When is a Native not a “Native?”

Different kinds of fieldwork foreground different sorts of methodological and existential questions. I anticipated that my own project, researching resource management in coastal Maine households, would require not only that I continually confront the problem, so central to contemporary ethnography, of the complex relationship between researcher and subject, anthropologist and “native,” but also ask what it means to study one’s own culture as an insider, indeed, whether that is even possible.

I chose to do my fieldwork in the U.S. mostly for convenience; by the time I reached that juncture in my graduate school career I was married and a mother. I suspect my choice reflects a trend related to the increase in women entering this and other scholarly disciplines after they have established partnerships, households and families. I also sincerely believe that making the “familiar strange” to recycle an oft-borrowed phrase, is every bit as worthy an ethnographic goal as “making the strange familiar.” The tasks complement each other. How can we do, or even think of, one without the other? So  I found myself, a lifelong New Englander, doing research on the coast of Maine. What could be more native than that, you might ask?

A lot, as it turns out. First of all, I’m “from away,” which, in my case, is Massachusetts. And while that may seem like next door to someone from California or New Jersey, here in Maine innocent speculation about what constitutes native status  inevitably opens a Pandora’s box of indignant discourses about history, culture, money, seasonality, place and, by implication, class. As in the non-Western world, nativeness is a status that implies ultimate insider-ness in a particular locale, but also a degree of marginality. Identity is implicit and emergent in every aspect of life on the coast of Maine, so much so that there is a popular bumper sticker proclaiming “A-yuh, I’m a native.”

Native status is further complicated in Maine by the presence of more than one category of “native.” Among white residents, the primary social distinction is between “Mainers,” the Yankee descendants of the mostly English settlers of Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the summer residents and diverse hoards of tourists who began flocking to Maine’s rocky coast and islands over a century ago, and on whose dollars Mainers have come to depend. There are several aboriginal groups who populate Northern and Eastern Maine (Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Mic Mac, Maliseet). Whereas, in anthropology “native” ordinarily connotes dark skin and a historical power structure rooted in British colonialism, here we find multiple voices, multiple points of view, multiple interpretations of nativeness.

Here’s a recipe: Take the above and throw in a few other social variables and subcultures (i.e., Acadians, Jews, fishermen, building contractors, “hippies,” students, farmers, artisans). Let them all start intermarrying, moving around, reshuffling, resettling and crossing boundaries and then simmer for a few decades and you have yourself a complex pottage indeed. For a more eloquent treatment of this very nuanced topic, I refer followers to Kirin Narayan’s 1993 article, How Native is a “Native” Anthropologist?” in which the author unpacks the increasingly problematic (even twenty years ago) distinction between “Native,” and outsider, and argues for highlighting, instead,

shifting identities in relationship with the people and issues an anthropologist seeks to represent. Even if one can blend into a particular social group without the quest of fieldwork, the very nature of researching  what to others is a taken-for-granted reality creates an uneasy distance. However, even if one starts out as a stranger, sympathies and ties developed through engaged coexistence may subsume difference within relationships of reciprocity (682)

In other words, people are people, and human relationships are diverse and complicated. In hindsight, my pre-fieldwork commitment to locating myself accurately within this dense social grid and being vigilantly reflexive seems slightly naïve. In the end these hypothetical concerns were tempered by the more immediate practical difficulty of eliciting information about people’s financial arrangements and practices, a sensitive cultural subject. In fact, the most reticent and elusive of my informants were those with whom I had assumed I shared the most in terms of social background, education, family and householding arrangements and worldview. I quickly learned that, in households, the only “natives” are the people who live there.

References:

Narayan, Kirin. 1993. “How Native is a ‘Native’ Anthropologist?” AmericanAnthropologist. 95(3): 671-86.

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Categories: Notes on Fieldwork

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