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Four Field Colloquium: Lily Buffalo’s Heartache: Ethnographic Violation and Weston LaBarre’s Imperial Anthropology

Monday, April 7, 2014
4:00 AM
340 West Hall

The early career of the anthropologist Weston LaBarre provides a case study of the ways in which mid twentieth century anthropology calibrated the production of ethnographic knowledge with the imperial aspirations of the U.S. state, and the ideologies of race and gender undergirding them.  Across three disparate ethnographic sites—among American Indians in Oklahoma and Arkansas, in highland Aymara communities of Bolivia, and among Japanese-Americans interned in the Utah desert—LaBarre’s fieldwork interventions are riddled with ethical violations that betray contempt for the subjects of his research. He fakes his own death before a Kiowa community to escape the consequences of an affair with an “Indian maid,” Lily Buffalo. During Japanese internment, he works as a social science administrator in the service of an internment camp in Topaz, Utah. From this “field work” he produces accounts of “Japanese character structure” that feminize Japanese men and establish equivalencies between them and Western women, within a framework that situates white men as victims of both. In Bolivia he gives scholarly cover for local elites’ assessments of Aymaras as irrational and violent and makes appeals to the U.S. state on anti-communist grounds to marshal support for research on Andean populations, establishing equivalencies between them and American Indians. Examining the case of Weston LaBarre sheds light on a moment in a supposedly anti-racialist anthropology in which the shift away from biological notions of human difference towards a framework of cultural relativism manages to leave untouched a nexus of male chauvinism, white supremacy, and U.S. hegemony as the presumed precondition for intellectual production.

Karl Swinehart, University of Chicago, Collegiate Assistant Professor, Society of Fellows