Sunday, 20 October 2013

Ethnology, what is that for you in the US? (1)

Peter Tompa, lobbyist for the dugup antiquities trade now branches out into ethnology ('My Comments to CPAC re Honduran MOU Renewal', CPO, October 18, 2013).

In order to earn his keep as a paid lobbyist, he is determined to submit a public comment, but complains to the CPAC that he finds it difficult to "comment intelligently" on something he knows nothing about... Since there are no ancient coins to be dug out of archaeological sites in Honduras, he wants to contribute something to the debate on the extension of the MOU to what he considers (or rather does not) as “ethnological objects”. He reminds CPAC chair Gerstenblith (as if she needed "reminding") 
 According to CPIA, 19 U.S.C. § 2601 (2) (C) (ii), no object may be considered to be an object of ethnological interest unless such object is -- (I) the product of a tribal or nonindustrial society, and (II) important to the cultural heritage of a people because of its distinctive characteristics, comparative rarity, or its contribution to the knowledge of the origins, development, or history of that people.
As somebody who has a lot of contact with real ethnographers and affiliated to an institution concerned with Archaeology and Ethnology, this strikes me as a rather odd and highly anachronistic definition. First of all, modern social anthropology (a discipline strongly developed in the US) avoids the term "tribe" these days, not only is this regarded as non-p.c, but the discipline envisages a far more complex range of social, economic, kinship relationships than the old colonial labelling. This seems not the only place where the US legal definition of "ethnography" as only the study of "tribal and non-industrial societies" is out of kilter with the rest of the world.  My first long trip out into the Polish countryside three decades ago was with an ethnographer and he was looking at the house contents of village folk to the NW of Warsaw. Another of his projects I remember vividly was among the vanishing, but still very recent, remains of the Mennonite communities in NW Poland. These are neither "tribal" nor existing in a non-industrial society.

So according to Peter Tompa and US law there can be no ethnology of the lifeways of any population in the US unless they live in "tribes" or before the US became an industrial society? So for example unlike my pal here in Poland, no ethnologist in the US can do research among their Mennonite communities? Among the Amish, the hillbillies or American communities of various exotic origins?  They cannot collect folk songs, folk lore about plants and stories? The Jewish Folklore and Ethnology Section of the American Folklore Society cannot possibly be doing "ethnology". The Cleveland Ethnographic Museum Collection cannot be thus called because it contains material not falling into Mr Tompa's definition.

That is a bit ridiculous isn't it when a US law defines a discipline which in fact defines itself differently. Maybe US law makers need to wake up and take a look at the world around them, and maybe revisit some of the stuff they cobbled together in the 1980s and rework it to reflect the realities of the modern world, not some imagined world of thirty years ago? Just a thought.

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