This blog post comments on an idea prevalent in McCarty, Wyman and Nicholas’ (2014) chapter on ethnography with indigenous youth. The first ethnographic vignette in this chapter focused on a conversation with a ninth grader, aged 16, attending a “Navajo community school” (pp. 84). One of the major themes of the conversation, and one that the researcher admitted she failed to fully connect until well into the interview, is that language often cannot be disconnected from other prescient social factors—culture, racism, and environment as examples. She noted that the student “repeatedly returned to the integrity of the human and physical landscape in which Dine identity is rooted” (pp. 87).
This idea of interconnectedness brought me back to my first ethnographic field trip. I was working as an interviewer with a group of cultural anthropologists from the University of Arizona and Native American elders from several southwestern Nations. We were traveling to the Timber Mountain Caldera, a landscape containing several pan-culturally significant sites that also happened to lay directly in the middle of the Nevada Testing Site (NTS). The NTS, controlled by the federal Department of Energy, has a long history of classified weapons testing—including the nuclear bomb in the mid-Twentieth Century—as well as a somewhat colorful history working with indigenous groups (Zedeno, Stoffle & Halmo, 2001). Before any new testing projects can begin, the agency of record must conduct environmental impact assessments (EIA), which determine risks to the geological landscape and native flora or fauna, and social impact assessments (SIA), which determine cultural risks to people, either living nearby or historically associated with a place.
Many of the first SIAs were informed by the standard, and predominantly white, idea of the desert as a negative space with no connection to history or culture. When faced with the sometimes quite complicated historical and cultural associations with the land in question, federal authorities often responded with disbelief or hostility. In return, indigenous groups often became more concrete in their language of a place, and more demanding of federal consideration.
This history was beautifully telescoped in the highway sign for Mercury, NV, the NTS checkpoint that houses offices, cafeterias and lodging for personnel at the site: It read “NO SERVICES,” and was flanked at the turn-off by several “DO NOT ENTER”s and “GOVERNMENT PERSONNEL ONLY”s. This was flanked, at the end of a long dirt road, with a barricaded front office, where we were required to present two forms of ID to an official who already knew our names. Although we joked about it in the moment, it was the most singularly intimidating town entrance I’ve ever seen, and it had a tangible effect on the elders, even before any interviews were conducted. It disconnected them from land that culturally was theirs, angered them and drastically changed the tenor of our ethnographic interviews from outside of the NTS.
McCarty, T.L., Wyman, L.T. & S.E. Nicholas. (2014). Activist ethnography with indigenous youth. In D. Paris & M.T. Winn (Eds.), Humanizing research: Decolonizing qualitative inquiry with youth and communities. Los Angeles: Sage Publications Inc.
Stoffle, R.W., M.N. Zedeño, and D.B. Halmo. (2001). American Indians and the Nevada Test Site: A Model of Research and Consultation. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office