Ethnomycology Gets All Imperial

I attended a guest lecture today on traditional uses of fungi by northern (arctic and sub-arctic) native people from North America and Siberia.  The speaker had been doing field work with northern native people for over 20 years, and had incredible, beautiful images of traditional caribou skin buildings, bone tools, fur clothing, and fungi being used as medicine, smudge, psychotropics, fire carriers, and more.  It was super cool to learn about traditional uses of a huge variety of fungi, a topic that often gets overlooked in the usual focus on plants.

And while I watched I got really, really angry.  Because when the speaker (a white male scientist) referred to the spiritual practices of the people whose traditions he was speaking about, he spoke with what sounded to me like barely disguised contempt.  He emphasized the (out-of-context) aspects of those traditions that would sound the most ridiculous or superstitious/archaic to modern listeners at a university, and de-emphasized or omitted the traditional knowledge and long place-based history that’s behind those cultural elements.  To me, much of the talk came across as “look at these ridiculous beliefs these primitive people still have.  As a respected scientist, I’ll you what’s really going on.”  Ugh!

I haven’t gotten publicly upset here before, and don’t plan on making a habit of it.  And I know this is my interpretation, and may not have been what the speaker intended at all.  But it’s very, very common for members of an oppressor group to focus only on our intent, and to ignore the impact of our words and actions on members of targeted groups – and their impact on our perceptions and frameworks about those targeted groups.  In this case, I judge this type of presentation of traditional knowledge to be misleading and very problematic.  To review some basic things:

  • The western, reductionist, scientific worldview is not the only internally consistent worldview.  Nor is it the only internally consistent worldview that’s based on long observation and interaction with the natural world.
  • The worldviews and cosmologies of land-based people are not primarily a quaint set of folk beliefs.  Instead, they’re almost always an integral part of how those people have survived and prospered living in their landscapes for thousands of years.  They are also a living, changing body of knowledge and participation in history and place, rather than a static set of anachronisms.
  • It’s very, very easy for western speakers (including scientists) to simplify and/or inaccurately portray non-western worldviews when representing them to a primarily western audience.
  • A white, male, western scientist speaking to a mostly white group of western university students and faculty is in a very powerful, privileged position, and has a responsibility to represent non-white, non-western cultures and people accurately and respectfully.

That’s all I want to say about this for now.

In house news, a somewhat rewritten version of my post from earlier this year on land tenure and perennial agriculture is up on the Field Naturalist Program’s blog.  Check it out if you missed it the first time around!

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4 Responses to Ethnomycology Gets All Imperial

  1. 7LeagueBoots says:

    I was reading a Richard Dawkins book a while ago where he described a dinner at the British university he teaches at. The guest speaker was an anthropologist speaking about the beliefs of the people he had been living with in some portion of Africa. Dawkins was seated next to a theologian who turned to Dawkins and made some comment along the lines of, “Isn’t it incredible the ridiculous things these primitive people believe?” Dawkins really wanted to tell the theologian that he was providing a perfect example of the pot calling the kettle black, but restrained himself.

    There seems to be something specifically in Western “book” based beliefs that leads people to view their own belief system as being the one and only true one. I find it peculiar, as many other belief systems around the world are far more open to the idea that other people may also have a good idea of how things work, despite having different beliefs.

  2. alishamai says:

    Right on. I wish that dude would read your blog post.

  3. Ben Kessler says:

    Ha! I’d love to hear the full story of this one; good cautionary tales for the grandkids.

    Funny, when I was enmeshed in that academic world it always astounded me to hear tales of scientists in the field “going native” and shucking their attachment to the Western worldview. Now that I’ve well and truly left the building, my curiosity is piqued by those unfortunate souls who pass through Terra Incognita all but unscathed. Perhaps more of his experiences did, in fact, rub off on this missionary of yours than it seems. Maybe he came to the same edge a forester friend of mind did. After some years among hippies, Indians, and other disreputable characters, he was invited to participate in a ceremony the result of which he knew “would have changed my worldview so much that I could never go back to seeing things the way I saw them before.” So he never took part in the ceremony. Fear makes a man do strange things, and what we call our Western culture looks an awful lot like a gently imposed and normalized state of fear. I wonder what this guy saw out there on the tundra…

    Incidentally, I have heard it said- by heathenish apostates and cultural renegades, steeped in savage tradition and therefore unreliable in extremis- that anger makes the sun shine and the plants grow. So burn the fuckers when ya gotta. Can’t grow a tree without fire…

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