as part of the ivory tower, that was frustrating in that respect?
Dana: I think that was part of it, I think it was actually more methodological. I think it was less about location and more about practice. So as an activist and as an ally to indigenous EJ groups over those years, and feminist groups before that, I really saw my vocation as being in the service of those movements and as an ally in the service of those movements, and I worked with them I think somewhat uncritically and in a really deep mode of engagement, where others had a certain vision for social transformation and I was on board with that vision, and anthropology asks us to suspend our belief in everything, sort of suspend our belief in everything that we have thought and taken to be true, to be normal, to be normative, to be just the way things are. So, I found myself having to reckon with a different kind of mode of critique, I think that was what was hard, it’s not that I hadn’t been critical, but I had been critical in full alignment with the social movements I was working with. And now as a new student within anthropology, that sort of PhD modality, you know, asked, could I be critical of those very movements. And that was uncomfortable for me, you know, could I be critical of those very movements that had trained me, that had mentored me, that in fact had created the conditions of possibility for me to go on to graduate school in the first place. I think the existential tension for me, which ultimately I think has been a good tension, it felt like a crisis at the time, I think I now, years later, see that it is a really very generative place of discomfort that I don’t try to run away from anymore, but you know that question of what are the limits of critique. And when we do activist anthropology or engaged work or community aligned research, what is our role as cultural critics, right, can we be critical of the very movements with which we are deeply politically aligned, right? So I think those were some of the questions that started to emerge once I was pursuing anthropology as a discipline, because anthropology is so good, you know, when it’s at its best, at really inviting us to turn everything upside down, including the things we hold most dear.
Carie: Yeah, especially those sometimes. I mean, I think that’s why anthropology has the potential to be subversive, you know, that’s why we don’t fully throw out colonial anthropology, because in so many ways, those anthropologists were offering different insights, different ways of thinking about communities that pushed back against state functions and yet they were still complicit, and it seems like you’re on the opposite end of that where you want to facilitate social work, and then you’re being asked to be critical of it. I mean, the term activist anthropology to me, has always been an uncomfortable one, because I think just hearing the term makes you think of a less critical engagement. I don’t know, activism has such as such a weird place in America, like so many people do activism and don’t like the word or activism brings to mind social movements that are highly contentious and culturally tricky. And so I think as you’re describing your work, in some ways, you know it’s clearly activism, but in a lot of ways, it seems more like, you know, you use the term philanthropy. But of course all of this is deeply political, right, all philanthropy is going to be deeply political as well. So I think it’s interesting that you’ve moved from activist anthropology into a term of action research which seems more neutral, I mean is that how you would see it, or do you see the type of engagement as being fundamentally the same?
Dana: I felt like activist anthropology, you know carries with it a kind of investment to transform the discipline and I have that investment. I think for me, in recent years, notions of decolonizing the discipline, of looking very critically at the ways in which the colonial foundations of our discipline – I agree with you completely, some of those, the early thinkers in anthropology, you know, if we think about like Americanist anthropology and Franz Boas and his cohorts of students were certainly radical for their day, I mean, you know, Boas himself was sanctioned, even by the triple A, you know he was sanctioned even by the National Organization for taking such controversial and activist positions on issues, he was abandoning science, right, he was not being a good scientist because he was situating himself and taking such strident anti-racist positions. So I think Boaz is a very complicated figure that people have written tomes and tomes on, so I won’t go into that but I think it’s important because in the Americanist tradition of anthropology, there is this kind of imprint of Boas, and so much of our work in the 20th century and on is shaped by that, until, I would say 10 years ago or so, this kind of turn toward the surge of indigenous critique and critical Indigenous Studies, through anthropology, led by really outstanding highly trained anthropologists who are also indigenous, people like Audra Simpson Teresa Montoya, Valerie Lambert, I could go on and on, Courtney Lewis, you know a number of those scholars have really started to redefine the kind of vital and creative force that anthropology can be and so, to me, activist anthropology is no longer the most interesting terrain of struggle, if that makes sense, for the discipline the really interesting terrain of struggle is what does it mean to decolonize this discipline, and to do that in a serious and sustain and thoughtful way. I think a lot of established anthropologists find that idea very threatening. I think it’s, you know, what does that mean, does that mean we are undoing the canon, well possibly. Does that mean we’re teaching history of anthropological ideas differently, absolutely. I think that for me, in terms of the kind of Renaissance and critical edge of the discipline, that’s where I have a lot of energy right now, is for these questions around what is a decolonial anthropology look like and those answers are emerging from a lot of black and indigenous anthropologists at this time so I’m super excited to see the surge in young new faculty of color within anthropology and others who are trying to redefine the discipline, because all of those projects to redefine it are both kind of theoretical and engaged, all of the scholars I just mentioned and scores more are doing really fascinating theoretical work and at the same time, are deeply engaged in transformations in the material world, you know, in the conditions of people’s lives. So for me, activist anthropology just feels like a, you know, maybe a project of 10 years ago, it’s not that it’s not relevant anymore but I have less deep investment in that, and action research has been exciting because I think that opens up for new kinds of relations
Carie: So can you define that for us, like what action research is?
Dana: I would call it a commitment to the co-production of knowledge, so working alongside other makers of knowledge and that can be other academics, other scientists that are social scientists, humanists, but also community based partners, non-academic intellectual leaders. And so, doing that co-production of knowledge that’s aimed at deeper understandings that affect transformations in people’s lives, positive transformations in people’s lives. So, it is theoretical work, it’s reflective work, and it’s profoundly collaborative work, but it’s organized around a critical analysis of conditions of violence, conditions of dispossession, ongoing structures of settler colonialism, of racism, and how our work together across disciplines, across platforms, can engage with those sorts of problems. So to me action research, it can hold more than activist anthropology, if that makes sense.
Carie: It does. And as you’re talking about decolonizing the field, it also shifts the locus of the research question sometimes into the hands of the people who would be most affected by it.
Dana: That’s right, that’s right, it does that, and at the same time it doesn’t foreclose critical social theoretical work and the kind of interpretive work that cultural anthropologists and many archaeologists and other types of anthropologist love to do. I think there was a real movement, as you and I had discussed over the years, you know, there was a real movement away from the idea of applied anthropology some years ago, that has been kind of recovered, I think, in recent years.
Dana: The Society for Applied Anthropology is such a fantastic society, has done such great work and there’s so many top level thinkers and theorists working there and it’s also one of the, I think, it’s one of the professional organizations that really intentionally and consciously makes spaces for non-academic thinkers at those gatherings and in those publications that they support. So, I think that action research can hold more and I’m just at the point where I think the kind of problems, the sort of public problems that we’re facing, ranging from, you know, systemic racism, settler colonialism, climate disruption, these kinds of public problems that touch everybody’s lives but touch us in really different ways, really require a lot of methods and a lot of different kinds of perspectives. You know I’m doing this project right now in eastern North Carolina related to bioenergy development, biomass, wood pellet production, and factory farm methane biogas capture from hog CAFOs, and working in partnership with a whole team of academics and community based partners. And in this group, I’m working with a chemist, and I’m working with an ecotoxicologist and working with them on how they think about water quality, how they engage with community driven concerns around environmental health and environmental safety, has been just transformative for me and thinking about how scientists approach the same kinds of public problems that I’ve been looking at for a long time, questions of water, questions of sovereignty questions of territory, questions of land relations. As it turns out, chemists and ecotoxicologists have a lot to say about this too, but from very different kinds of vantage points. So there’s a real meaningful, and I think generative way, that communities can wrestle with the kinds of problems of infrastructure, of climate, of ongoing modalities of dispossession, when you have a lot of people thinking from different perspectives and it’s hard work. I think action research in some ways might be harder than a kind of activist anthropology because it requires the patience of translation across these different disciplines.
Carie: Right. Multiple translations.
Dana: Multiple translations, and it’s really hard. I think that it feels a bit safer to kind of, you know, dig our heels within our own discipline and really emphasis emphasize renovating the discipline, but we have to also be working really beyond our discipline to have, I think the kind of impact that we would all like to have ultimately. So action research resonates for me right now and it gives me a space to work in where anthropology matters. I mean anthropology is then able to come into these spaces of action research and say, hey, here’s what anthropology brings and you can’t take that for granted. When you’re working with a bunch of anthropologists, we already know what anthropology brings, here you have to define it.
Carie: That’s funny, it actually connects to another interview that I did recently with Chris Reader-Young, who works for Habitat for Humanity, and she was able to come in and do the kind of qualitative analysis in order – in particular her focus was on helping elders age in place, to stay in their own homes, so she could do the kind of on the ground ethnography that provided that data for all of the other folks who were involved in this process. But that did require, as you’re describing, justifying why she was there, you know, talking to contractors and talking to, you know, social workers and public health folks and explaining what her role was. She had to articulate that in a different way. So what, in your experience then, and perhaps with this bio gas project, how do you justify and explain your role as an anthropologist and what you bring to the project?
Dana: I think actually that having to explain that role has been even more challenging and more urgent in projects that I’ve done in the Navajo Nation and in projects that are predominantly indigenous. The eastern North Carolina project is a very, very diverse kind of blurry racial project, and there’s some kind of understanding of what anthropology might be, I had to do slightly less situating there that I’ve had to do in other contexts where anthropology is – it’s not that anthropology is an unknown, it’s actually seen as a deeply colonial and problematic field. So sometimes, I’m thinking about your other interviewee, it’s sometimes a matter of articulating what we bring in terms of research methods, in terms of perspectives. But, given the context of that conversation, we may be encountering or counter-narrating some pretty deep-seeded and deeply held negative impressions of the discipline. So I think how we talk about what anthropology brings is also shaped by the context in which we have that conversation. So, I’m very aware, for example, over the years of doing work in Navajo Nation, that it’s very important to talk about what anthropology is not or the way that anthropology has been reckoning with its colonial foundations and it’s crimes, really, you know, its decades of crimes, but, you know, something that Audra Simpson wrote some years ago, published in her 2014 book, is that as anthropology moves away from the ethnological shore, moves away from a kind of object study of the other, and toward a critical perspective and a whole suite of qualitative methods that help us attack public problems like dispossession, racism, environmental contamination, anthropology becomes relevant in a different way so I think what’s critical in talking about what anthropology brings in any context, is that kind of Simpson move, right, that need to articulate that this is not an anthropology whose object is the exoticized other, this is not a study of culture in that sense, but this is anthropology as a set of critical tools where theory is a lens for rethinking everything that we take for granted. And so sometimes when I’m in those spaces and I’m trying to articulate what anthropology brings, the difference that it makes, is to talk about the way that we can use ethnographic sensibility to read for patterns, right, that anthropology is particularly well positioned to seek out meaning, you know, how are people making meaning of certain places. As an environmental anthropologist, I’ve been particularly interested in how meanings are associated and forged through particular land relations, but also through environmental technologies and energy technologies in particular, which is what I’ve worked on primarily. So how does a massive coal fired power plant or a factory farm methane bio gas structure, you know, how did these kinds of so called environmental or energy technologies, actually activate otherwise latent meanings and values of place that people hold very dear. And so then how do we read for those and translate those into documents that can become, you know, testimonies for public hearings, that can become traction for additional grant writing. I work with a lot of activists who really want to impact policy. Impact on policy, you know, that’s a metric that’s used in other disciplines. I have a very close friend who’s in a school of public health at a major private R1, and I know that her tenure advancement is measured against the ability of her research to impact policy. Like, that is a measure that’s used in the analysis of her work, have you impacted policy change. I mean that is just unthinkable for critical anthropology, in fact, most of us are trained, and I’m actually glad I was trained this way, we’re trained to be profoundly critical of things like public policy and the role of the state in kind of designing both collective subjectivities but also these horizons of possibility. And I also work with a lot of social movements that are, you know, activists that are not trying to take over state power, these are not, like, party driven movements that are trying to assume the helm of the state, they actually themselves are deeply critical of policy. So I think your original question was how do we as anthropologists, or how have I kind of had to articulate the value that anthropological perspective brings. I talk about it in ways where you, you know, want to link in to the interest of folks that we’re working with, right, so if we’re working with people that would like to see, let’s say, National Environmental Policy Act change some of its procedures around consultation and consent with indigenous communities and what meaningful participation looks like, then it’s important to be able to say we know how to talk with people and how to spend time in places where over time we can help articulate through the leadership of people on the ground what those meaningful places are, or we can see sometimes sort of systems and patterns emerging that are not categories that we invent, that are categories that sort of emerge empirically, that emerge from the work people are actually doing, that emerge in practice, but then we can attend to those emergent categories and start to see them systematically and start to see how they come to shape, what people take to be a meaningful social world. So, that is different than saying hey I can come in and I can take a water sample and I can test it for nitrates, you know. I think part of it is being very clear also on what anthropology doesn’t do. The other thing that I think I try to bring into projects, is this ability to listen across different perspectives. I think, in cultural anthropology, I think one thing ethnography, critical ethnography, really trains us to do is to be attuned and attentive to some of the affective and even nonverbal dynamics, shifts, and cues in social interaction, so attending to that kind of affective register of people’s way of being together, other kind of modes of expression that might be speech and might be text but might be art, and might be practice and might be other forms of expression, being able to see all those kind of affective modes of expression as part of how people make sense of their world, and then being able to describe that kind of sense making work, which I guess we used to call culture, you know, to describe that kind of sense making work as part of what’s at stake in these action research projects. Right, so for example in in Navajo Nation, you know one thing I write about in my book, landscapes of power, is the way that a certain definition of what it meant to be an environmentalist was operative for the big energy companies, and some of the other project proponents of this big large scale coal project. But in fact, what was going on in terms of the values and ethical commitments and meanings for Diné people on the ground, really had nothing to do with these larger sort of circulating ideas of what it means to be an environmentalist, and that’s actually quite obvious to anyone who’s in environmental justice struggles, that environmental justice struggles are much more complex and holistic, and not necessarily anthropocentric not totally human centered but certainly have quality of human life, and looking at the different experiences of differently positioned humans in environments at the center so that’s not like some huge surprise but it seemed important to write about and to point out, because one of the policy oriented things that many Diné leaders and Diné environmental justice activists were trying to achieve had to do with tribal energy policy and so some of what needed to be articulated was what was really at stake, what were really the values of people in this particular community that would be impacted by a new 1500 megawatt coal fired power plant. And so, to just cast that as being an environmentalist or not being an environmentalist was totally inadequate. So that’s just a sort of a story to say that I think anthropology brings the ability to listen to stories and to render those stories in meaningful ways, hopefully in impactful ways. But I find anthropology particularly potent in action research projects where I get to work alongside other kinds of experts including community based experts.
Carie: So tell me about then – you mentioned your work on the Navajo or Diné reservation, and do you have examples there of the kind of action research and allyship that you have developed over time, because I know you worked on various projects on the Diné reservation, and then ended up connecting with the DAPL protests or the anti-Dakota Access Pipeline protests as well. Can you tell me a little bit about those endeavors and how this transformed over time?
Dana: Sure. Well, the very ability for me to do any work in Diné communities in the first place, actually goes back to what I was sharing with you at the beginning of our conversation – My background working in feminist and indigenous philanthropy, and activist philanthropy through Indigo Girls and their partnership with honor the earth and the indigenous environmental network that afforded me many opportunities to spend time with Diné people and in the Navajo Nation, over four or five years of multiple visits and building relationships there. So the only way that I was able and I was so, so fortunate to be invited to do work there was because of those existing relationships.
20:56:29 And more and more I just see how all of our work as anthropologists, or doing meaningful, lasting , impactful, action research around public problems is about building relationships in good ways, which is harder than it sounds a lot of times. There’s a lot of just deep, meaningful attention to be given to how those relationships are built, and I feel like that’s something I’ve been working on for 20 years and I’m still working on, and I’m still coming across new books and new works and new projects. I just have recently been learning about the clear lab in Newfoundland and Labrador under the direction of great scholar Max Liboiron, and in their book, pollution is colonialism. There’s a fantastic reflection on what it means to build an equitable inclusive anticolonial research lab, and the kind of thought that goes into doing that is deeply intentional, and that all is to say that the only reason I was able to do work in Navajo Nation was because of years of building up relationships of trust.
Carie: And this goes back to your discussion of the years and years of very colonial relationships that anthropologists had with indigenous cultures, essentially, you know, imposing upon them for several years, gawking at them, writing books about them, and then going off to get tenured positions without making any discernible positive impact in the lives of their research informants.
Dana: That’s right, and I think I’m sort of past the point in my career where I believe that our texts are going to be those things that make those impacts, and this brings me back to my point about relationships. I think my biggest, most positive, I mean, that sounds like in some ways such a trite way to put it, but kind of most positive impact as a non-native white cisgender anthropologist working in Navajo nation has been, over 20 years, to build some very meaningful and transformative relationships with people and to keep showing up and to be involved in those struggles there and I’ve written text that I hope will be used in classrooms, that I hope will help other students but I’m very aware that that my book and the texts that I write are not in and of themselves enough, and they’re not in and of themselves agents of social change, they have to be, like the late Dottie Holland used to say, they have to be situated, those texts have to be situated, they have to travel in certain ways and that’s not really up to me so I think this emphasis I’m trying to make here about relationships is on the one hand so like simple and obvious, one can’t do meaningful work without good relations. That seems obvious, but what it actually takes to build those relations is another matter, and what it takes to build those relations in a historical context of profoundly unequal and abusive power dynamics, where you’ve had, not only anthropology, a number of academic disciplines that have exploited and taken advantage of a whole range of populations, particularly indigenous populations in North America, for the advancement of those disciplines. So being deeply cognizant of that past, of the crimes of our discipline, while also entering into those spaces to build relationships is a pretty exacting kind of work. So I came in to do formal co-research in the Navajo Nation for my dissertation, I really started that work probably in, oh, let’s say, 2006, 2007, but I had been traveling there since 1999 in my role with indigenous philanthropy, in my ally work with honor the earth and the indigenous environmental network through my employment with Indigo Girls, so it was after five years of building relationships that it was even possible to have a conversation about what it might mean to do field work here, to do dissertation related research here, and I came in at the invitation of a grassroots environmental justice organization that invited me at the time to collaborate with them on some of their projects related to a moratorium on uranium mining in the late 90s. The group was very active in the radiation exposure compensation act at the national level, in writing some amendments to that national policy that would further protect Navajo or Diné miners who’d worked in the uranium mines during the Cold War and now as elderly people were suffering a lot of the really profoundly negative health impacts of that exposure to uranium. So they were really policy oriented, this is what I was getting at a few minutes ago, really oriented towards policy change at the federal level, the radiation exposure compensation act is a US Government Act, but with powerful implications for what happens at the level of tribal government at Navajo Nation. So I have this very kind of fast hands on, in situ, kind of introduction to what’s at stake around environmental and health policy. I had not studied policy in graduate school, I had studied, you know, high theory, critical social theory, I had not studied policy, so I learned all of that kind of on the ground, I had a couple of amazing teachers, Diné and bilagáana, native and non-native, teachers who work with me very carefully with so much patience to educate me in federal and tribal environmental and economic policy, those were the arenas in which people were really trying to make a difference. So I came in to do this kind of action oriented research there. I was the only anthropologist in a team of environmental justice leaders, which included some environmental policy specialists and included public health workers. It included elders and grassroots people, land managers, herders of livestock, keepers of medicine, a really diverse range of experts who were trying to make a case about the cumulative impacts in that area of decades and decades of intensive extraction, starting with oil, proceeding to uranium, and then becoming liquid natural gas and other forms.
Carie: And this is on the reservations themselves, right, which are meant to be protected autonomous areas. And yet these contracts were coming in, onto their land to do these extractions.
Dana: That’s true and the contracts were also being pursued by the tribal government, this was a pro-extraction tribal government, and a pro-fossil fuel and a pro-coal tribal government. Coal has been the backbone of the economic development for the Navajo Nation for many many years, the vast majority of the operating budget has relied upon fossil fuel extraction. So this was also a very complicated place to be. And this links me back to the very first question of our conversation today which is what does it mean to be an activist anthropologist, particularly if you find yourself in the milieu, in a mix, which I think this is more common than not common, where there are a lot of divergent perspectives on what social change looks like. So I was working in alignment with Diné environmental justice leaders and activists who took a very strong position against nuclear development and against fossil fuels, against energy minerals. But that was not necessarily true for the tribal government when I was working there, and this has remained more or less true under different tribal administrations, but it put me in a very tricky position. On the one hand, I had gone through the Navajo nation’s own research protocol, my project had been reviewed and approved, I went through all of the required Institutional Review and historic preservation protocols to be there, and yet I was working with Diné activists who were intensely critical of the very tribal government that was allowing me to be there in the first place. So, activist alignments are not always so clear cut. And over the course of the years that I spent there, I remained in primary alignment with the Diné environmental justice activist as I saw what was really at stake in protecting the health and integrity of their land, which has to do with protecting the health and integrity of the ability to transmit knowledge to the next generation, of the ability to teach from the land, the whole Diné pedagogy depends upon a healthy landscape, I really came to see what was at stake there. And I also saw a more nuanced kind of ethics of energy, as I thought about the very complicated role of the tribal government in advancing and building Diné sovereignty and self-determination through this highly available easily extractable mineral resource that enabled Navajo Nation, for example, in the 1970s, to be a leading tribal nation in forming kind of the OPEC of North America. There was an organization called the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, which was led by a former Diné Chairman Peter McDonald in the 70s, and was modeled after the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC in the Middle East, as a way to kind of form of negotiating block vis-à-vis the settler state that was certainly understood and enacted as a kind of anti-colonial or decolonial move in the 70s, a very populous move and a move to wield power through energy minerals vis-à-vis the settler state.
Carie: Meaning that by modeling their institution, on an established Western fossil fuel institution, they were better able to negotiate these things?
Dana: Yes, meaning that and to sort of build power across other native nations who sat atop incredibly rich energy mineral reserves. So, to be a kind of brokering block in that way, and I just tell that little bit of history, CERT still exists, it sort of changed over the years, but I tell that bit of history to say what at one moment looks like an anticolonial move, you know 40 years later, many activists would criticize as certainly not being an anticolonial move, right, sort of playing into the kind of bad relations of capitalism, to advance tribal sovereignty.
Carie: And there’s no good solution there is there. I mean, you’re sitting on mineral resources and fossil fuels that others want, you have very few options for creating a sustainable economy because of the reservation system and what else could you do but model an institution of power after other institutions of power, otherwise they’re never going to take you seriously or, you know, you’re going to continually be disadvantaged.
Dana: So I became really empathetic to that position and I think it’s a challenge and an opportunity, I mean this is again about relationships, I think, over the years, I’ve seen how, you know, early on in Navajo Nation, as I started to do interviews and have conversations with people in tribal government, some of whom are still there, many of whom have moved on, I really was empathetic even though people I was most closely aligned with, who invited me to be there, were certainly against the position of these tribal leaders, I was deeply empathetic to the situation and seeing that that structure is created by the ongoing dispossession of the settler state, right, the very conditions that are created by occupation and settlement such that, you know, Navajo Nation sits atop some of the most easily accessible subbituminous coal that can be extracted anywhere in North America, and also sits atop the Grants uranium belt, one of the richest deposits of uranium and vanadium, which were absolutely precious for plutonium production during the Cold War for nuclear weapons and are still used for military and biomedical technologies, you start to see these kind of deeper nuances and dimensions. So, something you said Carie when we started talking, that maybe some people recoil from the idea of activist because it seems so strident, polemical, it seems to sort of already have its mind made up, I think this is something for anthropologists to really reckon with, to really think about how do we do action research, particularly in communities that are not our own communities, particularly in indigenous communities and in black communities where the layers of dispossession that follow from enslavement and follow from land occupation has such profound and ongoing consequences in the 21st century, you know, what it means to create change and to move towards convivial and flourishing and just futures is not always immediately self-evident. Right, so one thing –
Carie: We’re sitting in the cheap seats in academia, you know, and as you’re describing, these are, you know, terrible choices created by horrifying situations, and so as it makes a lot of sense as you’re describing this collaboration, it’s a shifting of praxis, it’s a shifting of, not just an empathetic understanding of the situation but giving some power to folks and enabling their ability to direct their own knowledge production, their own research, their own social plan of action.
Dana: Certainly not going in as the anthropologist as if we have the solutions. For me, that just like goes without saying, I hope that’s clear.
Carie: No, absolutely.
Dana: The solutions, we have no idea what is to be done. So I just increasingly think that the public pressing problems of our many worlds that we share, you know, really require a repositioning of the ethnographer, a repositioning of the anthropologist, and even the question of knowledge production is sort of up for grabs. Like, is that what we’re really doing, are we trying to produce new knowledge, are we trying to fill a gap in what is known about x, right, if that’s like the rubric for science or for scientific knowledge production, you know, we know that there’s a gap in our knowledge about x so what do we need to do to fill it, I’m not sure that that is the that’s the role of the repositioned ethnographer for the twenty-first century.
Carie: Right. Hopefully what I said made sense, but, it was to do the opposite of that, rather to shift the power of the organizing, the locus of control, of even framing the question to the folks whose lives are deeply enmeshed in the problem.
Dana: That’s right and the questions are there, so one thing I’m very clear about and this I think is one of the reasons that action research and its resonances with participatory action research which has a long lineage and set of practices, is that the questions are emerging from practice, like from social struggles on the ground. I think we go through a certain training as professional anthropologists, and this comes from having to write big fancy grant proposals, right, we need to write an NSF proposal, a Wenner-Gren proposal, we write these kinds of big research questions that supposedly emerge from some kind of preliminary study, there’s nothing wrong with writing those big grant proposals, I still do them, we need to do them, communities want us to do them to redirect funds into those communities. But the questions are being, you know, empirically tested and experimented with and maneuvered and kind of tinkered with on the ground. So, being a good action researcher, or a good activist anthropologist, if we want to return to that term, I think is also about really, as I’ve said, taking the time to build good relations, but to be a very kind of expert listener. So if there’s if there’s an expertise that we bring, it’s not that the anthropologists knows how to solve the problem of bioenergy development, like, on her own, you know, there are ideas underway about how to restructure local and regional economies, build more regenerative economies, you know, scale down and scale up in various ways, those ideas are there. So how does the anthropologist, as the action researcher, as the engaged or activist anthropologist come in and listen well to what’s being said, what’s being experimented with, what’s being practiced with and help build capacity to move those analyses forward. The kind of environmental analytics on the ground among activists, it’s not to say they’re all correct, that they’re all ideal, that they can’t be critiqued, but they are there, right, so we don’t go into these kinds of absent spaces where people are just kind of passive victims, right. There’s a lot of experimentation, trial and error, observation, and struggle, and we become a listener and interpreter kind of within those conditions, and I think it best we can try to be highly creative in helping listen and ask new kinds of questions, to build bridges among conversations across space and time, right, to bring the kind of training that we do have about other kinds of struggles and instances, other instantiate versions of perhaps similar kinds of projects to create the sort of, or to enable I should say, not to create, but to kind of enable points of connection and broader conversations that help folks in struggle kind of in these conditions see, sometimes the broader context of their work and what they’re up against.
Carie: So, putting together all these disparate, subtle elements into a bigger picture, in part?
Dana: And I think that can often be really meaningful for environmental justice movements and communities who are so very much as they need to be kind of in the everyday of policy analysis or they’re working on a particular bill that’s moving through the state legislature, let’s say, they have a kind of hyper expertise on the details of policy, of community, that pertains to the sort of immediate changes that they’re working on, and are often, you know, many of the folks I work with, you know, in Navajo Nation are profoundly experienced with kind of these transnational connections. They know that there’s, you know, uranium waste catastrophe on indigenous territory in Taiwan, you know, they’re aware of that. But they’re interested in understanding more kind of how those experiences across space and time are connected, how their own sort of struggle gets tangled up with or speaks to struggle self elsewhere. And I think that, you know one thing I’ve been thinking a lot about this year is how action research or activist anthropology moves towards toward a kind of decolonial future, moves towards more just and flourishing communities. And I think part of that is not taking for granted in advance that we already know what that looks like. And that’s another thing that anthropology brings, right, is if we can kind of suspend that belief in what we think we know ought to be done or what we think we know the world is, we can also redirect that as a kind of method, right, to sit to sort of sit with folks and ask, well what does justice look like here. You know, what what would it look like if the regional economy was arranged differently, what would that look like. And so that’s, I think, some pretty powerful and exciting imaginative labor that invites people to really imagine kind of beyond and to think beyond the current circumstances and to engage in sort of critical and creative imaginative work, and I think that’s something that anthropology brings, or can bring, is that sensibility and that skill as a method to kind of create a space for folks to do that together. One thing I’ve really appreciated it over the years is often getting feedback from folks if I’ve done a focus group or a series of interviews. You know when we do ethical research trainings, one of the things we have to think about is what kind of harm might we unintentionally expose people to by asking them certain questions or engaging in a therapy or a focus group, but the other side of that are these kind of unintentional benefits. You know, what is the kind of social and psychic or psychosocial benefit of taking three hours to reflect on your life experience with five other elders, you know, who might have a similar life experience, I’ve gotten really very meaningful feedback. One of my closest Diné colleagues, Earl Tooley, and I did a series of focus groups on observations of climate change. This was just before the pandemic, it was in the fall, September of 2019 and the kind of feedback we got from folks who said wow we actually haven’t made time to sit together and talk about these things in a very very long time. Back to my point about our text, we know we need to defetishize our text, we need to stop being so obsessed with the books we write and the journal articles we write. We still need to write those, I think they’re meaningful for students to read and they’re meaningful for the permanent public record. But I think the transformative work, and the more lasting work, maybe more at the sort of affective register, of creating these kinds of existential shifts in our classrooms, but also in the communities where we work for people to reflect on what might yet be possible.
Carie: I just think that’s such a lovely framing of how we can shift away from the errors of the past and contribute meaningfully. I mean that concept as you’re describing of anthropologists as deep listeners who can provide creative, critical thinking to define and resolve social problems, that seems fantastic, let’s do that. And go. So is there anything else that we haven’t talked about that you think is important as part of this conversation that you want to bring up or chat about?
Dana: I don’t think so. This has been such a pleasure to think about these things. And I guess the only maybe final thing I would add is that, you know, I understand that this is a podcast for a wider audience and not specifically for academics, and, as there seems to be a turn in academia toward a revaluing, or, maybe it’s not a revaluing, a fresh or novel valuation of more inclusive practices, more diverse research, teaching, recruitment projects, just a fresh attention to the value of enriching all of our communities, you know, through real careful attention to inclusivity and belonging, I think we see emerging now something of a revival or a renaissance of engaged, applied, activist, action oriented, kinds of scholarship. This is something I’ve noticed, you know, I think this has a lot to do with the kind of positive impacts of the Black Lives Matter movement, of indigenous rights and treaty rights struggles, both following the murder of George Floyd and others also following the Dakota Access Pipeline struggle, these very high profile impactful events that create profound cultural shifts at a broad level electrify, as they should, and deeply need to electrify further, academic institutions to really examine what our relations are, right, to whom are we obligated, and I don’t just mean okay so I’m tenured at Appalachian State University, therefore I have a kind of obligation to the citizens of North Carolina, I’m a public servant paid by the state of North Carolins, I mean it in that sense but I mean in a much broader sense, like what is the role of the critical scholar today, I mean that question seems to be reactivated kind of in some fresh and interesting ways. I think this is a particularly timely moment to have this conversation with you, Carrie and I think such a timely moment for your podcast overall, and a really urgent moment for anthropology, you know, I noticed this week or next week or whenever the AAA, the American anthropology association, meetings are on in Baltimore right now, I’m only very loosely paying attention because I’m in a time zone here in Taiwan that doesn’t enable my virtual participation in Baltimore events very easily, but I noticed that Faye Harrison is giving a major keynote, you know, and Faye Harrison’s book on decolonizing anthropology came out long before and it was published by the triple A and came out well before the kind of recent resurgence of attention to that concept, right, to decolonize the discipline and so I think we’re at this kind of reckoning moment where what it means to do scholarship is in question so I really hope that others out there and particularly kind of, you know, students at all levels and people, communities who think about research as having some kind of role in positive social change, or are really innovating on what it looks like to do that and I’m finding inspiration in a lot of these interdisciplinary cross-platform, collaborative labs that say yes, you know, anthropology and ethnography are great, they do lots of really powerful things, but it’s one thing, among many kinds of things that are required for us to move forward together.
Carie: And perhaps the flip side of that is also true, that these interdisciplinary labs and efforts could truly benefit from anthropology, and the kind of work that you do which is so critical that sort of deep listening and that pulling together of the big picture. So, while yes we are only one tiny part, I do think that your part is critical to some of these efforts in environmental justice and that your work is really important and very very valuable.
Dana: Well, I appreciate you saying that. I think more critically trained anthropologists in these sort of spaces of deliberation would be great. We have to figure out how to sort of send forth anthropologists into the world, and all these great things.
Carie: Yes, fly, fly anthropologists.
Dana: And that is a challenge for our discipline, but you know I can say just as a writer of recommendation letters and a supporter and mentor of students who’ve gone out from Appalachian State University out into the world and I see the range of things that they’re doing, kind of creative things, some go on to higher education programs, Masters and PhD programs, I’m super proud of those students, but I’m equally proud, absolutely equally proud of our students that go into some of the kind of less expected spaces, right, the unexpected arenas for anthropology, to be at work, into communications and radio stations, into government, into clinical psychological practice, you know, into a whole range of things where I feel like, okay, this kind of sensibility can make a difference. So I appreciate you underscoring that, yes, I think this particular kind of method that critical ethnography can bring in action research projects really enhances our understanding of these problems and our ability to forge solutions that might last, so one of the things that I’m particularly worried about and been writing about lately are renewable energy technologies, which makes me sound like such a stick in the mud, you know, who could be against renewable energy, who could be against wind and solar, like, what kind of a grump is she, and it’s not that I’m categorically against them but you know when we pay careful attention, we see that there is great potential and where it is often the case, right, whereas one technology is replaced with another technology, and all of the conditions of dispossession, land theft, and racism are sort of left in place, we’ve just made a techno scientific switch, we haven’t actually come close at all, to really solving the holistic problem. So I think anthropologists really bring a certain kind of expertise to those kinds of deliberations, where what often seems like a good and obvious solution may have unintended consequences and I think at our best we can do well to read for those unintended consequences.
Carie: Absolutely. Well, this has been just a fabulous conversation, thank you so much for joining me. I really appreciate your time.
Dana: It’s been a pleasure Carie, thanks so much for having me on.
Carie: Join us next time when we welcome back Dr. David Sutton who discusses the political, cultural, and sensual engagement with food as he examines eating together in Greece.