Paternalism in Anthropology

I noticed that many times when we were discussing the culture of the Tohono and of the surrounding communities, we would have a native person give their experience on the subject t hand. This however was followed by an American explaining the more complex nuances of the situation. We saw this at the museum and especially at Ajo. Both groups of people were especially hospitable and I am very grateful they were so open to talking with us, but I almost have a sense that there was some paternalism in the actions of the Americans. This is a common problem in many places that have suffered colonialism, but I wouldn’t think I would see it so close to home. When I think of post-colonial paternalism, I think the former Rhodesia or the Dutch Indies, and even Latin America, but I don’t think the US. I don’t know why I had never thought of this, given we are all familiar with the history of colonialism spanning into the early 20thcentury and continuing now with Puerto Rico, Guam, Marshal Islands, etc.



There has to be a balance to being able to tell the story of not only Native Americans but all marginalized groups of people. While I agree that it may be necessary to have a white person help spread the story (given we live in a white hegemony), it’s not theirs to tell. I am reminded of Prof. Markowitz’s experience working with the Smithsonian, where a white institution aimed to do well and tell the story of the marginalized group but in their own way as opposed to the way the Tohno wanted it told.


Is this a problem faced by other exploration societies and museums, is National Geographic? Discovery? The American Museum of Natural History? Are all of these institutions complicit? I don’t know, but National Geographic released a special edition in 2018 that dealt with their history, especially on their earlier issues depicting the hierarchy of races with pictures from a Sub-Saharan expedition . But how do we really deal with this problem? While an apology is definitely a step in the right direction, it really doesn’t address the issue. We can’t expect every society studied to be able to review everything written about them like we can. We can say confidently that many of the most remote tribes and peoples that are fetishized and exoticized by explorers writing about them don’t have subscriptions to these publications.


I feel at minimum if you study a society you should do so objectively firstly, and then you should be able to provide the people the final draft of the results for their approval before publications. After all, it’s their history, and you want to make sure you have it right. To this end, I feel this is mutually beneficial.

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